The Story of Eli

Hindsight.

Many of us hope it’s the gift we’ll earn after our pain begins to dissipate. Hindsight comes after an amorphous period of time brings tangible closure to our pain. But it can be brutal. It can shock your soul at 4 a.m., violently waking you up to burn the portrait of the past you once knew.

And when that portrait is nothing but a pile of ash, hindsight starts again, painting you a new picture of an unfragmented reality. And then suddenly it all makes sense. The fluorescence is blinding. You see it all. The risks that were worth it and those that were not, at a time when they are all dressed up the same.

This is my story of hindsight, of waking from a nightmare packaged like a fairy tale. So, let’s start from the beginning.

It was August and I had great fucking hair. Golden highlights like Jennifer Aniston. I brought in a photo of her basking in her usual sun-kissed glow to my lesbian sister, Kat’s, girlfriend, a.k.a. my stylist. She tells me I zoomed in on a specific strand of Ms. Aniston’s hair and asked her to deduce the exact colour through a pixelated — and cracked — iPhone screen. Truthfully, I can’t recall this, but damn if it doesn’t sound like the kind of unrealistic nonsense I would put someone through.

Said hair was on fleek due to a strict regimen of two drops of Argan oil daily, fish oil supplements times two, Paul Mitchell extra body foam, the thinnest roller brush you’ve ever seen and 15 minutes of carved-out time to form “the poof” on the front of my mane. It “brought all the boys to the yard” as Kelis would say. Oh, and also my affinity for rampant promiscuity. That one never seemed to hurt.

Along with good grooming, I was obsessed with improving my tennis prowess. I took lessons every Wednesday with a bald Israeli named Yosef, who had an obnoxiously aggressive bulge. He had very recently become sober and he constantly described the routine of his “new life”. It was a snooze fest and a half. I told him I would rather die of alcohol poisoning than play Balderdash with my cousins on a Saturday. In retrospect, it was a hella insensitive thing to say to a man who had seamlessly christened my kick serve. And I even got up at 6:30 a.m. for the lessons, which was uncharacteristic of a person whose writing patterns synchronize with most adolescent hamsters. But I was hooked, and combined with gruelling CrossFit workouts my body was shredded like cheddar.

Seven weeks into the regimen, I matched on Tinder with a man named Josh who I knew ran in similar circles to mine, but whose genitals had never made my acquaintance. His IQ simmered in the low 100s and echoed through his incessant social media updates.

I saw his updates after he added me to Facebook and I shuddered as my penis inverted into my body.

“C’MON CHINA. GET IT TOGETHER”, he’d post in response to a complicated socio-political issue, 5 miles above his head.

“THIS IS COOL,” would be his hot take on some of nature’s most awe-inspiring mysteries.

I needed a tennis buddy, however, to hone my newfound skill — and he had abs! — so I invited him to play at a park by my house. When I arrived he was sitting sprawled on the bench. After a quick hug he launched into a long-winded diatribe about his ex, his ex breaking his heart, his ex’s ex, his ex’s former ex. He hated Tinder. Tinder was the problem. What a platform, that Tinder. Nothing good came of it. Tinder ruins lives. Tinder divides countries. Tinder killed JFK, people!

“Maybe the apps aren’t the problem,” I earnestly replied before serving across the net.

After tennis, we went back to my place and took a joint shower, because well, I have the sex drive of a coked-out baboon, and curiosity is a hell of a beast. I bailed mid-escapade and sauntered to the kitchen to make myself a protein shake.

“Hey, do you want to come to a barbecue tonight with my friends?” he asked.

“Are they annoying?” I asked. “I’m not big on humans.”

“No no, they’re good fun,” he said. “We can bail if you’re not feeling it.”

“OK sure,” I said. “But I’ll need 15 minutes to style my hair.”

“Really, 15 minutes?” he said. “Are you serious?”

I glared at him and downed the remnants of my protein shake.

“Yes, 15 minutes, bitch,” I said. “You think I wake up looking this enchanting?”

Josh drove me to the party, which was seven minutes from my condo and not at all a “barbecue”. In fact, there was no actual barbecue, just an oven and an ample supply of cocaine. It was a mid-level condo with a tiny balcony and piss-poor AC. I actually knew the host, a short guy that Ben once penetrated in an alcohol-induced haze.

