Learning Him

I sat on the back porch of his Grandma’s trailer house, looking over the city of Layton. It’s an incredibly hot day and the air feels stagnant, suffocating. I was sunburnt and emotionally exhausted. All I wanted to do is cry to my best friend, snuggle up with a beer and go to bed.  I knew I had a good reason to be here again, but I promised myself that this would be the last time. Enough is enough. Close the door. Lock it. Throw away the key. I could hear him talking to his Grandma about his weekend, our weekend. His version sounded so very different from mine.

Some mutual friends of ours had decided to rent out a cabin in Bear Lake for the weekend. It had been planned for months now, deposit was paid, headcount taken, sleeping arrangements made. Then, just a week before it’s time for us to have our “friend-cation”, Ava sends an impersonal text stating that Derek, my narcissistic ex, would be there. I felt my heart make home in my throat and a sudden urge to empty my stomach contents. I was rightfully angry and equally afraid. I hadn’t spoken to him in over a year. The last time I saw him face-to-face, he drove off, crying and blaming me, once again, for his dismay.

How could Ava, or any of them think this was okay? I had explained the situation to all of them multiple times. He had burned the bridges with them too. He fought with all of them. Talked shit on them. Eventually he left the group all together with the statement that we were all terrible people and he was much better without us. I personally, was relieved when he left. There were different feelings among the group members who had known him longer, or those who he hadn’t personally victimized, but the consensus was the same, good riddance. Until now.

He was making his way back into my life and I was going to have to accept it or leave the group myself. There was no in-between. I thought about it. I talked about it. I wrote about it and the answer was clear. If I didn’t go on this Bear Lake trip, he had supremacy, he would win. I had to go. I couldn’t let him have any power, any control over my life, not again. His chokehold on my decisions and my happiness ended a year and a half ago when I broke things off. He only had as much influence on my life, as I allowed, I wasn’t going to give him even an inch. I’m not sure who I was trying to prove that to. Going in, I thought it was for him and the rest of them. Coming out, I think it was for me.

I got off work around ten o’clock that Friday night, stopped at home for a couple things, then started the drive from Logan to Bear Lake. Logan canyon is a phenomenal drive, even in the pitch black. The road curves just enough that you have to pay attention to your speed, but not enough that you are forced into a crawl. The river takes its turn on each side of the road and the higher you go, the denser the trees become. Eventually you reach a part in the canyon that opens up into a great meadow. I slowed down for this part, giving myself a pep talk on how to handle this evening, or this weekend, if I decided to stay. You are in control. He has nothing over you. Do not let him get under your skin. Do not fall for his charm or his looks. He is only a man. A terrible man and you have moved on from his damage. You are strong. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this the right way. After the meadow, is one more steep incline, until you reach the vantage point in which to see the whole of Bear Lake.

The lake glistened with cabin lights and the reflection of the moon. It’s a huge body of water that spans across two states, a piece of northern Utah and a piece of southern Idaho. Tomorrow the beaches would be filled with families and friends, barbeque grills, and coolers full of ice cold drinks. Tonight, it was silent, everybody with the exception of a few night owls, were tucked into bed, resting for tomorrow’s adventures. I only had fifteen minutes until I would reach the beachside cabin we had rented. I was nervous, chugging water, trying my damnedest not to throw up my dinner. It was the only thing I had eaten that day and I couldn’t afford to lose it, not now. I called Ava when I arrived in the driveway and her boyfriend, Mike, met me at the car. He was nervous too. Derek was on this property somewhere. The tension was stifling.

Mike tried to convince me to go to the backyard and grab my stuff later, but I refused. All I wanted was to get my stuff inside, set up my hammock and try to relax before Derek inevitably showed his face. I was anxious and shaking, yelling at Mike to let me be and asking Ava where I was supposed to put my things. As I forced my way through the front door, I understood why Mike had tried to stall me. There Derek was. Sitting on the couch with a group of mutual friends, looking much the same as I remembered. I dodged eye contact and bee-lined into the master bedroom to set down my things. I grabbed my hammock, sleeping bag, and a beer before ducking out the back door to find a proper place to set up my hammock.

I found a halfway decent spot between two trees, quickly set up the hammock and placed my sleeping bag inside. I downed my beer, waved a quick hello to my friends and grabbed another beer before heading down to the water. I needed a moment to compose myself. I wasn’t holding it together like I promised I would. I was already falling apart and I hadn’t spoken to him. I had barely looked at him and it took all my strength not to breakdown in tears or uncontrollable rage. My best friend was right. I shouldn’t have come here. I should’ve let him have this one. What did I have to prove anyway? Why was I here?

