Should-Have-Beens & Razor Blades

I think it was at the trailer that was behind the liquor store. I don’t think it was the trailer at the farm but I could be wrong. After my parents split, my Dad and I lived in a camper, a motel room, a tent, an apartment above a barn (which now would be considered trendy), and two trailers — one at the farm and the other behind the liquor store.

That sounds sad but it wasn’t. As a kid, you can sense when your parents are losing it a little bit and I’m no different there but I always knew we’d be okay. So, no judging, no feeling bad, we’re here and everyone has a roof over their head and says I love you before we get off the phone.

If this were ten years ago, I wouldn’t have told you about all of this. I was embarrassed I wasn’t from a cul-de-sac. That embarrassment turned into a source of pride but mostly bragging — it fit really nicely into my narrative of the ‘started from the bottom’ entrepreneur. Now, it just is what it fucking is. My parents were kids. My parents tried their best. I was loved. It was enough.

I remember it was a hot afternoon. I also remember sitting at a table on a porch — so it must have been the trailer that was behind the liquor store because I don’t think the trailer at the farm ever had a table on it — just chaise lounges that my Uncle’s dog, Casey, would pass out on after getting into my Dad’s miniature Jim Beams.

I know I was sitting down. I remember I had taken one of his tools that was left on the table and my Coke can and pretended they were kissing. This was the age that I was very into making whatever objects in my hands kiss each-other

I heard my Dad approach but I was busy making my Coke fall in love with the way the tool looked in the sunlight. I heard my Dad’s voice but I was busy making the tool move its face all up and down the Coke because they were finally alone. I heard my Dad get a little louder but I was busy planning a wedding between a beverage and something, I didn’t really know what it was, but it didn’t matter — just like it didn’t matter to the Coke what she was — because she was beautiful and was all his.

“WORM!” I paid attention this time. I didn’t get my full name when I was in trouble, I still got my nickname just at a different pitch. I looked up, frightened, and dropped the couple on the table. I was embarrassed and wondered if he’d seen me make these objects kiss each-other. I wondered if that’s why I was in trouble. At that moment, a small part of my brain wondered if other kids obsessed about pressing their faces to someone else’s as much as I did. The bigger part of my brain was registering that my Dad was scared.

Slowly he said, “Get up. Go to the bathroom. You need to wash your hands. Now.”

The only rules I really had at Dad’s were that I had to wash my hands and have a napkin in my lap for dinner. I clearly remember one time, I stood up on my chair, put a knee on the table to reach up to grab the salt and pepper.

“Worm, what are you doing? Ask someone to pass it,” he said — acting like he didn’t raise a complete heathen. Honestly, I had probably just come in from sitting inside the dog house but he was going to make me say, “please pass the salt, sir”? I didn’t really understand why it was ruder that I get it myself than asking him to do work.

This makes it sound like my Dad was always correcting me or yelling, honestly, these are probably the only two times I can really remember that happening. Most of the time he was walking around in short board shorts, telling stories about getting into fights (that I secretly loved to hear) and inappropriately including me in everything — bar nights, dates, work-shifts at the liquor store. He only had me on the weekends — he took me everywhere. I didn’t know who my Dad was during the week. I was raised by a young man on the weekends — out to prove he was still young enough to raise hell but old enough to take care of his kid.

I looked down at my dirty hands on my way to the bathroom and saw they were red. I turned on the faucet and watched my blood drip down the ceramic sink.

Shaken, he took my hands in his and gave me my first experience with peroxide. I don’t remember exactly what he said in his shouty panicked voice but I do remember learning I was never allowed to play with that tool again. That a razor blade had no business being in my hands, or its lover, the Coke can. He asked me, without wanting an answer, why I would keep playing with it if it kept cutting me.

When he would retell this story to people, he assumed it’s because I was tough; that I didn’t mind the pain but the truth was I never felt it. I was too focused on the kissing.

From Toronto, we just had one last flight that would take us home to Charlotte, NC. It was only an hour long.

It was a small jetliner that you have to board on the tarmac — the kind of plane where you and your luggage board at the same time.

Onboard, was only my friend Tam and I and a couple on their way to Asheville for some camping and hiking. They were at the start of their trip and us at the end.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be them or if I liked being us — I can’t decide if the beginning or end is my favorite part of a trip. In the beginning, your illusions are still intact — you get to remain the adventurous, sexy person you think you’re going to be on this vacation and at the end there’s that moment right before you get home where you feel like you’re about to take all of the energy back, that you got from this trip, and breathe it into your life.

We were seated in the very back of the plane, in front of the toilet. We turned to each other to have one last hour-long conversation.