“PLEASE don’t remind me,” Ben said when I told him I was writing this chapter.

There were maybe 10 attendees at the faux barbecue, four of whom were sitting on an L-shaped couch, transfixed by the Olympics on TV. It was the women’s 100-metre dash, the large majority of the competitors being black women. Josh offered to make me a plate and I plopped down on the corner of the couch in my purple shorts, white fitted Zara T-shirt and sinewy tennis calves.

“Based on our current climate I wouldn’t be surprised if the camera panned back and it was the cops chasing them,” I announced to the room.

The four guys on the couch erupted into laughter. Well that was easy, I thought. I immediately launched into graphic detail of my anal fissure surgery and concussion unprovoked, my “A” material. The details were fresh out of the oven as it was only two weeks earlier. Again, I absolutely crushed. How could I not? Fissures and concussions, the two prominent milestones in a young gay man’s life. Just ten minutes in I was the belle of the ball, golden tennis legs and all.

“Who the fuck are you? Just strolling in here and putting on a show,” said a voice to my immediate right.

I hadn’t torqued my body around to see the entirety of the man’s face at this point. I was focused on delivering my Vaudeville extravaganza to the other three men on the opposite end of the couch.

“Who wants to —” I stuttered and stammered as my eyes locked on the man to my right.

Tunnel vision. Time froze as my biological functions went into unimpeded overdrive. Heartbeat bouncing out of my ear canals. Fuck. I’m stuck. I could always run from this feeling. But, on this day, I lost the battle within seconds. But I do remember this feeling, I thought, as hot blood rapidly circulated across my cheekbones. Seven years ago. With Patrick. This blood! Down my neck. More hot blood, down my chest.

Then heartbeat — BOOM — heartbeat — BOOM.

Focus, you idiot. Say something. Anything. How long has it been since you said something? My left leg buckled and I artificially snapped back into position as consciousness returned.

“Umm hi,” I said, like a blotto teenager.

“Umm hi,” he replied, smiling nervously. I took solace in the fact that he was visibly a mess.

Seconds passed. Maybe 5, 10. We both stared inquisitively. I’d never watched a person’s pupils dilate. He blinked. Once, twice, three times. He held his smile. I couldn’t look away.

“Have we met before?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like …“

“Like we have?” he said. “I know, same.”

“But I don’t think we have,” I said. “I feel like I would have remembered.”

“How don’t I know you then?” he asked as his eyes narrowed. He put his hand on my shoulder. The second it hit my skin, the nerves went to work down my back.

“I’m going to get a drink,” I shot up, electrified. “Do you want one?”

“I’m coming with you,” he said. “I’m definitely coming with you.”

“OK,” I mumbled. “I’m Jordan.”

“Eli,” he murmured, slowly. “I’m happy I met you, Jordan. I wasn’t going to come tonight.”

“Same,” I said. “I’m kind of your friend’s date for this party but not actually, ya know? Not my type.”

“Good,” he winked. “That is pretty fucking great then.”

There were others who interweaved within our chats that night but I barely remembered them.

In fact, I couldn’t say if I even paid any attention to Josh. I had so much I wanted to tell Eli and he hung onto every word. We were love junkies, strung out on limitless serotonin and with the pacing of amphetamines. The natural pauses between sentences vanished. I was freefalling in screaming colour. At three points in the night he asked me why we hadn’t met and I’d remind him each time that he had already asked that. It didn’t matter. We were here now. When I left to go to the washroom, he stood outside tapping his foot.

“Missed you,” he chuckled, red cheeked, upon my exit. “Is that weird? Did you miss me?”

“Nah,” I replied, trying to keep it cool.

Then we’d get high on prolonged eye contact and smile. I’d overshare as fast as I could because I was making up for lost time. All the times we hadn’t met. All the time we’d missed apart. I was spinning, my words leaving my lips before I barely had time to piece them together. Every message from “then” to now trailed behind me. You’re unlovable. You don’t get a happy ending. Gay love is just weird. You’re broken from a broken home … I’ll show them, I thought. I’ll show everyone.

“So my sister is a nurse,” I chattered. “She has a dark sense of humour like me. My other sister is a creative type. She’s a great filmmaker.”

“I can’t wait to meet them,” said Eli, smiling. “All of them.”

