(Welcome to week 14 of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-13, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Fourteen. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, with one week to go, the road gets rough.)
It is 4:41 AM EST when my cell phone begins to ring a second time.
I do not look at the caller ID before answering. I do not have to.
There is only one person who calls me at this time of night (or morning,
depending on your point of view).
“Hello,” I say, going out of my way to sound as groggy as humanly possible.
“I called 10 minutes ago,” Meghan McKenzie says. “Why didn’t you answer?”
“My phone was on vibrate,” I lie. “I didn’t hear it until just now.”
“Didn’t hear what?” Meghan McKenzie says.
“Huh?” I say.
“You said your phone was on vibrate,” Meghan says.
“Right,” I say, scrambling. “But it was on my end table. I can always hear my cell phone when it’s vibrating on the end table.”
Two lies in 20 seconds. This may be some sort of land-speed record.
“Then what’s the point of putting it on vibrate?” Meghan asks.
“I was tired,” I say. “I guess I didn’t think about it.”
“I thought you worked in the middle of the night,” Meghan says.
“Not when I have the kids,” I say. “You know that.”
“Oh, well, yeah, I guess I knew that,” Meghan says. “I just didn’t realize you had the kids this week.”
This is a lie. Meghan McKenzie always knows when I have the kids.
Perhaps she’s just trying to keep up.
“Of course you knew that,” I say, now sitting upright in bed. “I told you two days ago. It was the whole reason I had to head back down here early last Sunday.”
“Are you trying to start a fight with me?” Meghan McKenzie asks.
“Not at all,” I say. “Are you drunk?”
“I had a couple of drinks while I was working tonight, but I’m definitely not drunk,” Meghan says.
Lie number two. Deuce.
“OK,” I say, lacking the emotional wherewithal to run through the same pointless argument we’ve had a good 20 times or more over the past three months. “How was your night?”
“It was work,” Meghan says, clearly not prepared to move on. “Why did you ask me if I was drunk?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Why did you ask me if I was trying to start a fight with you?”
“Because you were,” Meghan says.
“Well, then, there clearly wasn’t any real need for you to ask, now was there?” I say.
This is a cheap shot and I know it. But Meghan and I have been going back and forth like this for at least the past twelve weeks or so, and it’s almost insulting to our relationship that we fail to acknowledge the whole dynamic for what it really represents.
In the early days of our courtship, I looked forward to these pre-dawn phone calls. In fact, I went out of my way to ensure I’d be awake and alert when, or if, the calls actually came. This was way back in the days when an end-of-night phone call was more of a gesture than an obligation, back in the days when simple compliments were what got us through the week, back in the days when our relationship was much more about similarities than it was about differences, way back when Meghan McKenzie and I were far too drunk with the idea of each other to psychoanalyze every little tone, phrase or nuance ad nauseam.
But now it is November, and the winds of change have blown cold. These days, the hundred miles between Meghan McKenzie and I feel more like a thousand; the two-hour commute back feels more like two days. These days, the constant wear and tear is taking a slow and even toll on both our hearts and our psyches, forcing us into long-distance arguments that last for days, sometimes even weeks. These days, the inability to simply hug out all the bullshit is taxing our relationship in more ways than one.
These days, I feel fixated on the fact that Meghan McKenzie and I have never experienced anything shorter than a 72-hour date; that the constant strain of travel and despair has taken an unfortunate levy on our ability to eat well, or sleep well, or settle into a semi-reliable way of being.
These days, I have come to the conclusion that long-distance relationships are for lovelorn co-eds who are still adjusting to the carefree notion of living on their own. Long-distance relationships are for the young and the vital – leagues of bright-eyed paramours whose ideals haven’t been compromised by personal experience, or circumstance, or the blind cynicism that festers like a sore inside each of us.
Long-distance relationships are for the music makers and the dreamers of dreams.
Long-distance relationships are for the pure of heart, the untethered souls.
Long-distance relationships do not favor the poor, the tired, the jaded masses, cast about the shores of suburbia like a million and one wounded souls.
Once you understand what it feels like to watch someone you love drift silently – or even not-so-silently – away, it’s impossible to ever love anyone the same way again. You’ve been branded, after all – and you wear that brand like a dime-store suit; clearly visible to anyone who cares enough to measure the rings around your eyes, the angle of your smile, or the vast and empty void residing just beneath the surface.
