I've reached a point in the semester where I have projects due, a ton of reading to get through, a million tasks large and small, and it feels like there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done. This grad program is dragging on seemingly forever, and I've got a huge exam coming up next month. Now that I have moved to the crappy outskirts of Raser City, it's easier to drive up to see Rollerboy, but the tradeoff is that it now takes me over an hour to get to campus. I feel like I'm spending half my life sitting in traffic. I'm on edge all the time. It doesn't help that I feel like Rollerboy is getting distant lately. Nothing I can exactly put my finger on, but somehow we both seem cranky, like we're not trying so hard anymore to impress each other.
While he's visiting me one weekend, I make us pasta for dinner, nice and simple, the way he likes. I love to cook, and I thought it would be a nice thing to do for him. Also I'm sick of the arguments about where to eat. I think he's the world's pickiest eater because he will never have anything other than hamburgers, pizza and Pop Tarts. He thinks I'm a picky eater because I won't eat "normal food" (meaning fast food) and always want "that fancy shit."
My plain pasta dinner goes down reasonably ok. I don't get any compliments, but no complaints either. Afterward, he sits on the couch watching TV while I wash up. Normally I would make a guy help me with the dishes, but the edge of the sink is very high and I don't think he could manage it.
I look up from the sink to see Rollerboy sitting on the couch with his fingers in his ears. He senses me staring at him and turns around slowly, lowering his hands with a guilty, sheepish look.
"The water's so noisy," he mumbles.
I stare at him, laughing in disbelief. So I make him dinner and clean it all up, while he sits there watching TV, and he complains that the sound of the water coming out of the faucet is too loud? You've got to be fucking kidding me! What kind of immature bullshit is this?
But he seems embarrassed already by this display of childishness, so I don't say all that. Instead, I just stare some more, until he says, "Sorry," and turns up the volume on the TV.
Another week goes by, and I'm getting more freaked out by my workload and impending exam. One afternoon, I race into my department, intending to grab something from my locker and head to the library. The grad students don't have offices or desks, just a big lounge with lockers and shared desktop computers.
I turn my key in the lock on the heavy oak door to the lounge and push, but it won't open. I push some more, and it cracks open just enough for me to hear voices laughing inside. I realize that one of the guys in my grad program is purposely holding the door shut so I can't get in.
I lean in with my shoulder and give one last push. The door opens, and the Roadblock stumbles backward, laughing. Something inside me snaps. Like, I can almost hear a snapping noise as the rage boils over.
"What the fuck is wrong with you!" I scream at him, and give him a hard kick in the shins.
The Roadblock's expression instantly transforms from laughter to shock. He looks stricken, because I literally just struck him.
"It was just a joke," he mumbles.
"What kind of fucking joke is that?!"
I suddenly realize that the room is full of people, all my fellow grad students, who have gone quiet and are staring at me in horror. I turn on my heel and run out of the room, then out of the building.
I flop down on a bench outside the entrance and immediately start crying.
A minute later, Sarah comes running out and puts her arm around my shoulders.
"It wasn't anything personal. He was doing that to everyone," she explains.
"What the fuck!" I yell through my tears. "How is that even a joke? What are we, in kindergarten?!"
I sigh and put my face in my hands. "I can't believe I kicked him. Oh my god, what is wrong with me?"
"It wasn't so much the kick as the look in your eyes. It was scary."
"I don't know what happened. I just couldn't take it anymore."
"You know if you were a high school student you would get sent for mediation."
"Ugh, I know. So embarrassing. And if we were working in an office I would be sent to HR."
"Yeah, lucky for you no one cares about grad students at Lester State."
We both laugh bitterly, and I cry some more.
"So what's it about really?" Sarah asks, handing me a handkerchief from her pocket. "I know you didn't just lose it over a stupid prank."
I put the handkerchief over my face, then lower it to my lap. "I don't know," I say, toying with it, a folded cloth decorated with Hello Kitty designs. "I don't know. I just..." I trail off for a moment, then burst out, "I feel like Rollerboy is about to break up with me!"
Sarah waits for a while as I sob even harder. "Did he say something?"
"No, nothing! Everything is the same! I don't know, I feel like I'm losing my mind! It's just, I don't know, it seems like he calls me less. He says he loves me but I feel like I annoy him all the time, like he doesn't want to be around me."
We both sigh. To her credit, Sarah does not say what we are both thinking: maybe it would be for the best. Instead, she just says, "He's an angry, unhappy guy."