Time moved too fast that Saturday night but I remember every moment like a haunting slideshow on old 8mm film. The moments clicked and changed but lingered just long enough to sear in my mind. It was the start of something monumental and I leaned into it without any rational hesitation. I’d felt so alone that summer, and other summers before that. I relinquished control and switched to auto-pilot, whatever the hell my version was. This is a thing now, I thought. And it will bifurcate into blissful endings, or etch scars into my heart. Worth it.

At 1 a.m. Josh offered to drive me home, seemingly oblivious to the situation at hand. Eli hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I’ll add you to Facebook.” Then he pulled away with a wink. At 4 a.m. I received a message from him with his number. At 4:01 a.m. I sent a message to Ben. “I met someone tonight and it was so intense.”

The next day I texted Eli around noon. He responded immediately and asked if he could call me. “’Cause I really wanna hear your voice,” he wrote.

We chatted on the phone for three hours that day. He pumped me for details on my upbringing, my career path, past loves lost.

Did I want kids? Well why not?

Why hadn’t we met yet?

Did I want a dog? YES! Well then which breed?

Why hadn’t we met yet?

Hey, why hadn’t we met yet?

In retrospect, I know now that after the three hours had begun I knew next to nothing about him. But it was the setting for the perfect storm.

I’m a writer. I live in the flurry of my thoughts. I replay moments endlessly, connecting them, squeezing imagery like it’s the last pulp in a Florida orange. And to write about these moments I need to feel every dimension of them. And then I need them validated by a receptive ear, even for hours at a time.

Eli also had a relatable and realistic cynicism about the human condition. Not enough that it would smother you, but enough to let you know he kept a suitable amount of space between him and “the sheep”. And his humour. God, was he funny. After I cracked a joke about his horrendous fashion sense, he told me he genuinely wished that my colitis declined to the point where I needed a colostomy bag. That might sound harsh to you, but that kind of dark humour is totally my bag, baby.

We both needed humour as a crutch for survival, but his reliance was next level. It was the perfect buffer to create unwavering emotional distance between the two of us. (Again, all in hindsight.) After I got off the phone with Eli I was spent. I called my sister to confirm our dinner plans that night. Fifteen minutes later, Eli called back. He just had to tell me something he forgot to bring up. I listened intently for another hour, then showered and got to work on the construction of “the poof.” First name Jordan, last name Aniston.

I met my sister for dinner and she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I was all things Eli. She nodded as I exploded at every seam.

“That’s great, Jord,” she nodded some more, through undertones of concern. “I’m really happy for you.”

When you really need something, anything, in life, that is the time to pause and reflect on why. That which sustains us is what has the power to ruin us. I hate admitting this but at the time of Eli, I couldn’t stand alone. I was incredibly adept at reeling in men to fill the void and tossing them aside, like crustacean shells. Each was a placeholder telling me the things I couldn’t tell myself. (Sorry gents.) You know, that I was valued. That I could forge intimacy. (I couldn’t.) That I was lovable. That I was enough.

It’s important to understand that as a gay man, like most gay men of my generation, I lost nearly 20 years of my life. I didn’t have a prom date or a first kiss that I held with a level of legitimacy. I lacked role models and relationships that I could mimic. And as much as you try to swat away the darkest of messaging, god it fuckin’ lingers like a stain. If you’re not gay and reading this, imagine the sting of knowing that there are people dedicating their life’s work to making sure you don’t get married, or making sure your employment could be terminated on the basis of your sexuality.

Imagine never seeing yourself represented in a relatable manner in media. Imagine knowing there are places in the world you’ll never visit and that millions wish for your death. Couples massages. Threats to your safety. Expressing love on an island resort with stares upon stares. It probably doesn’t serve our long-term purpose remaining segregated in gay bars but a safe space is simply a respite from these sorts of glares. Those glares shrink us and pull us in to a disempowered past, back to the nightmares of youth. Those glares are a reminder of hiding in the darkness.

The YouTube comments, the religious demagoguery, the most awkward of medical appointments. It’s a never-ending onslaught toward the way you express love. And it would be the highest level of naivety to think that wouldn’t have far-reaching implications on our mental health. I felt my love was primed to fail if I didn’t make concessions. I learned I was a misfit. Progress was coming, but it was depressingly slow, almost unnoticeable at points.