The point is, the more you evolve, the more you realize relationships – by and large – are really nothing more than a matter of convenience. They’re based on who’s geographically desirable, emotionally available and generally agreeable. I mean, for all the times you hear a person refer to their significant other as a soul mate, you rarely – if ever – hear someone say, “Well, I really loved him and felt we worked well together, but I broke things off because I thought I’d have a better chance of meeting my soul mate while hitchhiking my way across Europe.”
What I’m trying to say is that most people only equate the phrase “soul mate” with someone they have met, or still have the potential to meet and mate with.
Why is that?
Here’s why: Because very few among us care to recognize a modern-day relationship for the tremendous levels of sacrifice and compromise it really represents. Doing so makes the relationship sound like a job. And really, who among us needs a full-time partner when they could just as soon hire an independent contractor every now and again?
My relationship with Meghan McKenzie is based upon tremendous levels of sacrifice and compromise, all of which would be A-OK, except for the fact that in most relationships the tremendous levels of sacrifice and compromise are supposed to come months – or perhaps even years – after the foundation has already been built.
Meghan McKenzie and I have never known anything but sacrifice and compromise. And the longer our relationship drags on, the more I feel like trying to compensate for that by asking Meghan McKenzie to move in with me would be kind of like trying to cure cancer with a Q-tip.
“Hel-looooooo,” Meghan McKenzie barks into the phone. “Are you there?”
“What? Yes, I’m here,” I say. “Sorry. I just got distracted for a second.”
“Do you want me to come down there this weekend or not?” Meghan McKenzie asks. “I’m off on Saturday and Sunday.”
“Do I want you to come down here this weekend?” I say, more to myself than Meghan McKenzie. “Yes, I do. But I also have the kids through Sunday night, so maybe it would make more sense if I just planned to come up and see you next Tuesday.”
“What, you don’t want me around when the kids are with you?” Meghan asks.
“It has nothing to do with that,” I say.
It has everything to do with that.
“I just feel like Tommy and Sara demand a lot of my attention, and I don’t want to create an uncomfortable situation where they feel like I’m choosing you over them. In the end, I’ll just wind up feeling like I’ve let everyone down.”
“Why does it have do be a competition?” Meghan asks.
“It doesn’t,” I say, impatiently. “Not to you and I. But c’mon, Meg. They’re kids, for god’s sake. Kids have an odd reaction to things sometimes, especially when those things are directly related to daddy’s new girlfriend.”
“So now your kids have an odd reaction to me?” Meghan says.
“No. No. NO!” I say. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. The kids love you. I’m just trying to do the best thing possible for everyone involved.”
“So you think the best thing for everyone involved is to keep your relationship with me completely separate from your relationship with your kids?” Meghan says.
“Not at all,” I say. “I just don’t want to spring something like this on them
“Something like what?” Meghan asks.
“Something like their dad planning his own private slumber party on the last night they’ll spend with him until next month,” I say.
“Oh, right,” Meghan says, sarcastically. “But it’s OK for your ex-wife to have Miggs sleeping in the same bed with her six months before your divorce is even final?”
“No, that’s not OK,” I say. “That’s exactly my point. Laura behaves like a two-year old when it comes to shit like this and I’d like to thin …”
“So now I’m behaving like a two-year old?” Meghan McKenzie asks.
“What? No,” I say, the pressure rising. “Where would you even get that impression?”
“You just suggested I’m behaving like Laura,” Meghan says, “which, by virtue of the transitive property, means I’m behaving like a two-year old.”
“Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say, “But it’s 5 o’clock in the morning, and I really don’t have the energy for this right now.”
“Fine,” Meghan McKenzie says. “But seeing as how we both know this has worlds more to do with your own fucked-up neurosis than it does your kids, why don’t you give me a call when you decide you do have the energy for it.”
“Meg … Meg?” I say, after a few awkward moments have passed.
But it’s too late. I can see by the illuminated screen on my phone that the call’s already been disconnected. And I don’t need to call Meghan McKenzie back to find out why. I’ve been through this type of thing far too many times now to expect any type of rational explanation … at least not until Meghan McKenzie’s had a few good hours to dry herself out.
Later this afternoon, sometime around 3 PM, as Meghan McKenzie rolls out of bed and recognition begins to set in, she’ll call me with a tremendous sense of urgency, apologizing up and down for a conversation she doesn’t even remember having.
The only thing she will know for sure is that the conversation went badly and it ended abruptly. Though neither of us will acknowledge as much at the time, Meghan McKenzie and I will both understand that someday, perhaps not all that far down the line, we’ll look back at these post-4-AM conversations as the perfect metaphor for our entire relationship.
