“The people you love become ghosts inside you, and like this you keep them alive.” ~ Amber Brooke Jones
Walking in the woods, I saw him. It was a perfectly normal day, a beautiful day actually. My husband strode confidently ahead of me, my dogs raced after rogue deer and chipmunks and I paused now and then to inspect wild raspberry bushes, hoping the raspberries might be ripe enough to eat.
“Person!” my husband called back to me, our code that a person had been spotted, possibly with a dog. We hurried to leash up our dogs, who have been known to do unconscionable things when encountering other dogs. With the two of them under control, I looked up to see who might be coming. We know most of the people in the woods, what few there are, because we walk there every day.
I had never seen this man before. Or had I? He looked frighteningly familiar. The blood drained from my face. I could feel my heart knocking on the wall of my rib cage. That gait. The swing of the arms. The tilt of the baseball hat. The barrel chest.
It was impossible, and yet….
He passed on by, and I quickly realized, this was a smaller man, a younger man. He smiled and said good morning. “Good morning!” we called in return, me through clenched teeth, tears threatening to blur my vision.
I see him everywhere. It’s been a year since he died. Fifteen years since we were together. Fifteen years since he pulled a gun on me, since I gave him all my money, since we stayed up for days inhaling drugs, since I lived in a vile rat’s nest that passed as an apartment and was grateful for it because it was better than living on the streets—which I knew because that was where we did live for over a year. Sneaking onto trains to sleep, dining and dashing to eat, breaking into buildings and climbing to the roof so we’d have somewhere to do our drugs, all the while trying to appear human enough to keep down this job or that job for a week or less… long enough to scrape together enough cash for our next bender.
He died from a drug overdose. Not surprising given the details of the latter part of his life. But very surprising if you look at the bigger picture.
When I met him, he was a strikingly handsome, charismatic Yale grad from a nice family who lived in New Liskeard, Canada, five hours north of Toronto. His home town was the kind of wholesome, close-knit place people fantasize about raising their kids. It being Canada, hockey was the diversion of choice, and my ex had an extraordinary talent for it. That, combined with his intellect, got him into the Ivy League.
I never met his father, because he died from drink—cirrhosis of the liver. Perhaps that was the poison that began the darkening of my ex’s soul. Whatever it was, by the time I left him, it was quite clear. He was a legitimate sociopath with addictions to drugs, gambling, pornography, and most pointedly, cruelty. We were together five years, and in that time, in my efforts to make him love me, I slipped down his sociopathic slope until I was a hollowed out shell. Barely human.
The question, “How did I let myself do that?” haunts me. As does my ex himself.
I see him in the grocery store, walking in front of me at the end of the aisle. I see him when I go out to dinner, at a table in the corner. I see him at my children’s soccer games, on the other side of the field. In traffic, in a car next to me as we wait at a stoplight. At the post office as I wait in line.
He is dead. But not really.
I long for a world empty of him.
When I found out he’d died, I searched him on the internet. This was something I’d refused to do prior to his death, simply because I couldn’t bear to have any extra or updated information about him. My husband searched him occasionally, just to make sure he was far away, so I knew what to expect; endless arrests, mug shots, law suits. But I was surprised (stupidly) to see a whole page dedicated to him, written by all the other women he had beaten, threatened, scammed, stolen from. There was a whole online support group for people terrorized by this single person. I read the comments each one wrote, (all anonymous) seeing myself in all of them.
I wasn’t alone.
The page hadn’t had any new posts in years, and despite my efforts I was unable to get in touch with anyone who had been on it.
I wonder if these other women still see him like I do. Roaming through the outer edges of my consciousness. Always watching.
Not every story has a happy ending. Mine does–so far. I’m one of the lucky ones. But that doesn’t mean the unhappy beginning is forgotten. Stories, and life, are like that; it’s the unhappiness that makes the happiness so sweet. Without those years of torment, I wouldn’t fully understand what a simple walk in the forest with a man you trust, or a child’s ordinary soccer game, or a drive home in a decent car with gas in the tank can mean.
Despite the ghosts, the sun shines brightly down, perhaps one day so brightly that the darkness will be gone.
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Ed: Sara Crolick