He’d dropped hints, over that time, about an Ex with a capital E, a mysterious catastrophe, the reason he’d left the prairies behind and moved up north. That morning, he began to fill me in. They’d been together since their last year of high school, he said, more than a decade ago: living together, studying together, growing up together. He’d spent his entire adult life with her. He didn’t know how to be with anybody else, not yet. Not yet. But he could use a friend.
It was raining, and we had two days left in our trip. I wondered why he’d waited until we were stuck together on the wrong side of an international border to clue me in. It felt like a power play – what else was I going to say, here and now, besides “sure, let’s just be friends”? I thought about packing up and going home – thought about demanding that he get in the car and drive me back across the border, over the mountains, through the pass and back down the highway to Whitehorse. But I wasn’t sure if I had the energy to make that scene. I could imagine the strained silence on the road, the early return to town, the empty remains of the holiday weekend, my friends all camped out elsewhere. And there was that “not yet,” dangling in the tent like an invitation. I decided to stay.
We’d met back in the spring, at a party, both sitting down by chance at the same table peopled with drunken strangers. A game of “Who looks like what celebrity?” had gotten going, and I’d pointed at him and blurted out “Jesse Eisenberg!” He’d rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure, compare me to the geek.” I’d leaned forward, cocky and belligerent with a few beers in my belly. “Jesse Eisenberg is a fucking babe,” I’d said, enunciating too carefully, alcohol heavy on my tongue. “That was a damn compliment.” Then I’d looked away, embarrassed that I’d shown my cards quite so clearly.
He was a music fanatic, with a closet full of indie band t-shirts and a stereo system that dominated a mostly-empty apartment. He had bookshelves lined with Vonnegut and Murakami, his own photographs of Yukon landscapes framed and hanging on the walls. He was also a certifiable math genius, and when he shrugged off his three degrees in physics and engineering as “easy,” I figured his brain must be wired so differently from my own that he didn’t even know how arrogant he sounded. He had his share of that stereotypical scientist’s social awkwardness, too, and at first I put his tendency to fall back on teasing insults down to that.
We shared a sense of humor, an amateur photography habit, and a love of the wilderness that surrounded us. We also shared a lack of experience there: While many of my friends were experts, ex-guides and veteran trekkers and paddlers whose trips into the Yukon backcountry were far beyond my abilities, he was like me, keen but uninitiated. We’d arrived in town a few weeks apart, driving the same cross-country route for many of the same reasons – a fresh start in a new home, a chance to shed our urban skins and become the active outdoors types we’d always imagined ourselves to be, at heart if rarely in practice. After a few weeks of dating, we’d planned our trip to Haines as a hiking weekend spiced up with small-town comforts: a bar, a coffee shop, hot food that hadn’t come off a camping stove. But the weather hadn’t been cooperative.
The rain kept coming down on the tent roof. Around noon we got up and headed to the bar. All afternoon we fed quarters into the jukebox and quarters into the pool table, alone in the place except for a couple of locals, professional drinkers, sitting at the bar. I’d been angry at first, in the morning, but now we spent the hours laughing, downing pint after pint of Alaskan Amber. Around 5pm one of the drunks teetered up to us and told him how lucky he was to have me there with him. He grinned and nodded and threw an arm around me, and I thought that “not yet” couldn’t be too far away.
Back at home a week later, we sat at a hotel bar, done up, vaguely, like an old-timey, Gold Rush-era saloon. There were blues standards on the stage and handfuls of tourists in the audience, the dregs of the summer cruise ship season. He put his hand on my thigh. “You want to get out of here?” I finished off my pint while he paid our tab.
On our way back to his place we cut through the cemetery, past the detox center, through darkening residential streets. The midnight sun was gone for the year, though the days were still long. As we walked, he pointed to a small white house. “I’ve been in there,” he said. “That’s where crazy people go.”