I once lived my life as a ghost, stashing old VHS tapes of Queer As Folk (my reference point) under my bed. I’d count the hours until I could devour them early morning, while everyone else was asleep. And even the show’s messaging was unintentionally bleak. They reaffirmed the thousands of negative messages I’d subconsciously planted in the deepest caverns of my brain. A rough road lay ahead, kiddo. Gay relationships were possible but complex, and biproducts of men who limped out of the closet, maladjusted survivors of unrelenting trauma. I was determined to make Eli the exception to the rule.  And I truly believed the relentless determination that I had harnessed in my career would prove no match for any circumstance. Even those circumstances that would lay beyond my jurisdiction.

At 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, Eli picked me up in his SUV outside my condo on King Street West. At first blush, the man had beautiful biceps … and hideous sunglasses. White fitted tee, black jeans. His hand over mine as I shook with a visible tremor.

“God you’re nervous,” he said. “Just relax. Seriously. Isn’t it obvious I’m totally into you?”

My hesitation was incredibly visceral. Red flag. My mind was batting down the exuberance of my heart, a Hail Mary before my hesitations began to disappear entirely.

“No,” I lied. “I’m fine. Get over yourself, dude.”

Our first date was at El Catrin in Toronto’s Distillery District. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Really sophomoric, super giddy shit of the highest purity. Young (ish) love is the best. Falling face first without hesitation, not knowing what lies below even if it’s metaphorical shards of glass.  We didn’t really need to say much. The non-verbal cues did all the talking. Except for the following moment, three minutes into my empanada.

“So how long have you been out?” I asked.

“Umm I’m not, like I am, but …” he said, trailing off.

“Explain,” I said.

“Well like obviously I have gay friends, you met them,” he said.

“Yeah they weren’t great,” I said.

“Ha. They’re alright. But I’m not out at work just because of the profession I’m in,” he said. “You know.”

“I guess, but I don’t really buy that. What about your family?” I asked.

“No, I’m not out to them,” he said.

“You’re 36,” I said. “Isn’t that kind of pathetic at this point?”

He paused and moved his entrée around with his fork. He shrugged. Then steered the conversation back to me, my favourite subject.

Hi, it’s me. A red flag. Yeah, right over here, Jordan! How much more obvious do I need to be, man?!

I wish I ran. That was my most blatant of messages from the universe. I was 29. I didn’t need this shit. But I knew gay love came with compromises, and complications. This was the one I’d work through with Eli and he’d come out for me. I was worth it, right? My infatuation didn’t even shift an inch. It was unflinching. He drove me home and we made out for 10 minutes in his car.

“I cannot stop kissing you,” he said. “Literally cannot. You are just so ummm cute. Ugh”

“Samesies,” I replied.

Weeks went by and we spoke all day every day. Texting for hours on end. In the end I had to delete our thread in the throes of heartbreak because it felt like someone had a death grip on my heart.

Here is one exchange I recall:

Me: But are you freaking out? Like I’m freaking out.

Eli: Yep. I’ve never felt this way about someone.

Me: Same. I hate the vulnerability.

Eli: I feel naked.

Me: Promise you won’t break my heart. I honestly couldn’t handle it right now.

Eli: I won’t. I won’t. I am going to do my best. .  

Two weeks into the love hotel I messaged a mutual friend on Facebook, just far enough from Eli that I knew it wouldn’t get back to him.

“Hey,” I wrote. “I’m totally falling for Eli and I realize we’re mutual friends. Can you give me some intel? Things feel a bit off but I might just be a bit paranoid.”

“Hey Jordan,” he replied. “I can’t say I have great things to say about him.”

“Explain,” I replied.

“Well, is he out yet?” he said. “Because he wasn’t seven years ago and I doubted he was ever going to be.”

“No,” I said. “Not at work or at home.”

“Listen,” he said. “He has a lot of issues. He put me through hell and it’s always the same story with each guy. Super committed and then he disappears and comes back like nothing happened. It’s very confusing.”

“Really?” I said.

“I’m just saying that you’re probably going to see this ugliness come to life soon,” he said. “He’s not a bad guy but he is not dating material. Trust.”

What did Mr. X know?, I foolishly thought. Maybe Eli just wasn’t into him and he couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t about to give unsubstantiated rumours a lot of weight. First, I planned a sleepover. He was incredibly game.

“Yeah!” he said, outside his apartment after we had spent five hours together. “That sounds awesome.”

