“And the cornet blows
where the oleander grows
and us too,
not the same people that our old friends knew.”
-The Mountain Goats, ‘Attention All Pickpockets’
“The most sublime Edenic comparison came in the sermon of a frontier preacher who, wishing to convey to his congregation the glories of the afterlife, sang: “O my dear honeys, heaven is a Kentucky of a place.””
-John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer
They call it bluegrass, which doesn’t make any sense. It’s a small absurdity, the sort of thing that burrows into the cool earth, germinating until it has taken firm root in society, in the collective consciousness, growing into a glaring inconsistency at odds with the rest of the ecosystem. It’s a pest, this absurdity. A nuisance. The grass isn’t blue, after all. You can see full well that it’s green.
They call it Poa pratensis. Poa comes from the Ancient Greek πόα, meaning “grass”, “hay”, or especially “fodder”. Pratensis is derived from a combination of the Latin prātum and the suffix -ēnsis, which together form an adjective meaning roughly “of the meadow”. Fodder of the meadow. Low quality offal, unfit for wide consumption, spread over the cool riversides, the sprawling savanna, the rising timberline, the mountain pastures.
They brought it from the Old World, though there is evidence it may be native to these shores, a rough ancestor greeting the new strains introduced by foreign invaders. It is found all over Europe and in parts of Asia and mountainous northern Africa. For centuries they called it smooth meadow grass but when it took hold in Appalachia the white man gave it a new name, as white men do.
They discovered it grew exceptionally well in temperate climates, spreading quickly from coast to coast. It was resilient, surviving both flood and frost. It was well-suited for use as sod, forage, or fodder, something to walk on or to feed with. It was effective at excluding other plants, its rhizomes choking out unfamiliar roots. When it grew naturally, they saw it as an unwelcome invasive agent, indication of a poor, unhealthy soil. When they grew it themselves, cross-breeding in the 20th century, they gave the cultivars names from the space program: Apollo, Odyssey, Challenger.
They call it Kentucky bluegrass. Foreign to the state it is named for, it has become synonymous with a specific place and people. Like the hardy folks populating the state’s fields and valleys, its hollers and homesteads, Kentucky bluegrass is poorly understood and often maligned. Why is it called blue, they might ask. You can see full well that it’s green.
When Poa pratensis is fully grown, reaching two or three feet up to your knee, its flower heads grow a faint slate blue color as spring fades into summer. A whole field of the wild grass—swaying softly in the breeze over the rolling hills bearing its name—may appear as a swirling tide, four hundred miles from the ocean as the crow flies.
You never see beauty when you cut things down to size. You have to let it grow.
Three weeks ago an old friend of mine accomplished a lifelong dream. He’d worked hard to reach his position, harder than anyone could ever truly know. For nearly 20 years he’d poured his soul into his work at the cost of other career opportunities, friendships, nearly his own body. Triumph eluded him time and again on the biggest stages imaginable, with every close defeat more devastating than the last. Then, finally, in the most grueling test of his abilities yet, he did it. He won.
Three weeks ago Kenny Omega won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and I didn’t feel a damn thing.
It surprises people when I say that Kenny used to be one of my favorite wrestlers, that I used to genuinely love the guy. It doesn’t add up, considering how much I seem to hate him these days. I realize it’s a hard thing to explain.
I didn’t know I was bisexual until I was 18, in my sophomore year of college. I didn’t feel straight for a long time before that but it takes a while to put a label on something, to give your suspicions a name and a face, even if it’s just yours. Time is such a nebulous state to wait for.
The realization of my queerness isn’t the focus here but its existence is an important touchstone in my life. I grew up feeling different. That’s all you need to know. You don’t need long stories about how I tried to wear makeup and fishnets in middle school or how I was press-ganged into sports for years or how I cried the first time I held hands with a boy. All you need is the knowledge that I didn’t see groups of my peers, navigating through a crowded lunchroom. They were so much fuller, so much brighter in just being themselves. They weren’t like me. They got to be real people. They were like 3D objects intersecting with my 2D plane, outlines bent at impossible angles, so immeasurably different it was almost unfathomable.
Maybe I knew it before the news ever came out. It took a while to piece together the team name and his intimacy with Ibushi, to interpret the cryptic forum posts, and even aside from all that it was just harder to get puro footage in those days. It took some time for the word to get around but I think I always knew Kenny was like me, even if he didn’t have to say it. There was just something in his eyes. Something in how he wore his skin, like it finally felt good to be in after all these years. I don’t have some dramatic fable about how Kenny made it ok for me to be gay but he helped, in his own way. It helped to see someone who was different and wasn’t ashamed of that.
