The Writing Disorder




New Nonfiction


by William Henderson

      One night I ask you what you think will happen if our relationship ends. Am I feeling uneasy about our relationship? About our chances at whatever going the distance means? Maybe. But I ask you what you think will happen if our relationship ends because I’m curious. And because I think you’ve thought about it. I haven’t. Or, I have, but only in terms of minimizing any affect Avery feels. I don’t think about it in terms of what my life without you will be like. No, not true; I have. I don’t want that life. I’ve found you; how could I think that I’m meant to exist without you? How could either of us think that?
      I would ban you from the store where I work, you say.
      That’s drastic, I say. I do not question whether or not you can even do this. You must be able to, if you are saying you would do it.
      Other employees have done it. I would not be able to handle seeing you and Avery and not being part of your lives.
      That would suck, I say, not being able to shop there. What I am saying is it would suck not having you in my life.
      People do what they have to do at the ends of things, you say.
      I think you’ll have an easier time moving on that I will, I say. You’ll have no problem meeting someone else.
      Probably not, you say.
      I know, I say.
      I’m just being honest, you say. I’ve had to learn how to move on.
      I cannot keep straight the ways in which you say you’ve been hurt. Each of your relationships seems to have been more intense and volatile than the one before it. So when you talk about your past, I pay less attention to where and when and focus instead on the chaos and anger inherent in your relationships with men and with yourself in places like Austin and Peoria and a city in North Carolina I do not think you ever name.
      After breaking up with one man, you took great pleasure in draining the water from his waterbed.
      A man you met at a club gave you a bracelet. When he said he didn’t want to see you again, he asked for the bracelet back. Instead of giving it to him, you threw it out of your car window one night while you were driving somewhere.
      One man you kissed goodbye even though you knew the relationship was over. You kissed him goodbye out of habit, you tell me.
      You’ve even dated a married man before. I’ve never asked you much about him, for obvious reasons. You don’t know that I am married. I don’t know how to tell you that I am married. I don’t know how to tell you that I married her after we graduated from college because I was afraid of what not wanting to marry her meant about me. She and I have already talked about getting divorced. I know I will have to tell you before then that I am married. I think banning me from the store where you work is the least you will do once you know I am married.
      After about the fifth boy who broke your heart, you said enough. Fuck them. These men were cheating on you and dumping you. All kinds of evil things, you say. Each of these men, I think, added to the armor you have erected around your heart. I do not want to add to your armor. I am afraid of what will happen when your heart is fully enclosed.
      They were all bad?, I ask. I always ask you if they were all bad.
      Not all of them, you say. Sean and Todd were good boyfriends, but you weren’t even 17. Ryan was next. He was goth. He was 19. You were 17. You liked him, and you were interested in him, but you avoided anything that you thought was socially unacceptable. You didn’t want extra attention. I was still trying to blend in and not be gay, you say. Maybe this wasn’t you forever. Maybe you could be bi. After him, you had a girlfriend.
      Josh cheated on you for money. He didn’t think it was cheating. It’s just sex, he had told you. I need the money. Some of the men bought him clothes, too. That’s how you caught him. You knew he couldn’t afford the clothes he was bringing home. You ended that relationship after you found out. He’s the one you kissed goodbye out of habit, I think. You treated your next boyfriends horribly. Most of them didn’t deserve how you treated them. They were great guys.
      How did you treat them horribly?, I ask.
      I did not treat them how I think respectful is, you say.
      You do not elaborate on what you think respectful is.
      Manuel broke up with you because you weren’t there for him when he needed you to be. Something had happened, and you had had to move, and you and your sister moved into a place together. This is not the first time you have told a story about something that had happened without elaborating on what that something is. I want to ask. I’ve wanted to ask. I’m afraid you won’t tell me, and I’m afraid of what you not telling me means.
      We didn’t get a house phone for a few days, you say, but once I got a house phone, I called him and said this is where I am living, this is my address, and it had been like five days since I had talked to him, but he had ended up meeting a guy I had hooked up with before. And I said in the five days I was gone, you met someone? And he had. He wanted to be with him. Manuel was an illegal. This man could help him get papers. You couldn’t.
      You got even with Manuel, you say. You dated his best friend, Juan, for a really long time. Five months or so.
      Five months is a really long time?, I think. Each time you tell me about Juan, I think, five months is a really long time?
      Juan wasn’t out. Not many people knew about you. And while you and Juan were dating, you and your sister were beginning to do crystal like fiends. So when Juan told you he wouldn’t do drugs with you, you ended your relationship with him. He wasn’t going to break up with you because of the drugs, but you knew he didn’t approve.
      I left him because I wanted to be selfish, you say, and it destroyed him. He came to my work. I would come home, months later, and he would be waiting just to talk to me, and I wouldn’t give him the time of day. Sometimes I would pick up the phone for him, and we would talk. I didn’t think our relationship should have ended the way it did, but I didn’t know what to say to him, and I didn’t know how to apologize.
      Did you even want to apologize to him?, I ask.
      I wanted to say that I had told him from the beginning that I am a fucked-up person, and I didn’t think it was good for him to be in a relationship with me. And at that point in my life, it was all about me. It wasn’t about him. He was a nice and genuine person, and I was the dick. Because I wasn’t there for him in the way he needed me to be, I wonder if he went on to be a dick. I guess I did to Juan something similar to what Manuel did to me. I ended a relationship for selfish reasons.
      Is breaking up with Juan because he wouldn’t do drugs with you selfish?, I ask.
      I don’t think choosing drugs over a person is ever the right thing to do.
      But you did it.
      It was a poor choice, you say.
      I think it’s you knowing who you are. I don’t think it’s a poor choice.
      To not drag someone else along with you?
      I’m sure in the end I hurt him a lot less than if he had had to watch me go through it.
      Yeah, I say. If you did cocaine or heroin, we wouldn’t have lasted beyond the reveal.
      No, we would not have.
      There’s no way I would have brought that into Avery’s life.
      Just like if I was with anyone who did crystal or coke or anything, I would say that I had been down that road and you can continue on your own. I can’t be with you. But with marijuana, I don’t find it very addicting. There’s not an addiction to it. I’m not addicted, rabbit. Weed is nothing like what I’ve done. When I first started doing drugs, it was E, ecstasy. From E, I went to GHB. I thought GHB was kind of cool. You could just put a few drops in liquid. But I didn’t like it. I threw up from it a few times. I got sick on it easily. Weed is not like any of that.
      And crystal?, I ask. You and I have not talked much about your crystal meth addiction. I don’t talk about it because I’m not sure I want to know much about it. I don’t know why you don’t talk about it. Maybe you don’t want to talk about it, or maybe you don’t want to be reminded of it.
      The first time, I had been seeing a guy, and he did crystal, and I didn’t know what it was, but I did it with him. I only did three-quarter bags of it. It was just for the time I was with him, probably only two weeks.
      I think that I wouldn’t even know how to measure a quarter bag, let alone what crystal looks like. You don’t tell me which of your exes is the one who introduced you to crystal. I hate him, and I don’t even know his name.
      But it wasn’t until I was living with my sister that I got back into it. Mostly crystal, but when I couldn’t find crystal, I did coke. I’d even do E, if I had to. That’s when it got out of control. When there was no longer any sense of trying to maintain normalcy and to keep it at a suitable level. Both of us were walking around fucked up and doing it together. I mean, even when I was with Reggie, I was always the one in control. I did less, just a little bit, because I had to keep an eye on him.
      I think you must have used the name Reggie before, but I cannot remember it. Maybe he is the one who introduced you to crystal. I do not think I can ask, because I think you will ask me why I can’t remember.
      Reggie was always way too fucked up. So I had to be the one who could drive us home in case something happened, and he took too much, and there were times when he had seizures because he took too much. I knew that’s who he was going to be and he was going to overdo it. But in the same, that’s how I got to know people, so it was very easy, once I wanted to find drugs, I knew who to go to. Those were the people who came to our house. I knew who the dealers were.
      Then I remember Reggie. He had a house wired with video cameras. He always knew who was standing outside his front door. There were cameras inside too. He was a dealer, or maybe he was just a heavy user. I think maybe you lived with him for a while. Or maybe you were just there all the time. I think he was abusive. Maybe he hit you? Or maybe you and he fought a lot? What kind of scale can you use to compare someone like him against someone like me? What kind of equation could you possibly employ?
      That was my bad drug phase, you say. That was the one where when I left I would have dreams, and in my dreams I would be high, and when I woke up, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t actually been high. And for about two years after that, I would have times when things would get rough, my mind would go right to, I wish I could do a line. But I never fell back into it, and eventually it’s gone away, but I can still remember so many of my high experiences and many great euphoric-feeling times on it. But pot never makes me feel like that. You know, in a weird way, my mother’s cancer pulled me out of it. I had to be the one to step up and take care of her. I couldn’t take care of her while I was high.
      Do you think if you hadn’t been given a reason to stop, you would have stopped on your own? Or do you think you would have just self-destructed?
      I was only a few steps from self-destructing. I lived on that ledge for a long time. If anyone I worked with actually had any sense or any experience with drugs, and if they hadn’t thought I was some kind of Puritan, they would have known I was high. And I would have lost everything. It could have ended badly. I could have ended with felony convictions. At so many points in time, I had more than enough on me that I had been pulled over — and there were times I was so close to it. Like there was a time I didn’t see a red light until I was just under it, and I slammed on my brakes, and I was a little bit out, and what pulled behind me was a cop car. And I looked down and I saw what I had in my lap, and I knew what else I had in the car, and if they had searched me, it would have been over. When the light turned green, I went ahead, and they went to the left. But at the time, I was high, and I was thinking, you know, in a high way, that this was meant to be and I didn’t get caught because I wasn’t meant to get caught. I probably should have seen it as a lesson, as a wake-up call, but that’s not how I saw it.
      You know I don’t judge you when you tell me these things, right?, I say.
      Yeah, you say, they are all parts of me. Distant-past parts, but still parts.
      With Robbie — Roberto — you did everything but let him fuck you. You knew he liked you a lot, maybe even loved you. He bought tickets for the two of you to fly to North Carolina to see Ani DiFranco. You and he were living in Austin. You had a good time at the show, and in the hotel later, you let him fuck you. You felt obliged to put out. Just the once, you say, and when you got back to Austin, you didn’t wait long before breaking up with him. The show, though, was amazing, and well worth it. You were 24. You broke up with him shortly after getting back to Austin. You broke his heart.
      He is one of the 17 of us you’ve let fuck you. He is a link on a chain that has ended with me, I think.
      Do you regret any of the 17?, I ask.
      Do I regret any of them?
      Well, you say you don’t do that when there isn’t emotion involved, but with 16 of us, it didn’t work.
      Yeah. It didn’t work.
      So would you go back and undo it if you could? Would you go back and tell yourself that the relationship is shit. Don’t do this with him?
      I wouldn’t take any of them back, I guess, you say. Where does that question came from?
      I think about things like that all the time. If I could, would I go back to a younger version of myself and tell him that everything turns out OK. Or go to my freshman year in college and do things differently, knowing that any decision I changed may mean Holly and I never meet, which would erase Avery, but I wouldn’t know before making any changes.
      I think that if I had a time machine, I would go back to the moment before you first used crystal and stop you. That’s what I would use my time machine for.
      You met Manny during a threesome. He was the third brought in to play. I don’t remember who the other man was. You loved Manny. You saw a future with Manny. You expected that when he said forever, he meant forever, so when he told you that your mother’s cancer was too much for him to handle, you were surprised. Once your mother’s health improved, you had planned to come back to Austin and move in with him. By telling you he couldn’t handle everything, you felt that he took everything away from you. Because of him, you have made a living out of leaving.