The next morning I asked him what he’d meant. He froze. He didn’t remember much of anything after leaving the bar, he said. I explained about the house, and his comment. He didn’t say anything for a minute or two, staring at the wall. Then, finally, without looking at me he whispered, “I don’t talk about that.”
Over the next few weeks, though, he began to talk about it – his increasing paranoia, his rage, his blackouts, his depression. He’d been attempting to navigate the Yukon’s mental health system since he arrived, but he didn’t feel like they were listening to him. “As soon as I tell them I broke up with my girlfriend, they think they’ve got me figured out,” he said. “They think ‘oh, he’s just sad,’ and then they try to put me on anti-depressants.” He’d tried and failed to convince them that there was something more going on. “They tried to get me to take a questionnaire over the phone,” he said once, laughing. “I told them I’m too paranoid to do that, not if they want me to answer honestly.”
He was worried that I would leave after he confessed, but I’d seen mental illness before. I knew it could be managed, lived with. I watched him become more comfortable, more confident, as he told me how he’d been feeling. I was happy that he had someone to talk to; I was happy that he’d chosen me.
As the leaves fell and the nights lengthened and deepened, we hiked a different set of trails every weekend, toting our matching Canons. We visited the local U-Brew operation and came back to his place loaded down with home brewing equipment. I adopted his favorite pizza toppings; he lent me a stack of books. We spent another weekend away, in Skagway: Thai food, a pub trivia night, and a cheap motel room.
By the end of October, my spare toothbrush and a set of pajamas had taken up residence at his house. My friends didn’t like him – they thought he was stringing me along – but I didn’t see it that way. I was becoming the most important person in his life, the person he relied on, the person he called first when he needed to talk. When you stripped away all the labels, wasn’t that the essence of a real relationship, anyway?
It was mid November, and he was sitting on my kitchen counter, looking uncomfortable. He told me that he was interested in one of my friends, one of my closest friends. They’d met, briefly, when we bumped into her at a concert, on one of our early dates that past summer.
I tried to stay calm, rational. I told him that he didn’t even know her, and besides, she wasn’t single. He shrugged. He wasn’t actually planning to pursue her, he said – he just wanted to tell me how he felt. He’d been comfortable around her immediately, he said. There weren’t many people who made him feel like he could be himself, not right off the bat. He paused, looked at me. “You weren’t one,” he said, in a tone that made it clear that still meant something to him. And actually, he didn’t think he would have kept on seeing me over the summer if she hadn’t been there to put him at ease that night. It had always been about her, he explained, almost from the very beginning.
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I wasn’t one of those rare people, those few who made him feel like himself? Me, the person he’d shared all his secrets with? He had to be lying, lashing out for some reason I couldn’t understand.
I told him to get out. I wasn’t entirely surprised by what he’d told me – I’d noticed the way he reacted when her name came up, noticed that night at the show how he’d seemed to open up when she arrived, though I’d tried to write it off as imagination, flickers of insecurity and jealousy. But I was furious that he was saying it, knowing that hurting me would be the only result. I told him that I wasn’t sure if we could be friends – “friends” – anymore.
And then he reminded me of my promises. During those long, late-night talks, when he’d raised the curtain on his anger and suspicion and sadness, raged against his ex and his parents and the friends that had let him down over the years, whispered about how alone he was, in a world that seemed designed to hurt and hound him, I had promised that I wasn’t, that I would never be, “like everybody else.” He had trusted me, and I had reveled in that trust, enjoyed that rush of pride that is the volunteer caretaker’s main form of payment. I had been so sure that I could handle whatever his illness might throw at me – and now, feeling sick and hurt, I was trapped by my own confidence. I had promised.
When he left to head back to his place, I went with him – he didn’t like to spend the night at my apartment. (Something about the place didn’t feel right, he always said.) It was about this time that I started lying to my friends. I lied about how often I was seeing him, about the nights I continued to spend there, about what was really going on. I told myself I lied because they wouldn’t understand, because I couldn’t explain it all without violating his confidences. They would tell me to stop seeing him, and I couldn’t do that. He needed me.
