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After Her by Simon Hillman

Trigger Warnings:

Please be aware. This story is beautifully written and handled, however it deals with a great deal of triggering and mature content such as depression and suicide. 

This story has a deep, soulful message that needs to be heard. But it is not for all audiences. Please, if you are younger or sensitive, read at your own discretion.

About the author and story

I met Simon on Twitter and have enjoyed his writing for a while. He has a deep, honest way of writing that uses raw human emotion to convey his thoughts on the individual human condition.

I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did.

 

 

I wake with tears already stinging my eyes. I dreamed of her again. A hand reaches out and finds only a cold empty space next to me in the bed. A space which only feels more empty for having once been filled.

She was madness and fire. She was stillness and ice. She had been everything. My whole world. She had built me to greatness and broken me to nothing. A lifetime compressed into six months.

The coffee tasted bitter on my lips. I could not yet face food. My heart seemingly intrinsically linked to my stomach, both broken. They said it would get easier day after day. Some aspects of loneliness however grow worse not heal as time passes, like the pile of dishes in the sink. So many parts of life didn’t seem worth bothering with just for myself.

From the corner of my eye a catch a knife glinting at me, tempting my weakness and my strength. My acceptance of the pain, overwhelming and consuming.

I face another day of drowning in the river of my sorrow and choose, somewhat unwillingly to live it.

At work I talk to no-one. The effort of forcing a pretend contentment with life beyond me. I know accepting my misery is beyond them. My computer blinks at me. My tired eyes notice every pixilated flicker, as if even the screen seeks to sear into my brain. Increasing the growing migraine. My vision splits. Each eye sees a different picture of the world. Depth is a mystery to me as my brain fails to process these disagreeing plains. I stagger to the toilets. Bumping into desks and chairs, muttering apologies to those I catch. My clumsy uncoordinated picture of my surroundings defying me the subtlety which would reduce the glare of eyes upon me. I arrive just in time as last night’s wine vacates my body in a powerful, painful torent burning the back of my throat.

Ignoring the questions of former friends, abandoned in my pit of pain, I stumble back to my desk void of colour. Unsure if I feel better or worse from my bodily evacuation. My hands shake over the keys. A void quakes my body. Sense whispers you need to eat. Pain screams you need a drink.

~~~

The first is sharp, but cold and refreshing. I open it immediately upon leaving the shop. The admonishing looks of passer-bys of no concern. With each sip I can lie to myself that the pain dissipates. Trudging home, alcohol stinging my empty belly I allow my mind to wander.

Her skin olive brown, smooth like silk runs under my fingers. Her whispered words of love caress my ears. I gaze into pools of deep brown eyes. Never realising they were the eyes of a demon swallowing my soul. That each thrust of my hips in the ecstasy of these memories would become a torture with which she would condemn me. I bathe her in my love. My words once so welcome become the stick with which she beats me. Slowly all my happy memories are stained with their place in the fire with which she burned me.

“Needy, Pathetic, soft, small.” Words that now defined me. Spat from her lips in a torrent of abuse. “It’s over, I love another.” would alone have been enough to break me. She instead chose to destroy me. Using every self-loathing fear and subconscious doubt shared in the hours spent baring our souls. In the long nights of sleepless cuddles when she and I believed that we would be forever.

She pretended not to be using this power to fuel her own self-setime, as she tore at all my loose threads. One by one unravelling me into a ball of nothing on the floor before her. A mess of the pieces of a person whose inner conflict had been so painfully laid bare. No part of me I liked left undoubted, no part I hated left anything but fully assured of my reason to hate. My place was alone. Friends long abandoned for the dream of her. The days she whispered poison in my ear that none of them would stand by me if I fell. A self-fulfilling prophecy ensured by the means of my destruction.

My second is slightly warm. I must have been drinking slow. Too lost in my all consuming memories and self-pity. The knife sparkles in my hand. The sharp blade feels more like a sting than a cut. Thick red liquid drips onto the sofa beside me. I think how angry she would be that I had been so selfish and made such a mess. A final thought before I sleep.

~~~

When I wake my pillow is soft, cushioned and damp with dew. The sun blinds me from a beautiful clear blue sky. Slowly I ease my head off the spongy pillow to discover it is a small mound of earth. On the meadow all around small white rabbits hop. Warming themselves under the golden sun as they frolic and play. For a moment a sense of peace envelopes me. Only a moment, before her voice crashes into my head again. Trampling any dream that I may have found relief.

Raising my aching body from it’s seemingly all too brief sleep I place one foot in front of the other. My goal unknown. My reason undecided. The purpose, just to keep moving. A journey can only begin with its first step and something unknown within called me to this new journey.