I am cringing as I get ready to type this part.  

I bought wine. I bought two baseball steaks. I cleaned my condo top to bottom. I changed the sheets. Then at 4 p.m. I texted Eli to ask him if 7 p.m. worked for him. No reply. 5 p.m. 6 p.m. 6:45 p.m. I received a reply that said, “We had plans tonight? I’m having drinks with friends if you want to come.” I was humiliated. It felt like my head was about to spin off my neck. I didn’t even reply and went out with friends to the Canadian National Exhibition, in Toronto.

The next morning I was walking home from the gym when Eli called. “Heyyyyyy. Happy Two-week anniversary,” he said. “Are you so excited to be dating me? Because I think you’re incredible.”

It was a mind fuck. I didn’t know what to say so I just replied with, “Uh yeah.”

Then I said, very calmly, “Listen I’m not sure what happened last night but I know we had plans for a sleepover and you just blew me off without an explanation. What gives?”

“Oh man,” he said. “You’re so dramatic. I’ll come over tonight, OK? Just calm down. Love you Jordy.”

And so he did, with two pints of ice cream to watch a movie, with the sun still up. It felt the same. Seamless. He tried to convince me I overreacted in reference to the sleepover.

“What?,” I said, “No I didn’t. You blew me off.”

“Yes, you’re so dramatic,” he said. “You’re like the most dramatic person I know.”

“Oh whatever,” I said, tickling his stomach beside the fridge, and initiating a play fight. He held my wrists firm.

Then I looked up. “Stop fighting it. You’re falling in love, gurl.”

I’d hit his dead end. Something snapped in his eyes. He riotously threw me against my fridge, which knocked the wind out of me. I started to cough as my windpipe spasmed.

“Are you OK, Jordan? he asked. After 10 seconds, I nodded. (I wasn’t.) I tried to catch my bearings and put my hand up to fend him off temporarily.

“Good,” he said, then kicked me right in the balls, laughing.

I fell to the ground clutching my abdomen. I became nauseous and incredibly confused. Who the fuck was this maniac?

“Are you OK?” he repeated, feigning concern. “Jordan? Jordan? Are you OK?”

I nodded again. Then he started laughing maniacally.

“OK I gotta go,” he said, putting on his shoes and kissing me on the forehead. “Love you.”

The next morning at 10 a.m. I got a text from Eli that said, “Hey remember when I came to your house last night to watch a movie and beat the shit out of you.”

“Yep,” I replied. “I have a photo as proof,” and sent him the famous photo of Rihanna, post encounter with Chris Brown.

(Hey, red flag here. Seriously dude?)

I wish I could say that was the only time I remembered aggressive shoves, but all were tied to the prospect of long-term intimacy. Once, he tripped me in a park out of nowhere, my lower leg sliding across gravel on contact and removing a layer of skin.

My friends loved Eli, at first. He once came to Patrick’s house to squeeze in 20 minutes with me before bed.

“He’s funny,” said Patrick. “He’s good for you.”

“I really like this one,” said Patrick’s fiance, Dan. “Don’t screw this up.”

Even Ben, a harsh critic, loved the guy.

The three of us went out one night to Wrongbar in Toronto’s west end, with Eli footing the bill.

“The man is literally obsessed with you,” said Ben. “I haven’t seen anything like this.”

I wanted to show him the 3-inch bruise on my shoulder blade but instead I just said, “I know, he’s really special.”

Then on the night of my 30th birthday, when he was due to meet all of my friends, he was a complete no-show. I gave him a buffer of 10 minutes and then blocked his number for good in my iPhone. I could feel everyone pitying me and Ben even put his hand on my shoulder, offering to chat privately. I struggled to find the words amongst the eyes that pitied me. “I’m fine. It’s honestly for the best.” I repeated.  It wasn’t. It was the most brutal of lows after riding high on flood after flood of ecstasy. I binged on all my leftovers then cried in a guttural manner on my couch. Then I took a shower and noticed the bruise in the mirror. I sent Mr. X a message.

“It’s happening. Everything you said would happen is happening. I’m such an idiot.”

And that was the end of Eli.

…I WISH.

Three weeks went by with Eli still blocked in my iPhone. I had assumed he was trying to contact me but I held strong, until I broke during the first snowstorm mid-fall. I was nearly through a bottle of cab sauv, solo, when I unblocked him and wrote, “I just don’t know why you did this all to me. I only wanted to fall in love with you. That’s all. Just tell me why?”