I think, too, it was easier to get lost in things back then. I was so much hungrier in those days, as my faith crumbled and as I finally started forming lasting friendships. I needed something new to be my everything and at the tail end of 2007 wrestling was just that. It wasn’t long before I saw Kenny and fell head over heels. He was so flashy, so eye-catching, so unafraid. His athleticism was only an accessory to his colorfulness, a medium by which to express his true nature. His was a prismatic pride. I couldn’t get enough.
There’s no single event to point to, to illustrate how I changed. Bit by bit it happened, year after year, until suddenly the ship of Theseus was no more and I was a different man at the helm. My tastes and feelings changed, simple as that. After a while I just didn’t like Kenny Omega. His dramatic flair began to feel overbearing and artificial, no longer reflective of an inner exuberance that I related to. He felt abrasive and immature. Watching his matches became a chore. I was growing out of my teens and my life was changing dramatically. No longer was my every interaction a high octane thrill ride, fueled by hormones and drugs and MGMT on repeat. Increasingly wrestling that spoke to that sort of experience or operated in that emotional space was annoying to me, with people like Kenny at the forefront.
As I moved farther and farther away from Kenny’s work, he only got more and more popular. In October 2014 he left DDT and signed a deal with NJPW in the midst of New Japan’s meteoric rise in international awareness. He immediately became one of the most popular figures on the roster and began working his way into the promotion’s main event scene. Suddenly Kenny Omega was inescapable. Everywhere I went people were talking about him. From Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to forums to podcasts to blogs to the smattering of non-internet wrestling friends I had in those days, everyone in the world was talking about the guy, almost always fawning over the very qualities that had turned me away.
I couldn’t handle it. It was like an ex of mine had become a worldwide celebrity overnight and everyone loved them. Why couldn’t they see what I see? Why weren’t they fed up by the same plastic passion that I was fed up with? Why did they love him when he was clearly so very unlovable? Eventually the mere idea of him—someone who had brought me so much joy and assurance only a few years before—left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was like poison to me.
How does this happen? How does a fan go from viewing a performer as “an old friend” to despising them? To understand that, let’s look at the first broadcast of NBC’s long-running morning news program, the Today Show.
Today’s first host was Dave Garroway, a titan of television history. While it might not be surprising to modern television viewers, Garroway’s approach in that first broadcast was revolutionary. His tone was warm and inviting. He was serious without the stiff politeness of newscasters reading whitewashed world news off cold teleprompters. He was genial without the canned enthusiasm of a game show host or an ad man. He explained intricate, abstract concepts of science and international politics with a detailed ease. He moved throughout the studio, allowing the conversation to carry him around the room as easily as it would in your parlor or kitchen. He would glance at different cameras or points offstage, reflecting on his words. It seems so obvious now but this sort of natural authenticity in performance and production was groundbreaking in the early days of television.
Garroway was merely one figure in a greater movement stemming from what has been called the Chicago school of television. In the late 1940s, Chicago stations were lacking in funds and celebrity star power compared to the two coastal metropolises and they badly needed hit programming. Instead of trying to match Los Angeles for glitz and glamor or New York for its theatrical and political bedrock, the local stations opted for a bare bones approach born of an existing radio tradition. They kicked out the studio audience and threw away the lengthy scripts, aiming for something more off the cuff. Most shows were heavily ad-libbed and always conversational in tone, often speaking directly to viewers at home. The cinematography shifted from static wides and tight frames to something that moved with these characters around their worlds, inhabiting the spaces with them.
Although multiple stations shaped the informal Chicago school, the principal driving force was local NBC affiliate WNBQ, which aired a number of notable programs. Late night musical variety show Garroway at Large first introduced the man himself to a national audience who, Garroway describes, would approach him on the street and “seem to feel that we are old friends who know all about each other.” Studs Terkel’s tavern drama Studs’ Place drew comparisons to jazz experimentation and some 4,000 letters of complaint upon its first cancellation. Despite having only a single human character and more than a dozen puppets of all shapes and sizes, children’s show Kukla, Fran and Ollie quickly attracted a wide adult audience that sent in thousands of knitted outfits for their felt friends onscreen.
