I spend the rest of the day in a cocoon of self-pity. Jordan had called wanting to revel in her bliss but I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t capable. I also didn’t want to take her joy away from her by burdening her with my pain so I just didn’t call her back. She left me alone for a day or two but come Monday night and I hadn’t called her back she was starting to worry. There was rarely a day that went by we didn’t speak. And the fact I hadn’t called her the day after she got engaged she knew something was up she texted asking to meet for dinner. I knew I couldn’t put it off forever and besides I did need to tell her. It felt like too much to bear alone.
We meet at our favorite Italian restaurant close to my office. Carb-overloading and cheap Chianti sounded like the perfect way to drown my sorrows. Jordan is already there when I arrive and like the good friend she is, she has a bottle of wine and a basketful of greasy garlic knots waiting.
“What’s going on?” She asks as soon as I sit down. “Is this about the engagement?”
“No! God no! I’m so happy for you both!” And then I tell her what happened.
“Wow,” she says when I’m finished.
“How long has he been sober?”
“A year and a half.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment.”
“I’m relieved truthfully. I’ve been worried for him all these years at least knowing he’s sober alleviates some of my anxiety.” I tell her. Jordan is uncharacteristically quiet. “What? What are you thinking?” I can tell she’s holding something back.
“And he said he was still in love with you. After all these years?”
“That’s pretty special.”
“Sorry it’s just kind of romantic.”
“He fucking broke my heart when I was probably at my lowest point! It’s not romantic it’s screwed up! And I can’t believe you’re defending him!” I tell her feeling betrayed.
“Calm down. I’m not defending him!”
“Well it sure sounds like you are.”
“Alana we’re best friends and the only way our relationship works is by us being honest with each other. That’s what sets us apart from other friendships is our ability to tell each other the truth. The truth as I see it is that you have never gotten over him. Four years ago you were both so young and both dealing with a lot emotionally. Maybe after a little time and sobriety maybe you guys could make it work?”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this to me. You saw what a wreck I was when I came back. I don’t think I could survive that again.”
“I think you need to give yourself more credit. You’re stronger than you think. Look at all you’ve accomplished in the last four years.” Was I stronger than I thought? Despite the pain of losing my Dad, then Tyler back to back I had survived it. But when I compared it to what the kids in my office were going through I felt weak and almost embarrassed by my own experience of heartache.
“Besides,” Jordan continues. “I’ve never seen any man look at anyone the way Tyler looked at you.”
When I got home that night I felt exhausted. And it’s only Monday! Despite my protests I had listened to what Jordan had to say. She had shocked me. I’d expected her to join me in condemning Tyler. But she hadn’t. She hadn’t said to get back together with him either but I got the sense that she thought I should consider it. I picked up my mail, most of it junk, but then I noticed a flyer advertising an art show, Tyler’s show. It was for this Friday evening. I noticed at the bottom in the right-hand corner, his handwriting. Please come, Ty. I don’t know why I was so shocked by it. Maybe it was the fact he had somehow gotten my address or seeing his writing…but I felt this desperate, overwhelming desire to go see his work. As if seeing it would somehow tame this longing in my soul for him. A longing that would not go away. But I knew I wouldn’t go. I knew I couldn’t. Seeing him had been too much to bear. I went to sleep that night dreaming of warm afternoon breezes, midnight swims and moonlit nights wrapped, safe in the arms of the man I loved. This was the only time I allowed myself to feel that comfort. I let myself because in dreams you have no choice.
It occurred to me as I headed to my Mom’s house for dinner on Friday evening that the fact Dono was in town the same night as Tyler’s art opening wasn’t a coincidence. We were meeting a lot earlier than usual 5pm. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time but now I realize he was probably going to leave to get to Tyler’s show. I tried to ignore the small part of me that felt betrayed by Dono’s continuing collusion with Tyler. But at the same time I wanted their relationship to continue. I knew the deep bond they had shared that my own relationship with Tyler had fractured. I also knew that Dono was Tyler’s only foundation. He was his only lifeline. They were family.