Everybody else had walked away, he’d told me, when things got hard – when he got hard to be with. I wasn’t going to be like everybody else.
Throughout that winter, most days, he called when he got home from work, wanting to know how soon I could be over at his place. If I balked, if I said that I had some work to do first, or that I wanted to stay home and cook myself dinner, he’d groan. “Don’t be lame,” he’d say. “I had a bad day. Just come over.” Some nights I was happy for the excuse to ditch my responsibilities – my writing, my increasingly futile efforts to mind my money, eat healthy, get a little exercise now and then. Other nights, I walked the blocks to his house out of obligation, pulled by a sense of guardianship that I didn’t entirely understand.
Sometimes we’d go to a bar or a restaurant, but more often we’d just sit on his couch, drinking bottles of homebrew and working our way through the TV series he had hoarded on his computer – Freaks and Geeks, The Wire, Twin Peaks. Most days he reminded me how dull my company was, how boring and predictable our pattern – as though it was my idea to stay inside with the curtains closed. Some days he would explain, again, all the reasons why he’d never really wanted to date me anyway, all the reasons I was unsuitable, all the hidden tests I’d failed in our early conversations.
I tried to swallow the insults, but eventually I would say something that upset him. Maybe I would disagree too strenuously with an opinion of his – we managed to create a teary, screaming conflagration out of a debate over the exact definition of “world music” – or maybe she would come up in conversation again and I would roll my eyes and remind him that he didn’t even know her, that she was a fantasy who existed only in his mind, unable to bite my tongue but trying to play it cool and cynical, instead of hurt and flailing to hurt him too.
If we were out in public, he’d go silent, refusing to speak to me or even look at me for the remainder of the meal, or however long it took me to finish my drink. We’d sit in furious silence for the car ride home, and once we were back inside his apartment he’d unload, yelling that I was always contradicting him, tearing him down, thinking I knew better than he did, trying to control him. He’d work himself into a rage, scream that I hated him, everyone hated him, the world was out to get him and I was just like all the rest, everyone who’d ever betrayed him, after all.
Eventually he’d quiet down. He’d stare at the wall, silent again, for minutes on end. He’d mutter that he didn’t belong here, that he should have done it years ago, that he should just get it over with and kill himself already. “I don’t belong here,” he’d whisper. “I don’t belong here.”
I usually stayed calm through the rages. It was when he went quiet that I’d start to feel panicky and afraid. His misery was palpable – it seemed to gather strength in the empty, quiet house. I had to convince him, somehow, that he was wrong, that he did belong here, with me. I’d start by apologizing, for whatever it was that I’d said or done that time. I’d promise that I wasn’t like the others, I really wasn’t, I really cared, and I would beg him, beg him not to hurt himself. Eventually, finally, he would relax, and we would curl up together on his mattress on the floor and fall asleep holding hands.
One night I snapped – I can’t remember why, specifically – and instead of apologizing I walked out at 3am, drunk and angry, gathering up that toothbrush as I went. I walked home shivering through the snow, the streets empty except for the occasional cab, wood smoke rising from bungalow chimneys. My anger faded and my fear for him rose with each block, and when I got back to my own basement apartment below the cliffs I had to fight the urge to pick up the phone and call him. The next day I broke down and sent a conciliatory email. No reply. I checked the mail anxiously that afternoon. He’d promised that I would be the recipient of his eventual suicide note, and though he’d meant it to be reassuring – he would never leave me wondering, worrying – the mailbox had loomed like a threat ever since. But today it remained empty.
Another pair of emails and a phone call went unreturned, and I began to panic. What had I been doing, walking out on him? My anger was selfish, I reminded myself. I was strong enough to take a few blows to the ego, and he was sick. He needed me. He’d told me as much, plenty of times.