We had just spent ten days in London having these kinds of conversations next to bathrooms. Bathrooms in pubs, cafes, and in Airbnb’s.

We spent slow, early, French-pressed mornings on couches, afternoons in hipster coffee shops with live bands, and evenings trolling vegan donut shops — talking about men and grief — the men who caused us grief. Grief from death, grief from divorce, grief from men we had not heard from.

In my opinion, this is how every vacation should be spent. I’m not particularly interested in waiting in lines for things on any Time Out list. But, I will travel to eat cake in the morning and have conversations that help me understand where your defense mechanisms come from.

Tam turned to me, her arms crossed, Patagonia hat low, ready to go to sleep at any second. It was around 11:00PM in London and around 4:00PM here. “What’s one thing you want to make sure I take away from this trip?”

I told her I felt like I knew her more than I did before. I was thinking, in particular, a moment in the countryside, both still in our pajamas. I finally saw how much she had tried to save her marriage and I really felt her pain — how abandoned she felt. I felt like her tears were rolling down my face.

Tam is an artist and not an artist that you feel obligated to go to her art shows but an artist that is kind of like a rockstar. Her home is all white and she can hold a conversation with anyone. To the outside she is perfect. On this trip, I saw her imperfect insides and it made me love her more.

“What about me?” Knowing she asked me this because she already had an answer ready to go for me.

“I’d like you to have a big ask of me. You don’t do that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes when I ask how YOU are, you tell me how your family is. You don’t talk about how you’re doing. I’d like you to think about how you’re doing and then make an uncomfortable ask of me. I think I would feel more close to you that way. “

I loaded my Away luggage into the trunk of my Uber that was going to take me back to my house. Putting my baggage in someone else’s trunk feels too intimate sometimes. I think about what’s in my trunk — all of the things I throw in there when someone is about to get into my car and I want to pretend that I’m not a person that leaves dirty gardening gloves sitting her backseat for ten months.

I always wonder if I should sit upfront or if they prefer I sit in the back. In between the, “how long have you lived in Charlotte?” questions and the inevitability that we talk about The Ravens because I’m from near Baltimore and that’s what most men are comfortable talking about — I look out of the window and the buildings of my neighborhood looked the same but it was like they were a size too small or that they had moved a couple of feet. Everything felt a little off.

When we got to the house and I grabbed my suitcase I wondered if he wasn’t an Uber driver, if he would keep it so clean. He helped me get it out and watched briefly as I started dragging it up my driveway.

When I got into my house, I didn’t want my boyfriend to touch me. Was this my boyfriend? It was like my depth perception was off — like he moved a couple of feet. He looked like my boyfriend but how could everything be the same? The towels were still in the hamper. My shoes that I throw on to grab the trashcans were still in the same place, by the door, but I was honestly surprised everything hadn’t rearranged while I was gone because everything felt different.

I’m painting my front door a bright yellow, in an Aerosmith t-shirt that I paid too much money for. It's so long that it looks like I’m only wearing this shirt with nothing underneath. This is pretty common since the pandemic hit North Carolina. I find I’m peacocking like a mother-fucker.

My body is the strongest its ever been and there is no one here to see it. I wear all the short-shorts and all the tank-tops.

Once we were allowed to go back in public, I went to a coffee shop with a friend. It looked like Dexter’s kill room, covered all in plastic coverings. I asked for a drip coffee — mostly because I think it makes me seem low maintenance.

We sat outside because Dexter’s kill room was closed to in-person diners. My friend pointed across the street at an apartment building and told me about a guy who brings all of the hand-weights out of the apartment’s gym, places them outside so he can do his curls for everyone walking the city’s rail trail. Before the pandemic, I would have thought that this was the douchiest thing ever but now I get it.

We’re all looking for a witness. We’re all looking to be seen and even when our technology dependency is at its peak we still want to be in the presence of someone who looks us up and down. We still want to be in the presence of someone who we could reach out and touch.

Everything feels off. But, it felt off before the world shut down. A couple of family deaths and the break-up of a nine-year relationship will do that. It’ll make your house feel too small, or like it's moved a couple of feet.

Like the rest of the world, I had the time to reread some of the stories that have happened in my life. I had no distractions. I was no longer on social media. I was no longer in rhythm with another person that I spent almost a decade with. I was no longer exchanging emails with the most beautiful man I had ever seen in real life. With my free time, I thought about London and The Razor Blade.

When I used to read the stories of London and The Razor Blade I thought about a person who is selfless and can handle the pain.

But now I know better.

These are examples of how prone I am to numbing — to checking completely out of my body and burying myself in my imagination or in anyone but myself.

It has become so very clear that this is something I have done since before I got my first face pressed against mine and I had a boy tell me I look shiny in the sunlight.

