The Sandbox

Amnesia, Art, Healing


Chapter One

The first voices I hear are the Mean Team. More than one, less than twenty, they come to me as a group, a herd, a gaggle. A team. I can't see them, they take on no shape or size. Instead they are words, typewriter font tapping away like a ticker tape in my mind. They insist on being recorded, transcribed onto a real page. 

Write us DOWN. NOW.

They come to me while doing dishes at night, right before bed too. They’re loudest and clearest though in the early morning as if sleep is their fuel. And when I wake they start swinging. 

Ugly. Desperate. DYKE.  

I don’t start hearing them right away. They evolve over time, taking about six months to emerge after I’ve been triggered by Mara. I’ve been writing so much by then, so lost in thought that when they do finally arrive I’m comfortable talking with them. 

“Who are you?” I ask. 

Hell if we know. 

“You’re so loud so mean. Are you the Mean Team?”

Yeah, sure. We like that.

The instant the name is declared I hate it. It embarrasses me, makes me cringe and fold over inside in shame. It feels as shameful as the name my mother gave my dog growing up. So much so that I never used it. 

Imagine, I think only now, decades later, the effort it must take to never say your own dog’s name. 

Ever since Mara there’s been a blizzard inside my head, a frenetic snowstorm in words. Sentences and paragraphs and pages pelting down from the sky and now voices too. I’m told this is me, all mine, reassured I’m not psychotic. So I allow it, this storm to rage on because in truth I like storms, love snow. And since there’s no editing of a snow storm, no going back and telling it to be something else, to fall from the sky any differently, the Mean Team it is.

Get up. Get the FUCK up. 

I lay in bed listening, watching the font. 

And say goodbye to Pete. 

I plead with them, argue back that I once loved Pete, genuinely and completely, I did. 

Not anymore, asshole.

***

Eileen is my therapist. Twice now. 

In my first round I arrive depressed, concerned that I’ve grown too attached to this recurring fantasy of mine where I swallow all the pills I can scare up in my medicine cabinet. The fantasy makes me feel better, comforts me into thinking there’s a way out of the pain I feel. When the darkness descends I feel relief in thinking about the little white cabinet with the paint peeling. I’m forty at the time, in a long term relationship with one woman, openly sleeping with another. I am lonely and sad and feeling hopeless in ways that I know have gotten extreme, in ways too that, if I think about it, have accompanied me my entire life. 

Eileen’s card was handed to me at least five years prior; an old roommate of her’s, a friend of a friend, pressed it into my hand, with the recommendation that if I ever needed someone to talk to, she’d be the one. Old and tattered, when I decide I’m in dangerous waters, I pulled it out of my wallet and call. 

“I was given your name by Jan,” I say over the phone to Eileen. And the next day I am in her office.

Round one with Eileen takes place before she moves into the large office. It’s down the same hallway though, this office tiny, windowless and cave like. We sit across from each other but close and in the glow of a small lamp that feels like a fire we’ve built to keep us warm.  Eileen’s eyes are a soft light blue that I can see behind her glasses and she smiles in the right way and at the right times that make me feel, almost immediately, better. After the first session there is no question or hesitation that I will be coming back. Which I do. I book again—and again until I eventually take ownership of the Thursday at 5PM slot. 

For five years this time is mine. This chair in her office on this day and time, mine. I never miss a week, hold onto that hour with Eileen in my heart each time I leave nearly right up until the minute I arrive back the following week. I feel longing for her between sessions which I never talk about. Sometimes I drive around late at night wondering where she lives, past her office, looking for what I’m not sure.

I quickly end my affair not long after I start treatment. Week after week I go and report on my life. I persevere and ride the waves of business ownership, some years decent, some years abysmal. I try hard to expand my social circle and join the gym nearby. My relationship doesn't change much; I am with someone stable but reserved, someone a lot older than me, someone I come see in time has a serious drinking problem. I have terrifying dreams, nightmares, that never make sense to me. I write a little bit and send some of it to Eileen. 

I go on like this for years. 

Then something happens. 

Something wildly unexpected. Something that’s never happened to me before. I fall deeply and madly in love with a man—with Pete. It begins as a genuine friendship from the gym but over time evolves into relationship that forces my hand. I reach a crossroads where I must decide between him—or her. 

I choose him. 

The choice is not easy nor without pain. But wrenching as it is I cut ties, leaving my thirteen year relationship with a woman to be with a man, leaving the known for the unknown because I can see no other way. I howl at the leaving, loud, from places within me I don’t recognize nor understand. Eileen tells me this is grief but her explanation means nothing to me. I’m so overtaken by sadness, more than once I pull over to the side of the road. At the top of my lungs, parked on a random side street, I scream at the top of my lungs in agony. 

I’m being torn, ripped away from home, from my girlfriend. But I can see no other way. I love Pete more than I’ve ever loved anyone. And I need to leave home to be with him. 

Eileen tells me at the time that I seem—that I “feel good” to her—though I am ragged, torn up and shredded by this ending. I’m newly in love but it’s tainted, mixed with extreme pain—with grief. I eventually move out of my home, purchase a different one—smaller—but end up never sleeping in it. I choose to go to Pete’s, to sleep there. I use the house I bought for work, for storing my clothes. 

With time I fade out of treatment with Eileen. 

Until, several years later, something else comes up. 

Something big. 