The movement was ultimately short-lived due to cable’s rise in nationwide prominence but the Chicago approach to television left a mark on the medium forever, kicking off a trend toward warmer programming that still exists today.
Garroway and the Chicago school of television were repeatedly cited in Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl’s seminal “Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance”. In that paper, Horton and Wohl outlined the existence of an old concept that had found new form under the changing media landscape of the 1950s: parasocial interaction. They described these interactions as onscreen performers acting as if they were intimately familiar with their many distant viewers and the viewers in turn treating this one-sided exercise in imitated intimacy as meaningful and important. While the concept has existed for millennia with public figures such as national leaders, artists, or sports players, the rise of mass media facilitated more intense interactions and a deeper understanding. Theatre and film primarily gave viewers fictional characters to identify with, but the radio and especially television were able to offer a wide array of figures ranging from shining celebrity actors to real world politicians to literal puppet personalities to new sorts of performers such as quizmasters, announcers, and talk show hosts.
Horton and Wohl recognized that the burden of creating and facilitating these parasocial interactions lies squarely on the shoulders of the performers and producers but realized “these para-social relations provide a framework within much may be added by fantasy.” Viewers are able to build upon this simulated intimacy and come to see these performers as friends, confidants, comforters, and role models. These performers offer, “above all, a continuing relationship” that is “standardized according to the ‘formula’ for [their] character and performance”. They’re a regularly-scheduled, unchanging, ever-welcoming presence in the lives of many. They’re a constant, something to be counted on.
Initially Horton and Wohl surmised that parasocial interactions were mainly explored and utilized by the socially isolated, inept, and immobile. These simulated relationships, they suggested, were ways to seek “an idealized version of an everyday performance… not often, perhaps never, achieved in real life.” While later findings refuted this point, arguing instead that parasocial relationships compliment existing social relationships and were merely one part of a viewer’s social life, similar ideas emerged. Multiple studies found that specific interpersonal attachment styles formed in childhood were reliable predictors of strong parasocial relationships later in life. Namely, people with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles (“tend to strongly desire and seek romance, intimacy, and relationships, yet distrust their partners and become overly suspicious, dependent, and ‘clingy.’”) are more likely to be receptive to parasocial relationships.
Jonathan Cohen, perhaps the leading researcher in the field, found evidence that, for some people, the breakup of a parasocial relationship could be psychologically and emotionally painful in a similar way to the loss of a real life friend. That same study also argued that teenagers were more likely to seek role models and vicarious experiences through parasocial interaction. Later, in a study covering the conclusion of the TV show Friends, Cohen and research partner Keren Eyal found that a viewer’s self-reported sense of loneliness was related to the intensity of both their parasocial relationships and subsequent breakups.
In essence, I hate Kenny Omega today because we used to be close, or rather, we used to share a mutually beneficial simulation of closeness. When I was a lonely teenager yearning for something or someone to sink my teeth into, Kenny offered up his pale form, a parasocial reflection of who I was and who I wanted to be. As years went by we both began to change: as viewers, as performers, as people. I resented Kenny for how he broke our unspoken contract, failing to acknowledge my own changes, and eventually abandoned the idea of a man that, on some level, I did truly love. Forced to confront the man’s inescapable popularity, my resentment boiled away into a bitter, petulant hate. He symbolized an uncomfortable, incomplete version of myself at a time in my life marked by loneliness and anxiety. I hated the way he was a relic of my past born anew for a fresh flock of believers, hungry mouths looking for the same things I’d wanted to sink my teeth into all those years ago.
For years now huge portions of my life have been dominated by various forms of parasocial interactions. By and large my interpersonal relationships these days unfold online with people I’ve never met in person, with whom it’s difficult to describe having a “real life relationship” despite years of near-constant interaction. The few people with whom I have had an extended, healthy face-to-face relationship in the past are now hundreds of miles away, forcing us to communicate in brief, stilted bursts of connection. In an effort to find some semblance of intimacy as well as to pass the time away, I sink dozens of hours a week into podcasts, Twitter, and YouTube, finding countless parasocial relationships to pour myself into. I recognize that I’m especially susceptible to these ploys but I’m hardly alone in this experience and it seems to be getting more common all the time. In his 2004 study on parasocial breakups, Cohen concluded with this observation:
“As our network of relationships becomes more varied, the distinction between social and parasocial relationships, which Horton and Wohl (1956) assumed was so obvious, is increasingly complex and hard to define.”
