Impossible possibilities

One day, in the autumn of 2017, I was sitting in the cafe of the local library with my boyfriend and our few month old son. My coffee was too hot, we didn’t have much to say to each other, and I was scrolling through Facebook.

The world around me went quiet as I lighted upon a post from someone I’d stayed with in Texas, back in another life. I went still and silent for long enough that my boyfriend asked me what was up.

“Adam died.” I said, quietly confused and surprised by the words coming out of my mouth.

“Who’s Adam?”

Who’s Adam? Who is Adam? Who is Adam to me? Who am I to Adam? How do I categorise Adam? How do I answer this truthfully? How do I answer this accurately?

“You know, the guy I was…kind of…seeing for a bit in Austin.” I came up with.

“Well you weren’t really seeing him, were you?” he scoffed with a note of condescension and maybe defensiveness. He was right, though. I was not seeing him. That wasn’t remotely the right word. In reality I had probably spent less than a week staying with Adam and his housemates. Was I supposed to say the guy I had a fling with? The fucking holiday romance? Was I supposed to bypass that entirely and just say one of the people I stayed with? Someone I used to know? That all felt ridiculous. I needed something to portray the level of intimacy we’d shared; the multi-layered nature of our connection; the importance of our encounters on the trajectory of my life. And, honestly, in that moment, now that he was gone, I needed to feel like I had, in some way, at some time, mattered to him as much as he mattered to me. There wasn’t an adequate explanation for who Adam was.

Adam was the person I stayed up watching documentaries with until 5am the first night we met. Who I wordlessly exchanged dirty foot massages with long past 2am the night after that. Whose bedroom felt like the safest place I’d ever been. Who surprised, disarmed and utterly baffled me with the understated sincerity of his kindness toward me. Who shone a light on the absurd depths of my sense of unworthiness, and simultaneously made me feel worthy by association. Who pushed my boundaries in really uncomfortable, wholesome ways, with such expert grace and gentleness that the experience was enchanting. Who showed me what love could really be like, even though we were both in love with other people at the time. Adam was probably the best person I’d ever met. Adam was the person I most wanted to be like.

Over the next few days I quietly pondered how the news impacted my life in no tangible way whatsoever, yet gently rocked me at my core. How, if I ever returned to Austin, it would now be distinctly lacking. How there was no longer any place in the world I could go to find him. How his absence made the world worse, not just for me, but for so many people who knew and loved him. How, of all the people I knew, in a very objective sense, he was very close to the top of the list of people I would least want to die. How it didn’t change any of the memories I’d made with him. How, in many ways, he didn’t feel any more gone to me than he had been for the past two years, and that had never really bothered me. How, actually, I felt free to feel closer to him now. How, actually, he didn’t feel gone at all.

I also battled with my ‘right’ to grieve for him. And, even moreso, my ‘right’ to feel close to him. My ‘right’ to talk to the air around me as if he was there. My ‘right’ to feel guided by his non-corporeal energy.

And then I wandered through thoughts of destiny and fate. What if I hadn’t left Austin? What if I’d gone back? We wouldn’t have had a successful long term relationship, I was pretty sure of that, but what if I could have altered events just enough that he wouldn’t end up on that road in that car at the exact moment a drunk driver came along? Is that how much of a knife-edge we all live on? Or did all roads lead there for him?

Adam was an extraordinary human and, for that, he was blessed with the love and admiration of many people. To me, he was a full-spectral oasis of radiance in a desolate wasteland of disconnection and missed opportunity. To him, I have no doubt, I was just another person he chose to share some time with. It didn’t mean I didn’t matter to him, but the relative importance of me to his full, open-hearted life could never match his impact on my own.

For years now, I’ve sat with that understanding, and I’ve continued to feel close to him, and guided by him, and I’ve made sure to consciously allow that for myself despite the ever-creeping guilt when I think about the people who really lost him.

And he’s made my life better. Sometimes he plain made it bearable. Remembering him, and imagining him with me, imagining what he might say to me, drew me forward through a lot of tumult. And I doubt I would have given myself permission to do that if he’d been alive. And so the world’s loss has, in some ways, been my gain, which feels perverse. Then again, had he been alive, perhaps I could have heard what he’d actually say to me, and that would have been better. Perhaps this is just a story I tell myself to make it okay.

