My Bipolar Ex-Love
I was at work, eating my lunch alone in my classroom—I generally try to avoid the teacher’s lounge and the ubiquity of its gossip hens. With my turkey sandwich in hand, I sat in front of the computer, entering grades, when my gnat-like attention span turned to Jessica, a woman I dated in my 20s and with whom I had my most tumultuous relationship.
I have difficulty believing intimacy between two people simply vanishes, ceases to exist in our thoughts and memories once we’ve moved on, so I have a tendency to tabs on my exes, either through social media or, in some cases, correspondence. Of course, some would rather not have anything to do with me, and that is also fine. As long I know they are well.
With Jess, she disappeared entirely from my life, never showed up again. I found this somewhat unsettling so I ran an Internet search on her name.
I nearly choked on a piece of half-masticated turkey when the results popped up seconds later and knew immediately that I wouldn’t be finishing my lunch.
The first search result was a link to Jess’ obituary.
After finishing college, with few prospects for teaching positions on the East Coast, I moved to Las Vegas where I taught high school for a year. The experience unfolded as one might expect the experience to unfold for a 23 year-old man living in a place that celebrates its tireless debauchery. I met Jess, a transplant for California, toward the end of my stay in Sin City.
One night, after taking a tough and ill-advised hit at a blackjack table—a gambler, I am not—I retreated to a bar around the corner from my apartment in North Las Vegas to soak my wounds with my friend, Brad. While lamenting the fiscal fuck-up that would leave me eating straight grilled cheese for a week, I spotted a striking brunette sitting alone across the bar.
“Look at her,” I said to Brad. “She is stunning.”
A gay man, Brad gave her a cursory glance to appease me. “Pretty,” he said. “You should buy her a drink.”
“Why would a girl like that be interested in me?”
“Stop it, Mr. Self-Deprecating,” Brad said. “Besides, how much more can you possibly lose tonight?”
Brad was right. While a smarter man may have seen the shit-show at the blackjack table as a harbinger, I went ahead and asked the bartender to buy her a drink. Hours later, we left the windowless bar and were greeted by the desert sun, pink on the horizon. Squinting and unsteady, we decided to skip the breakfast we planned and went back to my apartment instead.
Jess never left.
After a year of teaching in Vegas, a year of working in an inner-city classroom where apathy and poverty were rampant, I took the first bus out of town and accepted a teaching position in New Hampshire. A native Californian who had never been east of the Mississippi, Jess agreed to pack her things and move with me. We had known each other less than two months and were still in throes of the honeymoon-stage, lightness and levity and lots of sex.
In retrospect, however, there were warning flags that a less impetuous person would’ve picked up. Jess had difficulty holding down a job, for example. In the two months we’d known each other, she had gone through three retail jobs. She would get hired and quickly stop making her shifts, sleeping through them or blatantly blowing it off. She would also drink deep into the nights, proving the first night with me was not an anomaly.
Somewhere in the New Mexico desert, however, I started to notice cracks in the foundation. We started to fight viciously as soon as our U-Haul truck hit I-15 and didn’t stop for the three-day drive. One night, Jess’ birthday, we stopped at a motel off the interstate in Oklahoma, and Jess went out for cigarettes and disappeared until 4 a.m., arriving at our room drunk and pounding on the door.
By the time we arrived in New Hampshire, I knew I had made a grave mistake but hoped against hope that the tensions would resolve once we settled into the new apartment. It would be another two years until Jess would finally move out
Before meeting Jess, I didn’t know a lot about bipolar disorders, other than the fact that Kurt Cobain succumbed to it. While I suffer from my own bouts with depression and anxiety, which my substance abuse exacerbates, I didn’t understand the concept of being manic. I didn’t understand the incapacity to pull one’s self out of bed and make it into work one day then the next day wake up an unflappable exuberance for life, an infinite well of optimism about the future.
In New Hampshire, like Vegas, Jess couldn’t hold on to a job. Personable and pretty, she would land positions in retail or food service then sleep through her shifts or simply stop showing up. She would then go through prolonged periods of unemployment, staying in bed with the shades drawn until sundown. At night, she would be out and about at local bars, befriending men who anything but inured to her California good-looks and would buy her drinks, some nights not making it home until I was fast asleep. I also didn’t understand that this hypersexual behavior was part of the disorder, instead blaming it on a moral failure as opposed to a chemical imbalance in her brain.
