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Hollowed

  It was a normal Sunday at a coffee shop in Milwaukee. I was sitting with my friend Jessica, just chatting about what we usually chat about: feminism, popular culture, social justice, jobs, politics… nothing too unusual for people of our respective disciplines and ages. We spent a long period of time examining Dexter, in particular Deb, the title character’s sister. Despite surface level toughness, our conversation explored how she was a very flat character, a one-note stock “bad grrl” archetype who confuses vulgarity with wit and has daddy issues instead of personality.

  We were in one of our discussions when I looked at someone walking in and made eye contact with an old friend I hadn’t seen or spoken to for about two years. My heart stopped as she looked me in the eyes. In that split second, time stopped and the world went quiet. Lost in that anomaly, I didn’t know what to do.

  To be fair, I didn’t know if it was her at first. It could be anyone, really, I thought. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was trying desperately to actually make this person not be her. That probably doesn’t make any sense. But in that fraction of time, if I had the power to manipulate reality, I would have made that woman a perfect stranger. But it was her. It was her profile that sold it, from the bridge of her nose to how her glasses rested on it. My long lost friend.

  She looked away.

  Time and sound came crashing back.

  I had been dumped in no uncertain terms.

***

  My friendship with this woman, who we shall call Marley, started in college. We had a film class discussion together, and we just so happened to call the same table base camp. This discussion wasn’t very difficult, nor was it particularly stimulating, so I used my time to write the script for Project Northwoods, back when it was just going to be a play and not an epic novel available through the good folks at Booktrope.

  I knew she was reading over my shoulder (well, over my elbow, to be honest), but I didn’t mind. I liked the attention. My romantic relationship at the time was very controlling, restricting who I could and could not see. My female friends had to be pushed aside for the sake of my girlfriend, who was jealous enough to see potential cheating everywhere. Had I known then what I know now, I would have seen the signs of an unhealthy relationship for what they were. What I saw instead was something… different. I knew I was unhappy, but it was easier to blame myself or others for it than a woman I had spent so much time pining over.

  Marley’s attention and friendship was something I could keep to myself. My girlfriend would never have to know. The fact that I wanted to keep something a secret should have been a sign, but I was just so happy to have someone to unequivocally call my own. I didn’t need approval to see Marley, she came with the class. She was the first college friend who was mine, solely mine, and she liked my writing.

  That last bit wasn’t even necessary; it was just gravy.

***

  You know how when it’s obvious that you’re doing your damnedest not to look at someone, right? Well, this was going on in spades. Earlier, I had either detected or imagined her body tensing during our eye contact, where her fight-or-flight response kicked into gear and compelled her to run and never look back. Now, as she waited in line, it was the same stock look-straight-ahead-lest-they-know-you-know look people have.

  I stopped watching after a while. Primarily because I was still having a good conversation with Jessica (I believe at this point we had moved onto discussing Quentin Tarantino), but also because my efforts at willing Marley to turn her head had met with failure. It was easy to push Marley from my mind at this point; after all, I had done it before.

***

  I wanted to maintain my friendship as long as I could. But my girlfriend at the time also watched me like a hawk. When the semester ended, I couldn’t contrive a reason to hang out with Marley—after all, who was this girl I hadn’t mentioned? Was it the one from the film class that your friend and I made fun of, all the while not noticing that you were stone silent? Your free time is my free time.

  I worked full time at a coffee shop, attended school (mostly) full time, and directed plays at a high school. Any downtime was implied to have been spoken for. It was a tactic designed to control and manipulate. Oh, on the surface, it sounds like someone just wants to be with you. In practice, it determines just who you are allowed to hang out with and when. Your life is dictated by another person’s whims.

  Jealousy is a horrible thing. I lost contact with a lot of people I cared about because it was easier to cut them away than a girlfriend who constantly accused me of wanting to sleep with anything with a vagina. Because of this, I tend to glom onto people much faster than others are comfortable with. But at the same time, I always feel like rejection is as inevitable as the heat death of the universe. I love my friends fiercely, yet I’m willing to cut them loose with little provocation.

  It’s one of the reasons I don’t have many long-term friends.

  Marley was no different. When it came down to my unhealthy relationship or my friend who supported me and only wanted the world for me, I chose my relationship. I had been trained to do so. It was an automatic response to stress.

***

  We weren’t even sitting on the same side of the room, but I knew she was there. Granted, there were enough windows in the place that if I shifted in my seat, I could see the back of her head. I had a clear look at her companion—a gentlemen who I did not recognize—but that didn’t matter.

  Conversation continued. Jessica and I marveled at the relationships in Parks and Recreation. We discussed the cultural entrenchment of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey and the horrific implications for their target audiences.

  Marley wasn’t involved in our conversation, but she was very much so a presence. She was a weight on my chest, threatening to crush my lungs into paste.

  I knew I could talk to Jessica about it. She already knew about Marley in broader terms, but the thought paralyzed me. I was unable to broach the subject while I could feel the presence weighing me down. Long ago, I developed a terrible habit of bottling up how I feel. I still feel like talking about my feelings just burdens people with my problems. I know it’s not healthy, but when confronted with an unpleasant and altogether new situation, I retreat back to burying my emotions.

