“Leaving, after all, is not the same as being left.”Anita Shreve The Pilot’s Wife
When I was a little girl, right after my parents separated and eventually divorced, no one ever really sat me down and explained to me what was going on. All I knew was that my mother was crying and drinking a lot and my daddy wasn’t coming home at night. Hours after my mama would tuck me in bed, I would sneak into the living room and sit in the window. At the time, my daddy worked nights and generally came home in the wee hours of the morning. I sat in the window with this white dog I used to have and waited for my daddy to come back home. He never did.
My mama got remarried to a cruel and abusive man a few years later. I hated absolutely everything about him. Sometime after he’d invaded our lives his brother, Kevin, came to live with us. And I loved every single thing about Uncle Kevin. I loved how he seemed to be a giant next to my diminutive three feet but somehow never intimidated me. I loved his loud voice and his jokes and his cooking. I loved the fact that he took the time to talk to me like a person and tell me about his life, the things he had seen and done. He was, for a time, my best friend. One day I came home from school and Uncle Kevin was packing. He told me that he and my stepfather had gotten into a fight and that he had to go away for awhile. He told me he would be back soon. I never saw him again, save once when I accompanied his family on a drive to see him in Atlantic City. I saw him, though my family wouldn’t let me talk to him, sick, and frail, his body emaciated, from the AIDS I didn’t find out about until much later. He looked the same, kind around the eyes, but my Uncle Kevin was gone.
After my mama and stepfather divorced, my mother reacted in the fashion that has made her infamous. She started drinking heavily, disappearing for days at a time. Once again, I had very little understanding of exactly what was going on, just bits and pieces of conversations snatched off the air passed between the hushed voices of my aunts that I was shipped between to stay with the days my mother was gone;
“Don’t know where she is…”,
“Hasn’t even called to check on La…”,
At the time, my whole world was my mother. I was simply Earth, revolving around her bright and burning solar presence, my ebbs and flows dictated by her movement. She was all I knew. This was, in fact, the way she had carefully orchestrated it. A sort of “me-and-you-against-the-world” mentality that pitted us against family, friend and foe as though we were the only two in the world being victimized by life. Her being my sun, my world went dark for days at a time, moments still and stagnant like swamp water in the summer, and I- not knowing what else one should do when not being dictated by another- sat silent, invisible, bending and folding into the crevices of strange couches and houses, waiting for her to come back to save me from these people outside our world. She came, physically present, but after that she seemed opaque, translucent, a threadbare sheet tossing in the wind, barely there and mostly gone.
I met my first best friend during my time in private school, CJ. She and I became fast friends in kindergarten when we first realized that our darker skin made us different than our classmates with their shiny blond hair like spun silk and blue eyes like spring skies. We bonded over this difference, consoled each other with promises that one day we too would be what was considered beautiful. One day she came to school, shiny tears clinging her smattering of dark lashes, desperate not to run down her cheeks. She didn’t really have to say anything because I already knew; she was leaving. We promised to stay in touch, to continue to nurture this friendship grounded in shared strangeness and loneliness. I watched her climb into her family car her last day of school, the feet of concrete growing between us with every step she took like a gray ocean I didn’t know how to swim. She slammed the door and I never heard from her again.
In middle school, I befriended a girl, ironically enough with the same moniker, and we bonded through shared misery and troubles. She introduced me, at 12, to smoking, a habit I’ve kicked but backslide into occasionally. She taught me how to mix hard liquor so that it couldn’t be smelled in the air around you, how to burn or cut your skin when there was no internal release for the pressure your heart built up in your head. She took me under her broken and battered wing and I- seeking someone, anyone who could swim better than I to save me from drowning- clung to her. She taught me to be hard, to be mean. She taught me to protect myself from all the people in the world that sought to do me harm (everyone abiding by her standards) and how to inflict swift and finite pain before anyone could do so to me. She was like some strange, intoxicating fruit I had never tasted and I loved the feel of her floating around inside my stomach, turning over her words and her wisdom. I loved her, wholly and totally as I am prone to doing, because even in her fractured life she somehow managed to make room for me, taught me all the things no one had ever bothered to, taught me to survive. Even though she was, by far, much stronger than I, she was faulty and impaired, someone I could be broken with and not be judged. And I appreciated it. I loved her until the day she got a boyfriend and forgot my number, condemning me back to the solitary life I thought I had been saved from.