He replied within seconds, “I can’t believe you’re messaging me.”

I wrote back, “What?”

“I’ve been worried sick about you, Jordan. Calling and texting and you haven’t replied for weeks.” Always the victim.

“I blocked you. I don’t want to speak to you. I just need to know why. I can’t make sense of any of this. I’ve never seen someone so in love with me and then pull stunt after stunt. Just explain.”

“Jordan, please come to my house. I want to talk to you and explain everything.”

“No, just type.”

“I have a lot to say. Please just come. I’ll order pizza.”

Every fibre in my being told me to stay put. I had to stop the endless loop of gaslighting and emotional abuse. What grand explanation awaited me? I had to be missing something. At what point is love still worth fighting for if you’re really only fighting yourself? The fact that I took an Uber to his house upon his command is picture proof that I was still a puppet on his string.

I was already drunk when I arrived at his apartment. He motioned me in like no time had passed and I sat down on the couch. He launched into a litany of banal topics. He’d seen that article I’d written (not about him) and it was “so depressing.” After two minutes I put my hand over his mouth and said, “I didn’t come here for that. Talk. I’ve said everything I need to say. If you ever want to see me again you’ll talk. GO!”

“What do you want me to say?” he asked.

“If you have to ask then it was a mistake coming over here,” I said. “I’m giving you one more chance to talk.” The alcohol had lowered my inhibitions, but only to my regular, baseline personality. Unapologetic, ball-busting … a tough cookie who knew his self-worth.

“OK,” he said. “I’m a messed up dude but you already know that. I do this all the time. I go hot and then I go cold with men and it’s always the same story. I’ve had a rough time growing up being gay.”

I interrupted him. “We all have, Eli. But you don’t get to run around like a bull in a china shop smashing down the rest of us who are already on shaky foundation. You’re an adult. And you’re abusive. Thanks to you, I now know what it’s like to be gaslighted and it’s fucking horrible.”

“Gaslighting” is when an individual manipulates your reality, convincing you up is down. It’s like someone spinning your body 15 times in a 360-degree radius, and then telling you to walk a straight line. It is a total distortion of your critical thinking.

“No, you don’t understand, Jordan,” he said.

“Well then make me understand. This is your chance. There are very few men who would come here after what you put me through. But here I am. I’m willing to help you. Let me help you. Please,” I pleaded.

“My childhood wasn’t normal. I’m not sure I’ve recovered. I’m not sure I can love someone truly.” He paused. “And you’re great. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with you. It’s all me. I’m fucked.”

His eyes went red and he wiped away the accumulating moisture.

“Seriously man,” he said. “You deserve better. Go out there and get better.”

I paused, gutted over his words. They were words I wished I could tell myself and deep down I knew he was right. How did I get here? I was now 30 years old. I knew better. Didn’t I?

“Can we fix this?” I said. “All my friends hate you.”

“I know. I want to. I really want to. How can I fix this?” he said.

“You need help, man. Real help. Not the kind that I can provide over bento boxes. And if you get help, I’ll try this again. But only if. We need time apart, like a few weeks at least, and if you want this enough you’ll go,” I said. “So go. And then we can fall in love. I don’t want to wait anymore.”

“I want to fuckin’ marry you,” he said, rubbing my arm. “I’m sorry.”

Then I said the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever uttered to another person.

“You want to know something?” I said. “I’ve lived my days waiting to go to sleep. Because, when I was dreaming I would get to see you again. I just thought you should know that.”

“I’m sorry Jordan,” he said, hugging me. “I am really sorry. I love you man.”

Then we laid on his couch for two hours as I consoled a soul more broken than my own. After I left he sent a text that read, “Thank you for coming here. I know that wasn’t easy for you. And if you want someone better than me, like someone who isn’t crazy, well then I completely understand. Xo”

I wrote back, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Eli did not understand my mandate of emotional distance. The very next morning he sent me a text that read, “Rainy days, perfect for cuddling and watching a movie.” Then the next day another: “Watching How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, you remind me of Kate Hudson. Her spirit. And she’s funny. Miss you.”

I wrote back, “Distance man. I said distance.”

He replied, “I know, sorry. I’m waiting for my emergency therapy session. Promise.”

