Prolonged Performances of Grief
"Matty" Photo Credit: Molly Choma
Matty and I are texting back and forth about the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. At the end of last season, a terrifying sociopath with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire bludgeons someone to death, but we don’t get to see who. Tonight, we find out who dies. Even though Matty and I live together, I didn’t watch it with him. I left the house because I needed to start drafting this blog post already! But the morbid curiosity! I could not focus, and writers are notoriously good at distracting themselves – so it’s been confirmed via text that two main characters have been killed. My reaction to one of the names was “noooooooooooo,” and Matty’s response after he summarized the final scene was “I’m feeling very hollow.” Without being in the same house, Matty and I know that the show will have to go on without them…
Our marathon viewing of The Walking Dead’s Season 6 was one of the few TV exceptions in the three years Matty and I have roomed together. Matty treats shows and movies–and having shared experiences of characters and stories–as a way of bonding. It’s quotidian and benignly sweet, something that families do when boredom sets in, and pure TV entertainment and that crumpling comfort into the shared crease of a couch is just what you need to be and feel “together.”
For three years, I have turned down countless asks from Matty to watch Game of Thrones, Firefly, other shows and so many movies that I don’t even remember their names. If I’m not in the mood, I’ll straight up fall asleep to any show or movie. I thought I’d be wasting my time. And if I were looking at myself honestly, a lot of it was just some self-important bullshit: “I don’t have time,” is mostly a sincere statement for someone who’s over-committed, but it can also be a crutch and a diversion for someone who struggles to be present and to love other people deeply.
And then, there’s just plain taking the time that you have with someone for granted...
For three years, Matty has lived less than five feet across from me on the main floor of a 1940’s bungalow we’ve been renting in North Portland. He has been my person in many ways, intellectually, creatively, my nachos dinner-maker, my roommate, my business partner, he was there when I spiraled in despair after leaving D. He was also there for all my naivete and confusion, and he pushed me forward, always stumbling toward love, even when it was taboo.
"Fancy: Backwords Press team at Wordstock's Bookmark Ball 2015"
When my current partner and I met, I divulged a laundry list of what were – on paper – red flags. Matty was reticent and wary, and told me to run the opposite direction. Then Matty met him, and because we’re the kinds of people that reside and choose to live in nuance, he gave me what I needed to trust my gut and heart over my head, he said, “go for it.” My partner and Matty are the kinds of people that love in generous, full-hearted ways. They’re both demonstratively huggy without reservations, all the time. And considering the health benefits of giving and receiving hugs, they have it right. It isn’t that I don’t hug, but I tend to come up to people excitedly with hands waving, or cooly with my hands in my pockets. An observant acquaintance once told me that I was “self-contained” which I think is a tactful way of saying “reserved” or “closed-off.”
There have also been several times when I’m having an off-day, and Matty has asked, “do you need a hug,” and I’ve responded, “nope.” I can be very distant. Cold. Sometimes, I just want to get whatever I’m working on on my laptop done, okay? Damn these fucking feelings – I don’t have time for this shit. The denial of a hug, of any hug, of that “don’t touch me, don’t come near me, I’ve got this,” comes from a place of pride, but also a really lonely and damaged place. The first time I watched Brené Brown’s Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” I felt depressed, and outed, because I knew that I had never actually loved without reservations or suspicion of eventual damage or loss.
One ubiquitous day, Matty told me that he had been having a recurring nightmare that all his friends, all the people he loved had access to a database that he couldn’t see, and that they were leaving him one by one without him knowing why. His greatest fear is that everyone he loves will leave him; mine is that I will eventually push everyone I love away. I’ve done it. Countless times, I’ve done it. It’s like an out-of-body experience, watching myself say things I don’t really mean, just to destroy something good in my life. This isn’t revelatory psychoanalysis. Both of us, despite all of our high-functioning capabilities, all of our accomplishments and compliments, despite how funny and charming I can be at times, despite Matty’s eye and talent for creating beautiful images, we both feel deeply unworthy of love.
I laughed after we found this out, “so, you’re telling me that we’re each other’s worst fears.” Two sides of the same mangled coin.
"This is our backyard" Photo Credit: Molly Choma
There are long-form reasons for this: Matty being gay and closeted, being (then) Mormon, he grew up with the fear that if anyone ever knew who he really was, he’d be rejected. I grew up in a physically-abusive and emotionally-oppressive family. For as long as I can remember I had been fighting against, and fantasizing about running away. My mother, who I describe as the greatest heartbreak of my life, said to me flatly, “you know, you’re really hard to love” the week after I’d made the hardest decision of my adult life–to break off my engagement with someone I had loved for eight years. There’s nothing like family confirming your deepest flaws and fears, over and over again, to make you believe them yourself.
When Matty extends, I withdraw. When I retreat, Matty reaches.
The key to long-lasting marriages, and friendships for that matter – no surprise – is kindness and generosity, and how much we respond to each other’s bids for attention, according to an Atlantic article that Matty sent me.
For three years, I’ve been able to heal through the remnants of a life I left behind, lucky enough to learn my way through to another newer life with a person that loves more fiercely and more fully than I do. Matty calls me out on my bullshit more than anyone – probably because we live together – when I’m being too catty or maliciously gossipy, and I absolutely do the same for him. I’ve been able to get closer (sometimes at my own stubborn resistance) to the best versions of myself. And through witness, through experience, I have reaped the benefits of living with someone who is kinder, gentler, smarter, more talented, handsomer, and sometimes even fiercer than me – I have undeniably been influenced and changed by my Matty.