As our lives in the 21st century continue to revolve around artificial interactions and simulacra of seemingly authentic interactions, I wonder if one sort of relationship may be able to inform another. I wonder if I can find peace with my breakup with Kenny Omega through what I learned from my wife leaving me.
We’ll call her Susan even if that’s not her name.
She was a quiet farm girl from a tiny town at Virginia’s westernmost point, a place gutted by coal and kept limping along by the prison industrial complex. I was just as quiet but something less of a farm boy from Indiana’s western flats. We met as Berea College freshmen in the fall of 2011. Berea, a Biblical name, is a small city humming at the hem of the Cumberland Plateau and its kind was familiar to my sunken eyes even then.
I’d spent many years doing mission work in eastern Kentucky, principally in and around the city of Beattyville. It’s about fifty miles to the east of Berea, a city of 1200 people and two different prisons lodged firmly in the mountains. My preteen and teenage summers were spent there, digging holes, clearing land, laying down floors, ripping up roofs. It was hard work for a hard people, people who’d been dealt a bad hand and kept on playing because there weren’t much else to do. I loved the work and I loved the people I did it for. They didn’t always look like me or talk like me or act like me, but they felt the way I felt about a lot of things. They made me feel welcome for who I was.
Teetering above the three forks of the state’s eponymous river, Beattyville (leave off the last ‘e’ when you say it) was identified in the 2010 census as having the third-lowest median household income of all places in the United States numbering over 1000 people. It was the poorest majority white town in the nation. This damned the city to a regular stream of profiles from Oxford grads and Guardian writers centered around “hillbilly heroin” and the Trump presidency.
While usually detailed and sympathetic on some level, these pieces lack a certain humanity. They don’t portray folks as human beings as much as they’re portraits of poverty, walking unemployment and obesity statistics, outdated morality in bib overalls. These people aren’t people, if you get my drift. They aren’t afforded that luxury. They’re fine to dig to their deaths following coal seams, fine to blow the tops off mountains until the water runs black, but they’re not allowed to live, not allowed to grow. They’re something to be used up or kept away. They’re Poa pratensis. Kentucky bluegrass.
You can’t get to know a place by flying in for 48 hours and sticking a microphone in some faces. You have to listen to people. Not an interview, not combing for a new angle on an old story, not searching for a solution to problems popping up in sunnier, more genteel coastal locales. I mean honest to God listening. You have to gorge on freezer burnt strawberry ice cream, looking down a driveway that—for the first time in ten years—is clear enough for an ambulance to come through. You have to learn to live by five hours of direct sunlight a day and a damned dark night. You have to navigate back roads by the remains of double wides and old pickups rotting in foot high sawgrass and know that the car you’re driving don’t make you any better. You have to love a woman like Susan, the second-oldest of five kids born on a chicken farm down the creek from a landfill.
I can’t remember quite when I first met her, as those days were always laughter and cigarette smoke, one night bleeding into the next. I’d always been a rather shy person, slow to make friends, so I knew I had to take overt steps to forge lasting relationships in this new chapter of my life. I started visiting the wooden gazebos that dotted campus, the designated smoking areas, despite the fact that I’d never smoked and never will. It was here that I fell in with a rather bohemian crowd, even by Berea’s liberal standards. It was here that I befriended smart and vibrant queer people, from Appalachia and the American South, from Kabul and Korea, from staggering cityscapes and from the other side of town. It was here that I met my wife, amid the clouds of cloves and American Spirits.
Susan had long red hair in those days, a deep raspberry color that came from a bottle but felt true to the soul. The glossy exterior belied a hidden warmth. We understood each other almost immediately. For the first time in our lives we were breathing free and even. Troubled upbringings had thrust entirely too much into our young, bony hands. It left us with motherly instincts, quiet resolve, and a need to put the bad things behind us. We bonded over what the rear view mirror gave us in that regard as we explored the darkest country roads with their strong scent of evergreen. Driving late into the night in her little red hatchback, we bounded over the mountains with ease. We felt like giants with the wind in our hair.
Two days before my eighteenth birthday, a former Berea College public safety officer stormed into an apartment within spitting distance of campus and shot a man to death in front of Susan as she made breakfast. He shot through the lock before kicking in the front door. When he was confronted by the first tenant, rising off the couch I’d sat on just hours before, he fired. He was using a hunting rifle, a weapon designed for precision when firing at a high velocity from a long range. Up close the variables are messier, as are the results. He severed the man’s hand at the wrist with the shot. The man’s roommate entered and was shot in the right leg, non-fatally. As the shooter turned to leave, he fired again at his first victim, tearing a hole where the man’s face used to be. He fled, leading a manhunt 150 miles across the state. When he was caught he said he wanted the police to shoot him. The man he killed was our friend. We called him Flowers because it was almost his name.
