Winter road in London

The Listener On The Line

To be honest, I couldn’t even put a face to the voice, as the guys who got off were both of about the same age, definitely half mine, and both talking on hidden devices, not to each other.

So I’m on my way to work, sitting in the second seat from the back, staring out the window at those familiar wintry streets. Now, being very reserved and private, and never been a phone person, discussing intimate details of my life in such a public forum as a bus is way off my radar. The strangest thing is that its like there is some sort of conduit of truth back in the corners of city buses, as this is not the first time I have sat in that same seat and listened to a stranger behind me pour out their heart to some anonymous listener.

Last winter I recall a girl, maybe in her early twenties, who started up almost as soon as I sat down (in the same spot I was yesterday). At first, it was tentative, like she wasn’t sure if she should say too much, but then she said more, and a little more, more of a childhood of neglect, fear and abuse.

The other day it happened again.

Again, he was behind me, yet this time was different. This time the story this stranger was telling was not so strange to me. It could have been my ex-husband talking, about a Father who threw their kids around like sacks of garbage, across kitchens, down basement stairs, using their words as horrible weapons as dangerous as their hands. Then the voice behind me paused, I guess as the other person spoke, and then he said he had shown up one day at his Father’s door, having x’d him from his life a few years before, and how he was so friendly, so different, that I really got the chills.

This was my x’s story, the very same one he had poured out to me, so so many years ago now, as we had just met and it was the point of a relationship where you share some of your stories, the horrors and otherwise. I was 22, and he was 24.

In my ex’s case, had a relationship with his Father for a few years, well, until his sisters stepped in and told him a few truths from THEIR childhoods, that they had wondered if perhaps as the youngest he had maybe forgotten. Youngest of six, 3 girls, 3 boys, in a 3 bedroom house. He pushed that stuff away so far, though, that it only popped out in nightmares.

Had he forgotten why he had nightmares about Vampires coming into his room? Or had he pushed it so far up in the closet that he couldn’t see it anymore?

But it’s never that easy. I should have known when he jumped back 2 feet from our answering machine, after pushing the button to hear the messages and this voice I’d never heard before says, “hi, it’s your Dad” – that was in the early 90’s, after we’d bought our house. Jumping back two feet when you hear your Dad’s voice on an answering machine is definitely not normal. Yet, still, he wouldn’t go get help. I told him he should, and he brushed me away like I was crazy, “I’m over it“, he’d say. He wanted to be. But he was not over it by a long shot, and it destroyed us.

I’d give him pamphlets a girlfriend had brought for him, tried to talk to him about it, but he just wanted it to go away, just wanted to be a normal guy, with a normal childhood, and not the product of a monster, and I certainly couldn’t blame him for that.

Until one day, late in September of 1999, and we’re outside having a bonfire, and he goes into the shed to get more wood, and all of a sudden things are crashing and falling and it sounded like all hell had broken loose. He came out a wreck and said “I need to get help“.

I tried, contrary to what his sister thought, sitting there in his hospital room after his suicide attempt, in all her Social Worker professionalism, criticizing me for not doing enough. Me, not doing enough. Fine.

Perhaps they don’t teach this in Social Worker school, but you can’t force someone to seek help, or if they do she missed that lecture.

To be fair, I don’t think she really ever saw me in this equation, and how it had affected me, it was all about her little brother, and not about how little brothers denial was a hard mountain to overcome. And, she was the type that lashes out when she is upset. But I remember clear as day, me sitting up on the windowsill on the seventh floor of the Old Vic, my feet dangling, my ex in the hospital bed, and she there in the visitors’ chair, with worry in her eyes, admonishing me for not being more diligent, for not reaching out, for not asking the right questions, and I felt, and I thought (but didn’t say) WHAT ABOUT HIM? Guilt stalked me in those years, and for a long while after. Why hadn’t I seen it coming? Sure it was obvious, now.

Afterward, after that young stranger got off the bus, I couldn’t help thinking, could I have asked different questions? Would it have changed the course of events that lead him to one day laying there in bed, Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here‘ on the CD player (his favourite album), deathly white. Guess he’d spent the evening drinking whiskey and taking all his meds, one by one. When I came home and found him? I sat down, put my sweatpants on and called my Mom before I called 911.

He kept that pain at bay, he thought. I think he somehow always believed those truths of his childhood somehow made him less. I really don’t know. I was as naïve as him, I suppose.

But at one time I was the listener on the line to him. Spending long summer nights together on the patio, drinking wine after dinner, candlelight glowing, talking about everything and nothing. I had such fantasies of what we were. I did. I lived in some sort of la-la land, looking back.

I think maybe we just stopped listening to each other. Stopped paying attention. I became cold and distant, the more he lay there behind me, rubbing himself against my back in the middle of the night, and I slowly became disgusted by him. Something broke. We broke.

And one day I just untangle myself from the fear of leaving and told him to leave instead. Told him to go to that sister, let her pick his brain, maybe untangle some of his threads. And, I was afraid he’d try again, as right back down to the basement he went after his 3-day stint in the hospital – back to his hole.

All that was a long time ago.

The last time I last saw him was in the summer of 2003, as he would come out to Dodge where I was living at the time, after Mom died, to discuss the divorce. His suicide attempt had happened back in October of 1999. It was all very amicable, no anger, no screaming matches, it was just over.

I wonder though, thinking of that kid behind me on the bus, what he will do with that pain he carries, for good or for ill? Will he carry it with him, like my ex did, until it bursts out and wrecks havoc? Will it torment him and will he try to wash it all away with alcohol?

I just sat there and listened to this kid behind me talk about his Father, looking out the window remembering another victim of a childhood filled with abuse. Another little boy, who became a man with no sense of how to deal with all those pent-up horrors he had hidden for so long. I heard no bravado in his voice, just a few hesitations, like before he talked of visiting his Father, out of the blue, and then the bell rang, and he got up to go, and that was it, and his voice trailed away out the door, and then he was gone.

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