To be fair, we abused each other. It was not–as one might use the cliche–a one-way street. The first time we had a big a fight I threw a desklamp against a wall where it shattered and the sparks sifted like fireworks falling in a heated sky till they faded and disappeared. We had just moved in together, into this one bedroom Victorian house on Ralston Street in Reno, Nevada, two houses down from the pizza joint/pub where we worked. My friend from school had left a message on our answering machine, inviting me to her birthday party. My girlfriend insisted that I had fucked this friend, that I was still fucking her. Why else would she invite me to the party, and not explicitly also invite my girlfriend? I was running around, I couldn’t keep my dick in my pants, she should have known I was that kind of guy, why does she always do this, getting herself involved with people like me? My girlfriend wouldn’t let me say anything. In frustration the lamp flew.
Her name was Sharon and, looking back, I did truly love her–even if that love was young and fucked up. I was 21 years old, and Sharon was 28. I hadn’t had many girlfriends: a couple in high school, a few dates here and there, and a girl from Panama who hooked up with me during my sophomore year of college, but after summer came and went and she returned from vacation in New York, she wanted nothing to do with me and left me heartbroken, passed out in an easy chair with a half-emptied half gallon of Jack Daniels resting in my crotch. Sharon told me that she’d already earned a BS in geology, that she was in the Master’s program, that she was taking a break from school to work and live life. She was pretty, with slanting and slate-y green eyes and curly, tangled auburn hair, pouting lips, an athlete’s physique. She was a rock climber. For most of our relationship I worried that I’d never again in life have anyone who seemed as great as Sharon, so I’d better hold on to her.
That’s what happens in your 20s. It’s the last turn in the last lap that is the NASCAR race of your youth. I could have married Sharon. I’m lucky I never got her pregnant. Only in retrospect can I see how possible either scenario might have been, and how these would have equaled the massive multi-car pileup and explosion and burned limbs that would accompany the analogy I’ve used above to illustrate this period in my life. Sharon and I dated for four years. When it ended for good I was only four years away from meeting my wife, after I got out of the mess my relationship with Sharon had made of my life. But Sharon and I easily–all too easily–could have ruined decades of our lives together. As it is, I made that last turn. I nudged a few bumpers along the way to the finish line, but I cruised out of my 20s relatively unscathed. Race over.
What I’ve learned is that Sharon and I were not–as so many people over the years sounded so confident in calling us–codependent. I didn’t seek affirmation from Sharon, nor did she look for approval from me, and neither of us cared for the other excessively in a way that we neglected our own needs; we were equally self-destructive. What we did have were budding drug and alcohol problems and that, combined with a natural bit of chemical imbalance, created the mayhem in which I lived for those four years.
I should’ve seen the warning signs when we started dating: she had a boyfriend. I even set them up. He was my friend’s friend, my friend from poetry workshop at school. We sat at a table on the Pub’s front porch in early summer, the night warm enough in the high desert for short sleeves and cold pitchers. Sharon said, “Who’s the guy you’re sitting with?”
Sharon told me that when I started at the Pub (she trained me) she took me seriously when she asked what I wanted to do in life and I said, “Become a professional wrestler.” My head was shaved, and I’m pretty big and wore a goatee, so I could see how she might’ve taken this literally, though I was trying to be funny. Who knows what happened? I can rub off on people. I start to look not-so-bad over time, if you get to know me. One night after closing the Pub, Sharon asked if I had any weed, which I did: at my apartment in the alley.
When we kissed I was upside down. I mean, I was lying on my couch, and Sharon sat in the adjacent armchair and she leaned over me so that, when our mouths met, my nose touched her chin. We were stoned, and a little beer buzzed, and Sharon knew it wasn’t right and she got up to leave, saying that she had a boyfriend after all. I offered to walk her the block and a half to her house. When we got there, her boyfriend was waiting at the curb in his 57 Chevy (he was one of those guys, which I feel comfortable saying, since he and I–believe it or not–are still friends).
For the next couple months Sharon and I would sneak makeout sessions in the hall between the employee entrance and the Pub’s kitchen, or upstairs in the dough room, or in the walk-ins. I pestered her about breaking up with her boyfriend, but Sharon persisted, saying she loved him. I should’ve known that the situation was bad then. How could I bring myself to hurt this couple by interfering? My self-esteem was so low that I went for the pussy wherever I could get it, and–though I wasn’t getting it all–I had a girl kissing me, which meant the promise of more. Or so I thought. Add to this disastrous recipe the fact that Sharon continued making out with me when she claimed to love her boyfriend, and the whole thing was made for disaster. Maybe not. It’s the kind of thing you do in your 20s.
