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Creative Nonfiction Sad Romance

           “John, they're going to put me in a place.”

           “No, M, nobody’s going to put you in a place.”

           M. had been having trouble at work. We were no longer  going out  but I was still her best work friend, so I was driving her to the psychiatric appointment the employee assistance program was making her keep. When I told her she was not going to a place, I was completely sincere. She was quirky and had her problems but that was because she was sensitive and creative and had had a difficult life.There was no reason to take away her freedom. I dropped her off and went back to work.

           Later I called to ask about picking her up. For the first few calls, the person on the other end stonewalled me about giving me information. Finally I called a woman from the assistance program that knew I was the person that had given her a ride. I explained I did want to know where M. was  but that was only because I wanted to give her a ride home. The woman gently told me in a tone that conveyed that she wasn’t going to answer additional questions that M. was in the psych ward of the largest hospital in the area. I had inadvertently deceived her; they had put her in a place.

             Years ago, one of her apartment mates at the time told me that her other apartment mate, who had a psych degree, said M. was a paranoid schizophrenic. I felt she shouldn’t be making off the cuff diagnoses and ignored it. I also was not concerned when M. didn’t want to listen to me because she wanted to hear her “voices.” Or when she tried to explain to me mental experiences she had had that there weren’t really words for because most people don’t have them. Or when she showed me a photo of what looked like blurry lights reflected on glass and told me I was a picture of God. When I said I didn’t see it, she  held the picture cupped in her hands and stared at it “in order to make it clearer.”

             Now she was in the psych ward until her doctor thought it was safe for her to leave. I had trouble getting in to visit her. Her hated (by me) boyfriend had been beating her and I had to convince them I was not him or one of his friends. When I did get in, I found she was gaining weight. The ward serves several snacks a day so that patients that for some reason skip a meal don’t go hungry. I pointed out to her that she didn’t have to eat every snack.

            I sat at the table and played Uno with her and some of the other patients. I had to direct the game because many of the patients couldn’t really keep their mind on the game either because of their underlying problems or their meds. They did listen to me because I was the only one at the table who had the privilege of leaving whenever I wanted to. The woman on my left several times asked the woman on her left her name. She would be told and a few seconds later ask again. When the game ended and I got up from the table, she called me by name even though I only told my name once. She could remember if she wanted.

             When I first met M. at work I was immediately taken with her. She was cute and I was twenty years old. I don't think she ever thought I was someone that she wanted to be with. She wanted someone who would take charge and make decisions for her, mainly, because she unconsciously thought she was incapable of making good decisions on her own. Even so, we had fun going out to bars after our evening shifts and kissing in my car. I loved her but, while she had gotten to value me as a friend, I wasn’t what she wanted.

              She met S. He was twenty years older than her and sometimes worked as a DJ, a job she found glamorous, more glamorous than our job tending to the needs of developmentally disabled people. The other women on the unit thought S. “dressed well” but found the age difference concerning.

     M. started going out with S. and it soon became sexual. M. hadn’t had sex before. She had been brought up with and somewhat believed in her family’s old-fashioned views about women and sex. She wasn’t sure she was ready to have sex with S. but he was pressuring her and she wanted to continue the relationship, so she gave in.

     Soon, the beatings started. He’d punch her for disagreeing with him. He’d hit her for accidentally annoying him. He’d smack her because life wasn’t going well for him and she was there for him to vent his rage. Sometimes he’d knock her to the floor and continually hit her in places where the bruises wouldn’t show until he ran out of energy. He was the intentional kind of abuser that knew how to gaslight his victim and hide evidence from others.

       Her thinking became twisted. Even though she knew that after every beating it was just a matter of time until she got another one, she felt powerless to get away. She didn’t really hide her situation from others. She told me and several other people all about it. She’d enjoy our sympathy but dismiss any suggestions we had to get out of it. She wanted to be with someone but her rigid ideas about “good girls” and “sluts” caused her to believe that because she had slept with him, she had to be with him. 

         I hated, hated, hated S. I, a person who tries to have a gentle and forgiving nature, was taking spare moments of my time to plot out detailed plans to murder the bastard. I made a detailed list in my head of the exact items I would buy to carry in a duffle when I rang his doorbell and stabbed him through the heart before he spoke so I could cut up his body and dispose of the parts. When I told a friend of M. and I about it, she said, “Don’t tell me, if anything happens to him, I’d have to tell the police what you said.”

