Autobiography · Relationships

Pieces of Kyle and Me

shards of a past life” © jejoenjeM, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The first apartment I ever had to myself was a tiny basement studio in Portland. The carpet was purple and the kitchen had red and white checkered linoleum. The walk-in closet had two stairs going up into it and was just big enough for a twin-sized bed and a dresser. Everything about that apartment was tiny and ridiculous. We called it The Dollhouse.

My upstairs neighbor was Kyle. I had just turned twenty-one when I moved in and he was forty-something. Fast friends. We’d hang out by the dumpster and smoke cigarettes every day. He’d come over to my place for beers. Watered my plants when I left town. When the weather was good we’d sit on the curb and drink booze until four in the morning. We talked about everything. I was his date to weddings. He met everyone I dated and my entire family. Our friendship ran deep and I loved him unconditionally.

Kyle was brash and unapologetic. One of those people who took up a ton of space without being a large person. He hugged hard and talked loud and had a ridiculous story about every situation. He’d get sloppy drunk, pick a fight, then spill his guts to me in an alley. He’d climb on top of dumpsters, get kicked out of a bar, and bring three or four guys younger than me home with him.

He had a rule that you could only tell him what he’d done while drunk if you satisfied three requirements. One, it’d been at least three days since he did whatever you were about to tell him. Two, he had a drink in his hand—preferably one you provided for him. And three, you referred to him as “this guy I know” instead of “you” or “Kyle”. He’d shake his head and belt out, “That guy is crazy! Who does stuff like that?!” Smile big and chuckle. Complete detachment from “that guy” being him. Because it wasn’t.

Once he showed up at my apartment around 11 PM with his right ring finger wrapped in a tissue. “I got a paper cut. Do you have a Band-Aid?” he asked as he walked by me, settling onto my futon. Kyle didn’t wait for invitations. He knew he was always welcome.

I dug through my medicine cabinet then sat down next to him. He removed the Kleenex from his finger and held it out. I grinned and he became tiny, fragile in front of me. Suddenly he was just a little kid. Our gaze locked as I wrapped the rubbery fabric around his fingertip, his eyes watering.

And that wasn’t Kyle either. That was a different guy entirely. That was the man who had found out a few years earlier he’s HIV positive. The guy who didn’t know if he’s was going to have someone to take care of him should the medication not be enough. Should his whole life slip away pound by pound. Should it all just fade out into nothing.

Every few months he’d disappear for a week or so. Show back up all road-worn and frazzled. I never asked where he’d been. I knew he’d lost his footing. Crawled back into some squat and started smoking crack again. I’d cook him dinner and he’d fall asleep on my shoulder watching something mindless on Netflix. My heart ached for him, but I never blamed him. It was another person inhabiting his body. It wasn’t the Kyle I called my friend.

It was so easy to be gentle with him. Simple to understand that there were lots of people who looked just like him, pulling in every direction. All trying to take care of him even if their ideas of how to do that were damaging and dangerous.

They were trying. I knew they were all trying to get his needs met.

And every so often I remember I’m different people, too. That when the depression takes hold, it’s not me it’s holding on to. It’s claws are in someone who is terrified of everything. Unsure and unstable. She is not me. That girl is shaking. She considers herself unlovable and fragile, weak and unworthy. She believes that everyone in her life would be better off if she slipped out of existence.

But that girl is not me.

I can feel sympathy for her. Understand how scary it is. But I don’t have to own that pain. I don’t have to be afraid. She’s a different girl than me. She doesn’t get to grab the wheel unless I grant her permission.

My therapists always had me name those women who inhabit my body when I’m having trouble staying on the surface. Describe them. The angry ones, the scared ones. The ones who are always panicking. The drunks. The drug addicts. The ones who pick up on girls at bars. Who go home with strangers. The ones who can’t get off the couch for weeks at a time. Women who are sure their friends, their family are only still around out of obligation or guilt. All of them are separate pieces.

Yes, we can talk about how they make up the whole. How they all need the same thing, are trying to solve the same problems, meet the same needs. They all have my best interests in mind, but different ideas of how to serve them. I know I have to listen to all of them. They all have valid voices. They all have stories, but they do not all get pens. They do not all get to decide where this is going. They don’t all get equal say in who this woman is.

Like the sixteen-year-old me who needed someone to absorb the screaming, but also needed someone to say, “No.”

“Yes. I understand you are hurting. Yes. I understand this is what you think you need. Yes. I know. I know. But no. Give me your keys.”


Growing up with glass

"ashtray." © Lee Royal, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
ashtray.” © Lee Royal, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
When I was in high school we finally got high-speed internet. I also got my own computer and one of the rooms upstairs. This was before I texted or everyone had a cell phone. So to talk without talking, you got on the internet and used a messaging service. I’d stay up late into the night talking to friends on MSN messenger.