Four weeks passed and it was nearly Christmas. I bought him a mug with a photo of me on television, an appearance he said he watched three times, with the caption on it that read “My Hero.” I was so amused with myself (like always) that I bought nine more for my friends and family.

Here’s a photo (with redaction):

We agreed to meet for dinner at Fred’s Not Here, a steakhouse steps from The Royal Alexandra Theatre. I gave him the mug with some swag I’d stolen from work. I asked him how therapy was going and he said, “Fine, good.” I didn’t press further as I know the process is predicated on confidentiality. Can I honestly say he ever went? I’d venture to say the chances are very slim.  

“So what are you doing for the holidays?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “My family is going to Mexico and I don’t feel like flying down so I’m just going to spend it alone.”

“Why?” I said. “It’s your family. Just go.”

“No,” he said. “Honestly, they hate me.”

“No they don’t,” I said. “Don’t say that.”

“It’s true,” he said, dropping his head.

“You know, ummm,” I said, hesitating. “I really don’t want you to spend the holidays alone. Especially knowing the state you’re in.”

“Then I’ll come to yours!” he said. “Parents love me.”

Then I lost my mind, again, and uttered:

“Sure. I guess that would be fine. We have lots of room. But platonically. You’re my friend (Jordan, you’re a terrible liar) and we need to keep it there (Yeah, sure buddy).”

“Yes!” he said. “I’m so excited. What should I bring?”

Do I even need to tell you what happened next?  

Do I even need to tell you that history repeats itself, often, in more egregious ways?

There I was, staring glumly at an empty place setting on Christmas Day at my sister’s new house outside of the city. Looks of pity from everyone I loved (I still remember their faces) as I saw the text on my phone that read, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I know you’re not surprised. Please don’t hate me.” But now I really did. My empathy had gone to the wayside. When I got back to Toronto I was riddled with uncontrollable rage. The gaslighting was now impenetrable.

The texts from Eli continued hour by hour.

“Hey! How was Christmas?”

No reply.

“Hey I want to give you a gift. Let’s go to that illusionist show. Looks so good.”

No reply.

“Hey.”

I replied, “Dude, just stop. Please just stop. Forever.”

Eli did stop … for four months, and then he joined my boutique Crossfit gym. There he was, at a 10 a.m. class, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, waving me over, like nothing had happened. He knew I loved that gym. I was there almost every day for over a year. It was my thing, my method of restoration for my mental health, which he chipped away at for the better part of six months. I knew all the instructors and I almost always went alone. He didn’t care and like a malignant narcissist, he’d found a way to see me. He was a bit different though, seemingly thoughtful. We started to chat again. Sometimes we’d even partner up on exercises. The cycle pulled me back in at such a glacial pace I barely noticed.

Twice, two of my Crossfit friends asked me how long I had been living with my boyfriend. In fact, everyone assumed we were together because our connection was so palpable.

“We’re not,” I’d correct them. “I’m just trying to stay civil. He put me through a lot.”

“You guys are totally in love,” one said. “It’s seriously adorable.”

We saw each other, rather sparsely, for brunches and lunches over a couple months. Once we made out in his car after class. (Yeah, I know.) Sometimes he’d text me to see if I was going to class, and if I confirmed it, he’d say, “Good, because I’m only going if you’re going.”

But I was healing and seeing someone else. It felt incredibly tame after emerging from the cyclone. I learned not to confuse intensity with intimacy, the wise words of a former therapist. Eli would find something to insult the new guy about and asked me on two different occasions if the guy was “crazy like him.”

“Not even close,” I replied, and really meant it.

Then one day, it was enough. The lingering spark that once let me destroy myself flickered to a slow death. I wrote him this text, “Listen, I think it’s clear we can’t be friends. Well I can’t anyways. It’s too painful. I’m going to start going to other classes at the gym. No hard feelings. I’ll always love you.”

And I dodged him for five weeks until one day our schedules collided. There were 19 people in the class and we couldn’t avoid each other, so I walked over to catch up. I put my hand on his shoulder and was immediately greeted with the set of sinister eyes that once threw me against a fridge.

“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!” he screamed.

“What?” I said. “Are you joking?”

“SERIOUSLY JORDAN. GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW. I DON’T WANT TO SPEAK TO YOU,” he yelled.