Dono was already there when I arrived. I smelled the familiar scent of steak barbequing. Dono was cooking. The smell transported me to summer nights on the Lake and happier times. I guess I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about him tonight. I would just have to accept that.
“Smells good in here!” I say when I walk in, forcing a smile on my face.
“Lani!” Dono says cheerfully, wrapping me in a warm embrace. Any trepidation I was feeling melts away. Dono is still my safe haven.
“I see you’re cooking yum!” I say.
“He insisted.” My mom says giving me a kiss. “I offered to take him out but he wanted to do an early dinner. I think he may have a date later but he won’t tell me!” I notice Dono gives me a quick sidelong glance to gauge my reaction. So he is going to Tyler’s show.
“I thought this would be more fun than going out, more relaxed.” Dono says.
“Well I for one am a happy girl.” I pretend.
“That’s what I care about,” he replies giving me shoulders an extra squeeze. My Mom has set a beautiful her table on her terrace that overlooks the ocean. She and my father had always talked about moving to the beach but they had never made it together. I was proud that she had moved forward with her dream. At first I wasn’t sure if it would be a heartbreaking reminder of what she’d lost but she seemed truly happy here. Every time I came to visit I could certainly see why. It was beautiful. Her condo was on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica. She had an unobstructed view of the ocean and beach below. At night the lights from the pier would sparkle, it was breathtaking. Tonight was a little cooler, it was even threatening rain but we sat outside anyway with the heat lamps turned on. It was as if she was afraid to miss even one night in this beautiful spot.
“So you never answered my question Dono. Do you have date?” My mom persisted. Dono looked slightly uncomfortable.
“I don’t have a date with a woman, Judy but there is somewhere I need to be later.”
“How mysterious!” My mom teased him. “I wish one of you would have a date. You’re both the most perpetually single people I know.” Dono looks up surprised.
“You haven’t been dating lately Lani?”
“No.” I say quickly wanting to change the subject. I pull the pashmina my Mom had lent me a little closer, enjoying its warmth against the cool night air.
“We might have to move inside soon.” I say looking up at the darkening sky. “I think it’s going to rain.”
“She’s changing the subject,” my Mom says conspiratorially to Dono. “She always does this whenever I bring up dating. But she’s too young to give up on love.” Dono turns to me concerned.
“Have you given up on love?” I roll my eyes. I do not want to get into this.
“My mother just can’t understand the fact that I’ve been busy with work.”
“I can relate to that,” Dono says, getting me off the hook or so I thought but apparently my Mom won’t let this one go.
“It’s not work. She’s afraid to have her heart broken. I don’t know if it’s about Dad or someone else, I don’t know, she refuses to talk about it.”
“Mom! Enough!” I get up from the table shocked by her candor and her accuracy. I excuse myself and run inside. I hide in the bathroom trying to pull myself together. I was such a mess lately. I didn’t like this version of me. I had spent years cultivating a calm, pulled together exterior and now I was falling apart at the seams. There is a gentle knocking on the door.
“Can I come in?” My mom asks softly. I open the door. “I’m sorry honey. I didn’t mean to upset you,” she says wrapping her arms around me.
“It’s just I’m worried about you but it seems like I’m never allowed to talk about it. I know how hard it was to lose Dad but you can’t let it stop you from finding love for yourself. He wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“It’s not just about Dad,” I confess. “There was someone a long time ago and I loved him deeply but it was a mess…I don’t think I could go through that again.” I don’t know what made me tell her after all these years but it was a secret I felt I could no longer harbor from her.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you sweetheart. But I need you to understand something; love, true love is messy. Sometimes you get your hands dirty. Love isn’t this perfect pretty package in a real relationship the paper gets torn and the ribbon unravels but it’s what’s inside that’s matters, something special and rare and that doesn’t always look the way we imagine it to be. Yes my heart was broken when your father died but he was worth the risk. And I wouldn’t trade one day I had with him. Yes I’ve known heartbreak but that’s only because I’ve known true love. And true love is worth it.” I can’t contain myself. I sob into my mother’s shoulder. I’m so confused. I feel like I’m being worn down on all sides.
