From time to time, I will break from my more random, typical blog posts to bring you into a project I’ve been working on called Little Cardboard Men. It’ll be a blog series kind of chronicling, if you will, — although, admittedly probably not always chronologically — some of my past relationship experiences. As I was living through said experiences, those closest to me told me I should write a book someday. I considered that, but decided instead to bring my stories to you on this platform: piecemeal, raw, kind of like they actually were. A handful of you will reminisce because you were literally right there with me. Don’t worry, for the worst of you, I’ve changed your names and any identifying details. For the worst of me, well, you’re going to know it was me. Being a dipshit. I didn’t write these stories and bare my soul in self-righteousness or out of self-importance. The average person doesn’t care about our pasts and certainly not our failures for no reason at all, but people do care to feel less alone in the world. People do care about being invited to not take themselves or the world too seriously, and so those are my hopes in revealing some deep, dark parts of me. (I hope to make you laugh a little, too.) If you would like to contribute your own stories — relational or otherwise random — I would be happy to post them for you here. Send me a private message on my contact page. I hope you enjoy Little Cardboard Men.
Little Cardboard Men, Part I: “Lane”
"You've got great bedroom eyes."
Those were the first words I ever heard from Lane's mouth. It was 1995, and I had just arrived at my first duty station as a brand-new airman in the U.S. Air Force. He was a superior, like most every other enlisted and commissioned personnel was to me. (Remember, brand-new airman.) I was so put off by the remark that it would astound me later that this would be the man against whom every man after him would be compared. As offended as I was by his inappropriate and fraternizing comment upon our first meeting, in the workplace no less, I couldn't resist Lane's advances for very long. A few more gutsy moves, with his tendency to invade my personal space in our professional setting at every turn, eventually led to our unsurprising formation as an official couple, which eventually led to our equally unsurprising demise.
What started out as a fun and exciting life with Lane quickly became something more. It wasn't long before I learned that the first impression he tended to give strangers didn't hold true at all to the man he really was. I never again saw the over-confident and pompous front he had presented to me upon our very first meeting. His loyalty, vulnerability, and spirituality, along with his fun-loving personality made me fall for him, and fall for him hard. When you threw into the already lethal mix that he seemed undeniable crazy about me, you got the recipe for the train wreck that was coming. But, for a time, a very short time, we were happy.
We moved in together within just a few weeks. He was the first man I had ever lived with, and the experience did not disappoint. Every day was a celebration. We celebrated the mixing of our things - CDs, dishes, and towels. I enjoyed washing his clothes and making sure he had dinner to bring to work every night. We adopted a shelter kitten together who he named Kit Cat. We laughed all the time. His friends teased him about his happiness, saying he looked just like Benson from that 80’s TV show, strutting around, big, goofy grin, on his shining, upturned, black face. Lane looked a lot like Benson DuBois, but blacker. He was so black, his skin appeared almost blue, and it was so smooth. The first time I touched his bare skin, I was immediately reminded of my family's trip to Sea World when I was about six. Shamu sidled right up alongside the glass barrier so that every child could get a closer look, and those who wanted to could touch her as she swam by. Being the animal lover I've always been, I couldn't miss the opportunity to discover what a real orca felt like. I wasn't sure what I expected, but the sensation took me by surprise. The whale's skin felt like rubber, and with the cool water cascading over the surface of it, my hand glided over it smoothly and freely, and it felt wonderful. Touching Lane's black skin was just as mesmerizing, exciting, and oddly comforting. When my hands were on him, when any part of me at all was touching him, it was as exciting as putting my hands on a killer whale.
Signing one's life away by joining the military means giving up many of the freedoms that most Americans take for granted everyday. One of those freedoms just happens to be not being subject to a random urinalysis. I came into work one day towards the end of Lane's shift about four months after we had started dating. He wasn't there. When I asked where he was, our coworkers looked at one another chuckling and said he had gotten tagged for a random "piss test.” It was kind of annoying to get "tagged" because you had to drop whatever you were doing at that very moment, and head over to the clinic. If chance would have it that you had just emptied your bladder before you got the call, it can make for a very long clinic visit. At worst, it was a disruption to your day, an inconvenience - certainly not something that you should be afraid of, and absolutely not something that should change the course of your life. But it was, and it did. Lane tested positive for crack cocaine. The military police came for him right away. There wasn't the chance to say good-bye, or for Lane to do any explaining. I was shocked. How could I not have known such a thing was happening? And right under my nose? — no pun intended. The months that followed brought not-so-random piss tests to anyone who was thought to be close to Lane. I tried to keep a relatively full bladder at all times because the chances were good that at any moment I could get the call, and I got several. I wanted it to be as fast and smooth as possible. I would always test negative, I knew that, but the Air Force didn't. The military's version of the CIA was called OSI - the Office of Special Investigations. They followed me everywhere I went for approximately one week. Bored off of their asses, which I'm sure they were, they finally believed my story that I knew nothing of Lane's drug use, nor was I involved in that type of lifestyle at all myself.