Just because Meghan McKenzie was drunk last night does not mean she was wrong.
Her words, surly and unnecessary as they may have seemed, continue to roll around in my head this morning as I see the kids off to school. The truth is, I can’t bring myself to care about my relationship with Meghan McKenzie nearly as much as I might have six months ago. Time and again, I find myself wishing I did … wishing I could. But I can’t … and I don’t … and that is perhaps the most unfortunate commentary on our – or anyone’s – relationship. Meghan McKenzie and I have somehow drifted from relationship nirvana into emotional purgatory.
We are unable to move forward, incapable of turning back.
Meghan McKenzie’s feelings toward me have not changed. In fact, if anything, her overtures have intensified in direct proportion to the growing distance between us. She wants us to spend more time together. She wants us to move in together. She wants to take classes at Bryn Mawr College and learn how to be a Main Line debutante.
She wants a lot of things – each of which requires a more stringent, long-term commitment from me … the type of commitment I can’t easily step away from.
Joni Mitchell once compared this type of thing to trying to hold a mound full of sand in the palm of your hand – the harder you squeeze, the more likely those tiny little grains will be to slip right through your fingers.
The hand, in this analogy, represents Meghan McKenzie. The grains represent me.
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.
I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt about the lack of balance between Meghan and me … not so much because I feel like it’s my fault. But more so because I was the one who re-opened this door. I was the one who convinced Meghan McKenzie things would be different this time around; that it was OK to let her guard down; that the two of us were about to walk confidently in the direction of our dreams.
I am the one who fell out of love with Meghan McKenzie.
Meghan McKenzie is the one who’s left to compensate for that loss.
OK, I take it back. Upon further reflection, perhaps I do feel like the whole
thing’s my fault.
Years ago, Monty Miggs – unethically – decided to discuss a patient of his with me. This woman originally sought treatment to help her cope with constant feelings of anxiety and depression, exacerbated – or perhaps even caused – by semi-daily arguments she was having with her fiancé.
These arguments were verbally abusive and reckless, with each party diametrically opposed to the other’s point of view. The woman was primarily interested in getting to the root of what was causing these arguments, and what – if anything – could be done to preserve her pending engagement.
This woman met with Miggs alone, twice a week, at his office in University City.
After months of therapy, the frequency and intensity of the couple’s arguments slowly ground to a halt. How so? It seems the woman, by virtue of psychiatric treatment, had developed a coping mechanism. Rather than react to her fiancé’s constant tirades, she trained herself to sit and listen patiently, asking questions to confirm she understood her fiancé’s point of view. Several hours later, when the mood had simmered considerably, the woman would sit down at the kitchen table with her fiancé to discuss what the ideal solution might be.
During what would eventually turn out to be one of their final sessions together, the woman confessed to Miggs that she planned to break off her pending engagement as soon as humanly possible.
“You’re kidding me,” Miggs said, simultaneously realizing that while therapy had failed to help the woman achieve any of her initial goals, it may have also succeeded in helping her avoid countless years’ worth of indentured servitude. “I thought the two of you were getting along so well these days.”
“What on earth gave you that impression?” the woman asked.
“Six months ago, you told me you felt like an old, battered housewife,” Miggs said. “Last week, you claimed you couldn’t even remember the last time you’d gotten really upset over something your fiancé said. You told me for the first time ever, your relationship actually seemed peaceful. You told me your fiancé has never been more in love with you.”
“Well, of course,” the woman said. “And why shouldn’t he be? He orders me around like I’m the help, and I sit there and take it and do my best to pretend I care. Then a few hours later, I approach him like some pathetic little school girl, explaining that upon reflection, I’ve come around to his way of thinking.”
“But at least you’re not yelling at one another all the time, right?” Miggs said.
“Right,” the woman replied, very matter-of-factly. “That’s exactly my point.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Miggs said.
“When was the last time you bothered yelling at somebody you no longer gave a fuck about?” the woman asked.
And that, my friends, sums up the unfortunate point I have reached in my six-month relationship with Meghan McKenzie.
I am unable to move forward, incapable of turning back.
Tommy and Sara do not care for Meghan McKenzie.
I can see it in the subtle way Tommy stiffens up whenever Meghan leans down to kiss him. I can see it in the way he holds his breath for minutes at a time whenever she’s smoking a cigarette around him. I can see it in the suspect way Sara eyes up the Edie Sedgwick tattoo on Meghan McKenzie’s left bicep.
I can only imagine what the two of them are thinking.
