2015 began with a poison kiss.
I didn’t even know I had New Year’s Eve plans until a few hours before midnight. J* texted me while I was at the gym to see if I wanted to spend the evening with him, and I rationalized, “Hey, better late than never.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7 to drive an hour to visit friends of his in a far suburb. That gave me a leisurely two-and-half hours to finish my run, stop off at the store, and slap on the pretty stick. About 30 minutes later, he texted again, wanting to know if I could be ready to leave at 6, just an hour hence.
I was still on the treadmill.
With a mighty effort, I managed to get home, stop sweating, and be ready when he arrived to pick me up. We were trying to be there in time for something called “an Irish toast,” though neither of us understood what that meant. Because I thought we were going to his English friend’s home, I imagined a custom of some import, a break in the evening’s festivities at which our absence would be noted. J* drove with urgency and then like a madman. At one point, lost in conversation, he missed our exit, trapping us on an airport service road. He got angry. Then, when we missed the last bailout, he got angry some more.
I had witnessed one of his outbursts on the phone, but never in person. Now, I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car that felt like it was going way too fast, driven by a grown man having a tantrum. He muttered and yelled, addressing himself in the second person. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel. He shifted the manual transmission in waves of anger. When he slowed in the airport parking lot to ask for directions to the exit, I looked at the glittering terminal in the distance and wondered if I should make a run for it. I froze.
I dated a violent man once, so in those seconds of uncertainty, I reverted to what I knew: be quiet, stay still, act small. Even so, when J* challenged me to confront him, I foolishly took the bait.
“Go ahead, say whatever you’re going to say,” he demanded.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I fumed, “because I don’t want to get punched in the fucking face.”
In the twisted logic of our relationship, my words became the most grievous transgression of the night, a presumed accusation–that J* was an abuser–we never quite got past. I offered context that he declined to consider and apologies that neither of us quite believed. He offered very little, pushing back hard that my words exceeded his actions in their terribleness. In retrospect, that argument exposed the power deferential of our relationship: his ambivalence towards me could put me on my heels even if he was in the wrong. In the end, having resolved nothing, we just moved on.
We arrived at our destination–not an English home, but rather an Irish bar–about ten minutes to seven. J* bolted from the car without a second’s pause, leaving me trotting after him in heels across the icy parking lot. We exchanged no words to bridge the angry divide between us. Moments later, I was meeting his friends for the first time, smiling a plastic smile that I hoped would hide my deep discomfort.
As it turns out, an Irish toast is simply an acknowledgement that it is midnight in Ireland. The bar distributed little flights of Guinness, a canned version of Auld Lang Syne blared from the PA system, and then it was done. A piece of actual toast would have been more satisfying.
It was 7:01 PM, and the five hours to midnight spread before us like a cold and lonely road. I drank a lot, I ate too much, and I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room. As the hours passed, J* and I found our way back to each other. He held my hand, he touched me lightly under the table, he checked to see if I needed anything. At midnight, he smiled broadly as he took my face in his hands and rendered that sweet but fateful kiss.
I was wary but hopeful as our lips met. Lost in softness and warmth, we failed to notice the poison seeping like a fog. Within hours, I was toxic. Within the month, I was adrift.
We went to J*’s friends’ house, where we watched them drink themselves into oblivion. Then we drove back to my house, where J* dropped me off as unceremoniously as a taxi service–no hug, no kiss, no promise to see me again.
Days later, my body started to go haywire–my first bout with the fun! fun! fun! of serious hormonal imbalance.
Two weeks after that, J* broke up with me in a brief text message.
Three weeks after that, a trusted neighbor assaulted me in my living room, violently groping me and attempting to tear off my clothes. I fought him off but did not call the police, because he was leaving the country the next day, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. Even now, he lurks at the edge of my dreams. And when he returned to his house, just 16 feet away from mine, last spring, I found myself feeling panic every time I had to walk the dog.
Spring semester, I endured a two-month bout of bronchitis and a crushing to-do list: teach three classes, give four presentations at three conferences, attend a hundred meetings, grade a thousand typed pages (that is sadly not an exaggeration), write a million emails. All of it felt like work. By fall, I felt broken.
My relationship with my sister deteriorated. In January, she unfriended me on Facebook for a slew of infractions she declined to mention until I noticed I could no longer tag her in family photos. She made it nearly impossible for me to see her children, who used to be the lights of my life. Where we once had monthly excursions, I took them out just twice all year. My parents remained neutral or erred, understandably, on the side of seeing their grandchildren. Throughout the year, my family gathered frequently without me, having decided preemptively that I was too busy to join them. My mother started to forget me.
My friend was sick. He got sicker. In May, he died. My friends, also his friends, lost their friend. My friend, his widow, lost her husband. My loss was so small compared to hers, but still–the losses associated with this one man piled up atop one another, so that everywhere I turned I saw someone I cared about struggling to breathe through their grief.
Days after my friend died, I reached for J* and he reached back. After months of silence, we struck up an amazing, awkward, amazing friendship. It was an invitation to healing but also more pain. In August, I fell into a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. J* pulled me out. Then he left the country without saying goodbye.
The remainder of 2015 was defined by depression, loneliness, workplace misery, family problems, health problems, and another painful breakup. I could not make anything turn out right, as though the poison coursing through me wilted everything I touched. In that powerless state, I felt adrift.
The year began with a crazy night and a fateful kiss, but, like all measurements of time, midnight on New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary beginning for a period of decline that probably started years before. In some corners of this story, I can say comfortably that someone else was the agent of my misfortune. But in others, it was fate or chance or no one, and in still others, it was me. I made choices too. I opened a door, or closed one. I said things I shouldn’t have said and failed in a hundred different ways. J* kissed me, and I kissed him right back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Other people–who knows, maybe even 2015 or the Universe itself–might have shoved me out to sea, but I’m the one who untied the raft from its moorings.
Now I write this blog, as if from the safety of that raft. Life often seems like a forbidding sea, and only the moon and stars at night help differentiate sky from the dark water all around me. The writing helps.
I tell my story, I vent the poison.
I plan a new future, I chart a course to safety.
I don’t know what 2016 has in store for me. But just in case, I am staying in this New Year’s Eve.
And the only person I’m kissing… is the dog.