In six more weeks, he’ll be in L.A.
Soon there will be no more chat-singing away the mornings when we get ready for work, no more walks to Cherry Sprout for groceries (where the checker girl likes him more than me), no more nacho nights, no more carnitas tacos and chips+beans +queso from LG (shorthand for Los Gorditos), no more Backwords meetings with our dear Phillip in our small kitchen, no more printing in our basement, no more Matty showing me his beautiful photo shoots and walking me through the visual aesthetics of his editing choices. Even the stuff that isn’t worth getting nostalgic about, like the thoughtfulness of washing each other’s dishes, swapping off who pays for the block of Tillamook Cheddar, is all suddenly highlighted with some sort of poetic nostalgia.
"In the basement studio" Photo Credit: Molly Choma
Even my irritation at his preoccupation with my self care, and his constant goading: “you should slow down,” will be missed.
At the beginning of October, we thought we’d have this house for 6 more months. Our upstairs roomies, Soleil and Chris, are moving to Mexico; and our friend Ginger, also desperate for more time to figure things out, was lined up to move in. Then due to circumstances, and mostly personal resignation, 6 months turned into 6 weeks. The day I found out, there was already a necessary appointment I couldn’t afford, and Car2Go rentals I equally couldn’t afford. At work I was scattered, and I kept making small preventable mistakes. When I got home, with everyone in our split pea and mustard yellow kitchen, I barraged Matty with all the Socratic questioning skills I had: “yes, you’ll make more money in LA, but the cost of living is higher, and what happens then?” I said all this knowing that he hates it here, and even I think that Portland is too provincial, homogenous, and small-fry for his artistic britches. Then Matty accidentally spilt ginger beer onto my laptop – another thing I can’t afford to replace – and it was the universe telling me to shut the fuck up.
There’s nothing like the crisis of trying to find housing in this Portland rental market that will stir up the overbearing reality that I’m in my 30s with a lot of student loan debt and no financial security. I have a job I love, and still can’t reasonably afford to live in the city I’ve grown up in.
But, in this short brief life we have, what is actually of value?
After I held my laptop upside down, sticky beer dripping onto the table; and my roommate, Soleil, retreated to the living room; and my other roommate, Chris, graciously dabbed at the keyboard with a towel and Google searched what to do; and Matty pulled out the dryer; after I went into my room, hyperventilated and screamed, I came back out. Matty and I sat across from each other at the kitchen table, and though Matty tells me he loves me all the time and I respond each time with “love you too.” This time, I sat across from him and I said, “It doesn’t matter. None of it. Not the the visit fees, not even the stupid laptop...in the end this is what matters.” Sobbing, I told him how much I loved him, and how much I’m going to miss him. Crying, he said, “I know this is weird to say...but it turned out to be a pretty good day after all.”
The performance part of all of this, is that I have the unique liminal crazy-making pleasure of – not having enough time AND having just enough time – to observe both of us mourn, misstep, blubber, whimper, deny, irritate, cry, over/under-correct, freak out, and then, actually get it right in real time. Maybe the performative part of all this is that we’re just figuring it out as we go along. The script constructed and writ with each thing we say. We’re determining the way in which we’ll miss each other, to define what the distance will be like.
That night, in the kitchen, I told Matty that I’m not a good friend long-distance. For someone like me, distance begets distance, and he said, “You know me. I’m persistent.”
The following days I was anxious, worried, and then I just felt utterly hopeless. There was my mother – loaded – making me feel worse, then the possibility of a sweet living situation with another POC and writer off of Hawthorne that fell through, I made an appointment with my life path coach, and more needed visits, and we had a fundraiser at work, and I kept walking around saying “I’m falling apart at the seams,” while getting my shit done -- because that’s what I do. Even when I say: “I’m falling apart at the seams,” I say it with a sane, capable face, as if my falling apart has been well-intentioned and thought out.
"Our House" / "Band Photo" Photo Credit: Molly Choma
One night, over at my partner’s house, while he made dinner I read the New Yorker piece titled “My Friend Sam”. You have to read it for yourself, but long story short, they meet in college and were co-editors for their university’s paper, they both grow up, they’re both writers, they’re best buds, they’re both there for every major milestone, and they’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders. Then, Sam gets cancer...I was a blubbering mess. I texted the article link to Matty with “OMG...I cried so hard.” And then he responded “fuck my face...that piece.” And I responded “I’m your biggest fan you know, at least one of them…” and then “I’m going to write our story, and it’ll be just as romantic and heartbreaking...but no cancer or terminal diseases, okay?” And he said, “you got it.”
Because of our travel plans midst this big move, Matty and I actually have twelve more days together, not six weeks. When I get back from San Francisco in November, it will be a short four days and then he’ll be gone. There’s lots I’ll miss, if that isn’t already clear. I know some things for certain: that Matty is going to thrive in LA, that we’ll figure out a new “us,” that Backwords will go on in another kitchen, and that I know as I’m writing this that I’m damn lucky to love hard enough to have friends in my life who, when they leave me, feel as tragic and romantic as any love story.
Jenny M Chu
P.S. A fun throwback to Backwords' first days together: