There’s a story that I think everyone seems to know by now, but I’ll refresh your memory: there’s this flood. And a guy’s sitting on his roof, as the water’s rising, and he’s praying.
Someone comes by in a boat, asks if he needs help. “No,” he says. “God will save me.” The water rises. Another boat comes by, asks if he needs help. “No,” he says again. “God will save me.”
But the water keeps rising. And now it’s actually lapping up onto the roof. And soon a helicopter hovers overhead–and they’re begging him to take the ladder, climb up in. But again, with flood-soaked shoes, he says, unwavering, “No. God will save me.”
So the flood continues. He drowns.
When he gets to the gates of heaven, he asks, “God, I believed in you. I prayed to you. Why didn’t you save me?”
And God says, “What are you talking about? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”
We shake our heads at this guy. But who among us hasn’t ignored the signs, the practical truth pointing us one way or another, because we’ve insisted on waiting for a flashing neon sign?
I think I’ve been this man lately. My socks are wet, the water’s rising…but I’m not drowning yet. And it’s not that I don’t see the ladders and oars extended. But still I’m standing on the roof.
Yes, this man is a bit of a fool. But it’s easy to stand on the other side of the glass and point when your house isn’t underwater and you’re still looking up to heaven, water in your eyes, still hoping, still asking. And yes, I know—turkeys drown doing the exact same thing.
But I’m not a turkey, so I guess I’m here to defend the process with all the other sentient beings capable of thought and change.
I am currently in the process of a breakup that no one in my life will be surprised by. I can count on half of one hand the people who were ever even on board with the idea of this person in general.
And I didn’t have boats and helicopters, but I had two pies and a Johnny Cash necklace.
On the first pie:
The man I have to break up with is notoriously hard to pin down, and most of our relationship—which may be a strong word, but I’m using it all the same—has involved last-ditch, last-minute, play-it-by-ear scrambling.
On the eve of his birthday, which I was almost certain he would do nothing to celebrate, there was a tentative plan for us to try and see each other. And because I bake reflexively as a way to endear myself to most of the human race, and because I hate the idea of people letting their birthdays slip by unnoticed, and because here was a rare opportunity in which I could express the complex affection and appreciation I have for him in reasonable material form beyond the terrifying space of Telling You How I Feel….there was a just-in-case small pie with his name on it in the front seat of my car, along with an unwritten birthday card.
But in all the last minute scrambling, I had to bake it in my family’s toaster oven. Then, when the evening unsurprisingly ended in a request for a raincheck, I took the small pie home and decided, name on it or not, that I would eat the pie and remove the evidence until further notice. But when I tried to release the mini-pie from the metal pan, I noticed it wouldn’t twist out of the pan. Odd.
So I twist off the top crust with his name on it…only to find that the inside was raw. Completely unbaked.
The pie I made for this man was undercooked on the inside…but no. I was having none of that symbolism. So the signs decided to get a little louder.
The next time I went to his house, I didn’t have time to rebake or write the card, but I was wearing my favorite Johnny Cash necklace, and sure enough…I lost it. He looked everywhere, I looked everywhere, but it was gone.
What did the necklace say, you ask?
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Stamped into metal, with a gun charm floating next to it.
I repeat, lest we all miss this…I lost a necklace that says I keep a close watch on this heart of mine in this man’s house. This man who I have cried over, lost sleep over, and had to drink tea with ginger in it in to make the rock in my stomach go away over. I do not heed the advice of my necklaces well.
But still…a third sign loomed.
So the second pie. Because I would not rest until this man got his birthday pie, my signature move.
I rebaked, this time with a backup pie, should some underbaking rear its ugly head again, threatening my reputation as a pie genius. And this time I would give myself twelve hours to do this, with two pies locked and loaded.
One perfectly baked strawberry balsamic pie with his name on it, one perfectly baked strawberry balsamic pie with a star cut out of it. I baked them, packaged them in neat brown kraft paper boxes.
And then, as I was too ambitious in carrying a large pile of things on my way out the door…the pies went flying across the room. One survived, one died on impact, dripping down the wall of my living room.
Can you guess which one? Bullseye.