  Maybe it’s not her, I tried to tell myself. I needed it to not be her. If it wasn’t her, so went the rationale, then by god there was still a chance to reconnect and save our friendship. The years of silence could be written off and maybe, just maybe, we could pick up where we left off.

  Despite knowing her profile anywhere, I managed to sell myself the lie.

***

  Say what you will about Facebook, it gave me Marley back, and for that I have nothing but love for their endless scamming of users’ data.

  Free from my unhealthy relationship, I was able to rebuild my friendship with Marley. There were some mishaps here and there, but it was still something I was happy with. She hit it off with Ashlie, my then-and-present-ladyfriend, which meant the world to me. Supported by the two of them, I started writing again. Interestingly enough, the first thing I worked on in earnest was a novelization of Project Northwoods. I had written a lot of plays, but it seemed to be the one best suited for the long-form of a novel. And I would be lying if I suggested that Marley being back in my life had nothing to do with it.

  But life doesn’t just pertain to its events with me… at least according to my therapist. Marley met a guy. Ashlie and I were really happy for her. She hadn’t had much luck with the male of the species, and it was good that someone as wonderful as she had found someone to help bury the bodies, as it were.

  As time went on, though, we began to notice some things. Marley stopped responding to my text messages, yet would regularly respond to Ashlie’s. Facebook interaction became sparser and sparser. Plans to meet up routinely met with excuse after excuse. Distance is a physical thing, yes, but sometimes the emotional gulf is infinitely more noticeable.

  I recognized the signs—I was being given the cold-shoulder dump. I had perfected the technique against my will, throwing my friends aside for the so-called “greater good” of a relationship with a woman who legitimately believed I was only a moment away from an affair. A text message to Ashlie confirmed it—Marley’s beau didn’t like or trust me, and was unwilling to meet me to confirm or deny his suspicions.

  I tried to be happy in spite of the emotional nightmare that I felt only Ashlie and I could see. But one morning, I asked a question on one of Marley’s Facebook posts. It was a question of clarification, nothing that I even put much thought into. She responded.

  Two minutes later, she had taken down her reply and my question.

  Five minutes after that, she unfriended me.

***

  When I see movement out of the corner of my eye, I look up. Marley’s companion locks eyes with me. It’s much too long of eye contact for it to have been an accident. He had clearly been looking at me for whatever reason, most likely sizing up the strange former friend of his lady companion. You see, strangers make eye contact and they’ll look away; someone caught in the act of watching takes a moment to realize what happened before pretending to find something else more interesting.

  They leave, eyes fixed to the floor, not saying a word.

  Jessica and I remain in our seats for the next ninety minutes, chatting and continuing to enjoy catching up. We discuss things like Arrested Development, The Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Although hopefully imperceptible to my dear friend, I feel the weight lift off my chest. I didn’t enjoy myself any more or less; the anticipation of a confrontation was just no longer there.

  It’s only on the way home that the emotions hit me all at once. I want to cry. I want to rage. When I park my car in the garage, I rush upstairs because I want, so very badly, for there to be a Facebook message waiting for me with three simple words: “I miss you.” I have wanted to send that message a thousand times, just to let her know I still care. To let her know that I still think about her and miss her and, even though it may not mean a goddamn thing, that I care about her so fucking much that it took a year for me to not think about how I can’t just talk to my friend anymore once a day every day.

  As I mentioned, I have few long term friends. Those that I do have tend to grow distant for whatever reason. Petty, perceived slights, like not being invited to a wedding, are a kick in the gut. Painful, not permanent. I can always laugh it off. “I wouldn’t want me there, either.” Besides, it’s their day—I have no right to be angry.

  In the realm of metaphors, though, Marley’s decision was a knife in the kidneys, leaving paralyzing hole in my body I couldn’t see but knew was hollowing me from the inside out. Some people would say that, in this situation, I have a right—if not obligation—to be furious. And you know what? I’d be angry if I hadn’t been on the other side before, hadn’t known the fear of losing someone who had long since convinced you that you’d never find happiness without them. We make our choices and hope for the best.

  And what on earth would anger really do, functionally speaking? I couldn’t resent her treatment of me, for I had done the same to her. I wonder if it hurt as much as it does at this moment; if it did, I find it amazing that she ever reestablished contact. The sick part of the question is that I want to hope that it did—if it didn’t, then she never really cared, did she? That wonderful hierarchy of pain that human beings love to establish—Jonathan wins friendship because he’s just so damn torn up.

  People always tell you that you should profess your feelings to everyone because they could die at any minute. And this is true. But you shouldn’t do it because someone might die—you should do it because we live. I imagine I might make my friends incredibly uncomfortable at times when I tell them how much they mean to me. But I don’t really care. Discomfort is better than the alternative. No matter what happens—if we fall out of touch, we get into a decade spanning fight, or, yes, even if we die—they will know in no uncertain terms how much I love them.

  I never did that with Marley.

  And that breaking of eye contact, that culmination of icy rejection, is what I’m left with. I want to tell her that I miss her, but now I know she doesn’t care.

  I missed my chance.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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