“Oh! – these are a-MAZ-ing,” swooned the wizened, hennaed cashier at the Walgreens as she scanned my Kleenex, even sneaking the box a mawkish little hug. According to the packaging, they contained a wonder ingredient — something called Cool Touch, which was supposed to make them seem, of all things, cool-to-the-touch. “Yeah, it’s like they came straight outta the crisper!” I studied the box, envisioning a group of chemical engineers somewhere out there in the vast shadowy lowlands of the territory, brainstorming new & improved means for mitigating the afflictions of the oozing masses; a real hell of a bunch.
“You ever tried ‘em before?” she asked. I told her I hadn’t. “Oh, they’re just the best. Way better than Puffs.” Then, with an exaggerated splutter: “They kill Puffs.” I told her I liked Scott tissue best, but that after awhile, it started to feel more like something woven in the Outer Hebrides against the ol’ mucus membranes, and so we discussed our preferred toilet tissues for a spell. Her name tag said FANNIE, but the obvious humor eluded me at the time. Fanny was something like the headwaiter who’d tried everything on the menu at least once, and I commended her on her supreme authority of the paper products aisle.
Once past the automated door, I let go a long sigh, and then treated myself to another, and another, until I was ventilating exclusively by long warbling sighs. I’d done it; I’d ventured from my blue little corner out into a hyper-lit public space while maintaining a reasonable facsimile of highly random slob. I even mustered some convincing smalltalk, despite not one thing in my life being small. That’s when I first stumbled on the formula — and maybe it’s something that’s obvious to everyone else but me, but essentially, all there really is to being strong is acting in a way that is exactly opposite to your suffering. (Try it out and let me know how it works.)
As I navigated the old 240 homeward through the backstreets, my woman’s words sloshed around my brain pan. A torrent of resentments and recriminations that’d apparently gone untagged for years had suddenly been dragged out into the sunlight and flopped at my feet like a pile of dirty transcripts recovered from a house fire. In summary: I’d gotten everything wrong. Apparently, whenever she’d expressed how right and wonderful I was over the years, she was also acting in a way exactly opposite to how she felt.
In one of the more desperate hours, straying ever nearer ankle-clutching-&-begging territory, I began deconstructing and illustrating my love for her, to her. I expounded upon themes of loyalty and patience and caring, describing what exceedingly rare, highly endangered forces of good they each were, and how we both needed to do our small part to keep them from the shadows. I told her how afraid of how natural being alone had always felt to me — like a laziness or a vice to which too many people I’d known had too readily succumbed, all the while telling themselves how their handicap was really a kind of enlightenment. I told her how I needed to have at least one other soul in my life for whom I’d do anything, and with whom I wanted to do everything. Us against them. It came out sounding almost lyrical, and felt like it, too. It was also something like an epiphany for me, for in that moment, the full realization of these things about myself were gelling as I mouthed the words: damn…yeah, I really *do* feel this way.
She asked me whether I didn’t think it was unfair to burden a person with so much devotion. The inference was that I was loving her to death. I sat there for a long time, blanking out on the patterns in the homely blue quilt my mother-in-law made for us in back in the day — days I never would’ve dreamt I’d look back upon as the better of the bunch, for they’d been lean and uncertain. Finally, the question just seemed insane. No, I said; no, I don’t — but it was really more like, no I don’t garnished with a silent fuck you. Up until that point I’d been talking like it might be the last talking I ever did, as you do when you feel like how I was feeling, but no was suddenly the best I had. I was being rendered down to an unedited, binary state of being, all mannerisms, wit and guile skimmed away, leaving only my sloppy heart running down my shirt cuff like a melting clown nose. It does something to a man’s mind and to his body to be so naked. Personally, I’m not sure whether it’s grown me or shrunk me.
The card was what really did it. She’d sent it a few years earlier when she’d first started traveling for a new job. Reading it again, I started sobbing in place, my big dumb tears smacking the tiles in our ugly rented kitchen. She’d constructed it herself one afternoon at my suggestion that she’d been working too hard and needed some creative downtime. I remarked how much I liked the finished product, (she’d used my favorite colors). She remembered this, sneaking it out in her luggage a few months later and posting it to me from her hotel room. She’d addressed it to Sweetums. On the inside of the card was her loopy script full of gooey stuff. There was even a line where I could see she’d squeezed in an extra affectionate adverb or two as afterthought. (That’s when you know somebody loves you; when their feelings splash out over the neat margins of their bespoke stationery.) When I showed it to her that night, she reacted as though I’d produced a sneaky bit of evidence.
“I don’t know — I don’t remember how long ago I wrote that,” she muttered, glancing over her missive. I told her I did — that I remembered. I told her I’d counted up the days from the postmark; just over a thousand. Then I said something like — what difference does when make when someone says forever? If anyone can love any person that much, only to turn on a dime and slam their heart shut some 1,000 days later, well, then…what’s the fucking use? Of any of it?
“Probably,” she shrugged, “I just wrote something I thought you wanted to read.” And just like that, I found myself lost in a room without any windows or doors in my own little house of pain.
Back home, I sat down on the concrete porch and wept as quietly as I could. I’d be goddamned if I let anyone hear me carrying on, but especially that witch inside. The tears just coughed up and out of me from somewhere very deep. I couldn’t breathe right. I cried for quite some time, by and for myself. I cried because people were so fucking rotten. I wrapped my arms around myself like you do to feel like someone’s holding you when there isn’t anyone. They were the lean, strong arms of the man I’d long ago cultivated to camouflage the too-sensitive kid tucked beneath. I’d been born with a soft heart — something like a boiled pumpkin inside a thin glass box, albeit, glass painted to look like cold rolled steel. The humble wizardry of muscle tissue and manner were my only remaining armor. But I could feel the walls going up even as I sat there; ramparts growing thicker and higher until, finally, there would be no way in or back out again. I might even secretly go around wishing that someone strong enough might one day crash the gates; but I already knew nobody could ever be that strong, nor brazen enough to hazard a go, because, to start with, their own walls wouldn’t allow it. Maybe I’d even grow bold enough to lend someone a hand; but then, dismantling one’s own firewall feels something akin to slow suicide.
Years earlier, I’d helped my woman remove a wall or two, allowing for ready access to all my jelly spots. But now, sitting there in the dark on the steps of our loveless home, sopping up the exit wounds with cool-touch Kleenex, it was impossible to do much else beyond dream up blueprints for better, stronger defense systems; to go back and redraft the schematic for a 2.0 release, utilizing the narrative arc of Lee Hazlewood lyrics and old MANDOM commericals as general templates.