        One of the benefits of our job is it offers opportunities to take tuition free college courses. Once before her hospital stay, M. decided to take an introductory psychology course at the community college.  Since she had never taken a college course before, she thought of it as a special event. In order to feel ready for it, she bought some new outfits. S. accused her of taking the course so she could meet other men. He beat her up. She never started the course.

        After she was released from the hospital, W,a friend from work with her own problems, offered to let her stay with her in her apartment.  They tried their best to get along but there was friction between them. Soon  M. was sneaking phone calls to S. trying to arrange to get back with him. Eventually she moved out of W.’s and back in with Stan.

        At work, there was an inconsistent effort to reintegrate M. and get her back to work. Unfortunately, things would happen and the administration would put her out on leave. After a time, they put her on disability and she didn’t come to work anymore. Now the only people she saw regularly were S. and his friends.  

         Sometimes, usually late at night, she would call me. She would tell me what was going on with her. Then we’d both get an attack of nostalgia thinking about our relationship before. We would talk about how things could have turned out differently, ignoring the actual reasons they turned out the way they did. It would probably have been best for me if I disgorged M. from my life but I loved her for my own reasons. In addition, she was someone I cared about who needed help. The fact I was not the person that could help her and there was no one else twisted me up inside. I never called her both because S. might answer. Also, I didn’t want to feel like a pathetic stalker.

     The calls became less frequent.  My life moved on and I made some changes.  I met the woman who would become my wife. I don’t know for sure but I believe she was listening on the extension during the last call I got from M. My wife trusts me but not foolishly so. We had our number changed for unrelated reasons and M. couldn’t call me.

      That was thirty years ago. My wife continues to be an excellent partner.  We raised  a daughter who fills me with pride. I’ve become an old man.

         A week ago, my wife told me I should straighten up the attic. Despite believing the attic was better left alone, I didn’t argue and climbed the stairs. Like many attics, ours is filled with things that we no longer have use for but didn’t throw out “in case we wanted them someday.”

Most of the things there we never think of again. I sat down on the floor and began to randomly shuffle things around as I had no real plan, goal, or system.

         In my shuffling around, I picked up an old beat up cardboard box. The cardboard had gone so soft with age that the only reason it was still intact was it hadn't been moved for at least ten years. It was a jumble of old junk I had dumped into the box when I moved out of my bachelor apartment into the first place I moved into with my then fiancee. It had tenaciously, irrationally been moved from one residence to another until it came to rest in our present day attic. I thought of the many things I had lost or given up over the years and wondered why I still had this box. I opened it not expecting to find anything of interest. 

         There among things of no value or meaning to me anymore, I found a round silver pendant with a fish embossed on it. I had bought it for M’s birthday the first year we were going out. (She was a Pisces.) When we were together I would say something that offended her. I have a sense of humor that makes me compulsively say things that are more critical than I mean but truly it was impossible to know what would offend her. She would angrily take off the pendant and force me to take it back. Later her anger would cool, I would apologize, and I would give it back to her like a game of hot potato. I was surprised that I had ended up with it; I really don’t remember the last time she gave it to me. 

         I entangled it from the other things in the box and held it up to the light. Memories I hadn’t thought of in years came back vividly. I didn't even know if M. was living or dead. S. must certainly be dead. My wife is in every way better for me than M. Even so, first loves carry with them an excitement that never fully goes away. I felt the desire to find M. and, if still alive, learn what she’s like now and how her life turned out. I still would like to kiss her in my car just as she is now.

March 18, 2022 21:16

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3 comments

23:27 Mar 23, 2022

It's so sad when someone falls in love with the wrong person and can't let go. It doesn't seem that he was very much in love with his wife. You describe her as an "excellent partner". More like a business partner than anything else. Maybe his original love kept him from feeling any real emotion for anyone else. I don't know. But you did keep the story moving and it was an interesting read. Great job!

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Mae R
14:44 Mar 22, 2022

Really well told, this prompt was my favourite this week, just because it has such potential for tragedies like this. You treated the sensitive topics well, too, which I appreciate. On an editorial note, I don’t mind the choice of giving everyone initials to refer to them, when talking about abuse and mental health, it kind of adds to the idea that the narrator is recalling all of this, perhaps simplifying the story of years ago. But then S is referred to as Stan once, either by mistake or a choice I don’t understand? But either way, this is...

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John Walsh
15:11 Mar 22, 2022

Oops, it was a mistake. I'll edit if I can. Thank you for your supportive words.

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