A few years ago, I stood outside of my ex-boyfriend Billy's house. I was there for the second time that day, this time to take him to an appointment he had with his psychiatrist. It was an unusually sunny day for a Seattle February and I hadn't thought to wear sunglasses because it's not often that you need them here in the winter. If we hadn't broken up just before we'd both moved all the way across the country from New Haven, it would have been our fifth anniversary, but we had ended things and so instead it was just Groundhog's Day. I raised the heavy brass knocker on the dark red door and snapped it down a few times. The sound was loud as gunshots and echoed down the street. I struck it again and again. Nothing.
When I first met Billy in San Francisco it was a cold, wet January and the entire city seemed miserable. Nobody looked anybody in the eye, least of all me. I'd migrated there to start grad school, but the program hadn't been a good fit and I was stuck in limbo, waiting to transfer after the summer to try it again at the University of Iowa. I was friendless. I was broke.
When a room opened up in the apartment I shared with six other roommates, I'd spent an entire weekend showing the place to all of the typical San Francisco types—artists, hippies, techies, freaks—and every one of them had seemed just as dismal as the weather. But then came one last knock at the door, and when I'd opened it, there was a rather short guy standing there in a fitted blazer and jeans with mussed up hair and a half-smile staring back at me. "Hi, I'm Billy," he'd said. As I gave him the tour he explained that he was a paralegal. It sounded so grown-up to me, going to an office and lawyering all day. He'd gone to NYU, the school that as a Midwestern kid I'd been so sure I'd end up at that I'd gone so far as to memorize the streets of Lower Manhattan just in case. Just in case. He loved dogs, he said, a declaration made as my own growled at him and bit him hard enough on the ankle to draw blood. Have you ever noticed that this whole damn city is full of people who stare at ground when they walk? Nobody every looks at anybody else! he'd said and I'd laughed and thought, I like him!
After I'd given him the tour, I excused myself to listen to the radio. A friend of mine was being featured on This American Life. I love that show! Billy said, and so he joined me. We sat in my room, me on the bed, him cross-legged on the floor, and quietly listened as my friend told the story of a trip he'd taken with his deaf mother to a faith healer in Brazil. They were looking for a miracle. As we listened, he would sneak a glance at me, I would steal a peek at him, and then we'd look away quick because neither one of us wanted to be caught staring.
Later on, we would sometimes rehash this moment. I struggled to make it sound profound, probably because I am a poet. I'd say things such as, "I felt like water and you were the glass to contain me" or "In the silence of my room, you reached over and rapped out my heart's secret knock. It opened its doors to you." Billy would roll his eyes and reply with something like, "If anything was knocking it wasn't our hearts, lady. Maybe our metaphorical boots…." And I'd elbow him and he'd grab my arms tight and pull me close to cuddle. But we both knew that in that moment on the floor of my bedroom something had spilled out from us. Something had opened.
We sat on our deck and looked out over downtown San Francisco. Six months had passed, we'd become inseparable since he'd moved into the apartment, but I'd be moving away to Iowa the next morning. We'd known from that first day we'd met that this would be the eventual outcome, but now the time had come and neither one of us could fathom just how to go about it. There was fog, which was usual for San Francisco, but this night the air felt warmer than normal.
"I'm scared," I'd said to him. I counted the streetlights and thought about all of the days that were about to happen, "I'm afraid, that you're going to forget the little things that make me who I am. The things that you love about me. I'll just be a voice on the phone. There are going to be so many ski lifts and farms and strip malls and Walmarts between us. We won't build them, but they'll be there," and with that I hopped up and scrambled inside, pulling the sliding glass door shut behind me.
I yelled through it, "Everything's going to come between us and we will be as distant as this!"
Billy got up and slid open the door. He instead pulled the screen door closed. He pressed his hand to the screen and I could clearly see the outline of each finger against it. I put my own up against his and felt the heat of it. He said, "Love, it'll be like this, like we're almost touching. We'll be just fine," and I believed him.
"Pound on it or something," I said into the phone. I was sitting on the floor of an emergency room in North Carolina with my ear pressed up against a thick industrial door. I heard the sound of a muffled thumping.
I'd been in Iowa for eight months and, after an autumn spent applying to grad schools himself, Billy had moved out to live with me. We were both thrilled when he was accepted at his first choice program and he'd flown down to Durham for orientation. When he'd been gone for a day, his father called. Billy was missing, the police couldn't find him, and nobody had seen him. Within an hour I was on my way to North Carolina. I met with the police and I retraced his steps, expecting to find his mangled car in a ditch somewhere. I'd found nothing. I was frantic and decided to call every hotel and motel in the phonebook. There were hundreds, but at the seventh one I'd called the clerk had transferred me and Billy picked up the phone. He'd made a mistake, he said. He'd gotten drunk and ended up on the wrong side of town. His rental car, his phone, his computer, his luggage, everything he'd had with him had been stolen. Everything was gone. It was too much, he'd said. He'd made a mistake, he'd said.