I stared out across the water. The moon glistened on the ripples of the water. You could see Mars off into the distance and stars filled the sky. It was so surreal down here, in this moment. Everything back at the cabin meant nothing. I looked for all the constellations I knew, saddened when I remembered that Orion and The Pleiades would not make their appearance until right before sunrise. They belonged to the winter sky, not this warm summer one. I finished my beer and began making my way back to the house. I couldn’t hide down here forever. They would eventually come looking for me and the only thing I wanted to face less than Derek, was the borage of questions from my friends.

I made my way back to the fridge, grabbing a beer for now and a beer for later. My friends were already much drunker than I and dancing the night away. I decided that was a great distraction from the man sitting by himself on the corner of the back porch. He was only ten feet away from where we were dancing, but it was easy to ignore him with the music turned up and running through my veins. I got in a twerking contest with one of Mike’s cousins, she won, but not by much. I caught myself singing at the top of my lungs without my consent. Another beer went down, then another, then another. This night was easy when I didn’t have the mental capacity to pay attention. The dancing came to an end. We were drunk and getting tired. The decision was made to play Cards against Humanity. There was no dodging him now.

In the bright lit living room, we took seats on the couch and the floor surrounding the coffee table. Ava began dealing out the cards and explaining the rules to those who hadn’t played before. Derek sat two seats to my right, Mike’s sister and her boyfriend had been kind enough to fill the gap between us. I was grateful for this, rather it was intentional on their part or not, I was still thankful. I kept glancing in Derek’s direction, trying to relearn the face I had once loved. We made eye contact and all the strength I had mustered crumbled under his puppy-dog-eye smirk.

He had grown his hair out since I last saw him and he had it pulled into a hipster-style man bun. Always keen to look his best, it was obvious he had gelled it back into place, not a loose hair to be seen. His warm chocolate brown eyes were the same as I remembered. Intense, yet welcoming. They beckoned you to come closer and learn the secrets that must be buried within him. His skin was sun-kissed and a ginger-tan color instead of his usual olive complexion. He had grown out his beard as well. It was well maintained and halfway down his neck in length. He had always been a good looking man. Even now, after everything he had done to me, I found myself checking him out. I stopped myself. It’s just the alcohol and lack of closure. Nothing else. There is nothing else here. Just play the game.

The game made it one round before a unanimous smoke break was called, which is code for, we’re-too-drunk-to-keep-this-going. I followed everybody outside and walked out into the yard. I knew I couldn’t make it down to the water again without sparking suspicion, so I walked as far down the yard as I could. I leaned back and gazed up at the night sky. The sparkling stars grounded me and gave me my strength back. I was okay. The night was ending soon and I could go to bed. I wasn’t going to drink anymore. It was time to slow down. As I made my way back to the house, I noticed Derek laying in his hammock, on the opposite side of the house from mine. I wish I had gotten here earlier. His spot was much better. Without thinking about it my feet turned towards him, I walked over and squatted beside him.

He was obviously upset. He had his beer sitting on a stump beside him and his eyes filled with tears.

“Hey, honey.” I said, reaching my hand out to caress his arm.

He slowly turned towards me, a look of disbelief across his face. He was just as taken aback by the fact I came to him as I was. A weak “Hi” escaped his lips as he grasped my hand in his. I pulled my hand away and set it on my knee. He couldn’t do that. He wasn’t allowed to touch me. No. What was I doing here? God, I’m a sap for a sob story and a broken heart.

“What’s going on honey?” I asked running my fingers through his now released hair.

I remembered how having his hair played with had a calming effect on him. And right there in my hand he broke. He turned into me and the tears hit my arm like bombs dropping from a B-52. Each tear seared my skin and set my nerves on fire. How was I comforting this man? Why was I still here? He had caused me so much pain and anguish. What right did he have to cry? What did he even have to cry about? He was the abuser, the emotionally abusive monster that I had dedicated three and a half years of my life to. Still, I stayed, letting him release whatever emotional baggage he had on me. He apologized profusely through a slurred tongue. He told me of how angry he was at himself, how much he wished he could’ve been a better man to me, how he will never forgive himself for the damage he has caused. I stayed silent. I had nothing to say. This was his first apology that wasn’t a backhanded attempt to blame me for his actions. I wanted to forgive him, to take away his pain, but I couldn’t. I was still so angry with the scars he left me. The scars I still dealt with every day.

After what seemed like an eternity, his tears ceased and he looked up at me.

“It’s okay, sweetie. I promise, everything’s okay.” I lied. I needed him to stop crying. I couldn’t do this anymore.

“Thank you.” He replied, grabbing my hand in his once again and holding it to his face.

