Submitted into Contest #51 in response to: Write a story about someone who's haunted by their past.... view prompt



My girlfriend and I had just had a big fight. I found out she had been seeing another man on the side. What surprised me, was the fact that I wasn’t angry. Sure, it hurt, it definitely shatters your pride, but at the same time, I understood why. I wasn’t there for her. Women have needs, they crave emotionally intimacy on a level beyond what men crave, at least in my experience. She was a beautiful, vibrant soul, and she demanded, no, deserved, all of my energy, and I just couldn’t give it to her. I certainly wish it hadn’t come to this, I wish she would have just talked to me about how unhappy she was, but then again, I knew that I had a tendency to shut down emotionally, and that talking to me could be maddeningly akin to trying to converse with a stone. As much as I understood the situation from a logical perspective, there was no denying that it hurt. I felt wounded, and an overwhelming sense of sadness. I had been sober for many years, but I would occasionally utilize alcohol as a de-stresser, always keeping myself on a strict two drink limit. I prided myself on self discipline and self-control. I grabbed my keys, and drove myself to the local bar.

I walked in to the aptly named “Liquid Zoo.” It was a small dive bar nestled into the Valley. I appreciated it for it’s simplicity. Unlike many of the bars around the city, it was a place that was never overcrowded, and there was no loud music drowning out any attempt of a conversation. There were very few times in my life where I craved a personal connection. I avoid phone calls like the plague, and avoided most if not all human interaction for long periods of time. I was a bit manic like that. I was never overly good at interacting with people. I was either rigid to the point of awkward, or funny, with a tendency to cross over into obnoxious, there was no in between. As a result, I was never really able to express the feelings I carried inside. I spent most of my life feeling like no one understood me. Alcohol became my way to cope. I would get drunk, and pretend to be someone I wasn’t, for the laughs, and for the acceptance. As I would find out later, this would be a pattern of behavior that would do more harm than good.

I sat down at the bar, and ordered my usual “go-to” drink. An Old fashioned, with Bulleit Rye bourbon. The bartender presented me my drink with a smile. She was a pretty, Thai woman, in her early 40’s. She had grown accustomed to seeing me every once in awhile, and knew I tipped well, so she always made it a point to ask how I was, and chat with me for a moment. I knew it was all a front for the money, but I didn’t mind. When you’re hurting, you’ll take all the distraction you can get. I thanked her for the drink, slipped her a $50 dollar bill, and walked over to the table. In moments like this, I tended to self analyze more than most. That was one thing I was good at. As I sipped my drink, I started thinking about the reason I was here in the first place. This inevitably caused me to analyze why I was the way I was, and, for that to happen, I had to go all the way back to my beginning.

I came from a very small town. What most people don’t seem to understand is the severe disadvantage that comes with being a small town kid. Small towns tend to breed small minds, well, at least in America, in my experience. Anyone with ideas outside of the collective mentality are snuffed out. If you should refuse to adapt to their way of thinking, they will tear you down. I came from a small fishing town, and if you lived there and did anything other than working on the water, or a trade job, and spent your weekends doing anything other than guzzling Budlight and trying to hit on the same group of girls over and over again, well, then you were a “fag” or “Useless.” I had certainly been called my fair share of names, probably still am to this day, if I’m being honest.

I didn’t work on the water, I was educated, and I was a liberal, which in that place, was like wearing around a sign that said “kick me.” I could count on one hand the number of people who actually supported me when I said I wanted to be a writer. It was maddening, because I could see very clearly the things I could do, but no one else around me could. As if that weren’t difficult enough, instead of just simply not supporting me, they actively tried to get me to stop trying. Oftentimes telling me what a “Waste” I was, and that “writing my stories” was “Stupid.” Again, it would’ve been tolerable if it were just one or two people, but those one or two went to the only bar in town, and told everyone there, and before you knew it, you had the whole town looking at you as if you were the one who was damaged. If you don’t fit into their worldview, they cast you out, and make sure you know that you’re completely alone.