"I know, but why doesn't he want to be happy with me?" I wail, and cry some more. We sit on that cold marble bench for a long time, not talking, me just crying and Sarah waiting for me to finish.
There's more I could say, but I don't want to voice it, not even to myself. Like how he drinks a lot. Not every day (as far as I know) but whenever he does, he's like a different person. Meaner, nastier. He once told me a story about when he was still in rehab, one day his step-brother came to pick him up at the hospital. A nurse was waiting with Rollerboy outside, and when his brother pulled up and she opened the passenger side door for him, a pile of empty beer cans cascaded out in front of her. When he told me the story, we both laughed hard about the dirty look the nurse gave him. The idea of him being the bad boy and shocking the uptight nurse was hilarious to me. But now I'm not so sure. The story ended with them driving off and drinking a lot more.
I also don't want to think about the fact that he's kind of racist. Not in a white supremacist way, but in a low level, casual use of racial slurs kind of way. Like one time, pretty early on in our relationship, we were watching Late Night with Dave Attell, and he said, "It's funny to watch him try to jew down the hookers." Then a second later, he looked shocked and embarrassed, his mouth a little o of surprise. "Sorry."
But honestly, I hadn't even heard what he said, so I didn't understand why he was apologizing. It took me a good long while to figure out what he said, and that he was worried I was offended because I'm Jewish. I guess it shows what a protected bubble I grew up in, but I had never before that moment heard anyone say that. I had no idea it was a thing people said. I was too bemused by this new information to even be bothered that he said it.
I've also heard him say other slurs and some offhand, ignorant comments about African Americans and Latinos. Whenever he did it, I brushed it off and tried not to think about it. But in the back of my mind, I keep hearing the lyrics to that They Might Be Giants song: "I feel like a hypocrite talking to yooooouuuu and your racist friend." It feels wrong to just let these bullshit comments slide, but I don't want to fight with him about it either.
And the constant, childish rebellion against any kind of authority. I was talking about school with him and he burst out, "Teachers think they can control kids, but they can't." Again, I let it slide, but inside I was thinking, dude, you're twenty eight years old. Let go of that teenage resentment already. He once said that he felt stuck at the age his accident happened, like his life stopped at age eighteen.
I don't discuss any of this with Sarah. Eventually I stop crying and go off to the library to so some work.
The next day, I offer the Roadblock an abject apology, which he accepts sulkily. We're probably not friends anymore but at least nothing worse has come of it.
When I drive up to Rollerboy's place on Saturday, it's like nothing ever happened. Things between us seem normal. We watch TV, go out to dinner, watch some more TV, then get in bed and have sex.
The sex is not as adventurous or experimental as it used to be, but that's just because we know each other better now. I know the location of every scar on his body. He has a lot of huge, spectacular scars. It's like a frozen portrait of his accident, how his body hit the earth, and how the doctors put him back together. Partially back together.
He goes down on me and it's freaking amazing. Then he wants me to get him off. Even though he can only feel it imperfectly, he has become more and more fixated on ejaculating every time we have sex. Even though he says it's more of a reflex; it doesn't feel that great. I guess he wants the psychological satisfaction of seeing it. The only way to make that happen is to use my hands, squeezing really hard and fast, but even then it takes a long time.
The room is so quiet, just the sound of us both breathing hard. The bedside lamp bathes us both in a golden light, the dust motes dancing around as I try to get him off. It doesn't always work--sometimes we just give up, frustrated and tired out. But tonight I manage it. As we lay together in bed cuddling afterward, it feels like my little freak out was over nothing. I'm just afraid of losing him, so it's like I had a practice run. But we're fine. Everything is fine.
Things continue on as normal. I try not to think about that meltdown I had in front of all the other students in my graduate program. It seems so silly now. Rollerboy and I keep seeing each other every weekend, and things between us are the same. His mother is doing much better. She's home from the hospital now (although I still haven't met her, and now would be a really weird time for introductions). I guess I'm just stressed about my exam, which is next month. One of the women in the program who already passed assured me that it's normal to feel like you're losing your mind heading into the exam, so there's that.
I am studying all the time. I even try to read while I'm cooking dinner. I aim to go to bed early and study in the morning, but somehow my most productive work happens from 10 pm to midnight or 1 am, then I have to get up at 7 am to make the extra long bus ride and get to campus in time for my morning classes. I feel worn out all the time.
On Saturday, I drive up to Bessemer as usual. Rollerboy and I spend most of the day watching TV. For dinner, we get takeout sandwiches from Subway. It's like the one fast food joint we can both compromise on, but luckily the one near his apartment is better than average. I wolf down my whole sub while we watch old episodes of South Park.