      What kind of sign would you have wanted?, I ask. A big yellow one?
      A sign that said he was going to abandon me.
      Maybe he thought you were abandoning him, I say. Maybe he did it for you, I say. Go. Take care of your mom. Don’t worry about me.
      No, you say. After I had been with my mother for a while, he and I talked on the phone, and then got back together, but never saw each other, so that didn’t work. Being abandoned is a real fear of mine, you say. It’s happened before. I think it could happen at any time.
      You have dated three men in Massachusetts before me. One you saw in a Starbucks, then saw online, then asked out on a date. The last guy, Simon, told you some story about wanting you to move into a house his father would buy the two of you. He went away on an internship. You and he dated for about three months, maybe less.
      As you excavate the bones of your former relationships, I look for any resemblance to me. A sliver of who I am, of what I’m not telling you, is in each of your stories. Assemble all these slivers and you will see the relationship you do not know you have with me.
Would you do anything differently?, I ask.       No, you say. I made it through life. I made it to where I am. I’m good. I’m OK. The exes who were dicks to me, I don’t wish them any ill will. The guys I was a dick to, I feel badly for that. There are other ways to get out of a situation without treating someone the way someone else treated you. What is it, an eye for an eye leads to a blind world?
      I have never heard that before, I say.
      I don’t think about legitimate times when it wasn’t working. I think about times when it was a crap excuse, or a selfish reason. Just because pain gets passed on, doesn’t mean you have to do it intentionally, you say.
      Maybe you just latch on to unavailable men, I say.
      Are you OK hearing about my failed relationships?, you ask.
      Yeah, I say. I’m glad you share them with me, I say. It’s hard to remember them all and all of their circumstances. You’ve had many failed relationships. I don’t want to be one of them.
      Well, I try to get invested. I go into things with the intention of being in a relationship. I think I get hurt more because I invest emotion in relationships that don’t have the possibility of really going where I want them to go.
      I don’t say anything. I don’t think you want me to say anything.
      What are you thinking about?
      Nothing, I say.
      No, not nothing. Your little rabbit brain is racing.
      It’s your past. I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough go at it.
      It got me here, you say.
      It got you here, yes, I say.
      However long the road, you say, it leads to the right place.
      And you have found the boobie prize, I say.
      The which prize?
      The booby prize.
      The booby?
      The booby prize. I am the 25-cent prize at the bottom of the box of Cracker Jacks. It’s not really a prize. It’s worth like a quarter. You’ve paid $2 for the box, and the Cracker Jacks are stale, and the prize is something that doesn’t even work or breaks after the first time or something.
      I love my prize, you say.
      One Saturday night, you ask if I can pick you up at work at midnight. You do not have a car, and when you can’t easily get home, you ask me to get you, regardless of how late it is or how early I have to wake up.
      Sure, I say. I get you, bring you home, and you do not wait to take a shower. You take off your clothes, and you take off my clothes, and you push me onto my back. You straddle me and lower yourself onto me. We are having sex, and I am thinking that I will stay the night with you, and I see your phone light up. There is a text. You stop moving, and you reach for your phone. The text is from your best friend.
      He wants to come over and get some weed, you say. He’s going to be here in a couple of minutes. It won’t take me very long.
      You get off me and get dressed. I do not know what else to say but OK. While you are downstairs with your best friend, I consider getting dressed and going home, but I don’t. You come back, take off your clothes, and get back on top of me. We finish. After, when we are in your shower, you tell me that your best friend was hoping I would go home so the two of you could get high. He’s having some problems, you tell me. Do you mind?
      No, I say. I can go home.
      OK, you say. I will call him and tell him to come back. You cup my cock in your hand and you kiss me. Don’t be jealous, rabbit, you say; it’s you I love best.
      I think you and I are kind of each other’s keys to overcoming our biggest obstacles within ourselves, if that makes any sense, you tell me one night.
      I kind of think that we might potentially represent a happiness if we could just get out of our own way. It’s like, OK, Will, I’m going to put someone in your path that fits. But to have it fit, you’re going to have to make some changes. You can’t hide who you are anymore. And I represent someone to you who you can’t control. You can’t be my everything. I’m in something that’s not going to disappear unless I do something about it. Taking a chance on you is a risk. To work as a couple, we have to grow as people.
      Well, yes, I am suddenly becoming a parental figure. It’s not something you could have told me years ago or even last New Year, you know. Oh, this is what’s going to happen to you in this coming year. You’re going to meet this man who, you know, kind of has another world on the side, and he’s going to want to bring you into it, and you’re going to say yes.
      Why is that again?
      Because you love him. You love him and then you’ll meet his child that he’s not going to tell you about from the beginning and you’ll be pleasantly accepting and invite them up and put on a movie. And I’ve learned to accept a lot more things. Before I push something away, I’m trying to make if it is something I should be pushing away or if I am thinking about pushing it away because it could bring a feeling of rejection. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to have any more mental breakdowns.
      You can, I say. I think this is one of the most honest conversations we’ve ever had. I did not think loving you any more than I do was possible, but this conversation, this moment is proving me wrong.
      But if I’m keeping up with my bucket, then there shouldn’t be an opportunity.
      To make telling each other how we feel about things easier, we conceive of having buckets into which we put things that bother or upset us. These buckets, you say, are very small, and must be emptied regularly. We have to ask each other what’s in the other’s bucket, and we must be honest about anything that might be in the bucket. In time, you say, the buckets will always be empty.
      It’s Buddhist, this thinking – address what you feel when you feel it; do not wait until you cannot handle your feelings. I only link the buckets to Buddhist thinking later, after you are no longer in my life and I have begun meditating with a Buddhist monk. We meditate together for two hours a couple of days each week. I am learning how to handle my feelings. I do not remember what anger, frustration, desperation, and mania feel like, as if the pathways in my brain where these emotions lived have been erased.