Everyone in the class stared. I shrugged and retreated into a corner. Then I threw in the towel, for good this time. The train of Eli, that had dragged me senselessly across the city for almost a year, grinded to a halt. The mental souvenirs tapered off just as the summer solstice began to arrive. His laugh, the way it jumped in pitch three seconds in. The times he’d get up in the middle of my sentence to kiss me. Slow dancing with a blanket wrapped around us in his living room. These were moments I’d built to last forever. It was all a cruel trick, a nightmare, a flash of time that stole hope from a dwindling supply.

Last July, I met up with Eli as a test. I needed to know how far I’d come and if time had taught me self-respect. For two hours over lunch, I saw myself floating above my body, so far divorced from that worthless 29-year-old self. I was overcome with a bevy of emotions, but the only one that lasted was sheer pity for him. And I was spent, devoid of the notion that love could ever come with guarantees. Devoid of unconditional empathy for someone who eroded my trust in anyone who came into my life. So, days after our lunch, I drove across the city and shared my story with someone who held the highest potential to save Eli. It was an emotional handing of the reins and a humbling reminder of the limit I always had over the situation.

One of the biggest mistakes I made with Eli is believing that our time together was like a labyrinth. Labyrinths come with twists and turns but there is only one path in and out. Relationships, like labyrinths, can be long and difficult to navigate, but they don’t send you down a baffling pathway of broken branches and dead ends. Hindsight has taught me that Eli was my maze. He trapped me into what felt like perpetuity, shattering my bearings so I was unable to pinpoint where I stood. Yet if you asked me honestly, I still don’t consider him to be a bad person. His sins are redeemable and I need him to be ok, even if I know that’s a wish that comes with the blindest of hope.

The day I finally woke up I grimly realized I had lost the person I had worked so hard to become over three decades. And it’s sobering when you realize it was all for someone who never deserved you in the first place. Could I blame him? He once told me that to my face.

So here I am, today, in awe of the gradations of my healing, the sedated pace at which I saw my darkest days migrate to the brightest of whites. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for Eli. I’ve hesitated writing this chapter as I feared it would enact a public shaming on a damaged person, which is not my intention.

But then I realized that this was never a story about Eli. This is my story and it includes the lessons I’ve learned about self-worth and redemption. Sometimes we need to see and experience the worst versions of ourselves, so we can start to transition towards our best. I never got that “great love” from him, but it was a period of time that helped to form my future self. And I refuse to force a future lover to pay for his sins. We all have our “Eli” — some of us are still dating him/her. It’s up to us to learn when to walk away before we leave another scar on a frangible heart.

In many ways I feel like a rescue dog, learning to trust again. I’m writing my own story, taking my time, day by day. I’ve learned boundaries and I have loving relationships around me I hope to model one day. I’ve survived all kinds of abuse in my life. I watched my childhood heroes become the monsters that still live under my bed. But in a way I’m grateful for the uniqueness of my experience: No one can break me If I believe I can weather any storm. My hindsight is a reference point for what I won’t settle for. And in such a declaration, I find myself moving closer to the kind of love I’ve needed all along.

And as such, maybe I owe the man who broke my heart both nothing and everything at the same time.

Listen, if you’re young and idealistic, hold onto that bright light as long as you can.  But here’s the truth. Love is not going to save you. It will sustain you. It will enrich you. It can be the metaphorical hand that holds you above the fray when you need it to the most. But all the bullshit that Sex and the City spewed about putting your relationship with yourself above all others … well, frankly, it’s kind of true. It’s your job to heal yourself, to eventually enter relationships when you’re whole and only when you’re whole. Don’t bring your baggage, slumped over your shoulder, to the next person and ask them to make sense of it.

So here is my happy ending, and my new rules to last me a lifetime. They’re my rules, set in the deepest of stone.

I’ve spun emotional gold from straw using the gift of hindsight. Hindsight has sparked these new non-negotiables and manufactured unwavering self-worth. I watch the hourglass drain as the sand grains of Eli dwindle to a vague memory.  I stand on my own two feet even when they’re shaking. I swat away the darkness of doubt and the fear of loneliness that once ran my mind.

I’ve found a courage I never thought I could have and I feel higher than I ever have before.

Even here, at my highest point, I feel the least afraid to fall.  And maybe that’s because I know that if I do, I no longer need anyone to catch me.

 

 

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