After a year and a half of nightly drunken arguments and paying the rent alone, I coldly ordered Jess to move out of the apartment. She was 3,000 miles from her nearest relative, alone on the East Coast, and in true asshole form, I told her to pack her shit and leave. To this day, my insensitivity to her situation astounds me, and when I read her obituary five years later, my greatest regret was that I never properly apologized.
She moved in with one of her male friends from the bar, a kid who lived in the attic of a house his brother rented with his wife. As soon as Jess’s stuff was out of the apartment, however, she began to stop by weekend nights on her way home from the bars. We would sit at the kitchen table and slug cheap wine before slipping into bed for sloppy-but-passionate drunken sex. Jess still didn’t have a job, and I never bothered to ask her how she afforded to drink and live. Slowly, she began to work her way back into the apartment and into my life.
It was as if she never left.
I was teaching a summer school class, adolescents indignant to be spending their vacation in a sweltering classroom with Catcher in the Rye—they seldom saw the irony—when a phone call came from the Concord police. The officer told me there was an incident at my apartment, and they needed me there immediately. My students got their wish, and I dismissed the class.
When I arrived at my apartment, two cruisers were parked in front, and fresh-faced police officer got out to greet me. “There is a young woman named Jessica in the apartment, and she has locked herself in the bathroom,” the officer told me. “The neighbors called after she was hanging out the window, yelling profanities at them. She was clearly intoxicated. Is she your girlfriend?”
I went into the apartment, and another officer was standing outside the bathroom door, talking to Jess. He informed me that Jess said she swallowed half a bottle of aspirin, and they had called an ambulance. They were trying to talk her out of the bathroom, but if she continued to refuse, they were going to break down the door. I asked him to let me try talking to her.
“Jess, what’s wrong?” I asked through the door. “Open up.”
“Too drunk,” she slurred. “Too sleepy to open.”
The police broke down the bathroom door, and Jess was huddled in a fetal position in the clawfoot bathtub. I sat in the tub beside her, holding her head. The ambulance arrived, and Jess was rushed to the emergency room where she had her stomach pumped. Jess was held for the night and released in the morning with a list phone numbers for rehab facilities in the area.
That night, Jess and I ordered a pizza and spent the evening in the bedroom, listening to music and calling the numbers on the list, hoping to find a bed for her. Finally, a facility in Nashua called with an opening, and we scheduled an in-take for Jess first thing in the morning. It was the last night Jess and I would ever spend sleeping together in the same bed.
The next morning, I drove Jess, who was frightened and reluctant, to the rehab with her one suitcase, the suitcase she used for her trips home to visit her family. As I said goodbye, Jess shook, her eyes wide with the look of a frightened little girl.
On the ride home, alone in the car, I cried. To this day, it still feels like some of it was my fault.
Jess didn’t immediately and completely vanish from my life. We kept letters while she was in rehab, but when once out of rehab and into AA, she was told to stay away from the people in her life who might trigger a relapse. Translation: me.
After the incident with the police, my landlord made it clear that at the end of the month I would be persona non grata at the apartment, and I moved in with a friend in Manchester. Other than the occasional phone call, I didn’t hear much from Jess. We were living in different towns, and Jess was working the steps in AA, although I still wondered if the drinking was the root of Jess’ problems or an erroneous way of self-medicating.
Shortly after Jess left my life, I met my future wife. The last I’d heard, Jess was still sober and had moved back to Las Vegas to be close to her family. That was until I stumbled upon her obituary that one day during lunch.
I’ll likely never know exactly how Jess died, and I am not sure if it is even important. I have my theories, of course, but they are exactly that: theories. The fact is that Jess has left this world, and while she was here, something monstrous had a hold of her.
“You’re really nice,” Jess said to me the night I bought her that first beer at the bar in Las Vegas.
“I’m really not.”
Jess paused and pursed her lips. “Me neither,” she said. “But I really want to be.”
An earlier version of this essay appeared on The Good Men Project.
About the Author: Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, with his wife and kids. His books include Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside Press), After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press) Hangover Breakfasts (Bottle of Smoke Press in 2012), Sort Some Sort of Ugly (Marginalia Publishing in 2013), and My Next Bad Decision (Artistically Declined Press, 2014), Almost Christmas, a collection of short prose pieces, was recently published by Redneck Press. Graziano writes a baseball column for Dirty Water Media in Boston. For more information, visit his website: www.nathangraziano.com.