I allowed this for a time before commenting on how late it was and how exhausted I was from work. He offered me a spot in his hammock, since his spot was better than mine, but I deflected, assuring him my hammock would do just fine. I went to bed half drunk and emotionally jumbled. The hammock cocooned me tightly and I fell asleep before I had too much time to think of the consequences that the last hour had created.

I woke up in the morning before everybody else, well everybody except Derek. He had already gone to the gas station and brought back a coffee for each of us by the time I rolled out of my hammock. It was a nice gesture and I was smitten. We sat on two lawn chairs on the back porch looking out to the water. I hadn’t realized last night, but we were over a hundred yards away from the water. It was a longer trek than I remembered making last night. We engaged in small talk, asking about work and family members. He wanted to know how school was. I wanted to know how his life was going. Had he found a good job yet? When did he get his license back? (I had heard he lost it for a DUI roughly six months back). How was his mom, grandma, sister, dad? The catching up lasted as long as we could stand and then we made the executive decision to make our way to the water.

People were starting to stir inside the house and we informed them all to meet us down there. I don’t know why I was being so kind to Derek. I didn’t know what this pull was to him, why I allowed to take hold of me, but I was here, with him, and I was somehow happy about it. I wasn’t as strong as I pretended to be. When it came to him and it came to love, I was weaker than I wanted to admit. I gave up trying to fight it. Let this weekend be what it is and deal with the repercussions as they come. I knew this behavior could cause a major setback in the personal growth I had accomplished since the break-up, but part of me felt there was something to be gained here. It was risky and dangerous, but my gut told me to go for it, see what came of it.

We made it down to the water and I slowly made my way in, turning to watch Derek remove his shirt and shoes and follow me. I got to a point where I was standing on my tippy toes with my head just barely above the water. He came within a few feet of me. His sunglasses shielded his eyes from view, but I could feel the intensity of his stare. My arm came up and splashed him. A handful of water right to his face. I dived under the water to escape and felt his hand wrap around my ankle. I’d been caught! He pulled me to the surface and dunked me under the water a couple of times before letting me swim a few feet away. I was flirting with him. Playing with him. What the fuck was I thinking? Who cares? I wasn’t thinking. That was the point. I let him come close again and hold me in the water, splashing each other and swimming around like elementary school crushes. Nobody else had made their way down this way after a while, so we decided to head back and see what was up.

Everybody was awake when we made it back to the cabin and the decision had been made to drive over to the North side of the lake. This was on the Idaho side, which meant normal alcohol content beer (not Utah’s 4.0% limit) and a sandy beach to lay on. We all divvied up into vehicles and for whatever reason, I offered Derek a spot in mine. Of course he obliged and went to grab his things. As I went to pack up my car with beach necessities, I texted my best friend to let her know that I was okay. I wasn’t going to explain the terrible life decisions I was making right now. She would show up here within the hour and ring my neck. Derek came running out with a couple of other friends, we put them in the backseat and Derek took shotgun next to me. I put one my favorite summer playlist and off we went. All four of us singing at the top of our lungs, each with a road beer in hand, it was just like old times. Maybe too much like old times. I reached out and placed my hand on Derek’s leg, his hand finding home on mine as well.

I still had no idea why I was doing this, but it felt natural. It felt important somehow and more than anything, it felt nice. It felt nice to not be angry with him. It felt nice to have the fire that had raged inside me for all this time lose oxygen for a while. I was fighting hatred with love in a way and it felt good. In that moment, it felt right. I knew this wouldn’t last. I knew that Derek and I were never to be together again. I knew of how unhealthy and toxic we were for each other, but remembering the times like this one, where we were happy, was comforting. There was reason to love him once, even if I knew there was no good reason to love him again.

We reached the beach, those in my car and the rest of the caravan piled out, beer coolers, snack boxes and towels in hand. I headed straight for the water, trying to escape the beating sun and take a moment to gather my thoughts again. I swam out as far as was safe and treaded water for a while. I could see my friends slowly coming in one by one, but none of them made it out this far. Derek was never much of a swimmer, but he made his way in for a bit, then retreated back to the beach. I was thirsty and in need of a beer so I began swimming back in to meet the rest of them. I had just opened my beer and was deciding if I was going to get back in the water when I looked over and Derek was beckoning me towards him. He had dug a pit-like seat into the searing sand to find some coolness underneath. This trench he built was wide enough for two as long as you snuggled up.

