At quarter past nine last Saturday night, there was a knock on my front door.
There’s a vanishingly short list of people who could call me after 8 p.m. any day of the week and not get my voicemail, whether I’m there or not (I probably am), whether I’m busy or not (I’m probably not). I’m a by-appointment-only sort of introvert.
But an unannounced physical being summoning me to my door, in the flesh, with midnight less than three hours away… my God, what fresh hell was this?
I leaned back from my spot at the kitchen counter, and the face peering in through the glass at the top of the door was familiar. My brain was still trawling options for an identity, when the unexpected visitor spoke.
“I need the key!”
Recognition came immediately, from his voice, from him needing something.
It was my ex, of course.
Funnily, I’d noticed his condo key on my key ring just that morning. It was the one brass key in and among all my stainless steel ones, its weight unrelated to Earth’s gravity acting on its mass. I’d thought to myself, just that morning, “Why do I even have this thing?”
Of course, I knew the answer. He’d given it to me when he moved out (or when I moved him out, to be much more accurate) so that, in case of an emergency, I’d be able to get Bats. He’d asked me to take care of her if anything happened to him.
It seems we both assumed that something would happen to him.
But almost a year later, still kicking, he’d stepped through his condo door to take Bats out, and had accidentally locked it behind him. His key, his phone, (his drink) were all on the other side, out of reach.
I was the only other person with a key, and I was a five-minute walk away.
Being needed by him has lost its charm, but it’s also lost its heft. From my perch, I rolled my eyes at the now-familiar face at the door, unthinking of whether he could see it. I hopped off my stool, and went to the entryway.
“That was a long walk without a leash,” he was saying as I opened up, and sure enough in tore a tiny round Chihuahua, black as the night she’d just barreled through and full of jumping beans. I laughed at that and told him to come in, so that we could both watch Bats doing zoomies all over the living room.
She hadn’t been here since that strange day of the move, when I’d kept her and Wags closed in my room as we emptied the house of him. She seemed to remember the place, and none of my alterations since seemed to make it unfamiliar or daunting. It was just her other home. Simple.
I squatted down to cuddle her up, which she loved, looking like she might wiggle right out of her thick inky fur. Easy.
Harder was the man standing just over the threshold, looking like the house was trying to press him back out. A tangled strand of thoughts flashed through my mind as I rose from Bats to get the key. I thought it was funny that we were both alone with our dogs on a Saturday night, like mirror images. I wondered what he thought of my haircut. And I found it terrifically hard to look him in the eye.
Avoiding his eyes, but seeing the rest of him, he was…unchanged. In the months since I’d gotten him out, the certainty (the fear) occasionally ambushed me that his life was better now, that he was feeling better, that he’d lost the liquor gut, and was smooth and happy and well-dressed and was maybe even getting the drinking under control, because you know…
I was the problem. He said so, so convincingly.
But he was sweaty from the five-minute walk, wearing the same exact thing he was the last time I saw him, a ratty t-shirt and the casual shoes we’d bought a decade earlier for our trip to Italy. He was pale and smelled yeasty (better than corpse-y, for sure, that sulfur-and-ammonia smell from the encephalopathy that used to terrify me out of my mind), and I realized that either he was drinking beer before he locked himself out, or he was taking too much tacrolimus, the med that keeps rejection at bay, keeps my liver in his gut. Or perhaps both.
It was too much to know about a stranger, someone I couldn’t even recognize at first, though he looked entirely the same. But the familiar panic wrought by knowledge was absent. There was no sense of urgency. I had no questions. Well, except for one…
“Want a ride back?”
You know, because his (not our) dog wasn’t even on a leash, and the road they were walking has a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit that is heartily ignored in favor of twice that, and it’s night and she’s black, and I miss her? That will be the reason of record. But he really did look pale, standing there in my (not our) entryway. And the offer came quite naturally, from a part of myself that I realize I like, but that I’m also afraid of because it’s apparently dangerous: I’m happy to help. I miss thinking that it’s okay sometimes. I feel alien, foreign to myself, having to examine it every time it comes up.
Is this codependency? Or am I just being fucking human?
When I was first getting help for my relationship (and it was clear that I was the problem), I tried a codependency 12-step group. I struggled with sharing, particularly into what felt like a void when I was so desperate for feedback. But not as much as I struggled with the codependency term of art: “loving detachment.”
I couldn’t imagine two words that went together less. My relationship mode was “compelling enmeshment.” It was togetherness with no boundaries, no borders, and that way didn’t just make sense to me. It seemed preferable. It seemed enviable.
I felt sorry for anyone who wasn’t us. We were best friends: the perfect couple, a closed circuit. Nothing could get in. Nothing could get out.