Several hours later, we're both lying in bed, about to go to sleep. All of a sudden, I leap out of bed, faster than I thought I was capable of moving. I feel like a puppet, being pulled by invisible strings, devoid of any conscious thought. I run straight to the bathroom and puke up then entire sandwich and then some. I don't even have time to move the special padded toilet seat. I just try to aim in the center so I don't get any on it.
I clean up as best I can and scrub out the inside of my mouth, then stagger weakly back to bed.
"Ugh, I'm sorry, that was disgusting. I don't know what came over me. I was feeling fine until a minute ago."
"You think the sandwich was bad?" Rollerboy looks alarmed. We both ordered basically the same thing; if I have food poisoning, he could have it too.
"I don't know."
"Shit. I hate to throw up. Since my injury it's like I can't do it right. I have to use my hand to push on my diaphragm."
"Really? That sucks."
But Rollerboy need not have worried. By the next morning it's eminently clear I have the flu, not food poisoning. I wake up with a cracking headache, sore joints and a fever. At least I don't throw up again, although I feel like I might at any moment.
I drag myself home, the drive going by in a blur. I don't really have time to rest, though, because I have so much school work, plus cramming for my big exam next month. I have to skip seeing Rollerboy the next two weekends because I'm still not better. What I really want is for him to drive down and take care of me, but I know that would never happen. I don't even ask.
For a few weeks, things go back to normal. I recover finally, and go back to visiting Rollerboy on the weekends. I'm still stressing over how much work I have to do, and it's making it hard to sleep at night. I start having a recurring dream that I've lost my wallet. That seems like it must mean something, but I have no idea what.
For the first time in a while, Rollerboy drives down to spend the weekend at my place. When we first started dating we would alternate weekends but now I go Bessemer about three to four times for every one trip he makes to Raser City.
In the afternoon, I start feeling tired and achy, but I shrug it off. The feeling comes over me so gradually, it almost feels like I'm imaging things. How could I be sick again? I just got better, for gods sake.
By bedtime, there's no denying I'm achy and feverish.
"I think I'm sick," I say as we climb into my bed together, by way of explaining that we won't be having sex.
"Again?" Rollerboy looks at me in disgust. "Jesus, why are you sick all the time?"
"I don't know. Maybe I just need a good night's sleep," I suggest hopefully.
But this is not to be. My head is pounding, and my throat is killing me. I try to lie as still as possible so I won't bother him, but I feel like I'm burning up. He seems to be asleep but he's having leg spasms that are shaking the whole bed.
By around 3 am, I realize I am never going to get any sleep in this bed, and I don't want to wake him up. As stealthily as I can, I creep out of the bed and go lie down on the sofa in the living room.
I try to doze off but it's no good here either. The sofa is too small to stretch out on, so I'm curled in an awkward ball. A short time later, he rolls into the living room.
"Hey, what are you doing?" I ask groggily. "I got up so you could sleep."
"Nah, forget it. This is bullshit. I'm going home."
"What? No! Come on, I want you to stay."
"If we're sleeping in different places anyway, what's the point?"
"But come on, it's barely even 4 am."
"So what? I'll beat the traffic." He yanks open the front door. "I'll call you later."
I'm too stunned and weak to get up from the sofa. I just lie there, watching his back as he bumps up and down over the hump of the threshold. He pulls the door shut behind him and he's gone.
I lie on the sofa a while longer, feeling too sick and miserable to move, but I can't sleep. I crawl back into my empty bed, but I can't sleep there either. My skin feels hot and prickly, and I keep seeing in my mind over and over the image of his back as he rolls out the door.
The next few days are a feverish, achy coughing blur, but whatever virus I've picked up this time is not as bad as the last one. By Thursday I'm starting to feel better and looking forward to the weekend. I'm at home studying as usual when the phone rings at 11 pm. The caller ID tells me it's Rollerboy. Right away I know something is up, because it's not his usual time to call. My heart is thudding as I pick up.
"Hey, what's up?"
"Heeeyyyyy," he slurs. "I gotta talk to you about something. Something I gotta say."
"We need to break up."
My stomach drops and for a moment I feel dizzy and nauseous. I can't believe he's doing this right now, out of nowhere, over the phone. I sit there in shock, not saying anything.
"Hello? Are you still there?"
"Of course I'm still here. What do you want me to say? I don't want to break up."
"Yeaaah...I've been thinking about it a while and it's just not working."
I finally tune in to the way he's talking slow, dragging out his words. "Are you drunk?"