I took the bait, grabbed another beer for him and made my way over there. It was nice laying down in the cool earth, the sun beating down, warming your soul. I snuggled into him automatically, not caring what the others might think. They brought us together anyway. Fuck ‘em if they don’t like what they see. I’m not even sure if I like what I see, but whatever. We snuggled for a while, had a sand fight, built a sand castle and washed up in the water. We were tired now and laid down in the trench while everybody else packed up their things. They were hungry and heading back to the cabin. We told them to go on without us. We would catch up soon enough, but we weren’t going anywhere just yet. The judgmental and confused glares were inevitable, but they let us be. We fell asleep there together for a bit, until the heat became too much and our bodies woke us up in the name of self-preservation.

We drove back to the cabin together, talking about the good times we had together and how nice it was to have the friend group reconnecting. I’ll admit, it was nice. No drama, no bullshit, just a bunch of old friends enjoying the last bits of summer. We made our way back to the cabin where everybody else was already showered and fed. Derek and I each took our separate turns in the shower. He came out looking almost black with how tan he’d gotten from our nap, and I, a bright lobster red. Derek helped me put some lotion on to cool the burn and beckoned me outside. Mike was going to propose to Ava, Derek explained. Everybody knew but her. What a beautiful weekend this was becoming. Derek sat behind me, with me nestled between his legs, still applying copious amounts of lotion to every spot I couldn’t reach. We all took out our phones, trying to be stealthy (I’m sure we weren’t). Mike’s brother made a speech to friendship and love, which Ava wrote off as the usual drunk rant, until Mike dropped down on one knee and pulled out a ring.

“Ava Marie Frederick, will you marry me?”

We all held our breath. What would she say? They already had twins together and had bought a house. They had rough patches, some infidelity, some lies and uncertainties, but they had made them through it so far. It was anybody’s guess, but for the weekend’s sake, we were praying for a yes. She didn’t say a word, just stuck out her left hand and Mike placed the ring on it. We all cheered, jumped up, clapped and hugged each other. They were getting married! She said yes! They kissed and hugged. Then Ava, trying to get the spotlight off of her, turned the music on and demanded we keep the party going. I went in to take a nap. I was so exhausted from the day and couldn’t handle a second more.

When I awoke a few hours later, Derek helped me put on some more lotion and got me something to eat. I spent the rest of the night cuddled up to him. Outside with our friends, inside on the couch when people became too much for us, and eventually out in the hammock. Sometime between the couch and the hammock I had a drunk breakdown when Mike’s sister went on a rant about Derek and I having pain and anger between us. She was right, but I needed her to shut up. I knew there was still pain here, mixed in with love and hate and anger and emptiness. She brought to the surface everything I had been trying to ignore for the last 24 hours. I ran outside and demanded to be left alone.

Derek came to me with a beer and a cigarette. He held me and asked me to explain to him what was going on. I did, to the best that I could. I still had love for him, but he had broken and bruised me so badly. The emotional turmoil he had put me through had wrecked me as a person and I was still trying to put the pieces back together. I didn’t want to be mad anymore. I didn’t want to hate him anymore, but I couldn’t love him or forgive either. I was all mixed up. He let me rant until the crying took over and I ran out of words. He held me and cried too. He was so sorry. He felt terrible for all the damage he caused. He never knew how bad it had affected me. He didn’t realized the destruction he had caused. He knew he hurt me, but he never knew how much. We cried for a while longer, then I told him that it was time to stop. We were having a good weekend and we weren’t going to ruin it now, drunk and overly emotional.

We snuck off to his hammock with a handful of beers and laid under the stars. We made jokes and laughed about whatever we could come up with to laugh about. We talked about dreams and adventures we wanted to go on. We laughed about how we never did like parties and how they always ended up becoming us two hiding out somewhere. Something about us together made us need nobody else in the world. There was an odd comfort there that I never did understand. I still don’t. Maybe it’s what comes with time spent together or with fatal attraction, who knows, but it was something I never knew with anybody else. Something unique just to him.

The rest of the night happened too fast. We were cuddled up together. I was almost asleep. Then he kissed me, just a soft placement of his lips on mine, but it brought every nerve ending to life. I pushed for another kiss, then another, and another, until he had made his way on top of me and we were making out. The moans escaped without permission, my body pushed up against his, his pushed back. The intensity presented itself as every extremity of mine shook with erotic anticipation. The passion, the fire between us, there was no putting it out. Explosion after explosion as his hands made their way across my skin. The clothes peeled themselves off and suddenly he was inside me. I held his face in my hands and looked deeply into his eyes as I climaxed. He pulled out to finish and laid beside me. I was still trying to catch my breath when he cradled my face in his hands. He slowed his breathing and mine with it. He threw a blanket over us and there we slept.