I used to listen to women talk about their partners when there was trouble with something embarrassingly akin to disdain. I did listen, yet couldn’t help but think, “Don’t talk about it to me, talk about it to him.” I was frankly a bit arrogant about it.
Alcohol didn’t even short the circuit, nothing that quick and noticeable, just a current leak, a slow corrosion until … nothing. Just two disconnected components stuck together on the circuit board. And nobody I could tell, “I think something’s really wrong.”
I now have my own term of art for this mode: folie a deux, madness shared by two.
Compelling enmeshment: I was all in, remember? No me or him, only us. No his or mine, only ours. My name (hyphenated) was us, together.
The problem: bad brains are contagious. When one of us became sick, we both did. Our illness. Our mania. Our paranoia. Our fear.
I remember dosing myself with a medicine he’d been prescribed for the encephalopathy. I was trying to come up with a palatable way for him to consume it, and thought maybe the stiff, unfriendly mint flavor might be kinder in a milkshake. So I whipped it up, sampled it, and I rolled on waves of acute nausea for hours. I never could make him take it after that.
I couldn’t keep track of the things I was afraid of. Was I really scared of contracting flesh-eating bacteria from the waterways where we lived? Was crime really getting that much worse in our town? Were neighbors really trying to poison our dogs? These seemed as hard to believe as his most desperate, urgent fear: that a pandemic was surely coming, and soon.
At the start of lockdown, when it was clear he was getting booze and bringing it into the house, I started searching the car when he’d return. Once, catching him in his room with a drink, I furiously demanded to know how I missed it.
“It was a pint in my shirt pocket.” The shirt he was wearing, watching me comb through his car. I would have expected something like pride (ha, ha, bitch, tricked you) but it wasn’t there.
“Where’s the empty?” (I kept a mean eye on the recycling.)
“I tossed it over the fence.”
Behind our house is a narrow spill of forest, untouched and untouchable, a watershed owned by the county. I poured my whole being into the look of disgust I focused on him like a high-powered laser.
“What kind of trash-ass bullshit is that? You might as well live under a bridge.”
I really wanted to punch him, so at the time, it felt like a mercy. But now I wince writing those words out. They were all venom. And I was striking with them. And this time, he just took the blows, barely any expression on his face at all.
Enmeshed. I hated him. So he drank. So I hated him more. So he drank more. And down the same drain we spiraled together.
Stalking away from him in the back yard, and slamming the front door behind me, I remembered, long before this time, seeing a bottle of Maker’s Mark, (one of) his brand(s), lying among the fallen branches and wild thorny growth beyond the fence…
Litter. Pollution. Toxin.
And I wondered to myself at the time, looking out at the backs of the other houses that abut onto the watershed, which wife’s husband didn’t want to get caught drinking.
I drove them back to his condo, but since I’ve just gotten a safety car seat for Wags, with clip that attaches his harness to the front passenger side’s seat belt, they had to sit in the back.
He’s a five-minute walk away, and it’s a single skinny minute by car, but it might as well be the moon.
The small talk you wouldn’t even be able to find with a microscope, and I marveled at how awkward I could be with the other half of a quarter-of-a-century relationship. I pulled in next to his car, with secret compartments that I guess I never got wise to. He sat for a minute in the back after I’d come to a stop.
He seemed lonely in that moment.
“So it’s your birthday tomorrow,” I said, because it was true and I couldn’t think of a single other thing I might say in that moment.
“Yep. No plans. That’s how I’ve always done my birthday.”
This is not, however, how I always did his birthday, and I realized how completely he has convinced himself that he’s always been alone. I think of the years of plans, and presents, and surprises, and elaborate favorite meals with candles in a cheesecake (his favorite). I realized as I said that I felt sorrier for him than for myself.
With his hand on the door, about to get out, he paused and said, “Oh, yeah, you gotta be careful with makeup.”
I said, “I think I’m going to need more information, there.”
He replied, “I was watching a documentary and there are all these knock-off companies that are selling crap under other manufacturer’s names, and they’ve got things like lead and arsenic in them.”
I said, “Ahhh.”
I thought about saying, “Oh, yeah, you gotta be careful with beverages. Some companies are putting stuff like ETHANOL in them.”
But I didn’t.
He and Bats got out, and I waited to watch the key slip easily into the lock and his door open. He gave me a thumbs up, and went to step inside.
“Happy birthday,” I called out the window. He gave a little wave, just as he disappeared through the door.
Then I drove off, with Wags clipped in securely beside me, both of us weightless.
If you have questions about the difference between codependency and human kindness, and you’re worried about the ethanol the beverage companies are sneaking into your loved-one’s booze, please consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.