“Can you do me a favor?” I ask.
“Will you ask Dono where he’s going later?” She looks at me confused. “I’ll explain later.”
“OK.” She gives me a minute alone. I stare at my reflection, my mascara-rimmed eyes and the blotchy red cheeks. I use a tissue to wipe away the worst of the raccoon eyes. It’s suddenly very clear what I want to do. I’m not sure I understand it and I’m scared but I think I’m going to do it anyway. As I exit the bathroom I notice it’s started to rain as if the sky is conspiring with me, reflecting my mood, feeling my pain. My Mom and Dono are in the kitchen, clearing away the plates. Dono turns to me when I join them, ready to have that discussion we’ve been avoiding all evening.
“Lani, I’m going to see Tyler’s show,” he confesses as if it were an act of betrayal.
“It’s OK,” I reassure him. “I know how important he is to you.”
“Who’s Tyler?” My mom asks innocently. Dono and I share a look. He had kept our secret all these years but I get the sense he wants me to tell her. So I do, the whole beautiful, sordid story. As it comes pouring out I feel lighter somehow like a snake shedding it’s skin. Dono paces the living room as I tell her. I see the guilt he still feels so I do my best to reassure him.
“I’m glad you’ve been there for him Dono. He’s needed you. I’m not sure he would have made it without you.” I tell him. He doesn’t answer he’s lost in his own thoughts.
“Well…” my Mom says still trying to process it all. “Are we ready to go?”
“Go?” I wonder.
“Go to this art show.” I hadn’t expected her to say that. I thought she would tell me to avoid him at all costs. Tyler is a recovering drug addict with a record and a history of violence. Not exactly husband material but he she was telling me to walk right into the Lion’s den. I had to wonder why.
“Lani you don’t have to do this.” Dono says.
“Yes, she does Dono, yes she does.” My mom replied and I knew what she meant. I needed to face him, to confront the past because I needed to bury it. Right now it was stopping me from moving forward and I needed to move on. I needed to let myself love again. I deserved it.
I went into my Mom’s bedroom to clean myself up. As I brushed my hair and fixed my makeup I felt the butterflies building in my stomach. I was scared but I knew I was doing the right thing. I needed to see him, to say goodbye. I needed to close the box on that pain and I could now that I knew he was sober.
Dono drove us all downtown to the gallery where the show was taking place. Everyone was relatively quiet in the car, the nervous tension bouncing between the three of us. I text Jordan to let her know what I’m doing, she texts me back right away.
J-What’s the address? I’m coming!
A-Don’t come. I’m with Dono and my Mom I’ll be fine.
J-I’m still coming.
I sigh knowing that arguing with her is futile. I send her the address because truthfully I could use her support. Dono coughs nervously filling the silence then he says, “You know Tyler’s really talented. And he’s worked really hard to put this show together.”
“Have you seen his any of his work?”
“Just a few pieces. He’s pretty secretive. I know he’s nervous for tonight. He wants so much for it to be a success.” I thought about the anticipation he must be feeling, the fear, the excitement. I feel myself wanting to be there to comfort him, to reassure him. I push that feeling away hoping that tonight would give us both the closure that we never got. I wonder if tonight would challenge his sobriety, if his sobriety teetered on whether the show was a success or not. I hoped he was stronger than that. I suppose he had to be, eighteen months was a long time but at the same time it was no time at all.
Dono pulls up to the valet in front of the gallery. It’s in the revamped section of downtown LA. An old building that has been restored, surrounded by trendy restaurants and bars, a great spot for his first show. I could imagine him living in a cool loft nearby and I found myself wondering if he’d be able to survive the temptations of the city. I wanted sobriety for him so badly. I couldn’t believe how badly, the intensity of the feeling shocked me. I wanted it more than I had wanted anything before…except maybe him. My mom squeezes my hand as we climb out and offers a reassuring smile. She understood how I was feeling. My confession has removed this invisible barrier between us. I already felt closer to her.