I was the drug and alcohol problem and Sharon had booze cravings–real booze cravings, like beer-in-the-morning cravings. Sharon smoked some weed, like I did, but she told me–explicitly–that she would never date a cokehead. So I didn’t tell her about the crack period I’d already gone through, or the occasional gram that ended up in my pocket and that disappeared within a few hours. I never told her about the morphine pills, or the acid or magic mushrooms. I never told her about the little blue bag containing the yellow rock of tweek that Rich, who worked in the kitchen, found on the street one day, and how I smoked the whole thing in one bowl, then puked all over Rich’s bathroom. In fact, while we were dating it’s safe to assume that my drug intake actually went down quite a bit.
It was not long after Sharon broke up with her boyfriend that she asked me to move in with her. She suggested it and I saw no reason not to. I’d never lived with a woman before. In fact, not counting college dorm situations, I’d only ever had one roommate. I don’t remember discussing the idea with my parents. I was month-to-month with my landlord and I simply said that at the end of (fill in month here because god knows what month it was–didn’t I tell you I had substance problems–but I think it was in the winter because I remember a day with snow) I’d be moving out. I already drove a truck, and I was literally moving a block and a half away. No problem. Then we were together in her little house peacefully for one month before I threw that lamp.
Sharon was unreasonably jealous. When college girls came into the Pub in their summer short shorts she’d cry, look down and say, “I can’t compete.” She’d say, “Listen, I know you want to fuck those girls, so don’t hide it.” This came from my girlfriend with the six-pack abs. I tried to assuage her fears, to convince her that I loved her and was true to her. But then we got drunk.
Once we got into a fight while camping in Dog Valley, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, twenty miles on dirt roads from Reno. Sharon walked along beside the truck, screaming how much she hated my fat fucking guts. I said, “Just get in the car.” After twenty minutes I threatened to leave. When she kept hollering, I followed through with my threat. I drove back to Reno. I met my friends and got drunk. I don’t know who she thumbed a ride from once she reached I-80.
I packed up my things and moved out no fewer than three times within the space of about six months. I lived at my family’s cabin in Squaw Valley, and once moved back in with my parents in California for a month. When Sharon drove to my parents’ house looking for me, and after we talked things out over a beer at the Castroville Inn where a Mexican lady stared at me and smiled her toothless smile, I packed up and moved back, again. That afternoon, my dad told me that the pretty blonde graduate student who was renting a room from our next door neighbor stopped by to see if I wanted to get a beer the very afternoon that I moved back to Reno, and that might’ve been bullshit because my dad was scared, not knowing when he’d get a call from the Reno PD that my throat had been slit, but he kept all of this from me until everything was done and I lived in Georgia and he knew that I was safe.
Our fights got so bad that Sharon grabbed my suits out of the closet and, bare-handed, ripped them to shreds. All of my guitars splintered, smashed against walls, the concrete of the sidewalk, tossed into Ralston Street’s sad traffic. I took a butcher knife to Sharon’s gowns, one an Oleg Casini, beaded, beautiful. And Sharon had looked beautiful in it, too, that night before Christmas when we danced to jazz in the restaurant at Lake Tahoe. I took the knife to her blouses and sweaters, some that had been her grandmother’s, fabric Sharon cherished. Sharon punched me in the face, blackened my eyes, bloodied and swelled my lips. I never touched her in a violent way, but I took it out on her possessions. A 36-inch television sputtered and sparked in the corner where I threw it, and I had to put out the fire it started. The cops knew us by first name. A neighbor stopped me, blood dripping from my face, and I saw the fear and disbelief in this neighbor’s eyes as she hollered at me to get a hold of myself.
We kept going back to each other because we were addicted. Neither one of us was the glutton for punishment, nor the oppressor who lavished control. We were equally, like the substances that fueled these fights, coursing through each others veins, making us elated and enthralled with love one morning, and stomping down the street in our underwear that night, shamefaced and drunk, downing whole bottles of painkillers, having hospitals pump our stomachs. Or that last part was me anyway, after the second attempt at killing myself.
To get out, I moved away. This happened in stages. Finally, everything crashed around me, not long after I’d tried walking home from the hospital after ripping an IV from my arm, and trudging a mile and a half in the wrong direction in bare feet down Mill Street, going from Reno into Sparks. I knew that I had to get out of the house Sharon and I shared. My old landlord set me up in an apartment with a balcony that overlooked the Truckee River. Sharon moved to Los Angeles, where she was from, for six months. Her mother came to town helped her to pack what was left of her things.
