A story of anxiety, vulnerability, and the “before” in a life-long journey of learning to trust and find comfort in oneself.
I know you don’t ever think of me, at least to be honest, I truly hope you don’t. The thought of you thinking about me makes me sick to my stomach.
I remember hearing stories about you before I met you. My dad spoke so highly of you – you were like a son to him. Maybe you’d be like a big brother to me.
I was 12 years old.
Your parents lived right next door to me – my dad’s ex-wife’s uncle, was your dad. Such a convoluted way to come about isn’t it? Your dad and my dad had formed such a lasting bond so many years ago that when your parents were looking for a place to live, my dad convinced them to move into the available house next door to us. The two of them were cut from the same cloth, they almost looked like brothers. My dad was so excited about them moving in that he was there almost every day, helping them put their home together, and before we knew it, my parents and yours spent nights and weekends together – going out to dinner, riding on their motorcycles, having bonfires, and I thought it was so cool to see my parents with friends.
You and I met at a summer barbeque at your parent’s house – my parents, yours, and mutual friends of theirs all gathered to welcome you home – you’d been away for a while in the military. When you arrived with your wife, you approached the group with such a shy demeanor. You were in your early 20s, and your wife had the sweetest voice in the world. Looking back now, I remember she always looked so very tired.
You showed us all photos you’d taken on your trips. The ones of you surrounded by dust storms were my favorite – an accurate foreshadow. You sat right next to me after dinner and had me talking – no one ever talked to me much at these gatherings before, I always played with handheld video games while everyone else talked.
You and your wife moved into your parent’s home shortly after your homecoming while you looked for a home of your own. At the next barbeque gathering, you invited me to your part of the house to visit with you and your pet rabbits. I loved them, and you told me I was more than welcome to come see them any time I wanted. Later you’d ask me if I had a cell phone, a Facebook page, or if I used instant messenger. I gave you my AOL instant messenger screen name. You contacted me that night.
We began to chat over instant messenger. You were very funny and made me feel very “heard.” No one who was ever so much older than me had ever been so interested in what my life was like. You asked me personal questions about the things I liked to do and the way I liked to wear my hair. You always wanted to know about the boys I had crushes on, or the ones that had crushes on me. You asked if I kissed them. When you asked those sorts of questions, I always felt a shift in my stomach. Looking back now, I realize I knew something was wrong.
During my summer breaks I often found myself wandering around alone outside. I was always alone. There was a weeping cherry tree in my back yard with a branch that shot out horizontally. It was so wide and so flat you could lay straight on your back and stare up at the pink floral dome the cascading branches made for me.
I’d lay there often and read.
Of course, you know that.
You’d find me there more often than not. You’d come over, stand very close, and chat with me, a hand on my knee, or pulling at my hair. You were always so nervous and hurried.
You made me feel nervous too.
A lot of my summers were spent hanging out at my sister’s house. She’d always let me play on her computer. I logged in to AOL instant messenger and you were online – you messaged me right away.
I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I remember this much:
“You and I should go to the beach sometime.” You said.
“You’ll have to wear your bathing suit.” You said.
“Will Lindsey come too?” I asked.
“No, just you and me.” You said.
At that moment, my sister had come up behind me. She read over my shoulder.
“Who are you talking to?” She asked.
“Marcus, dad’s friend’s son.” I said.
She told me to get up from the computer.
She started typing, “This is Harley’s sister you creep. Stop talking to her. I’m taking this to the police.”
You logged off.
I don’t remember how long it was before I ever logged back in.
Now, this wasn’t a matter for the police; instead my sister prompted me to talk to my dad about it.
Surely he’d take care of it.
I was uncomfortable giving detail, so I’d only told him you made me feel uncomfortable.
My dad assured me that you’d never had a little sister and you’d always wanted one – you were like a big brother to me.
When I told my sister about this, she was livid. She printed the pages of our conversation and gave them to my dad.
He told me he threatened you, and gave you dire consequences, were you to ever do something like that again. We didn’t talk about it after that. We never told my mom.