We quickly dart inside out of the rain. The show opened at 8pm it’s 8:30 now and already there is quite a crowd. I’m pleased for him. It’s a good turn out. There’s a DJ and an open bar, the Gallery is making a big deal of it. I’m so nervous I’m almost nauseous. I don’t understand why. It’s not like it was the first time I’d seen him in four years. That had happened last week. I was nervous to see him again but dying to see his work and how it had evolved. Even though it felt wildly inappropriate given Tyler’s sobriety when I got inside I made a beeline for the bar anything to take the edge off. My mother joined me. We both got glasses of white wine. I’d hesitated for a moment over vodka on the rocks but just for a moment. Dono went on to try and find Tyler. Maybe he went to warn him.
Tyler’s work was displayed in sections. The first area we walked into was titled New York. It was mostly abstract painting heavily influenced by the street art of the city. There was an occasional portrait of an old man, weather-beaten and weary. It was different to his old work but even more beautifully executed. I could see how he had developed as an artist. There was a frantic energy to these pieces, heavy, almost dark and it made me long for the ethereal lightness of his earlier work. I was so lost in the work I hardly notice when Jordan arrives looking characteristically glamorous even on short notice. After greeting my Mom she whispers in my ear, “What did I miss?”
“Nothing yet.” I reply.
“He’s certainly talented,” my Mom comments. We proceed to the next area. No sign of him yet. This is called The Lake Series. My heart stops when I see a painting of our beach, so real, so lifelike I feel if I take a few steps forward I’ll be there. It’s jarring.
“That’s beautiful!” my Mom comments. “And so different to his other pieces.” As we walk to the next one I have to do a double take. There is a picture of the same landscape, the same beach only this time there is someone in the picture, a woman in a white dress walking towards the Lake, the sun illuminating the soft curves of her body visible beneath the light linen fabric of her dress. The way he recreates the light drenching the scene is breathtaking. But it’s also familiar. It’s a reproduction of the photo he took of me four years ago, painstakingly recreated. Jordan throws me a look. I shrug not sure if she ever saw the photo. But the next painting we come across is a little harder to shrug away at. Instantly I recognize my bedroom at Dono’s. He even remembered the striped pillows on the window seat. The room is bathed in moonlight from the open windows. The night sky is littered with stars, it’s as if you can feel the breeze that flutters the chiffon drapes. Asleep on my bed is a woman lying on her side, her back towards us, obscuring her face, her naked body partially covered with a strategically placed cotton sheet. Her hair spills around her on the pillow. She is beautiful through his eyes. The love that has gone into every stroke of the brush is evident. And when I see it instantly I know it’s me. I fight to hold back the tears. The beauty of our relationship is captured in his art and I’m overwhelmed with a desperate longing for it’s return. For a brief moment the beauty erases all the pain and ugliness. Jordan squeezes my hand.
“Oh my…that’s breathtaking,” my mother says then she catches a glimpse of my face and she realizes. “Oh Alana…” suddenly I have to get out of there. There are too many people. I can’t seem to catch my breath. I run from the room desperate for fresh air and the oppression that’s closing in on me. Before Jordan or my Mom can stop me I’m outside, of course it’s raining, hard. But it feels good. It feels cleansing and it’s masking the tears that are flowing freely. I start walking not sure where I’m going when I hear his voice. At first I don’t think it’s real. I’m so used to him invaded every sense. I dismiss it. I can’t seem to shake him despite years of trying.