When I fell in love the first time, it was because I’d found someone who could love me and protect me with the same kind of flawed ferociousness I was used to. For years, I let him protect me, take care of me, only periodically realizing that I couldn’t depend on someone else to be strong for me for the rest of my life. It took me six years to get to the point where I was ready to be different. I never stopped loving him, but I felt it was about time I learn to take care of myself, about time I stopped letting him save me when I knew, deep down, that I had to be capable of saving myself. In all our break ups to find each other again, I never once thought he wouldn’t understand. I never once thought that this beginning of a journey with myself might signal the end of an us. I have never known his love since.
My mother, in her infinite wisdom “fell in love” again, this time with a married man. “La,” she told me one morning, all breathless and see through, “this is different. He is different.”
I didn’t know how to tell her that no man was different, no person was different, and even at 17 this ideal of “different” was as foreign and unreadable to me as Chinese. So I said nothing, nodded and smiled like a mannequin, all the while disgusted with her choice in mate. What slowly began as coming home later and later every night soon stretched into nights of not coming home at all. There was still a part of me, deeply indoctrinated in the religion of us against the world, that worried myself sick when the sun would rise to an empty bed in her bedroom. I’d wait in silence unbroken by a ringing phone to tell me my sun was somewhere, still shining, still breathing. I sat awake nights, a childhood habit ingrained by much of the same circumstance, waiting for her to come home and the nights she did come in, stumbling, reeking of alcohol, cigarettes and sex, I’d quickly run to my room and jump under the covers pretending to be asleep, refusing to let her see how panicked, how concerned I’d been, just in case she came in my room. She never came in to check on me.
In my first college relationship, after a year of possession that felt like love he said, “This is only temporary. I need some time.” I believed him. Night after night, I’d leave my door unlocked, waiting for the times when he’d crawl in the bed next to me. Most nights, he never came. And the nights he did, he was so preoccupied, so consumed with everything but loving me, that he might as well had been gone.
The summer after my freshman year in college, my mother went to visit my second stepdad in Houston. We were staying with cousins in Atlanta at the time. She grabbed her suitcase, kissed me on my forehead. On her way out, she yelled over her shoulder, “I’ll be back!!!” She never came back. She moved to Houston and came back a few weeks later, briefly, only to retrieve her things. Late one night, I packed up all my things and went to stay with my daddy because my mama had left.
Over Christmas this year, as I’m sitting watching the Disney Channel, “Dangerously in Love” rings on my phone. It’s my boyfriend and something is wrong. “I’m getting deployed. I’m going to Iraq.” I don’t remember much else about that night, many tears, lots of anger and the sinking familiar feeling that I had, somehow, done this before. Trying hard not to be accused of being difficult or not understanding, trying to be selfless and put someone else’s feelings ahead of my own, I tried to reason that it wasn’t like he was choosing to leave. “I’ll be back. I’m coming home.” Only time will tell if that’s true or not.
I said that all to say that I have found my greatest fear. My greatest fear is being left. Of hanging on to buoys of promises to return that do nothing but carry me further out to sea. My whole life is governed by this fear, everything I do, everything I am or everything I give or carry close, is controlled by the fear of being left. I govern my friendships by it, my relationships according to it, the intensity with which I follow my career goals is fueled by the sheer terror of somehow, even at 21, becoming that same five year old girl again sitting in a window, streams of dawn creeping across my face. I have been left so often that it seems commonplace, standard operating procedure, more so the rule than the exception. And I have so become used to it that I take very little comfort in the presence of others, hold very little stock in relationships because, as I know firsthand, they’ll end. In the most natural way, I have adapted into a creature that has mastered the art of leaving first because, after all, leaving is not the same as being left.