I stared at his obliterated name in crust, coloring my carpet strawberry balsamic. Then I matter-of-factly scraped the remains into a dust pan and spoke these definitive words aloud, “No. I refuse this metaphor.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that objects and gifts have held an oddly weighty symbolic significance in my life, to the point of being omens. Remind me to tell you a story about the mermaid painting that hangs in my bathroom, when the dust settles…
That aside—I can’t live my life being swayed so heavily by the breeze of what might seem to mean this or that. Things, I think, only carry a weight you give them, and more often than not in hindsight.
But it wasn’t just inanimate baked goods and jewelry that were trying to warn me that something was amiss.
Some were people literally telling me as much—some in ways that I wanted to hear, some in ways I didn’t. But I will never say that the truth as they saw it wasn’t presented to me out of a place of love and concern, in a variety of ways, which I appreciate.
And it’s not that I don’t sympathize with the dilemma of seeing a friend or loved one suffer and weighing how much truth to give in relation to how much shoulder space to lend….because I’ve been there. I know the torture of watching your best girl waste her time with someone you don’t think is good news. I’ve been the friend tearing their hair out because they can’t understand why you would keep walking back into the arms of a man who made you cry, made you feel crazy. And I’ve cursed the heavens, wrung my hands, exclaiming, “What else can I say? How are they not listening to me? How do they not see what they’re doing?”
And now that I’ve been on the other side…I wish I could go back to Past Jaz and lovingly kneecap that high horse of hers and sit down with her in the dust and remind her that no, it isn’t our job to keep everyone from pain. We couldn’t do it even if it was. Our job is to hold our friends tightly, but with an open hand, to tell the truth, yes, but mostly just to be there and love them as best as we can.
To my friends who Past Jaz lectured into the ground on such topics…forgive me. Thank you for your patience. It’s just taking her a little longer to get here than she thought it would…and she still has a ways to go.
Sometimes I was even telling myself the truth I needed to hear, in a way. Like the time I sat with this man at the Fred 62 counter some while after midnight, listening as he told me the story of how his son was born, and how he tried to make it work with the mother, but his heart wasn’t in it, and eventually he had to draw a line in the sand.
To which I said, “See, yes, that’s why boundaries are so important. Because that’s what you have to do—you have to be brave enough to tell people what you need.”
And I heard myself, almost already shaking my head at myself then, as if to say, “Finish your coffee and 1 AM avocado toast, and enjoy it. But yeahhh…we’re gonna revisit that advice pretty soon, kid.”
That was three months ago. In the time since, I have baked a slew of new pies, one that reached him perfectly delicious and intact (the third pie, of course, because I’m a writer, and I believe in the rule of threes).
But while the birthday pie survived, my belief that this relationship could continue unchanged did not. Mere moments after we ate this pie together, I knew this all had to come to an end. I knew I had to go. Or I would surely drown.
It’s true that in the weeks since seeing the water rising, realizing I need to arrange a ride out of here, I have absolutely felt freer in the broad sense. I know this will save my life, and I’ll be happier and better for it, and in some ways I already am with the end in sight.
But I cannot lie to you—while there has been freedom in realizing this, there has been a deep sadness clouded over the last couple of weeks. As I’ve begun to wade through the last round of the hell that is trying to schedule time with this man, I have seen my heart break in ways I didn’t know it could.
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about I Told You So.
Though I don’t think anyone in my life has ever been callous or stupid enough to use these words exactly, it doesn’t change my fear of them. That as I stand there in my most vulnerable, soul-shaking grief of what the end of this will mean, someone will shrug or stare blankly at me, masking poorly that this is exactly what they knew would happen. And at my loneliest place, the weight of that seems like it could crush me.
Some of it is pride, yes. But some of it is the sadness of no one knowing what was good about this. No one will know how much this meant to me, except me, even at its worst. And I have to learn to let that one go.
Because this often-sad story ends with the moral that so many do—that I have to release the idol of who I am in your estimation of me. That’s the only real danger of I Told You So. That you find me to be a fool who should have seen it coming.
But what is I Told You So? What is the purpose of “See, I saw that before it came?” It’s like those people who make a point of saying they weren’t surprised someone died, “That makes sense, because you know he smoked a lot. He ate too much. He had cholesterol problems.”
Who cares? Why are we so quick to diagnose when we should just be saying, “I’m sorry. That sounds like it was really hard.” Is it a way to outrun our own mortality? Death will find us whether we see it coming or not, and pain is much the same.
Because I would argue that it doesn’t matter if you saw it. It doesn’t matter that you saw how this would end before me. I still had to get there.