“Alana!” He calls, would he haunt me forever? “Alana!” Then I realize it really is him. It’s his voice. I turn around and there he is, his black button down shirt soaked from the rain. As he walks towards me I don’t move, I don’t run I’m rooted to the spot. When our eyes meet it’s as if he sees into the deepest part of my soul and we forget all the bullshit. The only thing that matters is our love that ’s been denied these past four years. It’s as if, in that moment, the love between us is all that exists and everything we went through is irrelevant. Now he’s right in front of me, inches apart. If I reach out I will touch him. As he looks at me he feels the synchronicity of our feelings. He doesn’t ask he just kisses me. And I let him. It’s like coming home. It satiates a hunger I didn’t know I was suffering from. I can breathe again. His hands cup my face. He whispers my name and I know we’re both crying. He wraps me in his arms and despite the pouring rain we stay there not knowing how long this will last. I don’t know in this moment what this means for us if I’ll let him back in but I can’t deny how I feel any longer.
“I love you Alana. Please, please give us another chance.” His forehead is pressed to mine my body is pressed against his and I can’t imagine a world in which we don’t belong together. I bury my head in his chest the truth is…
“I’m yours…I always have been. I’ve never stopped loving you.” I admit. He gently pulls my head down so I’m looking up into his blue eyes. As I look into them I see forever. He leans down and kisses me with a ferocity I feel throughout my body. I start to come alive, like I’ve been dead these past four years.
“Let’s go home,” he says.
“But your show? Don’t you need to be here?”
“Fuck the show. You’re all that matters.” He takes my hand and we start to walk away from the gallery but I make him stop.
“I don’t want to put everything you’ve worked so hard for at risk.” I tell him.
“Alana, you just don’t get it. I did this for you. It’s all for you. Without you none of this matters.” I have to kiss him again right then because I can and because I’ve spent the last four years longing for him. We start walking again and this time we don’t stop.
There are nights when he wakes me with his screams. The pain of what happened to him as a child will never go away. The things he did as an adult in the grip of his addiction will never go away either. There are times when the yearning for a drink or to get high threatens the beautiful life we’ve created. But we’re finding ways to cope. Most times he paints but if it gets really bad he calls his sponsor, or goes to a meeting. There have been times when he thinks I’m asleep and I hear him whispering in the other room and I know he’s talking to Dono. Those nights I can fall back asleep. But usually I stay with him and talk him through it. We go to yoga, or we cook, we watch bad TV but the most efficient way to derail those cravings is to make love. Most days are easy most days he’s fine but there are times…most twenty-four year olds are out partying their brains out. It has been challenging. There are nights when we meet friends out and I worry about the drinking that is happening around us. He hates that I worry. My anxiety is almost a trigger for him. It can put a strain on us. He thinks I could do better that I don’t deserve a life of fear. I’m still trying to make him understand there is no life for me without him. It’s not a sacrifice. I think about the years after I left the Lake, what my life was like. It was as if I was on life support, still there, still breathing but not really living. When Tyler came back into my life I was reawakened.
Two months after our reunion we moved in together. Everyone was worried. Everyone was concerned it was too quick. Was I his new addiction? But after spending four years apart it felt long overdue. Despite their fears they couldn’t ignore the change in me. Everyone was celebrating the return of my joy. Tyler and I spent nearly every waking moment together since the night of his show so moving in after two months felt like a natural progression. It happened organically. Everything felt natural. Four years was a long time but after four days it felt like we had never been apart. Living together allowed us to get to know each other on another level. We had missed years of intimacy and we were desperately trying to make up for it. Every second was precious, every moment a milestone.
Our biggest test came five months after he moved in. We had been sailing along, his sobriety had barely been tested there was too much joy, too much love. It was heady days of first love when we were truly addicted to each other, we couldn’t possibly get any higher. It was Sunday morning and we were still lying in bed, debating a hike or going back to sleep when his cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number but he answered it anyway. It might be a new client, he was successfully building his reputation as an artist… “Tyler Crouch speaking,” he answered. The smile from our conversation still lingered on his face but it quickly disappeared as he listened in silence. My body instinctively bolted upright, all too aware of the sudden change in him.
“I’m going to hang up now,” he said evenly. I couldn’t hear who was on the other end and I couldn’t guess at what they were saying. He didn’t hang up immediately he waited as if letting them finish their sentence.