As a younger man, this struggle had consumed me. For many years it felt like I had to constantly wear different masks to fit in with this type of society. It’s not who I was, but, it was who I projected I was, because I so desperately wanted to fit in. I’m not sure I can properly explain what that does to you, but it wounds your soul. Imagine always being surrounded by people who all enjoy your company, but having to live with the knowledge that none of them actually know you, and if they ever saw the real you, they may never speak to you again. It’s the kind of thing that can break you. It nearly broke me. There was a span of nearly two years of my life where I had allowed them to beat me so low that I was prepared to take my own life. I had it all planned out, and had even told a friend my plan in detail. There were more than a few nights where I lay in bed with the metallic taste of the gun barrel dancing on my tongue.

As bitter as I was about parts of my past, I was also grateful. I am forever a student of life, and one thing it has instilled in me, is that attitude and gratitude are the keys to success. Learning to let go of my chip on the shoulder, and all of that negative energy, allowed the better parts of me to flourish. I daresay in many ways, I had become a good man, despite the odds. The good thing about growing up like I did, is that it makes you tough. You develop a sort of mental armor, and over time, it becomes an impenetrable part of you. The few friends I had would describe me as “grounded” or “rocksteady.” I could stare down the worst of humanity and never once lose my temper. It was as if I could push “mute” on my emotions. It was a trait within myself that I was extremely proud of. I also understood that there was a flip side to every coin, and the same characteristic that made me a terrific friend, advocate, and ally, made me a terrible husband and boyfriend. The bittersweet balance of nature had never been more apparent to me in this regard.

I finished my drink, and signaled the bartender for a second. Just then, my friend Stephen arrived. Stephen was my colleague, about 20 years older than me. Over time we had collaborated on a few projects, and it was apparent that we shared the same philosophies on life. I had learned a great deal in talking with him. I was able to find introspective lessons about myself within his stories. That’s why he was my first call after Sam and split.

Stephen came in wearing plaid shirts and a cardigan sweater, the typical odd combination I was accustomed to seeing him in. Like me, Stephen didn’t give a “single solitary fuck” (his words) about what anyone thought of him. He ordered a scotch, and sat down beside me.

“I’ll tell you kid, men like us, we’re just not cut out for relationships.” He said, in an attempt to cheer me up.

“I guess not” I sighed. “It’s frustrating though, because I have no much love to give, I know I do, I just don’t know know how to show it.”

“Yeah, but that’s the thing, you have too much for just one person. Even if you could express it, you’d just scare them off. That kind of love is meant to be put out into the universe. That kind of love is selfless love. It’s the love you give the world that you don’t expect to get back. That’s just who we are, that’s our purpose here,” he said.

Just then, our drinks arrived at the table. We both took a moment to take a small sip.

“Maybe you’re right, but don’t you wish it were different? Don’t you ever get lonely?” I asked him.

He sat there quietly, reflecting on his life as he sipped his scotch. His blue eyes went misty as he looked up and said:

“They say that you have to love yourself before you can ever love someone else, but I think that’s bullshit.”

This surprised me, coming from him. I considered him to be incredibly philosophical. Something of an inspiration.

“Why do you say that?” I asked, curiously.

“Because I can’t remember a time in my life where I ever loved myself” he said with a sense of somber sensibility.

He took another sip of his whiskey as he continued.

“See, that’s what kept me going, waking up every day unsatisfied. I knew there was always something to improve on.”

“But you did love her, didn’t you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Who? Rebecca? Of course I did. But I never was able to give her the thing she gave me. The thing that kept me upright.” He said sadly, as he took another drink.

“I loved her so god-damned much that I forgot how much I hated myself. In the end, she was my gift, and my curse.”

“Why your curse?” I asked him.

“Because deep down inside I knew I couldn’t be the light she deserved. That’s the thing about being brilliant. You focus so hard on yourself that at the end, you’ve achieved everything you’ve ever dreamed of, except the things that mattered most.” 

He finished his drink and stood up. As he walked by me he put his hand on my shoulder and said:

“Do yourself a favor kid, no matter what’s on the other side, choose love.”

He walked out of the bar and into the pouring rain, and that was the last time I ever saw him. No one knew what happened to him. He just disappeared, like a ghost. Like any gifted story teller he left me more questions than answers, but I had come to expect that from him.