Actually, what I imagine Tommy and Sara are thinking is this: Meghan McKenzie is not like all the other grown-ups. Meghan McKenzie eats junk food. She wears flip flops. She laughs out loud without feeling the need to hold back or apologize. She lacks the starch and polish of all the other parents, priests, teachers and townspeople Tommy and Sara encounter on a daily basis.
Meghan McKenzie never went to cotillion. Meghan McKenzie never went to college.
Meghan McKenzie never followed the path of least resistance, which is precisely why two kids from an upper-crust, milk-white suburbanite background relate to her about as much as a cummerbund relates to a coffee table.
Meghan McKenzie insists the kids refer to her as Auntie Em, which is just as creepy as it sounds … perhaps even more so, considering it implies I’m finger-fucking my own sister. While the kids may not have reached an age where they’re capable of resenting the implication on the same perverse level I do, they clearly recognize there’s something “off” about the way Meghan McKenzie interacts with them.
On warm summer days, Meghan McKenzie will chase the kids around the backyard wearing a loose sundress and no bra. I know she thinks nothing of it, but I can see the way Tommy is both tempted and horrified to look whenever she lurches forward. I can also see the way Sarah has gone from emulating Meghan to blatantly disregarding her.
All of which is a shame, really, because it’s not really Meghan McKenzie’s fault, when you come right down to it.
Meghan’s never been around kids before, at least not in any real-world sense. She grew up in an atmosphere where most girls turn 20 before they turn 13. She grew up in an atmosphere where a lot of girls never matured much beyond 25. She grew up in an atmosphere where the majority of people surrounding her never really grew up at all.
Meghan McKenzie is not good at being a grown-up.
Never has been. Never will be.
There was a time not so long ago when that type of thing seemed incredibly appealing to me, mostly because I fooled myself into believing I wanted to go back to being 22 again. What have I learned as a result of the past six months with Meghan McKenzie? Nothing I couldn’t have learned from watching an episode of The Wonder Years or listening to side one of The Stranger.
“The king and the queen went back to the green/But they could never go back there again.” Seems like a pretty simple concept, right? At least it did way back when I was young enough to truly appreciate the wisdom of it all.
People change. Priorities change (or, at the very least, they should). And so do the coincidental circumstances that brought two people together in the first place.
I’m no longer concerned with hanging out in the East Village until dawn; no longer concerned with struggling to keep up with a zeitgeist that’s long since left me behind.
To be honest, I’m much more concerned with feeling good when I wake up in the morning. I’m much more concerned with completing a manuscript I’ve been knocking away at for close to a year now. I’m much more concerned with being a good father rather than a bad uncle. I’m much more concerned with feeling grounded and clear, capable of taking on more, rather than less; much more consumed with running toward something, rather than away from it.
I’m much more concerned with pursuing a “constant state of becoming,” as Bob Dylan once put it. I’m consumed with getting on with the business of becoming whatever it is I’m supposed to be, until I determine it’s time for me to become something else entirely.
The only real sensation I’ve felt during the past three months is that of an overripe pickle, wholly dehydrated and dying on the brine. While I don’t mean to blame Meghan McKenzie for my sudden lack of progress, it’s become clear to me I’ll never get wherever it is I’m supposed to be going with her standing by my side. Meghan McKenzie is a spectator, for lack of any better way of putting it – content to spend the remainder of her days cheering from the bleachers; tailgating in the parking lot.
Me? I was a pretty happening dude at one point.
And I’m relatively sure I’m capable of becoming a pretty happening dude again, albeit a totally different happening dude than I might have been 15 years ago.
That’s not to say that any of it will be easy. It’s a whole ’nother gambit trying to be a happening dude at 37 than it was when I was 22. The primary difference: When you’re 22, it’s up to everyone else to determine whether you’re a happening dude or not.
When you’re 37, it’s up to you to determine.
For the past three months, I have not felt like a particularly happening dude in any sense. But I realize that’s only because I keep trying to behave like I’m still 22.
Some people call this arrested development.
I call it chasing my own tail.
The drive to New York City on Tuesday afternoon is long and taxing. Normally, I would avoid the traffic and tolls by taking Amtrak or regional rail from Philadelphia to Penn Station. But I’ve already committed to the notion this will be my final trip to New York City for quite some time, at least in any type of relationship sense.
My bags are in the trunk, which is where I plan for them to stay. I have not scripted out when or how I will explain my decision to Meghan McKenzie, but I want to be sure I have an airtight escape plan, should she choose to justifiably – and quite literally – leave me standing out in the cold.