…which I try to say from a place of real humility and ugly truth. Part of which involves the fact that as I’m writing this, my reheated fries in the toaster oven just nearly caught our office kitchen on fire.
And that now as I’m still writing this, I set another pot of homemade limoncello on fire while waiting to hear back from said lover. Which I only say to tell you that I’m not great at this. I’m not perfect. And I’m writing this deliberately in this messy middle space of still trying to end this well—because the process is the point.
None of this has been easy, and I don’t anticipate that changing. I have fought my way through this kicking and screaming and crying, but I’ve kept on walking. I’ve kept my legs under me, and I’ve done the work to see the chains on my ankles that were slowing me down.
I’ve written this and stopped and picked it back up again a dozen times over, only because that was as much as I was able to write about it. I have written only when I had the clarity to do so because that was the most I could give.
But I didn’t want to wait to write this until I had all my ducks in a row, years later, with a wan, knowing smile. I’m sure there will be a time for that kind of writing, but I wanted to write this from the moment of walking away before I wanted to, but knew I needed to.
And as much as some may have seen that earlier than others—I’m the only one walking inside this, and so if I can’t develop the eyes to see this for myself, then it doesn’t matter who saw it first—I could have stopped this earlier, yes. But if I didn’t know in my gut why I was setting myself free, I wouldn’t have recognized it as freedom. And I would have walked right back into the same chains. And now I know.
And I know also that it wasn’t me choosing to suffer mindlessly. It was me walking after what I wanted, and seeing that yes, some of it was beautiful–but that there was a bottom to it. This love I ran after was limited—it wasn’t that it wasn’t real. It was. But I have needed to see the truth of what it means to have dreams that are a little too small. And at least for me, I needed to hold these small dreams close to my heart for a while, acknowledge the ache within me for more—or I might never have believed that more was really more.
And there’s a moment where we can feel the temporary beauty of one broken, small-dreaming person comforting another, attempting to cure “the terrible disease of loneliness”. But if we stay there too long, we strangle each other, we forget what it is to breathe without a rock in the bottom of our stomachs, or we deaden ourselves entirely, forgoing oxygen for inhaled smoke, deadening, deadening. But it’s not just my freedom—I want him to have his, too. And that can’t happen without a goodbye, without a line drawn in the sand.
All this I have learned in the thick of it. All this I have heard from friends but had to see with my own eyes. The cautionary tales help to a point, but this was a road I needed to walk on my own, barefoot mostly, so I could feel the texture of the dirt between my toes, and to know each shard of debris that threatened to break skin. I’ve built up calluses to protect, but I will let them wear down again, working hard to keep walls down and live with eyes open, reborn, fresh, new again.
So if you’re a friend who tried to coax me off the roof and into your helicopter, to give me a warm dry blanket, to get me to put some shoes on for God’s sakes, I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through. I have heard you, I have known that your words came from a place of love. And I absorbed as many as I could, believe me.
And please don’t mistake my wandering for lack of gratitude. I have seen you with eyes of concern, with tears streaming telling your story, with kind silences too, with well-chosen words of wisdom, with offers of loving embrace. I have seen you sitting next to me, letting me go crazy checking my phone, eating all the leftover discard pies with whiskey on the side, watching movies and crying with me. I have seen you fighting for me. Some of it hurt, most of it helped. But for all of it I still am grateful.
I am a woman in process. I am learning what I need. Signs or not, this will all be okay, and I am grateful to be someone who merits your attention and concern.
And now, as I’m writing this, I’m a free woman.
At long last, I got the ending I wanted, the goodbye I hoped for—a beautiful, poetic close to a turbulent journey that was as bittersweet as the rest, but I can’t forget how fortunate I am to have had such an ending at all, one that preserved everything that was good about this.
Still it is painful in moments of quiet. Still I keep forcing myself to remember that this is right, that I will breath will full lungs again. I will stop drowning again. But sometimes it’s hard.
And yet…last week, two days after this book finally closed…my helicopter came kindly back to me.
Cleaning out my car at a gas station, though I’d sworn I’d turned my car upside down in months previous with no luck…there, glinting at me from just underneath the right carpet mat, was my Johnny Cash necklace.
So I’m taking this helicopter out of here. I’m keeping a close watch on this heart of mine, wet socks and all—but I’m not sorry for my time on the roof. Because now, for the moment…I am flying free.