You and your wife moved out into your own home, and the summer I was 16, I’d heard you’d had a baby – a son.
At 16, I’d grown into a confident young woman. I spent a lot of time with my friends, navigating through early relationships and learning how to be in that awkward space between child and young adult.
I was in my back yard one day looking for tomatoes in the garden my mom kept, wearing shorts and a bikini top – I was going to be riding my bike to my uncle’s house later on to swim in his pool.
My parents weren’t home.
You were next door.
You saw me outside.
To this day I can hear the way you said my name, “Hey Harley”, while you walked over. The thought makes my entire face turn upside-down.
I’d not seen you in 4 years.
“How have you been?” You asked.
“Good.” I was shaking.
“You look good, you look so tan, have you been swimming a lot?” You were so smug.
“Yeah, a little.” I wanted to cover up.
“Are your parents home?” You asked.
“No.” I stupidly answered.
“Oh well, my son is next door with my parents, you’ll have to meet him, I’ll bring him over later. He’s so cute.”
You walked away, I went inside and cried. I was scared. I couldn’t figure out why, but I was so scared. My sister came and picked me up. I waited in the living room in silence, praying you wouldn’t come knocking on the door. I worried you’d be angry with me once you showed up and discovered I wasn’t there.
Another 2 years passed. Our parents didn’t speak to each other anymore. My parent’s own turmoil dissolved their relationships with their friends, your parents.
I was 18, and working as a waitress in the diner downtown.
I remember walking out of the swinging kitchen doors while heading to my station, and seeing you sitting at the table with your parents. Your mom saw me immediately. My level of nervousness made my eyes water. I made nice small talk with your parents, and your eyes never stopped passing over my every inch. I pretended you weren’t there.
I went back in to the kitchen and held onto my chest. My breathing was shallow and I was sobbing. I was having a panic attack, and I had to leave work that day.
I mentioned seeing you to my mom. I wondered if she ever found out about the way you’d behaved. She hadn’t. She mentioned to me that you and your wife divorced, and you had a new girlfriend – a mutual friend of your mom’s told her.
Not even a month later, you came into my diner and requested me as your server.
I greeted you like any other customer.
You said I’d grown up, I was a beautiful young lady, and you were so surprised to see me working there.
I had sweat forming by my temples and I was shaking.
Fortunately, I worked with my best friend, Lisa, and I didn’t have to tell her much for her to understand I couldn’t serve you. So she did.
You asked her where I went.
“What, she doesn’t want to wait on me?” You asked.
She told you I was too busy.
I took over her table in the front of the diner, in a separate room away from you.
As fate would have it, I was cutting a cake in the dessert case when you were leaving – you came up behind me.
That smug, almost sing song voice, “Bye, Harley.”
I had to tell my boss that day that any time you came in, you couldn’t be sat with me, I refused to serve you for personal reasons.
You’d come in and request me two more times while I was working, only to finally notice I wouldn’t wait on you.
You came in again with a girl. Instead of getting the hint, you called me over to your table, where you introduced me to your new girlfriend. She was much younger than you – that was painfully obvious.
She could not have cared less about who I was or why you were introducing her to m – that was also painfully obvious.
You both stared at me every time I walked by.
What did I do to you to deserve this?
I served your ex-wife not too long after that. Your son looks just like you.
She and I pretended we didn’t know each other.
I don’t know if she was around when my dad threatened you.
I never told my dad about seeing you at the diner.
The last time I saw you, you’d come in alone. I was 19 then.
My panic reaction kicked in, like it always did.
Lisa was your server again. She hated you more than I did.
That day, I didn’t hide in the kitchen.
That day, I watched you eat an entire bowl of soup.
That day, I watched you eat an entire bowl of soup within which we had replaced the broth with liquid from a bucket in a basin sink. A bucket where steel wool would float in a hazy brownish soap mixture that the dishwasher would use to scrub off any stuck on bits of food before running the dishes through the machine.
I never saw you again after that.
Names have been changed in this narrative to protect privacy of those involved.