Last night, for the first time in a very long time, I felt drawn to find the video of a song he recorded the week I arrived in Austin. And, as I watched it, I sobbed. And I let myself feel true fucking brutal loss. Because I’d been there, with him, in that room, and he’d pulled that mattress down from the wall while I stood in the doorway. And he played me that song, and I was relieved to honestly say that I liked it. That was the version of him I knew. That was the version of him I touched. That was the version of him I kissed. That physical body, those exact human cells, immortalised in moving pixels. But he’s gone, and I miss him, and how can someone like that just be gone?

And, even more selfishly, I sobbed because I’m at a place in my life now where I’m so much more ready for a man like Adam to grace me with his presence. I couldn’t make the most of the time I had with him when I had it. If he were alive, at least I could fantasise about the possibility of reconnecting.

Maybe that was always the heart of it. I always knew what he was, and I knew I was on the way to it. And, regardless of what form it took, I wanted to be able to stand face to face with him when I got there. But he doesn’t have a face anymore. He’s not a man anymore. So I can’t.

Just own it

I used to find it impossible to admit to my mistakes and failings.

I’d drag myself over hot coals for the slightest misdemeanour, but outing myself to somebody else? Not a fucking chance. I think I thought everyone else was a whole lot closer to perfect than I was, and the only way I could ever be remotely accepted by anyone was to at least pretend that I was too.

When I was younger, this resulted in me snaring myself in kneejerk denials that led to bizarre, convoluted, improv lie-trains that surely weren’t fooling anyone. As I grew up, I calmed my powerful instinct to deny, and instead developed a more sophisticated tactic of mitigating my blame. I also learned to skirt around the lie; to say true but misleading or distracting things that let me avoid disclosing the dirt.

I always felt guilty about trying to shirk the guilt, so I was always struggling to change my behaviour. But the shame within me was just so crippling that I was never wholly successful. I could never fully own my shortcomings.

A few years ago, I was working for board at a family homestead in Northern California and one of my hosts took me into San Francisco to meet her friend who was flying in. We were meeting in a jazz bar, and after we found parking, there was a short walk up a decently inclined street. I hadn’t given it a thought, and started walking at my usual pace when my host had to stop me. She was very overweight and couldn’t keep up.

She told me about how she could barely walk a block these days, and hills got her out of breath in a few steps, as we made our slow and staggered ascent. What she described, and what I could see, was a reality I couldn’t imagine, and had my mind reeling at the countless implications it must have for every moment of her life.

But then, more strikingly, she very matter-of-factly told me how deeply it bothered her, how it was a very real, very big problem in her life that she was very aware of, and how simultaneously she was very aware of the fact she was doing absolutely nothing about it. No excuses, no complaining, no sugarcoating, no joking, no agenda – just a plain, simple describing of the very personal facts in a totally casual, unloaded way.

This was a quality of hers that I saw displayed a number of times while I stayed there. She just owned herself and her flaws entirely. Fucking wow. I want that level of bravery. I think that was the first time I’d really seen true authenticity modelled to me in the real world. It was inspiring, and it stayed with me.

There are still certain areas of my life that I find it difficult to own up to, but damn have I come a long way. Finding a metric to aspire to instead of a metric to fear made all the difference.

The thawing process

Once Upon A Time, I visited Iceland. It was originally a trip planned with my boyfriend after we found out I was pregnant. A miscarriage and a break-up in the months preceding meant that it was a somewhat different prospect by the time it arrived.

I could have cancelled (I had hardly any money, so that would have been the most sensible option), or I could have invited a friend (though I couldn’t say I really had any close enough to ask at the time), but the path of least resistance for me was to go alone.

I was still pretty fragile.

I’d paid the deposit on a private room at a hostel, and I could have transferred it to a much cheaper bed in a shared room, but I kept it, because I couldn’t face the idea of being around strangers. It left me with only £50 spending money for the week, but it didn’t feel like a choice.

I was lonely, in truth, but I was so excruciatingly on edge around other people that I couldn’t bear it for very long.

