This Side of Love
a broken story
This story has changed the names of the individuals involved and contains a scene of graphic violence. August 2011
I had never taken a train into the city alone before. Sitting by the entrance to Rockridge Station, I listened to cars on the freeway pass overhead while waiting for a text message. Earlier, we decided to wait until the weekend to meet each other, but I wanted to see him now.
I insisted we meet downtown, which was foolish of me. I had visited San Francisco only once before choosing to move there and had only the vaguest memory of how to get around. With my dying cell phone in hand, I took a train from North Oakland to Montgomery Station. In the city, I stood starstruck on Market Street, mouth agape, my head tilted up at the towers above. I must’ve looked like a tourist. In most ways, I still was.
It would’ve been easier to meet anywhere else, I thought. Dolores Park, Fort Mason, the Panhandle. Somewhere not in the thick of the Financial District during rush-hour traffic. I wandered north into the noise of car horns and jackhammers until I saw him in the crowd at the intersection of Kearny and California.
Rhys would say that he saw me first. I remember seeing him spot me. Our eyes met as a cable car passed between us, but when it cleared, he had vanished. Was this some mean joke? Did he see me from across the street and change his mind? Maybe I didn’t look like my pictures.
I caught a glimpse of green fabric poking out from behind the pillar of a skyscraper. He was hiding. I could imagine why. We had been talking for months online, and now we were mere feet from each other. When the traffic signal allowed, I took a deep breath and crossed California Street.
When I got closer, he leapt out from behind the column like a child. The sight of him made me smile. Though we stood eye to eye, he was smaller than I expected. When we embraced, I smelled pipe tobacco and marijuana in his beard.
“I saw you across the street. Did you see me?” he asked.
“Yes, I saw you hide,” I said. “Your bag was poking out.”
“It was?” he said, examining the olive drab messenger on his hip. “Damn. You hungry?”
“Starving.” July 2012 Our train dove into the earth below Berkeley. I sat fuming in a different seat, in a different compartment, leaving Rhys to brood several cars over. We were returning from San Francisco to our insufferably small studio in the East Bay. What we were fighting about, I don’t recall.
We usually got off at North Berkeley. The station before that, near the University of California campus, was only a little further from our apartment. As the train slowed on approach to downtown, I considered what the night held in store: a silent walk to our little box wherein we would stew until one of us exploded. Sweat gathered under my hairline.
The space around me seemed to get smaller. Many passengers were standing and collecting near the doors. When the train stopped, I found myself joining them, walking through the doors and up the stairs with them, until we reached the surface and wandered in different directions.
I smoked one cigarette, and then another. Passing a high school, I watched two seagulls squabble over fast food remains. On my walk home, I met the blush of a midsummer sunset as it started to redden behind the building fog. I wanted to cry, not just for the beauty in front of me, but because I so rarely got to enjoy it alone.
When I reached the apartment, Rhys was not yet there. This was more ominous than it was comforting. I was sure he would give me hell for leaving him on the train like that, but I did not feel bad about doing it. By then, I didn’t feel much of anything. November 2011 I sat outside his apartment in the city watching the fog whip between eucalyptus trees. Rhys stepped outside wrapped in a bright red blanket holding two mugs of hot tea.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, handing me one of the cups.
“Good. Look up,” I said, pointing at the fog. We sipped our tea and watched it build, waiting for it to consume us.
“This is good acid,” I said after a while. “It’s funny that someone manufactured this.”
“It’s just a chemical,” Rhys said. “Our brains are a balance of them. As for whether or not they do a good job of producing and regulating them, well, that’s up to God.”
I looked at him, so perplexed by his faith. What made him so certain, I wondered? I had witnessed no miracles, no divine intervention. I lit a cigarette and looked out into the night. The quick-moving mist had engulfed the orange streetlights, distorting them and crowning them with halos. Why was God such a gamble to me? Was it possible I had witnessed proof, but failed to recognize it? “I’d like to think there is a god,” I admitted. “There is,” he said confidently. “He’s a scientist, just like the person who made this LSD.”
I raised my eyebrows. “That’s an interesting idea.”
“I’ve been known to have a few.” Suddenly, a twig snapped beneath the weight of someone walking nearby. “What the fuck was that!?” “Satan,” Rhys joked. My skin prickled. “That’s not funny,” I said. He laughed. “So you believe in the Devil but not in God?”
“Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. The whole thing is terrifying.”
He nodded, saying nothing. Dense fog swept over the hill, swallowing the Monterey pines at its peak. Muffled waves were breaking on the beach down the street. An occasional foghorn sounded as ships passed under the Golden Gate. “I’m going to miss living here,” Rhys said. “Me too.” “I hope I’ll like it over there. Berkeley sounds nice.”