In the morning I awoke abruptly. I had taken this too far. Whatever mission I was trying to accomplish had gotten out of hand and there was no coming back. What have I done? What have I done!? I slept with him. I connected with him on that level. GOD DAMN IT! What were you thinking? Derek stirred beside me and I told him I had to use the bathroom. I ran into the master bedroom, grabbed my things and threw them in the car. I took one good lap around the house to ensure I got it all and went outside to retrieve my hammock. I was freaking out. All the emotions I had tried to wall up all weekend were breaking through. I was falling apart and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to stop it. Derek rolled out of his hammock and started to pack as well. Breathe. I told myself. Breathe. It’s okay. It’s all okay. I went inside and made two cups of coffee, one for Derek and one for myself.

I took the mug out to him with a smile and asked him if he would like to ride home with me. His eyes lit up with gratitude.

“Of course I would, but are you sure?” He asked concerned.

“Yeah, yeah, of course. I’m gonna stay in Ogden tonight anyway, so Layton isn’t too far out of the way.” I replied, still trying to maintain a genuine looking smile.

He believed it, thanked me for the coffee and began ferrying his stuff to the car. Everybody else began waking up and doing much the same. We said good-bye to our friends and helped with the last bit of the clean-up. We were the first car to leave, but everyone followed soon after. Once we made it to the northern mouth of Logan canyon and started our way down to Logan, I started talking. I couldn’t hold these feelings in anymore. So much was said in that drive down to Layton. Accusations and apologies. Hard truths and see-through lies.

I explained to him how this would not happen again. This weekend was fun and provided the closure I needed to begin healing, but we were still toxic to one another. This wasn’t a healthy relationship before and it would not be now. He was still insecure and abusive. I was still scared of him and too weak to stand up for myself. He apologized again and again for the pain he caused. I accused him of being heartless and a monster. How could somebody take everything I have and still not be satisfied? How was I, after everything I had done for him, still not good enough to commit to? How could he cause this much pain to someone?

He said he was sorry, but our relationship went two ways. I should have stood up for myself. I should have put my foot down or if I was so damn unhappy I should’ve left a long time ago. Why did I let him treat me like that? Why did I give into his insecurities? Why was I so scared of being alone that I would do anything to make him stay? He was right. I made mistakes too. I tried to force the same insecure unhealthy rules he forced on me, back on him. That was immature. Why was I so scared to be alone? Maybe I was broken and weak long before he had a foothold in my life.

By the time we reached his grandma’s house, we were both upset and crying. He asked me to come sit down for a while. That he didn’t want this to be how it ended. I didn’t want this to be the conclusion either, but from the time I had decided to plunge into this again, I knew I had to bring it to an end. He couldn’t be a major part of my life. He couldn’t be a minor one either. This had to stop. We had to let go and move on. Sitting on the back porch of his Grandma’s trailer house for the last time, I thought and I cried. In order to accept him for who he was and what he had done to me, I had to figure it out from a logical standpoint. I had to learn him.

I began to understand him in a way that I had never done before in the three and a half years we spent together. He was a terrible person, not always by choice, but by design. He, himself, had been broken down so many times and he didn’t know how to put the pieces back together without stealing from those who loved him. He was broken, scared and insecure. He knew he was, but it was easier to push his issues onto others than it was to face them alone. He had done this for so many years and so many had enabled this behavior, that there was no real incentive to change. There was always another empathic soul for him to grab hold off and bring down.

Them, just like me, wanted to fix him, take all the weight from him and exchange it for peace and happiness. What we didn’t realize was that the weight was not a separate entity from him. He was the pain, rage and hate. It ran through his veins and fueled his fire. Any attempt to put it out was futile. He found solace in his gasoline blood. Every bad day, another match. Every push to make him run on blood and life, an explosion that echoed for miles and burnt us. I was charred from the inside out just a year ago. Burnt down to bare bones and out of water. The scars are still here. Some days, easier to see than others, but they are fading.

I am still reluctant to share my water and fire no longer keeps me warm. I left that porch that day, understanding that fire is never in your control. It is wild and will die only when it decides. That decision may never come and there are fires you should walk away from or you too will become infused with gasoline. Gasoline that never leaves. I gazed into his eyes, taking note of the fire that lay behind them. I told him that I understood, he didn’t do this to me on purpose. He wasn’t malicious, just hurt. I apologized for not being able to fix him, because it was something he had to do himself. We cried happy tears together for the first time. We understood each other now. We forgave each other and we forgave ourselves. I told him I loved him and I meant it. He told me loved me too. I gave him a hug and said my final good-bye. He still has a lot of burning to do. I may be air, but I am no longer fuel. I will no longer be consumed.



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