"So what? I hadda havea few before I could say it."
"Look, why don't we talk this over in person when you're sober?"
"No. There's nothing to 'talk over'." God, I hate the way he mimics what I've just said, in that mocking, childish tone.
"Come on, I don't want to stop seeing you. I love you!"
"No, you're only into me because of my disability."
Oh my fucking god, this again. "That's not true! It's the reason we met but it's not why I fell in love with you." I feel like a broken record. How many times do I have to say it before he believes me?
We go around and around on this, until finally he says, "I don't even know you. You're just some chick I met on the internet."
"What? We've been together almost two years! How can you say you don't know me?"
"You're just some chick from the internet," he repeats.
By this point I'm crying so hard the phone is getting wet. I know there's nothing more to say. I want this horrible conversation to end, but I also don't want to hang up because then it really will be over, forever. And that image of his back going out the door in the middle of the night while I lie sick on the couch will be the last time I ever see him. It's almost unbearable. I cry some more, because I've run out of things to say.
"Well, ok, I gotta go," he mumbles.
"Fine. Goodbye." I slam the phone down, then sit there crying even longer.
The shock gives way to misery, and I spend the next week wallowing. To her credit, Sarah is extremely nice and doesn't say I told you so even once. She lets me spend the weekend lying on her couch eating chips and rehashing every detail of my relationship. Even I have to admit that it's probably for the best to break up. I wanted so badly for him to be happy with me, but if I'm being honest, he seems more unhappy now than when we first met. He's definitely drinking more, and his crankiness and negativity has only increased. It's hard to admit because I so wanted to save him from himself, but being in a relationship with me seems to have made him worse.
His last barb over the phone, though, about me only liking him because of his disability, that really stings. It kills me that he still thinks that about me after all this time. I mean, I've met guys with disabilities before and I didn't date any of them for two years, except for K. So it's not like just anyone will do. I was the one pushing for us to live together like a real couple, and he was the one who said no. But the way he kept saying I only like him for his disability makes me doubt myself. How do I know? How do I know anything? It feels like he was only pretending to be ok with me being a devotee.
I have too much to do to spend more than one weekend lying around feeling sorry for myself. I take my big exam, and I pass. It's good to have something besides Rollerboy to focus on. Well anyway it's a huge relief to pass my exam. I feel the future opening up with endless potential.
Right after my exam, I have a big concert with the Lester State Adult Chorus. It's not the usual kind of concert either, where I'm one of a dozen other voices in my part. This time the theme is 1940s radio, and it's more of an ensemble show. Anyone who wants to can do a solo, and of course I want to. I'm singing an Andrews Sisters song, "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," with two of the mean girls, and a solo, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," which is not great for my voice type but I'm trying to sell it on a hammy sort of sex appeal. I also took the opportunity to check out the vintage shops and buy a real 1940s dress and costume jewelry.
I throw myself into practicing for the concert as a way to distract myself from being dumped. When I think about how much I let my life contract while I was dating him, I feel pathetic. I used to run around with crazy artistic people and do weird, creative things all the time. Now I've just wasted almost two years watching TV and eating takeout. Well, no more. I research vintage hairstyles online like crazy.
My attempt with the two chorus mean girls to sound like the Andrews Sisters is only marginally successful. After rehearsal, the alto teases me mercilessly for being dumped by Rollerboy. Whatever, she's the one he was bitchy to at my birthday party last year. But the soprano is surprisingly nice to me, and even compliments my voice. It turns out that she's in the Lester State Lyric Opera company as well. I didn't realize that even though the leads are all professional, the Lyric Opera chorus is mostly amateurs, and anyone can try out.
"You should audition," she tells me.
"Seriously? I haven't had lessons or sung real opera since I was a teenager."
"Sure, I think you could get in. Just try it." She gives me the contact details.
The concert is a lot of fun, even though my solo is not great. It's so exciting to get dressed up, and see everyone else's costume too. I haven't done something like this in forever.
As we are milling about backstage afterwards, one of the baritones catches my eye. He's tall and handsome, in a square-jawed, blue-eyed, all American kind of way, and he's wearing a GI uniform that fits him perfectly. He bows to me in a very formal manner, and I flick the hem of my blue chiffon dress at him. Still playing a part, he puts out his hand and I take it, then he leads me in a few lindy hop dance moves, ending with a dip.
"Thanks," he says, and hurries off to change out of his costume.
I stagger a bit, and turn to the alto mean girl who just witnessed the whole thing. "Who was that?"
"Seriously? You've been singing together for almost two years and you don't know him?"