      I hope we won’t have to turn around 15 years from now, and someone will ask, how did your relationship work, and we’ll have to say, well, we had these buckets and they’re really small buckets so you can’t put very many things into them, you say. And we would just empty them. And every time we’d see each other we’d say, I love you, what’s in your bucket. But, Will, there’s been nothing in your bucket.
      No, I say. Do you feel you’ve done something bucket-worthy?
      No. But I don’t think we normally do. I don’t think if I would look at things in my bucket, I would say, well, you knew this would hurt me. I think that’s the issue with why things end up in the bucket. We do something, and we don’t realize how the other one might perceive it. And for the most part, it’s turned out to be misperception, you know.
      For a lot of other people, it would have been enough to throw in the towel. They wouldn’t have given the other person a chance to talk or explain.
      I’m glad we did, you say.
      Me too. It’s nice to hear you say you love me.
      Do I not say it often?
      You do.
      OK. Good. I don’t time it. I mean, I haven’t been keeping track. I know for a while there I felt I was saying I love you a lot, and I thought, maybe I’m saying I love you too much. If there’s such a thing, I don’t want to wear it out.
      The incongruity between how we will be — or not be — at the end of our relationship, and your certainty that I am the one to whom your road has led, is not lost on me. I’ve been on a journey, too. I had thought you were my destination. Now I think that you will be part of my path itself. I cannot see where our paths will diverge, but I feel a divergence is coming.