Over the next several months I found myself revisiting our last conversation. I was sad that my friend was gone, but, I was happy that he had found peace. He had said some things that had burrowed into my mind. Was it possible that I was never meant to receive love? Only give it? The circumstances of my life, in particular my personal life, dictated that I at least considered this possibility. I’d had a small handful of women in my life that I have loved. I was pretty sure that at a certain point, they loved me too. I had helped all of them through some trying times. I was positive that there was an opening for me to attempt to take it to the next step, but I never did. I had always assumed that it was because of my low self esteem, that I didn’t believe I was capable of making these extraordinary women happy. I believed it was a deep seeded fear of inadequacy that caused me to not take that chance. I mean, that could still be true, but now I was wondering if there was another possibility; Was I correctly reading the signs the the universe was throwing at me? Were these moments not missed opportunities, but a message from some sort of existential force? A message that said we were both meant for different things?

I mean, if I were to look at it logically, I would tell you that I made the right choice. All of those women are now happily married with children, something I’m not sure I ever wanted. Perhaps that was the path they were meant to be on. Perhaps this path of enlightened loneliness was mine. I couldn’t really argue with the results. Everything that had happened in my life prior had led me to this moment. All of the heartache, and sadness that I had endured, had led to a sort of spiritual rebirth. It was worth wondering if I ever would have arrived at this point without it.

Who I was now as a person was a far cry from the boy who left his small town all those years ago. I felt alive. Though I certainly had moments where I longed for companionship, I poured all of my heart and soul into my work, into being an ally for the LGBQ+ community, into being an advocate for the BLM movement, into being a better friend, into being a son my parents could be proud of, into being a positive example for my two young nieces to look up to, into being a good man in general. That’s what I hung my hat on, the fact that I strived every day to do better. That’s why these moment of self analysis were so important. They were the spark that ignited the passionate fires of my mind. I was manic when it came to my work, when the inspiration hit I would spend weeks locked away working on a manuscript. That was one of the very things that sunk my latest relationship. It was apropos to me, how everything came full circle. If one were to look at the sequence of events in the right order, one might draw the conclusion that we become who we are meant to be by an intricate design made from seemingly ordered chaos.

All of this reflection, all of my inspiration, all of my passion comes from the desire to be more aware of myself. It is often a tedious battle, some days, I am the victor, and some nights, I weep in defeat. My sorrows and my passions seemed to fit perfectly together hand in hand. Stephen always used to tell me that the genius and the madness were sides of the same coin. I never understood what he meant by that, at least not until now.

I had always believed that the greatest thing I longed for was to be loved. I had evolved past that. For all of these years I thought that that decision was somehow rooted in sadness. I thought that I shut myself down on the idea of love because I believed I wasn’t good enough. This was one of those moments that as a person who is seeking growth, I immensely enjoyed. What I believed was one thing, a barrier, blocking me from something I thought I wanted, was actually a guide, propelling me into what I was now believing, was my truth. That I had become willing to love the world, anyone, and everyone, freely, without ever once expecting something in return.

This was one of those self revelations that altered me to my core. Where there used to be sadness with bitter notes, I suddenly found myself filled with a sense of gratitude, and passion. Most people give up on the idea of the existence of love after a heartbreak, and yet, here I was, prepared to give all of myself, to throw it out into the unknown, with no worries or care if would ever come back. I was suddenly dialed in to the fact that were so many people out there who needed this love, far more than I did.

I chuckled to myself as I sat down in front of my laptop. Just like that, the idea for my next manuscript had been born. It was amazing to me how these things seemed to come together. A bad breakup, a broken heart, a 10 minute conversation, and the death of a friend. All of this combined into a perfect “shitstorm of inspiration” (Another famous Stephen quote.) I opened a new word document, and typed the title. One word, one idea, one singular concept to perfectly blend the Jekyll and hide nature of my mind. “Introspection” I typed on the page...

July 17, 2020 20:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Andrea Magee
12:38 Aug 06, 2021

Bravo! Love when the story aptly explains the title. You are a very gifted writer...I hope to reach a level of skill like yours in the near future; because I like reading and telling stories of all kinds and I want a reader to walk away from my stories feeling entertained, educated, thoughtful, euphoric, happy, sad, determined, get want them to feel and enjoy. Just as your stories make me do. Have a great day on purpose!


Show 0 replies
20:18 Jul 30, 2020

Yes Eric, you really nailed introspection in this piece. Good writing is the only way to find what's puts a fire in your belly and you did it.


Show 0 replies