"I didn't know what to do," he cried. I'd never heard him cry before.
I said, "I'm coming for you, we'll figure this out." When it became clear that the neighborhood he was in was bad enough that no cab would take me there, I'd called the police to fetch him. They'd found him with his wrists bleeding out and taken him to the hospital. I should have told the intake nurse that we were married, but I hadn't, and so the hospital forbade us contact. After twelve hours, and lots of wheedling and crying by the both of us, a psychiatrist took pity and snuck Billy a phone so that he could call me. We sat on either side of that big, metal door.
"I can hear you!" I said and kicked at the door with my feet.
"I can feel that," Billy said, "I can feel you."
I was living alone in a cabin in Northern Iowa, on fellowship, ostensibly working on "my novel". Billy came out to visit. I showed him around.
"At night, I'm pretty scared of that," I said, gesturing at the glass door to the cabin, "It becomes a mirror. I can't see out. It really feels like someone is staring in at me. When it gets too bad, I shut myself in the closet."
"Why the fuck would someone build a cabin with a flimsy excuse of door like this?" he'd grumbled and then set about covering the glass panes with towels, "I mean, doors should make people feel safe. That's why they have deadbolts."
For years we were on and off. He was sad. He was better. We lived together. We lived thousands of miles apart. He was going to marry me. He wanted me to pack my things and leave. I would come back. I would leave again. Years of coming and going and all of it marked by the doors we walked through. Doors we opened. Doors we closed again.
There was the hatch-like door of an apartment in an old Oakland Victorian that had been remodeled to look like a boat. One morning, out of the blue, he'd told me he'd bought me a ticket back to Chicago and he needed me to leave the next day. I didn't even ask why because I knew that there wasn't an answer. It just was. I'd slammed that door in his face so hard that he'd dropped the glass he was holding and I'd heard it shatter loud as anything as I stood on the porch and cried.
There was the beaded curtain we'd hung up in place of a bedroom door in our first apartment in New Haven. When I was in the kitchen cooking, I would watch him sprawled out on our bed, hunched over his textbooks and I'd smile and call him in for dinner.
And then our closed bedroom doors at our second apartment there. They were just down the hall from one another, but neither of us could seem to find the wherewithal to walk the distance between them. The sturdy wooden door at the office of our couples' therapist that I'd stare at as Billy detailed all the reasons that I just had to move on. The pale grey door of my first apartment in Seattle that he'd helped me to paint.
What must have been hundreds of sliding glass doors at airports. Sometimes one of us would appear out of one. Sometimes one of us would disappear back through another.
Billy never did come to the door that sunny February day in Seattle, because he couldn't. He'd put a pistol in his mouth just before I'd returned and he'd pulled the trigger and he was dead.
Billy hadn't been doing well for a few months, so I'd gone over Groundhog's Day morning to check on him. He was lying on his bed; I sat on the floor beside him and stroked his head. "This isn't how it's supposed to be, Rebecca," he'd said.
I told him jokes and I'd gotten him to laugh a bit, but I couldn't get him to roll over and look at me. I said, "Let's get you feeling better," then I called his psychiatrist and scheduled a meeting for later that afternoon. I didn't yet know that we'd never make it. I phoned his parents and told them he wasn't well. They made plans to fly out from Boston the next morning.
Then I lay down next to him for a bit and held him for an hour. I needed to run some errands so I told him I'd be back at three and I got up to leave. As I walked through the door, he said, "Rebecca." I'd turned to him. He was peeking out at me from beneath his comforter.
I'd said, "Yes, Billy."
He said, "I love you."
"I know," I said, "I love you, too, baby."
He said, "Very much, I mean, I love you very much."
"Yes," I said, my throat catching a bit, "I love you, too. More than I can say." I lingered there for a few moments and our eyes didn't break contact. It felt like we were both spilling out everywhere and I didn't know what to do about it, so I walked out of his room and I pulled the door closed behind me.
In this time since he's died, I'm scared that the last drop of Billy will run like water right through my fingers. I'm afraid that if I let myself move on from the pain of his death that my mind might take that opening to slam shut on him. And he'd be locked out, all alone in that darkness.
Rebecca Bridge is a poet, novelist, teacher, and screenwriter living in Seattle with her old dog, Charlie. She is the co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide to Turning Artifacts into Art.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]