This time I don’t pick up the phone to call Eileen. Instead, I email her. 


Her hints fall like 

Thick rain drops

I want her here—with me

I cannot stop

Poetry has gone off in my head, music too to which I need to write lyrics. And there’s prose, pages pouring out. I’ve become obsessed, suddenly, with another woman and it’s erupting in words. 

She asked me out

She asked me in

Something’s coming

About to begin

“Something’s come up,” I write to Eileen. And include the rhymes. 

Eileen gets back quickly, thrilled to work together again. She encourages me to come in right away.  She adds that she loves my poem. 

“Or are these lyrics?” she asks. 

***

I’ve been obsessed with women before. Always painfully. Always blindly. The pain either fades relatively quickly or if it doesn’t its resolution for me is found in having an affair or some kind of romantic relationship. Since being with Pete I’ve not found myself obsessed until, suddenly, after being together with him for ten years, Mara appears. It feels stronger than anything I’ve felt before and comes with a new and disturbing dividing line, a specific date and moment in time between my loving Pete the way I had for years and my feeling not a thing. 

Nowhere to go with this. I am scared. Familiar, painful. No please, not again. 

The date is January 9th. And my change of heart is the opposite of something that has been eroding, something corrosive in my relationship with Pete that is insidious that finally breaks. Rather I’d loved Pete, solidly, fiercely that same morning. A decade in, I still could not have ever imagined wanting to be with anyone else. But by the late afternoon he will mean nothing to me. I’ll arrive back at the house from a hike, everything seemingly in tact, everything looking the same but my heart has shifted, moved out, taken its most precious belonging which is my love, packed up and moved elsewhere. 

There is nothing about the January 9th date except that the shift in me occurs then, nothing special around it except for what it becomes to me which is a line between what was and the beginning of something completely other. 

Pulling up to the curb to park late that afternoon with Stella in the back seat I wonder if she can sense the change that’s just taken place, if a dog’s intelligent nose could smell this type of shift in a human’s state of mind. 

“Up, up, Stells,” I say when I open the back door. And out she goes. 

Stella is a Greyhound, long and sleek. I run my hand over her chest to feel her ribs, as if checking to make sure she’s there, that I’m not dreaming. I observe the same black saddle across her white back, the same large black circle that covers a portion of her tail and tail bone. I am steady on my feet, I don’t stumble on my way from the car to the front the door. But I feel a sense of wooziness as I enter the house. 

Inside, Pete looks up from the television and smiles big at me like he always does. 

“How was the hike?” he asks, turning down the volume with the remote. 

Stella trots over to him and pushes her head into his lap. She’s trained him on how exactly to rub her soft black ears, her greying face interrupted by a white stripe down the middle. There is no entryway into the house so I land in the living room where I focus on the paint color, peach, which never ended up feeling like the best choice once it was done. 

“Good. Overcast but then it cleared.”

The space we share is small. The the living room hosts a couch for two, an unused wood burning stove that sits on tiles and a large flat screen television. The kitchen is basic and old—everywhere in every way; pealing paint job, sticky drawers, outdated appliances. We have two equal and modestly sized bedrooms with a bathroom between them. 

It’s a simple grid divided into four. 

This winter has been rainy and our shoes are piled up near the tiling around the wood stove. Shoes, boots, some blankets and towels for Stella too.  

I stand in the living room trying to understand what is going on—this shift I feel in me, a faint and muffled whaling inside, half pain, half promise. It feels like a noise and an undercurrent that’s always been there but that I’m being forced to stop and notice because the volume has been turned up tenfold. 

I look at Pete feeling disoriented, removed, transported somehow to a vantage point where I’m viewing my life with him from a distance, from an airplane. As I fly further and further away I can make out a patchwork quilt of scenes and rituals stitched together from ten thousand feet: there’s Pete backing into the driveway with his truck and concrete pump hitched to it, Stella’s tail wagging wildly from inside the house in anticipation. There are our Sunday pizza nights in the city, the pasta Pete makes once a week for us. Baseball season March through September, the Christmas lights ritual where we pop our own popcorn and go for drives to see how everyone’s decorated their homes. We have his family and mine, this little grid house Pete keeps after his divorce, the house I bought after moving away from my girlfriend. And the decision we’ve made together, woven into this quilt, to not get married, to not turn what has been so special and organic and unexpected into something ordinary and manufactured. 

Pete’s laid out the newspaper on the coffee table in front of him, pen in hand to start working the Sodoku. He pats the beige couch, a request for me to come sit down. But I’m frozen, stuck between the space between the front door and the couch.

For ten years, nearly every night I’ve rested my feet on Pete’s lap right on this couch, usually falling asleep while he watches television. But I won’t—can’t—walk over there. Pete looks just like he did that morning, burly, green-eyed, strong. Nothing has changed between when he kissed both my cheeks and left the house for a job. But he feels like a stranger to me now, three feet and a thousand miles away both. 

“I’m gonna check email,” I look away, distracted. 

I go into the bedroom and grab my laptop. I locate my old therapy document. I’d written one hundred fifty pages in the five years worth of Thursdays I’d seen Eileen. 

I begin again on page one hundred fifty one. 

I want to brush her hair

My hands against all that’s bare

Three weeks after this first entry I’ll be back in treatment. 

I will start hearing voices screaming in my head a few months after that.