I was in my 8:00 AM chemistry class when the news got out. As the lecturer droned on about chirality, another of my professors came in and announced that the school was on lockdown and none of us were allowed to leave the building. Things stayed that way for nearly five hours. Eventually they found bungee cords and barricaded the doors shut as the rest of us tried to piece together what was going on. We began to find out bit by bit: Shooting. Off campus. Former PubSafe officer. One person dead, unknown. Location unknown, somewhere downtown. Shooter still at large, rumored to be armed and on the run. The information came piecemeal, less distressing by the minute as we began to see students and faculty walking free across campus, people who managed to avoid being holed up in an academic building so early in the day. Around noon the school ordered pizza for all the people still sequestered indoors, removing the bungee cords for pimply delivery drivers. It was like a big joke.
Classes and non-essential labor were canceled for the day, which was cause for celebration at a work study college like Berea. I texted all my friends about plans for our newly free afternoon. Everyone responded, safe and sound, except for Susan. It wasn’t cause for alarm; Susan was always bad about texting. She was never tech-savvy, often forgetting she left her outdated flip phone on silent. None of us thought anything of it. Without automobile access, the rest of us wandered Berea’s arts districts, visiting the many woodworkers, sculptors, painters, musicians, and designers who brought thousands of tourists through this sleepy backwoods town every year. We bought jewelry and ate handmade fudge, soaking in one of the last warm days of the year. We were glad to have the day off. We were glad to be young and free and alive.
We found Susan later sitting in the science building gazebo, smoking underneath the ginkgo tree.
Ginkgo biloba are extraordinary plants. Being the last surviving member of their order, they are living fossils. There is clear evidence of their presence in the fossil record 270 million years ago, with little evolutionary change since. Despite this they are stubborn survivors, with some specimens today said to be thousands of years old. Six ginkgos were within two kilometers of ground zero for the atomic bomb attack in Hiroshima. All six trees survived temperatures nearing 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit and resumed sprouting within a few years. Every autumn the leaves of the ginkgo tree turn a brilliant shade of gold for a matter of days before they start falling like rain. Sometimes it lasts a week or two. Sometimes it’s a single blinding moment of color before it all comes down.
With the sun fallen at her feet and an ember dying in her teeth, we found Susan there. She told us what happened. It took everything she had.
Grief is a difficult thing. It’s hard to track and harder still to understand. You can’t get your hands around it, feeling the extent of its form, the weight it carries. There’s no telling what trauma can make someone do, where it will drive a person.
It drove Susan and me to arson.
I’m not quite sure how it started. Smokers play Prometheus every day, holding fire in their hands, pulling it in towards the face to breathe life to flame. Maybe that’s where the fascination came from. Maybe deep down we just needed to watch something burn. I was only just starting to keep a diary then and while it will dutifully inform you the date Susan and I first dragged cardboard and old clothes out into a field and lit it on fire for our own catharsis, it cannot tell you exactly how we got there. It won’t tell you what we needed it for.
What we were doing is more accurately described as reckless burning or, since Kentucky currently has no such legal distinction on the books, criminal mischief in the second or third degree. But arson sounds so much more romantic, don’t you think?
One summer evening, Susan and I laid cheek to cheek on the carpet floor of her first apartment, flipping through pictures she took of graffiti in Paris a few weeks before. She knew I loved the stuff and wanted to share what she saw with me. A year and a half later she’d buy me six cans of spray paint for my twentieth birthday and we’d run from bridge to byway in Richmond making our mark on the city, our bellies full of vindaloo, our hearts full of joy.
As we laid there, legs entwined, fingers dancing over fresh Polaroids, Susan began to seize up as if run through with a searing, unseen pain. Outside children were letting off fireworks in the parking lot, their cracks and bangs like gunshots to an unsteady ear. There was nothing we could do. Could I storm out and yell at them? Could I lecture their parents? Could I inform the whole world to lay off on the M-80s, the cars backfiring, or any other loud noises that might sound vaguely like bullets tearing through the body of our dead friend? It was early July and this is what kids did. There was nothing we could do but hold each other until the fear subsided.