“It will be. But my apartment’s really small,” I reminded him. “I hope that’s alright.”
“Would you rather stay here and split a room with me and another stranger?” he asked. I considered his question before realizing that both him and his roommate still felt like strangers.
“No, I suppose I wouldn’t.” October 2012 “Stop it, Rhys! Stop!” I screamed, but he continued to beat his skull against the edge of the bathtub. Blood was beginning to show in his hair. I dove into the bathroom to restrain him only to take a sharp jab in the ribs. I cursed him and tried again, this time wrapping my arms around his shoulders. When I had a firm hold, I kicked away from the bathtub and pushed us out into the hall. “Let go,” he screamed, “let me go!” “Calm the fuck down,” I shouted. He writhed in my arms. Then he began to cry.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he repeated. “You need to breathe,” I said. “Count it out.” He began to kick the door jamb. “No! You don’t understand! I did something!” I rolled my eyes and tried to hold him still. He always said things like this during an episode.
“Yeah, Rhys, I know.” He shuddered in my arms. I needed to call his mother.
“No. No, you don’t.” “Jesus,” I said, already exhausted. “Oh, I’m sorry if this is too fucking much for you.”
I tightened my grip. He wanted me to get angry with him. If I got angry, it opened the door to another brawl. By this point, they had become routine.
“It is too fucking much for me,” I told him, “but there’s nothing I can do about that, because you don’t really want help, do you?” He glared up at me. “Fuck you.” “Get up.” “No!” he screamed, going limp. “Get up!” I was growing impatient. Standing, I crossed my arms and looked down at him coldly. “You have got to get off of this floor.”
He hugged his knees. “I did something bad. But I didn’t mean it.” “Christ, I need to take you to the hospital.” “Fuck hospitals,” he cried. What else was there to do? If I took him to the ER, he’d just sign himself out once he was lucid enough to do so. That’s what happened last time. I didn’t want to push, especially when he was like this, but my growing suspicion had become undeniable. I got down next to him and he sat upright, sniffling.
“Rhys?” I asked, “What did you do?” There was a long and painful silence.
“It was my best friend’s cat,” he said finally, “But I didn’t mean to.”
My eyes widened. “What did you do to her cat?”
He clutched my shoulders and sobbed into my shirt. “I - I…” Rhys said, raising his arms. He twisted his hands in a wringing motion, then dropped his arms and wailed.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. A cold, new fear overcame me.
August 2012 We laid together on our little white couch, his body folded up in mine. I was listening to him breathe. “Do you feel like this all the time?” I asked him. “I have good days,” Rhys said quietly. “I know. I see them.” The last time he attempted suicide, it was pills. He fell asleep in the bathroom and woke up in the hospital. “My mom was so angry with me,” he said.
I looked over his head and through the window at the day’s waning sunlight. “I’m so scared of that, Rhys. Coming home and finding you just – Jesus.”
He sighed and looked away. Light from a car turning onto our street illuminated the window. It cut through the blinds, casting white strata on the walls of our room. Then the room grew dark.
“What would you do if I killed myself?” I asked. Rhys turned to me suddenly, looking as if I had slapped him in the face.
I shrugged. “I’ve thought about it too,” I said. “Sometimes it just happens.” It was strange, admitting this to someone who had tried to take their own life, but that didn’t make it any less real.
Rhys turned his whole body to me, grabbing my face with both hands. He bore his steely eyes into mine. “You – don’t you ever. You’re too good.”
“I don’t want to,” I said, a little ashamed. “They’re only thoughts.” “Well,” he asked, “how would you do it?” “I don’t know,” I paused. Several gruesome possibilities unfolded in my mind. I picked one that had begun to crop up any time I was in the city. “I’ve thought about walking in front of a bus.”
He winced and turned away. I could see him imagining it. He opened his eyes, tears spilling from their corners, and stared into mine.
“So,” he said, “you want to know what I would do if you stepped in front of a bus?”
Yes, I told him, afraid of his answer. November 2012 Sitting at the edge of the bed, I held my face, attempting to collect myself. I pulled back my hands and looked at my open palms. Strands of blond and black hair were stuck to bloody skin. “Sir?” the officer asked again. “Sir?” I looked up at the woman in uniform. “Can you answer the question?” I had forgotten what she asked me. “How did the incident start?” Where to begin? How could I help her understand? This particular fight started because he wanted to come to my high-end retail job and distract my coworkers so that I could make more sales. I told him it was a bad idea. He responded by hurling a plastic milk crate at my head. Would that have made sense to her?