That evening I retraced my steps from the night before, pounded on his door, peered in windows, yelled his name. Finally, finally, the front door opened. He peered out, scowling.
“I’m still alive,” he said. “Are you happy now?”
We were in Alaska again when I first realized that I was afraid of him. It was late January, and the sun had set soon after we passed through Customs that afternoon. We were on our way to Anchorage: I had a beer-themed assignment, and he was along as a taster. We checked into a cheap motel in Tok, an hour or so past the border, and headed a few doors down the highway to a roadside bar.
We were drunk when we got back to our room later that evening. The air steamed when I turned the key and opened the door: it was a cold, cold night, clear and hard. He stretched out on the bed and announced that he planned on getting laid in Anchorage. “This trip’s pretty much going to be a failure if I don’t,” he said, laughing, seeming to expect me to laugh too.
I froze. He couldn’t be serious. He’d been insisting for a couple of months already that it was my duty, “as a friend,” to listen to his speculations about other women, his assessments of the relative attractiveness of my friends, the various ways in which they were so much more appealing than I was, his recounting of his efforts to pick up waitresses around town. My assertion that maybe it was his duty, as a friend, not to torture me with the details had only led us down into yet another dark argument, ending the way all the others had: with my pleading apologies.
But this was something else. I’d never thought he would try anything while I was actually around – while we were sharing a fucking hotel room. I said, “You’re kidding, right?” He wasn’t.
For once, I didn’t try to stay calm. “You’re a real fucking asshole, you know that?” I dug up my best scornful voice, lashing out, trying to seem tough instead of panicked and stung bone-deep. “Where are you going to bring her, anyway? I’m not going to clear out of the hotel room for you. I’m sure as shit not going to lend you my car keys.” That set him off, screaming about how he wouldn’t be controlled, not by me, not anymore, not ever again. “You don’t own me,” he yelled. “Everybody thinks they can pull my strings.” That line was my cue to apologize, but this time I kept on going, raising my own voice. “Control you? All I ever do is try to help you, and all you ever do is hurt me.” He shook his head, screamed that I was trying to keep him down, keep him sick and sad so that I could have him all to myself, so he’d never go out and meet anyone else. A couple of times he seemed to lose his capacity for language, lose control entirely, and just shrieked wordlessly at me. I realized for the first time that I had no idea what he was capable of, that his mental state might be more than I could safely manage, live with. The fight went out of me, and I sat down at the table, sobbing while he carried on yelling.
Eventually he subsided and passed out on top of his blankets, still fully clothed. I sat in the dark motel room, tears drying on my cheeks and chin and upper lip, listening to the truck engines rumbling in the parking lot – it was cold enough that the truckers would let them idle all night. I’d never seen him so angry before. For a few minutes I thought about getting in my car and leaving him there. But I’d been drinking, and the border post was closed by this time of night. As for the consequences, I didn’t know which possibility frightened me more: That he would make his own way safely back home and come looking for me, or that he wouldn’t. If he woke up in the night and found me gone, and wandered outside into the dark and snow, anything could happen to him. I decided to stay.
I hid my car keys before I went to sleep, and filled the path to the doorway with our boots and bags, so that if he got up in the night and tried to get out he’d be likely to wake me trying. I didn’t want to be the one left behind, either.
By the spring I was drinking every day. Beyond our marathon couch sessions each evening, I also caught myself cracking bottles of our homebrew by lunchtime more often than not, drinking at my computer while I kept up a semblance of a working life. I rarely saw my other friends anymore.
After the showdown in the Tok motel room, I no longer felt confident that I was doing the right thing, staying with him, keeping him at the very center of my life. In imaginary conversations with my friends, I no longer replied “You just don’t understand” when they told me to cut all ties. I now answered silently, “You’re right.” But at the same time, I felt less able than ever to leave. He needed serious help – and given his paranoia, his distrust of the medical system, his alienation from old friends and family, there was nobody but me to give it.