That’s how life went for a while, Susan and I together. Our recovery was slow but steady. Witnessing an unthinkable act of violence can be a devastating, life-altering event and watching someone you love cave in on themselves because of it can be overwhelming in its own right. But we made it through, as much as you can. We learned to take the bad with the good, hoping in a karmic state of being that would one day swing in our favor. We lived like young people. We hung out in truck stops, on mountaintops, in the back seats of cars and the front porches of parties. We studied for tests and skipped class. We learned to cartwheel and crochet. We committed crimes for the thrill of it. We spent whole paychecks making grilled cheese, searching for the perfect recipe. We never did find it, but we fell in love and we did what we could for each other.
It’s hard for me to tell where it all fell apart. I guess that’s why it did, in the end.
Things were never perfect between Susan and me. We’re both stubborn, sullen people. We hold things in our hearts, mulling over grudges or niceties until they’re no longer attached to any sort of reality, caricatures of actual human interaction. We had to learn to navigate the spaces in between and it wasn’t always easy. We did what our bodies wanted instead of what we knew to be better. We didn’t speak to each other for months at a time.
We spent most of the last 18 months of our relationship hundreds of miles apart and strangely they were our best days. After I got kicked out of Berea and had to move back to Indiana, we took up the habit of writing letters back and forth. Between many thousands of Facebook messages and meandering phone calls we were always in constant communication, but these letters were special. They were more intimate, more considered. There’s a level of care in doing things by hand. Along with the letters we shipped various gifts, from origami to saucy Valentine’s Day cards to handmade bracelets to locks of hair to entirely too much glitter. Susan and I were trying to share bits of ourselves with each other, doing what we could to bridge the gap of state lines and divergent lives.
Reading through these letters and messages over the last few weeks has been a strange experience. As sad and confusing as the outcome was in the end, revisiting the ruins of lost love is a warm feeling. Its boundaries are a familiar and comforting space even now. It’s an old building I could navigate with my eyes closed. Look: here’s the room where Susan kept all her smiley faces, serving as coy diffusions or cute punctuation in all manner of conversation. Over there’s a timeline tracking when she’d take a break in writing letters to smoke or to walk her dogs. Back this way is a transcript of when she called me, breathless, to say that after years of trying, after years of thinking she was too scarred and twisted inside, she’d finally gotten pregnant. We couldn’t help but laugh through the tears.
On the other hand, reading through these files is like digging in East Turkana for Homo erectus, brushing away the layers of siltstone for traces of prehistoric man. The remains are recognizably human in some ways but fundamentally different. They’re less refined, less intelligent, less evolved. There’s so much they haven’t seen, so much they’ve yet to learn from. It’s hard, sometimes, to recognize myself among the bones. It’s hard to recognize the me who used to be.
The earliest remaining record I have of our life together is from when I was 18. Six years isn’t some insurmountable period of time but reading these messages, it’s clear I was a different person back then. I was even pettier, even more selfish than I am today. I was endlessly dramatic, making a huge deal out of every little turn of phrase or small inconvenience. I needled Susan for information with persistent inquiries despite her regular requests for space. I never apologized, electing to become theatrically self-deprecating in attempts for empathy or acquiescence. I was blind and controlling. I refused to acknowledge any of our respective faults or the faults in our relationship, refusing to deal with our problems responsibly. I wanted us to never change for fear that we wouldn’t remain us.
But we did change. It’s hard for me to tell how I did because the bones I carry now have yet to be buried. I know that after getting kicked out of college I became more complacent and more aggressive but largely, foolishly, I hope that I’ve become better than what I was.
I know for a fact Susan did become better. She cut her hair short, returning to her natural brown. She stopped burning things in the middle of the night. She started drinking and smoking less. She filled her time by taking in animals, often from friends who couldn’t keep them anymore. By the end she had two dogs, two turtles, two rats, two parakeets, a cockatoo, a ball python, a chinchilla, and roughly fifty fish. She took in a husband too after she’d had enough of me, someone much older, someone better for her. She finally had a beautiful baby boy nine months after she finally kicked me to the curb. Around that time a mutual friend told me she’d taken up Snapchat. I couldn’t believe it. After years of old Nokias and precious little social media presence, she was suddenly on Snapchat? Who was this woman?