“You also need to sign a waiver stating that you declined to be taken to the hospital.”
She presented me with a pen and a yellow piece of paper. I scrawled my name on the bottom line, staining it red. She took her pen back cautiously and dropped it in her pocket.
“In a minute, I’m going to have another officer come take your statement. Do you need anything? Some water?” I nodded, and she went into my kitchen, stepping carefully over broken bits of glass.
A second officer stepped inside. He looked around the place and grimaced. “You Mr. Walker?” he asked me. I nodded again. “We took Rhys Kendrick down to Holly Creek Psychiatric Facility on a 5150.”
“Can he get out?” I said, my eyes fixed to the floor.
“Only after he’s transferred to county. The
Alameda County judge gave him an automatic five-day restraining order, so he’s not allowed to return to the premises. If he does, you call us.” “Thanks.” The policewoman returned with a glass of water before going outside. The officer stood there for a moment, studying me.
“You know, he looked pretty beat up too,” he said. “We could’ve taken you in for the same thing.”
I looked up at him, enraged – how could he say that to me? Is it so different when two men are involved? Perhaps if I’d laid there and let him mangle me, I would have satisfied his expectations of what a victim of abuse should look like.
When he stepped outside to confer with his partner, I set about trying to find a pen in the wreckage of our apartment – my apartment – and I stopped. Was that right? I said it aloud, just to be sure. “This is my apartment.” It sounded right, so I said it again and again, for the rest of the day and into the night, making it more true with each of his things that I packed away. February 2016 “I’m writing a story on it,” I told a friend. I heard him pop a top on the other end of the line. “Wow. That doesn’t sound easy.” “It’s not. That’s why I called. I need to know what you remember.”
He collapsed onto his sofa with a loud frump. “I don’t know what to say, man. You guys were like fire and ice.” He took a long swig from his beer. “It’s been a couple years, right?” “Three,” I said, “four in November.” “Wow.” “I know.” “Well,” he said, scanning his fuzzy memory, “this was towards the end of it, I think. I had never seen anyone fight like that before. It reminded me of my folks. They used to rough each other up, but not like that. Not even close.”
I recalled the fight he was talking about. Rhys was convinced beyond all doubt that I had been sleeping with my neighbor’s boyfriend. I swore that I hadn’t. He didn’t believe me.
“You were asleep on the couch, right? When it started?”
“Mm-hmm.” He paused, taking another drink. “I think I was still high from the party we went to the night before. I woke up when he threw you onto your kitchen table.”
I was quiet for a while, remembering. After so many fights, the memories of them splice together as more time passes, each one begins to resemble the next. Was this also the night he sank his teeth into my bicep, leaving behind two purple crescents, or was that for the time I called him crazy at a Chinese buffet?
“I couldn’t look at it,” he said. “I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. You got him off of you eventually.”
“Yeah, after I hit him. I hate that it came to that. I feel like a monster.” “You’re not. What else could you have done?” “I don’t know.” “Jake,” my friend said firmly, “you did what you had to do.”
Did I? Sometimes I find myself demanding answers to old and inexorable questions. Why didn’t I push him harder to find a therapist? Why didn’t I make him get on and stay on medication?
Like the latent effects of exposure to radiation, I would not know how severely this trauma affected my body and mind until well after the fact. Long after I believed the fallout from my relationship with Rhys had settled, I would develop a pronounced case of post-traumatic stress disorder, for which I am currently receiving therapy – with promising results.
“Yeah,” I paused, “I guess you’re right.” I bit my bottom lip softly.
November 2011 We were walking along the Embarcadero. The sun had just dipped below the Pacific, tinting the sky a cool, deep violet. Headlights from citybound traffic on the Bay Bridge sparkled behind us, their reflections glinting on the waters of the bay. Rhys was holding my hand.
“I’m sorry for scaring you last night,” he told me. “Sometimes I get that way.”
“It’s okay. Just tell me when you feel like that again and we’ll work through it.”
He leaned on my shoulder and nuzzled it. “Thank you.”
Rhys and I shared a joint near the fountains at the plaza. We talked about ways we could love each other better. Palm trees –transplants like us – swayed before us in the late autumn wind. I trusted him with stories from my youth about hurt and survival.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said. “I’m telling you this because you need to hear it.”
I believed him. That night, I agreed to let him move in with me. For that, I’ve been called naïve. By kinder people, simply young. I’m still trying to learn the difference between the two. We huddled for warmth as the fog gathered and thickened above us. I smelled his hair and kissed him, and promised that I would keep caring for him, however reckless that may be.