Sitting in bottleneck traffic at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, I continually resist the urge to simply call Meghan McKenzie from my cell phone and break the news to her that way. I mean, sure, she will hate me for it, and perhaps even call me a coward for not saying what needs to be said to her face. But the reality is, Meghan McKenzie is going to hate me no matter what, at least for the next six months or so.
Breaking up via cell phone could make it easier for Meghan to rationalize hating me, which would make the situation much easier to explain to friends and co-workers, all of whom would agree she’s much better off without me.
But ultimately, I decide Meghan McKenzie deserves more than an unreliable connection from the smog-filled depths of the Lincoln Tunnel. Meghan McKenzie deserves an explanation, an apology, and perhaps even one last look into the eyes of an unfortunate man who once loved her the very same way she now loves him.
When I arrive at 39B Commerce Street, Meghan is doing her absolute best to pretend she’s not still hungover from the night before. But it’s all for naught. I can tell by the tightly-drawn curtains, the crumpled-up fast food wrappers cast about the coffee table, and a still-dangling cigarette, miraculously balanced on the edge of a half-empty beer can next to the living room couch. These are all clear and present signs that Meghan McKenzie passed out cold while watching TV at some point around dawn, and has since lacked the energy or urgency to cover her tracks.
I know this because I’ve passed out cold with Meghan McKenzie on several occasions while watching TV around dawn, and neither one of us has had the energy or urgency to clean up after ourselves the following afternoon.
If Meghan McKenzie’s apartment were an Impressionist painting, it would be entitled Requiem for a Hangover.
The only difference: Impressionist paintings don’t smell like a putrid mixture of beer and nicotine.
Impressionists were never very big on the whole scratch-n-sniff thing.
Art snobs, y’know?
What else can I say?
I spend several minutes tidying up the apartment while Meghan takes a shower. A half hour later, as Meghan emerges from the bathroom, an effervescent trail of wild berries and mist in her wake, I suggest the two of us head out to grab some dinner.
“Sure,” Meghan says, as she shakes the water out of both ears. “Just give me a few minutes to get ready, OK?”
“No worries,” I say, as I finish washing the dishes. “I got nowhere to be.”
“You want to smoke up before we go?” Meghan calls from the bedroom.
“No, I’m good,” I say, committed to keeping an even head throughout my visit.
“Well, I need to,” Meghan says, as she wanders into the kitchen with a one-hitter and a sandwich bag full of gonga. “Just a couple quick hits to take the edge off, y’know?”
I do not know.
But I avoid confrontation by convincing myself it’s no longer worth the trouble. My mind is made up, and – as such – there’s really no need to intervene or question Meghan McKenzie’s behavior. Meghan is one of those people who seeks out excuses to justify getting drunk or high. She’s one of those people who starts celebrating St. Patty’s Day during the first week in March. She’s one of those people who responds to bad jokes by saying, “That calls for a shot!” She’s one of those people who constantly insists, “Oh no, I’ve definitely got to be high if we’re going to watch that movie.”
She’s one of those people who you wish you could fix, moments before realizing if she wasn’t so irretrievably broken, there’s no way on earth she’d be walking the streets with you in the first place.
Watching Meghan McKenzie smoke pot alone in her kitchen at four o’clock in the afternoon, despite the fact she hasn’t even hugged me since I walked through the door, it’s clear I’m making the right decision – and it’s also clear I can’t put off telling her about my decision any longer.
And so it comes to pass that as the two of us are walking east along 7th Street, en route to a pizza joint on the far side of Alphabet City, I take Meghan McKenzie’s hand in mine and I pull her in close, preparing to lower the boom. Despite all the times I’ve rehearsed this moment in my head, running through the laundry list of reasons this break up would be beneficial for both of us, the only words I can manage to whisper in Meghan’s ear at this particular moment are, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
As quickly as the words leave my mouth, I can feel Meghan McKenzie lock up against me, as if she is unsure how to proceed.
I expect anger, or tears, or something that will distract me from the overwhelming sense of guilt I am already feeling. But all I get is a trembling kiss on the cheek, along with the words, “I think I have to go,” whispered gently in my ear.
With that Meghan McKenzie takes a step back to breathe me in one last time, before gesturing toward me with a slight wave of her hand and turning south along Avenue B.
I stand stoic and silent for several seconds, waiting for her to look back or race into my arms, but she never does.
She tried that once six months ago, and look at where it got her.
©Copyright Bob Hill
(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, The Final Chapter)