I’ll never forget the look on Sharon’s mom’s face when I stopped by as they wrapped dinner plates in newspaper and packed them into boxes and I stood outside the yard’s gate with a solitary rose pinched between my fingers. I don’t recall anyone, ever or since, wearing such hatred when they stared at me. The drop in my gut when, after a few empty phone calls, Sharon’s voice peeped through on the other end, all the way from Los Angeles, tentative, sad: “Jamie?” Within a couple of weeks I was in my truck headed south on I-395 past the Eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and through the desert, a pilgrim to my destructive love.
I could remember the last time we’d driven 395 together, on the way to Sharon’s sister’s wedding. We thought we’d make a trip out of it and camp along the way. But our fights. We stopped in one windy, ravine oasis, and after hollering at each other, and after Sharon got into the car and began to drive away, I had the knife in my hand, and the insanity rollicking through me made it so that I hadn’t any choice: I stabbed the tire. We were in the fucking desert. I kicked sand and dust into Sharon’s head while she cussed me and attempted to lug on the spare. When we got to LA, and Sharon threw a cheeseburger in my face and then nearly ran me over (and literally did run over my foot as I tried to jump out of the way), and I put my fist through the driver’s side window and sent pieces of glass like a million diamonds raining over Sharon’s face and the truck’s interior, I knew that In-n-Out Burger would never be the same for me again. The employees at the hotel I walked to wouldn’t give me a room, though their sign read “Vacancy,” and the couple in line in front of me had just sauntered off, room key in hand, looking back warily at the lettuce and secret sauce in my hair as I bled on the lobby tiles.
Eventually Sharon returned to Reno, to her own apartment, and I inhabited mine. And we maintained a rocky, on again, off again–but not nearly so tempestuous–relationship for the next three years. I lied to my family: Sure I saw Sharon at the Pub and around town, but we weren’t dating. I wasn’t crazy. When my sister visited, and Sharon stopped by our barstools for a nervous hello, it was all my sister could do not to throttle Sharon right then. But I bullshitted Meghann: “Don’t worry. We’re just friends now.”
I was lucky that, over these years, whatever burned inside me when I met Sharon fizzled, and I got more serious about writing. And when I was accepted into a graduate creative writing program across the country, I did not hesitate to agree to the accompanying teaching offer. It was time to move on. Reno, Nevada held nothing more for me in terms of my becoming a writer, and by this time my desire to be a writer had consumed my desire for Sharon. So, leaving town and leaving Sharon was a no-brainer. I had to go. Before I left Reno, pulling along my U-haul full of shit that had not been destroyed while Sharon and I dated, I stopped by the Pub to say goodbye to some folks and Sharon was not amongst them, and I didn’t care.
Even when I made it to Atlanta, and settled into my first apartment, in a past where Americans maintained land lines and listed phone numbers in a database called the “White Pages,” I answered the ringing to that same sad and tentative voice crying out from 2,500 miles away. Only then was I scared. Only then did I cut off such telephones and live a cellular life.
I’ve returned many times to Reno to visit my friends, or give readings at the independent bookstore and at my alma mater, and I’ve seen Sharon. She looks the same, with a little gray at her temples. One time she hugged me, the only time in ten years that we’ve touched. I’ve since quit smoking, and the reek of cigarettes clinging to her jacket and hair was not Sharon’s smell that I remembered. It was not the aroma left on her bandana, the one I found in my apartment as I packed to leave Reno, and that I kept with me in a bag socked away in a closet for too long a time. My friends, even, have grown older and more sober. Their children are in schools and lunches must get made and clothing bought, medical insurance provided for. No one hangs out at the Pub anymore.
And me: my first years in Atlanta were depressed coke-and-booze-fueled romps drawn out in an attempt to alleviate the loneliness of having left the friends and town I’d known since I was eighteen. But all that partying got old–boring even–and I knew that it wasn’t healthy, and it was doing nothing for my sex-life. I decided to get my shit together. I quit doing drugs and cut back on drinking. I wanted to meet someone with whom I could maintain a relationship, and I knew that that wasn’t going to happen by meeting a girl in a bar while I was geetered out on cocaine. I focused on the doctorate degree that had brought me to Atlanta. I dove into reading and writing. Eventually, I joined eHarmony, and there I met the woman who would become my wife. And once I knew I was falling in love with her, I knew that I’d never snort another line of cocaine, that I’d never suck on another Camel.
But it’s safe to assume that I won’t forget what I came from. Obviously, since you’re reading this, I’m still trying to put out the light that shines on this part of my past. But I don’t think I have the strength to shatter it against a bare wall. Maybe it’s better that it shines, if dimly, a light in a receding tunnel, and I’m on my way out the other end.