Every morning I would peer through the small window on the kitchen door trying to ascertain if there was anyone in there. If I could see multiple people, I’d go back to my room for a while. Sometimes I got caught out and walked in on a group – when that happened I’d panic, fudge some kind of small, quick task, and leave again as quickly as possible.

On my first day, I was booked on a group horse trek, and afterwards got talking to a Canadian girl. She was about my age, and also holidaying alone. It was nice, I liked her, and the conversation was comfortable. But then she invited me out for dinner, and I freaked out; making excuses, declining solutions and probably inadvertantly offending her.

Another day, an older Danish gentleman struck up conversation with me when I was getting breakfast. He was kind, interesting and unintimidating. I benefitted from his knowledge and we talked about things I think about to this day, but I still couldn’t wait to get out of there.

There was only one person I let myself connect with on the trip, and how that even came about speaks so much about where I was at. What I was learning and what I still had to learn. Where I felt comfortable and what I could accept.

One day, I was picking up some things for tea in the supermarket around the corner from my hostel. I was staying a decent way out of the city centre, so it was a fairly small, quiet shop, with only a handful of people inside. As I was finishing up my transaction, during which I managed to say less than three words, a tall, rugged Icelander in a black, red and white Nordic style hat cut in assertively to ask the cashier something. As he stepped back, we made eye contact. He nodded at me with a smirk, and departed.

A few days later, I was feeling the strain of my isolation and decided I had to overcome my anxiety and do something social. For this, it seemed, I was going to need alcohol. I identified the only supposed rock bar in Reykjavik and set out to locate it. Then I walked up and down the street past it about three times.

Finally, teeth gritted, I headed up the steps.

As soon as I got through the door I noticed a tall, rugged Icelander sitting in the corner with a companion; his black, red and white hat lying on the table. After clumsily ordering a whiskey, feeling unbearably conspicuous, I took a seat at a small table nearby.

Despite a way-into-the-realm-of-obvious amount of eye contact, and a bunch of ideas raging through my head of what could transpire from this point, I was soon one drink down with nothing to show for it beyond some vicious internal tension. It was getting weirder by the minute, but I decided to spend some precious Króna on another and give myself one more chance. When I got back to the table with my one more chance, he and his friend were leaving, drinks unfinished.

Fuck.

I waited for a while to see if he was coming back. By the time the barmaid cleared away the glasses, I figured that was probably unlikely. So I migrated over to the now vacant table. It had a better view of the room, and maybe I could salvage this still by striking up conversation with someone else? This probably wasn’t enough whiskey for that but, if I didn’t have hope, what else did I have?

The place was almost empty. It was looking bleak. I left my jacket to mark my seat and went to the toilet to see if the change of scene helped rally my dwindling optimism. I sat there for a while, wondering what the Hell I thought I was doing entering into a social challenge way beyond my paltry capabilities. Did I actually really believe this would accomplish anything?

When I got back to the table, the tall, rugged Icelander with the black, red and white hat was back. This time with a group of friends. This time sitting at a different table, but right next to the seat I had usurped and claimed with my jacket. Right next to me.

Fuck.

As he and his friends exchanged their Icelandic words, I sat there, burning, silent, sipping my whiskey as slowly as possible, waiting for an opening wide enough to drop a bumbling, crippled shygirl into.

My glass was dry.

Fuck.

After sitting, trying to look casual, doing absolutely nothing for a few minutes, I figured it was time to call this as a failure. I began faffing with my bag to waste a little more time. And then the tall, rugged Icelander with the black, red and white hat turned to me.

“Hey, can you do me a favour?”
“Yeah?”
“Can you watch my stuff for a few minutes?”
“Sure.”

Thank fuck.

When he returned, it could have easily been an awkward moment where I failed to seize the opportunity veritably dangling its genitals in my face. But, instead, he took a few minutes to talk to me, then bought me a drink and invited me into the group. I could take no credit.

My experience instantaneously was transformed from quiet and painful reflection to reckless enjoyment and abandon, completely orchestrated by him. He had single-handedly delivered me from loneliness, and so I followed him like a disciple for the rest of the night, and well into the morning.

I’m still learning from that night. Mostly, these days, I’m learning from the flaws in myself and him I was unable to see clearly back then. But, at the time, it was simply the flood of relief I desperately needed, reminding me of what it might feel like to be truly alive.