“Can you come over?”

It wasn’t an uncommon question to receive. I’d knitted myself into a group of heartbroken and struggling teenagers. Most with “do whatever you want” parents and many without cars. Even though I lived at least twenty minutes from every one of them, it was rare that I wouldn’t drop everything and come to your doorstep. You just had to ask. Just ask.

Common enough that even at 1 AM I was still clothed, including shoes. My coat hanging on the back of my chair, my purse stocked with cigarettes and within easy reach.

“Of course. On my way. See you in half an hour.”

I crept down the stairs and kneeled next to my mom’s side of my parent’s bed, pushing soft on her shoulder. “Mom. Mom. I’m going to go into town. I’ll be back later.”

Still asleep, she’d answer me with a, “Okay. Be safe. I love you.”

“Love you, too.” I leaned in, kissed her temple, and headed out the door into the empty night. One of the joys of living in a small town was the lack of light pollution. The nights are always dark and you rarely have to share them.

Half an hour later I was knocking on Sheldon’s door. A room straight off the front patio; you could enter it without walking through the house or putting down your cigarette. He joined me outside, handing over a Busch Light and asking for a smoke. We settled into the chairs arranged around the glass-top table that was covered in ashtrays and beer cans.

He didn’t say much. Pupils like pin-pricks, like far-off blackbirds soaring deep into the sky of his eyes. He flopped his head back and forth like a rag doll. Sometimes it’s not that you want company, but that you know it’s not safe to be alone.

With our smokes done, we headed into his room. He mumbled he wanted to play me something, turning his back to me and sifting through the music on his computer. His room was always a mess, so at first I didn’t notice what he’d done. A painter, among many things, he’d been experimenting with acrylics on panes of glass. He’d paint them individually, then layer them together two or three deep. Gorgeous from both sides and like nothing any of us had ever seen. Stunning.

Now they were all in pieces. Smashed to bits among his belongings. Paint and shattered glass on the floor. On the bed. Across his desk. Settling into the creases of the dirty clothes piled up in every corner.

“What the fuck did you do, dude?”

“It’s been a bad night.”

I sat down on the edge of his bed, pieces of it digging into my palms. “I can help you clean this up tomorrow. I’ll bring my dad’s Shop-Vac® in.”

“Sure. Listen to this.”

He put on the new Alias album he’d been listening to and laid down on the bed. Shards of glass sliding in toward him as his weight depressed the mattress. Cutting into this elbows, his triceps, sticking to his clothes, and creeping down the collar of his shirt.

At first I thought I’d try to clear off the bed, but it so insignificant. When your feet are soaking wet you don’t bother avoiding puddles. We were already covered in it and what did it matter anyway? Tiny glass slices mean nothing in comparison to everything we were living with.

I crawled up the side of the mattress and laid my head on the pillow next to his. Alias playing loud and both of us bleeding into the mattress. We fell asleep with the light on.

The next day I drove home, picked up my dad’s vacuum like I said I would, and drove back to Sheldon’s. While he sat on the patio and smoked my cigarettes I cleaned his room. It was the one thing I knew I could fix for him. Something tangible I could protect him from.

After I loaded the vacuum into the back of my Corolla I sat down at the table with him. Both of us still picking pieces of glass out of the creases in our fingers, out of the cuffs of our jeans. He pushed his chair back, the harsh squeal of metal against concrete. Stood up and went into his room.

A few minutes later he came back with a stack of paper in huge brown portfolio. “This is every piece of art I’ve made since… Since high school. Well, you know, that I have still. I need you to hold on to it for me.” He put it into the trunk of my car and sat back down.

When I got back home I asked my mom to stash the portfolio somewhere, put my dad’s Shop-Vac® back into the garage, and took a shower. Clean and dressed in fresh clothes, I sat down at the table in our kitchen.

My mom came in through the back door and caught me staring blankly out the window. Motionless. She asked the set of questions she always felt comfortable asking. “Are you hungry? Can I make something for you?”

“Yeah, that’d be great. Do we have any lasagna left?”

“Sure do!”

“If you wanna reheat some of that, that’d be awesome. Thanks, mom.”

She rustled through the fridge and pulled out a selection of food to go along with the lasagna, of course. Her ability to create a feast in minutes shining. Setting the plate in front of me she said, “You sure do give a lot to your friends, munchkin. Make sure you keep some for yourself.”

I looked over at her and smiled. “Yeah, I know. I do. I will.” The words came out confident, but then I looked down at my scabbed hands as I picked up my fork. My teeth clenched. The truth is, if you want to keep something you care about safe, you give it to someone else.