“Who was that?” I practically demanded when he finally did hang up the phone. He didn’t answer at first, his eyes seemed to glaze over and it reminded me of the times he had shut me out at the Lake. We couldn’t go back there. We had come too far. He had worked too hard. As if he could hear my thoughts he took a deep, awakening breath.
“It was my father.” Wow. “He wants to see me. He wants me to forgive him…he wants to reconcile.” We sat in silence a moment. It was a lot to take in.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Nothing to do with him.” Was his immediate response, “But…he’s my father. I can’t forgive him ever for what he did but he sounds sincere. He didn’t have to reach out. He has his freedom. He doesn’t need me to present his case to the parole board. He’s been sober a long time…” I watch as his beautiful features contort themselves in pain and conflict.
“What is it?” I ask slipping myself under his arm so my cheek rests against his bare chest.
“Part of me feels like a hypocrite. I did things when I was high that still haunt me, that I could never imagine doing now. I came begging you for forgiveness, for another chance and you gave it to me. My father is asking me for the same thing and I’m saying no. What does that make me?”
“Human. You lost your mother. He can never take that back. Of course I understand why you can’t forgive him.”
“You want to know something crazy?” I nod my assurance. “There is part of me that respects him.”
“What do you mean?” I ask confused. He looks uncomfortable and I can tell this is a huge effort for him to open up like this. Despite how hard it is my heart sings with the knowledge that he’s breaking down another wall that separates us.
“I know how hard it is to live with the consequences of my actions. There are days when it would be so much easier not to be sober. To live knowing what you’ve done, how you’ve hurt people, the damage you’ve inflicted on yourself and others while you were fucked up…it’s so much easier to masks those feelings with booze or pills then to have to confront them in the sober light of day that’s why after you left the Lake I went crazy, knowing what I had done, knowing that I’d lost you. The drugs would help me forget for a minute but I would have to take more and more to try and get rid of the pain. For him knowing that he’s killed his wife, lost his son, his family that’s hard to bear it would be much easier not to be sober. And it would be much easier not to call me. That doesn’t mean I forgive him…”
“You can if you want to you know. There is nothing that says you have to be estranged forever or that your mother wouldn’t want you to forgive him. He can’t hurt you anymore, remember that.”
“I don’t know what the right thing is.” We sit in silence contemplating because truly there are no right answers there isn’t a pretty, perfect solution. It’s all messy, just like my Mom said it would be.
“What made you finally decide to get sober and stay that way?” I asked because I hadn’t before.
“You,” he replied without hesitation.
“So am I!” He insists, gently turning my head so I’m looking up at him. “I was sitting in a jail cell surrounded by people I was afraid of stone cold sober but shaking from withdrawals. It was so fucking painful but I had to pretend I was fine. When actually all I wanted was to be dead. I couldn’t believe how badly I’d fucked up how many people I’d let down. And in that moment I couldn’t understand why. Why had I done any of it? For the high? It didn’t make sense to me. I thought about my mother how she had died trying to protect me. I owed it to her to make something of my life. And I thought of you and maybe one day I could see you again. Just to see you. Not even kiss you or be with you. I knew I didn’t deserve that but I wanted so badly just to see you again.” I tighten my arms around his waist thinking about how close we had come to never having this. If Tyler had continued to make bad choices instead of waking up to life we wouldn’t be here together now. We wouldn’t know this happiness and we wouldn’t share this love. “So I called Dono and I begged him to help me. I said I would never ask him for help again but if this one time he would show up for me I wouldn’t let him down. And he did. He bailed me out and took me straight to rehab. The night Jordan got engaged and I saw you for the first time in years it made everything worth it. The rush was so enormous it was better than any high but then I realized I’d been lying to myself. Seeing you wouldn’t be enough. I needed you.”
“I love you Tyler.” He pulls me in for a kiss so passionate and deep he doesn’t have to say I love you back. I feel it.