As most who are truly guilty usually do, Lane denied everything at first. He was finally allowed a few phone calls a week, and he spent the majority of the time on those calls trying to convince me of his innocence, which made me question it all the more. I was so angry with him for being so deceitful, leading a double life, and then adding insult to injury by continuing to lie to me for his own selfish gain. I walked around for weeks in a fog, second guessing my own intuition. I had always been a girl who didn't trust easily, yet I had taken what he presented as truth, never questioning, never even wondering. All I did after the fact was question and wonder. I replayed hundreds of our conversations in my head, looking for red flags, something, anything that might have given me a clue that something was off. We were discussing sleep deprivation once. Both of us were shift workers, working the graveyard shift one night, a swing shift the next, a day shift or two, and then back on graveyard. Our sleep patterns were always a mess. He made the argument then that being deprived of sleep could mess with your head worse than any drug - I believe he chose heroin for that particular anecdote. Should I have been cautioned then that he was a heroin addict or something? Of course, it didn't occur to me at all in that moment, but looking back on it, it seemed like it was as plain as day. What was wrong with me? I couldn't even trust myself anymore. The real kick in the gut though, was that I was in love with him still. He was my best friend, and he was in trouble.
Several more weeks passed before he was finally allowed visitors. He had been moved to Davis-Monthan Air Force base in Tucson, about an hour and a half away, to await his trial that we hoped would come soon. I was ready to step up to the plate. If our roles had been reversed, I know that he would have shown his support for me in any way he could, and that wild horses would have never kept him away. It was time to visit. I went shopping for the prettiest sundress I could find, I put on the sunniest smile I could muster, and I made my way down to Tucson. I must have sat in the parking lot for twenty minutes, trembling and praying. I was still angry with him, but I didn't want to waste the precious little time we had just expressing my anger. I wasn't sure what I would do with the time I had. It turns out, that decision was going to be made for me.
Once inside the jail, I was directed to a man who was housed in a glassed-in office. He asked me for my name so that I could sign in. He looked over his list unable to find my name. "Sorry, ma'am...could you spell it for me, Mrs. Billingsley?"
"Oh, I'm not a Mrs. Anything,” I replied.
The officer looked slightly unnerved then, and said, slowly, "Well, it says here that his wife is expected to visit. You are not his wife?" It was challenging for me in that moment to not burst out laughing, until I saw the officer's face registering at the exact same moment the same thing I was just beginning to figure out for myself. He's married to someone else. He's MARRIED??? Keeping my cool with a power that surely was not my own, I requested that since I had made the trip from Phoenix, would it be alright if I went ahead and had a visit with Lane. The officer kindly agreed, and proceeded to send a radio message to alert the guards to bring Lane out into the visitor's area. I'm certain that it was merely minutes, but it felt like hours were going by while I waited to confront this man who had once again made a complete fool out of me. And then, there he was. I stood stock still, right where I had been standing before he walked in. I couldn't move or speak. I just stared into his face, emotionless. The look on his face said it all. He knew I knew. He ran to me, startling the guards and causing a commotion. The tears streamed down his face, uncontrollably and free. I had never seen tears fall like that; rivers running down his face, as if down a mountainside. He tried to find words. I'll give him that, he did try. But, really, what was there to say? How could I believe a single word anyway? He resorted to just a general pleading. I only heard, "please...please..."..that got louder and louder as the moments passed. I still said nothing, made no move towards or away from him. I believe the reality of what was happening was too much for me to take, and so my body and mind reacted by making me feel nothing, and for that period of time I was grateful for that. It was as if I was watching Lane on a movie screen, and I was only mildly curious as to who this man was and what all the drama was about. One could cut the desperation in the room with a knife. When Lane fell to his knees in front of me and began begging for mercy, it finally got to be too much for the guards, too, and they took him away again. I don't remember walking out of the jail, and I don't remember the drive back to Phoenix. My body and mind were still protecting me, and perhaps preparing me for the bomb that was about to detonate, and blow my entire world to bits. Yep, no way around it. This was going to hurt.