My whole life I have been so focused on the should-have-beens, could-have-beens and the never-beens. I have been so focused on other people and how I should fit into them or around them. I’ve made countless playlists over men I have never touched. I’ve built religions around my envy of other people’s lives and not thinking I was a person who could have a slice of that. I’ve worshipped at the feet of trying to be anyone but myself. I’ve taken too many communions on being interested instead of being interesting.

Because that’s easier.

It’s easier to accommodate than to ask. It’s easier to have conversations in your head because everyone is beautiful, emotionally evolved and it has an amazing soundtrack. It’s easier to just keep ignoring your feelings — your deep hard-to-reach-tough-to-show-desires. It’s easier to keep pushing it away. It’s harder to be a person in the light and exposed for everyone to see — a person who is flawed, annoying at times, and probably comes too quickly.

My family and I were watching home videos of Christmases, princess birthday parties, and mostly a couple who liked to sit at home, watch The Orioles play, and encourage their kids to take their first steps.

That is something to aspire to, I think. To be so content. I said this to my aunt. “We just wanted to be together. We didn’t really feel the need to go anywhere else.”

What I also saw was a man who was waiting to see if he was going to get called out in the middle of the night. The joke was that as soon as he sat down for dinner he would get a page that there was a cable emergency he had to fix — like there is such a thing. I saw a man who packed his lunch every day with gatorade and ham sandwiches that gave him headaches. I saw a man that had just clocked out and was about to go do it all over again. I saw a man who was responsible. I saw a man who did whatever he could to provide for his family because his own father bailed. I saw a man who planned to move to the beach and start a business once when he retired.

He never got to retirement.

One year after they bought their beach house, that they had saved their whole marriage for, he died.

He was 48.

He did everything right and he just died. And it was painful, violent and unrelenting.

And, guess what? It’s coming for everyone. Maybe not painfully, violently or unrelenting. But, death is still coming.

And, what’s the most heartbreaking, breathtaking and something that is painfully obvious, while watching these videos, is that its still coming even if you do everything right. Even if you follow all of these social contracts that we’ve all unconsciously signed.

My family and I saw Death up close. Or, it was a guy filling in for Death because I know some people say they found peace for their loved ones once Death came. So, maybe Death wasn’t available — maybe the guy that came to our house was the Mall-Santas of Death. Either way, he sucked.

I saw that motherfucker sit in their bedroom — filing his nails—just waiting. He unrolled his scroll to show me the social contract and I asked, “Where is any of this fucking written? Where does it say it has to be this way?”

It’s not.

I flick Mall-Santa-Death off and I sit next to my Uncle. My Uncle who is not just my uncle. He is my second father, he is my brother, he is my best friend, he is my mentor, he is my silly parts, he is my serious parts and it is all on this borrowed hospital bed. I whisper, “I love you.”

Death is gone now. I don’t feel him in the house. The house is different. It feels like all of the furniture has been moved over a few feet.

Before the battle of Thermoplaye, Xerxes said to King Leonidas of the Spartan Army, “Hand over your arms.” To which King Leonidas said, “Come and take them.”

I only know that story because of a boy — my friend’s boyfriend, specifically. Straight boys are obsessed with Sparta. But, I can’t stop thinking about it. So, now, I think this is just as much mine as it is his to mention.

It makes me think about what I would say if I could call Death on the phone. I’d think Id say something along the lines of:

I’m not numbing anymore — I’m not in my head anymore. I saw the blank contract. I’m wide awake now and I refuse to go back to sleep. I will question where its all fucking written. I will no longer bleed out for imaginary kisses. I will no longer spend another second not saying exactly how I feel. I refuse to live a life of supposed to and I refuse to let the should-have-beens and could-have-beens and the never-beens pass me by.

If they’re going to be should-have-beens and could-have-beens and never-beens I want to at least be able to look at myself and say, “I tried.” I will no longer sit in a house that feels like its not my house. I will not check Instagram while you are standing in front of me and you can look me up and down, and I can reach over and touch you. When you ask how I am doing I will know. I will love on my family but they will not be my entire identity. I will not just clock in and out. I will not have my versions of cable emergencies. I will buy my version of a beach-house sooner rather than later because he would want me to. I will not make playlists for men who didn’t run at me or who kept me dangling, waiting. I will find things I’m interested in and jump hurdles and fucking vaults to get to them.

Because when you come for me it better have been fucking worth it.

I want there to be nothing left of me to give. I want to make sure that this body has done what it could while it was here. That it made every day count. And, that it loved too hard and gave too much.

So, when you inevitably come to collect I’m going to say, “Come and take it, Motherfucker.”

a list-making nightmare.

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