I worried about the consequences for myself if I walked away, too. If I got that letter in the mailbox – and some days its eventual arrival seemed inevitable – I didn’t know how I’d survive my own guilty conscience. If I left him alone and he hurt himself, I knew I would embrace the blame. What would happen to me then, with the loss of a life weighing me down?
In April his work contract ended. Once he was unemployed, even my eight-hour window of him-free time – the gap between my walk home from his house in the morning, when he left for work, and the inevitable after-work phone call – was closed. Now I usually got the first call around 11 in the morning, maybe noon. We didn’t fight as much anymore. I’d long since figured out how to avoid setting him off.
I’d been counting down to a summer-long contract that would take me away for a few months. By now I’d realized that I needed to change the situation, somehow, and I thought that putting some physical distance between us might gain me some emotional space, too. At the very least, even if I couldn’t leave entirely, I knew I needed to untangle myself enough that his constant needling – and especially his fixation on other women – wouldn’t continue to tear me up quite so easily. A work trip gave me a reason to leave without accusations of abandonment – his, or my own.
When the gig fell through at the last minute, in late May, he was the first person I called. We retreated to a Tex-Mex patio for pitchers of consolation sangria in the sun. He toasted to the season we would have together after all.
But now my summer was a blank slate: No work contract, no obligations, not even any rent to pay until my subletter handed back the keys to my apartment on September 1. My lack of an apartment, I realized, was the excuse I needed. The vacancy rate in Whitehorse was microscopic, and the rent steep – this was no town for a writer suddenly without an assignment to her name.
I surprised myself by seizing the opportunity. I’m still not sure where I found the energy, after months of lethargy, to close the door on that dim living room with its piles of empties, even if I only planned on a temporary reprieve. One week after the contract fell through, I packed my camping gear and a duffel bag full of clothes and books into the back of my Jeep, ready to head south on the Alaska Highway.
We had lunch at a chain pizza-and-pasta outlet before I left. We ordered our usual – his usual – toppings combo: banana peppers, spinach and pineapple. He seemed upbeat, while I tried not to seem too excited to be gone. “Are you going to be okay while I’m away?” I asked. He paused, thought it over, nodded slowly. “I think so,” he said.
I drove for eight hours that day, and pitched my tent in a small provincial campground just over the B.C.-Yukon border. I’d turned off the highway around 10pm, just as the late northern sunset was beginning to light up the lake. By the time I shimmied into my sleeping bag the colors had faded from the sky and the water, and a lengthening twilight had settled in. There would be no true darkness until I got further south.
I lay in the tent for a long time, listening. A handful of mosquitoes batted against the nylon, and beyond them, just a few feet away, the lake water rippled on the shore. Out on the highway, every once in awhile, a transport truck would shudder past. I had never gone camping alone before, and I was surprised by my lack of anxiety. I was calm, calmer and less anxious than I had been in a long while.
I drove south slowly, setting up my tent each night in campgrounds far from the nearest wifi signal, the nearest 3G. I went on short hikes. I read books. I drank mugs of hot chocolate, boiling the water on my camping stove. I slept for ten, eleven, twelve hours every night. In Washington’s North Cascades, I used up most of a day just lying in my sleeping bag listening to the rain drumming hard on the fly. On the Oregon coast, I spent two days wandering up and down an empty beach, being scoured by wind-blown sand, letting the stinging of my arms and legs and face clear all the thoughts right out of my head. I felt like a battery that had been burned down almost to zero. Slowly, slowly, I was being charged back up again.
By the time I made it to Southern California, in mid July, my head felt clearer than it had in months. On the drive south I had avoided thinking about him, but now, as I started the long bounce back north, I felt ready to grapple with the reality of the past year.
Even as I’d begun to understand the harm that I was doing to myself, that was being done to me, I’d never used the words “abusive relationship.” I had never even thought them. For one thing, of course, as he reminded me so often, we weren’t actually in a relationship. And besides, I understood abuse only as Hollywood had presented it to me: an Ike and Tina kind of thing.