And hurt, it did. There were no more jail visits, only letters and phone calls. I would look back years later, and be amazed (and slightly disgusted) with myself that I allowed even that much. I still loved him, so sue me. I wrote him letters - most of them angry, vengeful letters - but he was grateful for any contact at all that I permitted. I sent him the classifieds so that he could look for a job, since he would be getting released in a few more months, by Christmas. Our phone calls consisted of more of the types of drama that had played out in the waiting room back in Tucson; although this time instead of my stunned silence, I let loose with loud, accusing, infuriated words. He, however, followed suit with his usual pleading and crying. What I did learn during those letters and phone calls was nothing that was going to comfort me, appease me, or make life easier for me in any way, shape, or form.
I learned that he was, indeed, married. Hanna was a Korean woman he met on one of his overseas tours in the 1980s. They got married and she returned with him to the U.S. The way Lane tells it, it's a story of an innocent G.I. falling prey to a beautiful but gold-digging, U.S.-citizenship-seeking, conniving woman. That's pretty laughable, I know. But that's the way it was told, and while I can speculate (and I have, exhaustingly so), I'll never know the other side of the story. According to Lane, the marriage was over before it really even began. After Korea, he got an assignment to Louisiana, but Hanna moved to New York City (his hometown) instead, and for all I know that's where she is today. He says they simply lost touch, and that even though they remained married, he hadn't spoken to her in years. I never could understand that. How could he stay married to her? They had no children together (or so he said), no property....it would have been an easy, quickie divorce, but for whatever reason, it never happened. His letters from jail professed his undying love for me, and were sprinkled throughout with promises - promises to finally divorce Hanna, promises to clean up his life and get a good job, promises to stay off drugs. Promises, promises. And I continued to buy them. Why? What the Hell was wrong with me? He had done nothing but lie to me from the beginning. Our entire relationship was based on a lie, and then another, and then another. Was I really still in love with him? Was I just trying to save him? Although he wanted to love me, he must have been incapable of it. Was it his sickness, his addiction that kept him from it? I don't know. All I do know is that I couldn't walk away, and I hated myself for it.
Just days before Christmas, I got a call from my girlfriend, Monica who worked in the out-processing unit on base. Lane had been released from confinement, gone through the last of his appointments, gotten signed off by his superiors, and was let go. He was a veteran now, but because of his actions, he would forever be scarred by his "other than honorable discharge." For the lifestyle he chose to lead, the prices were extremely high. Monica had just seen him signing out, so she quickly picked up the phone and dialed my number. "Here he comes!" she exclaimed. What followed was a scene that looked like it could have come right out of a Norman Rockwell painting - clean-cut soldier boy, sharply clad in his dress blues, duffle bag in hand, running full steam ahead into the arms of his loyal, faithful, and waiting girlfriend..... Don't get me wrong, it was a happy reunion. I loved him. I had missed him. It was Christmastime. We would work through the issues, or we wouldn't, but right now, we would celebrate. We celebrated Lane's freedom. We celebrated that he had been granted the gift of a fresh start, albeit a blemished fresh start. We celebrated that he was drug-free - thank you, jail time. And we celebrated that we were together again, and even though we both knew we were no good together, we both agreed we were far worse apart. And there you have it - the biggest lie yet. I should have gone screaming for the hills the moment he told me I had bedroom eyes. After all, he had told me everything I’d ever need to know about him. The heartbreak, anxiety, and pain he caused me then, and for years afterward were something I could have definitely lived without. No, I was not better off with him than without him. I just chose to believe I was. That was a lie, but there was a truth, too - one very big truth that must have been the reason I stuck it out for as long as I did. Validation. However he did it, I honestly couldn't be sure, but Lane validated me. Webster's Dictionary defines "validate" as "to make valid, substantiate, confirm" - to give approval to, to document....He gave that to me, and it shouldn't be understated. A man validating the woman he loves is something that should not be downplayed. Fellas, if you're reading this, here's something huge I can pass along to you. Validate that woman. Make sure she knows that you know she is worthy. Give her that stamp of approval that she can't deny, and that the whole world can admire. It's everything, it really is. Part of how Lane validated me was always admitting that the mess we found ourselves in was all his doing. He knew I deserved better. The other way he did it was by walking a thin line that no man before him and exactly two after him were able to do - diffusing the moodiness in me without making light of my feelings. I was born under the sign of Cancer. Zodiacal charts would say that Cancers are like crabs - exhibiting a hard exterior while hiding and protecting nothing but soft flesh underneath. Cancers can be crabby, moody, difficult to read. He could make me laugh at myself while in one of my cranky moods, and at the exact same time, put those feelings on a pedestal that he would defend and protect with his life. Validation. Why that validation couldn't extend into a divorce from Hanna, I'll never know, but it never did.