“Past and Present Imperfect” is an excerpt from William Henderson’s in-progress memoir, House of Cards. Other excerpts have appeared in Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure; Euonia Review; Hippocampus Magazine; Annalemma Magazine; Curbside Quotidian; How I met …, an online collection of essays detailing intersections, crashes, and other ways we meet people; Sea Giraffe (from which he was awarded the Martius Prize in Nonfiction); the Smoking Poet, Zouch Magazine, Whistling Fire, 50 to 1, Specter Literary Magazine, Ham Lit, Xenith, and Writing in Public.

Henderson has written for local and national newspapers and magazines, including the Advocate; the Boston Globe; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Stork, an Emerson College publication; and the New England Blade (formerly In Newsweekly), where he served as editor. He writes a weekly column, Dog-Eared, for Specter Literary Magazine, and he will be included in the forthcoming anthology, Stripped.

He earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism & Communications from the University of Florida, and a Master’s in Fine Arts from Emerson College, where he studied creative non-fiction. He earned a Hearst Award in profile writing in 1998, and various awards from the Washington Press Association, Florida Press Association, and the New England Press Association.

Henderson works as a freelance writer, editor, and copyeditor, and is a full-time father to his children, Avery and Aurora. He can be reached on Twitter @Avesdad, and through his blog,

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