She was Susan, fully herself. She had changed for the better. For years I wanted to stop her from changing and in doing so I stopped her from growing. I wanted her to keep drinking so I could carry her up to bed every night. I wanted her to keep smoking because it’s how we first met. I wanted her to always be this broken human being whose brokenness I could revel in because I was scared of what stability looked like. I was scared that it didn’t include me.
Like Kenny Omega, Susan is inescapable. I haven’t seen her in almost three years now but she inhabits most every part of my life. I don’t go an hour without thinking of her, without some memory floating through my mind. It might come in the form of an old song or the smell of a pack of Reds. It might come from a particular line of poetry or a mason jar with handles. It might come straight out of the blue, a whispered theophany on the wind.
Unlike Kenny, these memories aren’t painful. They might sting in a sad way, these regrets, this pining for a “better” time, but those wounds have healed. I don’t know that I’ll ever truly find closure with how our life together ended but I’ve found peace with Susan. I’ve found peace with the fact that someone who told me I could never leave her decided herself to leave. I’ve found peace with the fact that she’s better now for it.
My problems with Kenny aren’t just on an artistic level. It goes so much deeper with that. Whether he’s done anything to deserve it or not, he’s reflective of a different time in my life, a time when I was lost and broken and scared to be myself. He’s reflective, in some ways, of the me that refused to let Susan grow, that drove away the love of my life. It’s been hard, these last few years, being unable to escape that vision of my past but at some point I have to recognize that it’ll never go away. I’ll always have to deal with these memories floating through my mind. They’ll always be waiting in the secret places. I can’t fight it any more than I can fight how Kenny wrestles and carries himself today. Ultimately I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t cut him down to size to suit my tastes. I have to let him grow.
Susan was working for the state of Kentucky back in 2015, a utilities accountant tucked away in some frigid office in the capital. She had the Monday after Independence Day off so she decided to pick me up for one of our rare weekends together, ultimately our last. We spent Saturday the 4th at her home in Midway. We watched two movies from our lengthy co-compiled watchlist, Frances Ha and Amélie. We burned grilled cheese and ate it anyway. We planted forget-me-nots in her front garden for the following spring. When we were out walking her dogs we got caught in the rain and had to run home, soaked through by a freak summer shower. We took a bath together to freshen up. It was like a goddamn romcom. It was the best day of my life.
We drove down to Versailles for dinner and what came after. We went to the one restaurant in town we knew well: Waffle House, a place of safety and nourishment. I got a chicken melt with a pair of eggs, sunny side up. Susan ordered one of the famous waffles and complimented it with the equally renowned hashbrowns, smothered and covered. We split a cherry Coke and flirted with the idea of trying to pick up our waitress when she got off work. She had pink hair, dark lipstick, and long nails alternately dotted with skulls and checkerboard patterns. She seemed like our type.
Our hunger abated, we followed directions we got off the internet. They led us down a country road past horse farms and cornfields until we met a mass of cars parked on all sides of a four-way intersection in the middle of nowhere. We parked near the back of the line and walked up on foot to get a better look, joined by families and folks carrying lawn chairs and blankets. It was nearly ten o’clock so it was quite dark, a full moon and flashlights showing us the way. We found our spot at the foot of a hill leading up to an old abandoned gravel pit. I took my jacket off and put it around Susan as we stood there, one shape against the night sky, waiting for the time to come.
I still wonder if she knew what she was about to do and chose to give me one last weekend with her. I wonder if she wanted me to see this through with her all these years after what happened to Flowers.
Provided you’re far enough away you’ll see them before you hear them, fireworks. That’s how it was for us that night. The first one fired up with a dart and rose and rose and rose until it cracked high in the air, the sound reaching us only as the sodium nitrate began to fade away. The report shot right through me and I tried not to flinch. I looked at Susan in my arms. She was beaming as the sky lit up.
It’s hard to tell how long it lasted. Fireworks shows are like that. They seem to go on forever, the rockets roaring on end until you think that this is all there is and has ever been, dazzling lights blooming in the air with thunder to shake the earth. It’s not until you check your watch when the world returns with deafened ears and realize it’s only been twenty minutes. For all I know Susan and I stood there forever, holding each other as the clouds burst above us, ringing like gunshots. Two days later she’d pull out of my driveway and speed off into her better life without me. For a few moments I got to live it with her, standing in a patch of knee-high bluegrass.
I’d like to thank Glen Mittelhauser for the header image and Quentin Moody for opening so many doors in my life these past few years.