Christmas gave way to New Year’s, and to my surprise, my affair with Lane would go on for several more months. Those months were, though, wrought with heartbreaking arguments, struggles with my own self-esteem, and oh yeah, can’t forget, two more relapses into cocaine use. I think I may have finally drawn the line when I found myself in downtown Phoenix - in a dangerous and seedy area I had absolutely no business being in - looking for Lane in a dumpster at 3:00 in the morning. He had relapsed. And hard. He hadn’t come home from his evening shift at the pizza place, where someone had finally had the heart to take a chance, and hire a high-risk employee like Lane. It turns out, he had never made that shift. Once again, I was made the fool. Me, and the pizza place manager. I had had no luck digging through dumpsters looking for my boyfriend, but thankfully, I hadn’t run into any trouble of my own either. Defeated, I headed back to our apartment, but unable to do anything else, I began to make calls - the local hospitals and jails. Still nothing. At around 8:00am, he walked through the door, and never before, until that moment, could I truly appreciate the phrase “something the cat dragged in.” He was still high, and smiling at me stupidly, he said, “Hey, baby.” That was it. I was done. Later that afternoon, I found my own apartment, and kitty and I hit the road.
That should've been the end of the story. And, honestly, for the story of Sarah and Lane, it was, but our paths would cross again, four years later. I was in New York City helping my best girlfriend move. I remembered that Lane lived in Brooklyn the last I had heard, so I called him, and we decided to meet. I don’t know why I did that, but, whatever. It amounted to a whole lot of not much anyway. We chatted on the stoop of my girlfriend’s new home for an hour or so, and then he went back to his life and I did the same. The next couple of years saw an occasional phone conversation as well as a handwritten letter now and then, but that was all. There was a part of me that still pined for him. I did lots of dating — lots of first dates, anyway — but I couldn’t find in anyone else that thing I had found in him....
That validation thing.
Five or so years later, maybe it was 2007, a friend sent me a link to a news story that I “just had to see!” My heart froze as it sunk down into my lower belly. There was that Benson grin, all teeth, the biggest I had ever, ever seen it. And right beside his beaming face was the face of his beautiful bride. Apparently, they had been on some reality show together and had won a televised wedding or something. The details are vague to me now, and I’ve since been unable to find the article. I was stunned, but it was truly a blessing. I do wonder if he legally divorced Hanna for this new wife, a Latina-looking beauty. (He loved the exotic type, which I truly was not.) It hardly mattered. Two years later, though, in 2009, I was still struggling with the loss. I took a trip back to Phoenix that year. I’m not sure what I was looking for, perhaps a ghost of a memory that would guide me? An answer that would make sense of it all so I could move on? I don’t know. I didn’t find anything, and ten years after that trip, I wrote a song about it called “Arizona Ghost.” I was married to someone else by then, for a few years. It was a good song — not my best seller, but it was decent. Guess who one of the first to buy and download that song was. Yep. That was weird for me, but I don’t think he ever knew that I knew he bought it. I know he knows the song was about him. There was never, ever again any contact between the two of us.
Smash cut to the grand finale! Remember that Christmas Eve we spent together after he was released from jail? Apparently, that night, he wrote my Mom a letter. She found it recently, and on Christmas Eve exactly twenty years after he wrote it, I read it for the first time. Afterwards, I was angry all over again, but this time for new reasons. This time I was mostly angry at myself. That man never loved me. The whole tone of his letter was indifferent, uninvolved, detached. He wrote about me like I was just this real, nice girl who he was regretful about having to hurt, but only mildly regretful. Why would he even write such a letter and mail it to my Mother? I had always believed he loved me, even if only in the capacity he could, but the truth is, he didn’t. It was abundantly clear to me. Finally. My anger was for all of the wasted years. What a tremendous waste. But, the pining was definitely and defiantly over. As soon as I read the last word, I took that letter, turned to the wood stove fire my husband had so lovingly created for our home, and I burned that mother fucker to ash.