I just shrug. I swear I've never seen him before this moment. It must be the uniform that made him stand out.
"That's Kevin," she continues. "He's a great guy. You should go out with him."
So at the next rehearsal when Kevin asks me out, I say yes.
Before I realize what is happening, I seem to have fallen ass backwards into another relationship. Being with Kevin is like the polar opposite of Rollerboy. The fact that he's able bodied is the least of it. Where Rollerboy was a high school dropout who only enjoyed playing videogames and watching TV, Kevin is intellectual and artistic. I can talk to him about more than just what to eat for dinner. He appreciates gourmet and ethnic food; he doesn't think of McDonalds as a default "normal" meal. And he lives half a mile away, instead of three hours. But most of all he's kind to me. He tells me I'm pretty and smart and he likes spending time with me. I feel like the parched desert soaking up the rain every time he says something nice. I deserve to be with someone who doesn't bust my ass for letting my armpit hair grow to a quarter inch, and who doesn't complain that I'm not really his type.
I finally start to realize just how bad my relationship with Rollerboy was. True, in the beginning he would call me sexy nerd girl. But from the start we never had anything in common and it just got worse and worse, until he was even angrier and more closed off than when we met. I have to admit that I was not good for him. I still deny that I was only into him for his disability. But for whatever reason, I couldn't be the one to save him.
"I think I'm going to call Rollerboy and tell him he was right to break up with me, " I tell Sarah.
She rolls her eyes. "No! That's a terrible idea. Why would you do that?"
"I just want to let him know that I'm ok. I made such a big deal about not wanting to break up, but now I see it's better this way."
"Ugh! Don't do that! Just let it go," she says impatiently.
But I can't let it go. About a month after he dumped me, I call Rollerboy. He sounds shocked to hear from me.
"I just wanted to let you know that it was the right decision to break up," I say. "It's really better for both of us."
"What? No! I didn't mean it! I just got really drunk one night and called you. But then I thought I totally fucked up and you would never speak to me again. I want to get back together! I miss you!"
I'm completely, utterly floored. I never in a million years would have expected him to say that. Now I'm doubly grateful for Kevin, because if it weren't for him I would take Rollerboy back in an instant. But now that I've been reminded of what a healthy relationship should look like, there's no way I'm going back to how things were, no matter how great the sex was.
"No," I say firmly. "I don't think that's a good idea." He begs some more but finally I get off the phone. Dammit, Sarah was right. I should never have woken that sleeping dog.
Rollerboy calls me again the next day, and the next and the next. For two weeks, I get daily phone calls that last hours. I try to help him focus on how he can help himself, improve his outlook and make his life better on his own, rather than relying on me to fix his problems for him. These calls start to feel like free therapy, but I'm the world's worst therapist because I'm also the one who is hurting him. I know how he feels, because it's exactly how I felt when he dumped me, and when K dumped me. You desperately want to feel better so you turn to the person who has been your main emotional support, but that's also the person who is breaking your heart. It's an endless negative feedback loop with no resolution as long as we keep talking.
I try to explain this to him, to let him know gently that he can't keep calling me like this, but he's not having it.
"I'm self destructiiiiiiiiiive," he whines, as if that excuses everything.
"I know," I say. And I really do know. He is self-destructive, that's why he took drugs as a teenager, why he got drunk and stole a car, why he broke his neck, why he will never get a job, why he sabotaged our relationship. "But that is a problem you're going to have to solve on your own. Goodbye." I hang up the phone, with a huge rush of relief.
But that's still not the end. The next day, he sends me an email.
Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I won't be calling you ever again. I should have known better than to hook up with some random chick from the internet. I was never more than a wheelchair to you, just some cripple to fulfill your sick devotee fantasies. I don't know what your parents did to you as a kid to fuck you up so badly, but you are sick in the head. Please get help. There's something wrong with you.
I stare at the message in disbelief. At first it's like a gut punch. You're sick. Your parents fucked you up. It's like my worst fears spit back at me, there spelled out on the screen, and by the man I loved.
But a minute later, I just start laughing. That message is so over the top in its nastiness, it's hard to even take it seriously. He's angry at me and lashing out, saying the things he knows will hurt me the most. But it doesn't hurt anymore. I don't care what he thinks of me. I know none of those things he said are true, and he's only saying it to get back at me. If that's what he needs to do to get closure on this terrible relationship, so be it.
I'm actually grateful that he sent me that email. It's like the final blow. The spell is finally broken. I feel like I'm waking up for the first time in two years. Enough. I delete the email and get on with my life.