He was sick, I’d told myself again and again. Wasn’t he the victim, and wasn’t I the caretaker?
In Utah, I read Edward Abbey, camped in a different park every night, hiked under the July desert sun until my skin was powdered with a layer of fine, dry salt. I was burning myself clean. Finally, sweating in the shade of Gaudian rock formations, I began to understand that no matter his troubles, no matter his state of mind, his happiness wasn’t my responsibility: only my own was. Walking away would be an act of self-preservation, not selfishness.
I understood that, then and there, safely alone in the blistering canyonlands. But I didn’t trust myself to keep a grip on that realization once I made it home again. That hopeless couch in that darkened living room was thousands of miles away, but it still felt threateningly close.
I arrived home two months after I’d left, but I never saw him again. He flew out on a trip to Toronto the day before I drove those last few hundred kilometers back to Whitehorse; I left for a work camp in the bush the day before he flew north again. I was still out there, still dreading our eventual reunion, afraid that I would fall back into my old pattern of apologies and acquiescence, when he emailed to say that he was moving back east, across the country. He would be gone before I came home.
Back in Whitehorse in late September, three nights after I got back, I cleaned out the dregs from his apartment – a final favor. Sure, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it, I’d said in an email. I would have agreed to just about anything to convince him to leave without waiting to see me first.
His new roommate let me in, and I started to pack the flotsam of his life here – our lives together – into my car. Bags of sci-fi paperbacks that he hadn’t bothered to take with him; six-packs of empties left over from our brewing efforts last winter; a printer I’d inherited because it wouldn’t fit in his car. The blue hoodie – his blue hoodie – that I’d always worn during our marathon TV sessions was hanging on a hook on the wall in the empty bedroom. I couldn’t decide if he’d left it for me as a symbol of nostalgia or rejection. Both possibilities hurt.
I drove back to my empty apartment with a car full of his leftovers. I imagined calling one or the other of my friends, imagined showing up on their doorsteps and tearily confessing all, but I couldn’t follow through. The back story I would have to offer up was too humiliating.
It had been easier, in some ways, when he’d still been here. I’d been too busy worrying about him to take too close a look at myself. Now I looked back and didn’t recognize the person who’d sat through those long afternoons on that couch, who’d compromised herself so entirely, thinking she was needed, wanting to be needed, completely losing track of her own needs. Had I even helped him, after all that? I certainly hadn’t helped myself. As the full impact of the year hit me, the liberating realization of the Utah desert faded and the guilt and self-loathing caught up to me. Independence and self-sufficiency were at the core of my sense of self, and with him gone, I was forced to confront the fact that I hadn’t been able to take care of myself. I had let myself down. My self-doubt fed on itself and grew.
I knew that the way I was feeling was textbook-predictable. The reassurances I received from friends and family, when I did finally reach out to them, were equally expected: You can’t blame yourself. This wasn’t your fault. This wasn’t your fault. But the knowledge that I was playing out a script from a first-year psych textbook was no comfort. I felt like one paper doll in a long chain of identical cut-outs, acting and reacting on cue. The feeling didn’t help any in renewing my sense of capable independence.
I haven’t heard from him for months, now, but sometimes when the phone rings I still expect it to be him. Mostly the idea of that phone call makes me afraid, anxious and nauseated all over again, but late at night, sometimes, I lie awake wishing he would call. Sometimes I want to throw my tent in my car and start driving again, to run south until I feel safe and alone and recharged the way I did last summer. I want to hide out in the North Cascades, with nothing but the damp ferns and the tall dark evergreens and the foggy mountains for company. I want to go back to the Utah canyons and let the heat burn everything away.
Instead, I rely on the memories: That hard rain on the fly roof, the sand stinging my calves, the merciless sun on the slickrock. It helps, sometimes, a little.
Originally published March 6, 2012.