Sparkling at the end of the expanse of green meadow is the glossy shimmer of a perfectly still lake. Each step feels weighed down with doubt and self-pity. My body seemingly carrying the physical weight of my own loathing. My shoulders droop. My legs ache with a tiredness that feels like every aspect of my sadness has a physical form I carry in my soul.

The water laps at my ankles. The weight of my heart carries me forward. My body seems to travel of its own accord. The burden of my effort the only substance of self remaining.

The depths are dark. The only light which remains, speckled, fleeting and enchanting, dancing on the water, provides occasional illumination to my path. Around me coloured fish dance between the shards of light as if playfully avoiding the beams.

Twenty small green nymphs swim towards me. I am startled by how little this surprises me. I accept them in the same way I casually accept my stroll along the bottom of the lake bed. The creatures glow a beautiful emerald green with small wings and fish tails, a hybrid of fairy and mermaid. Their human heads strike familiar accord. The number twenty sits uncomfortable in my mind. The number of women who have carved their scars on my soul. The scars which left me open to my utter destruction at her whim. As they approach the sprites indeed resemble these former loves, these torturers of my soul, proofs of my various failings. Here to taunt me at the end one last time.

They cease their fluttering swim a few feet before me, huddled in a crowd to gaze with joy open my humiliating demise. Bobbing in the water the group surveys me, as I in turn gaze upon them transfixed with these sprites. Each so beautiful in their own way any one of them could have saved me this torment, spared the others from me. Somehow throughout my life that final dance, that succumbing to commitment had eluded me. Now I paid for that, I suffered the loss of myself. I was hers and she had what she desired, my head on a stake to prove her final, unyielding hold on me.

“But why do you think she controls you so?”

The first nymph spoke without moving her lips. My teenage love, the first I thought forever, an oh so fleeting forever it transpired in the end.

“I am nothing without her. She acknowledged my failings and accepted me anyway.”

“She sought to change you, that is not love, that is training a pet.”

“You sought to change me too. Do you not remember the lectures you heaped upon every disappointment I caused you?”

“We were children. We knew not of love and how to behave. We were learning together, that is what first love is. The physical act and the emotional experience. Heart and body learning how to be with one you care for. We both made mistakes. I learned from mine. Did you? Or did you wallow and grieve and curse my name when in fact you only had to look to yourself for fault?”

“Why do you choose now to admonish me so? Is it not enough that she has ended me, you must come to finish the job?”

“I do not seek to admonish you, only to teach you what you should have seen all along. The lessons you have had the opportunity to learn which you did you heed and which left you exposed to someone who would reflect their own weakness upon you with such a magnitude you could not endure. Continue on your path, in turn we will guide you. The lesson from me is simple. I loved you with all my teenage heart could muster for three months which felt an eternity at the time. Three months of unconditional, unquestioning love. Is that not a memory to be cherished not despised?”

With these final words she flitted back into the pack of green pixie fish, sent to taunt me on my final walk. I feel a tug from my heart pulling my body forward again on its seemingly endless trudge through the dark depths. The nymphs swim behind me, hunters stalking their prey, ready to each fire their poison word darts in turn.

My strides through the eerie depths of the dark lake are heavy and solemn. The weight of my heart, broken and slumped in my chest. The pull of the watery depths on my soul, closing around me like a blanket, enveloping me with the cold. Strangely I did not feel wet. The clothes I trudged my lonely path in felt dry and loose, despite the obvious dampness of my location. The nymphs swam. Fish surrounded me, darting about in browns and siny greys. Everything seemed murky, dark and wet. Except me, I was separate. As if my soul was in this place and my body another. The path itself was worn into the bed of the lake. Trodden down as if many before had walked this path. Or maybe it was I who had, in my dreams or my subconscious. This was my path and no-one else’s after all, a path I had brought myself too with the eventuality of the self-fulfilling prophecy the first nymph had spoken of.

The impossible dream of perfect love, now a memory cut from me by the poison words of the one I envisaged to be that perfect entity. Everything previous had been a lie. Had I ever truly loved before? How could one love twenty-one times in a lifetime? Lust tells lies, friendship that should have stayed such tells lies, even the heart tells lies but I knew in the blackness that remained of my soul that I had but one true love in my life and my inadequacies had driven her love to hate. Another emotion so prone to lying.

A nymph draped themselves over each slouched shoulder. I tried to straighten my posture, as she would have lectured me to, but found my weary body unwilling to comply. If I was to be taken through the reasons for my eventual decline to this place in order, I knew what came next and why there now sat two.

“You think you are the only one who feels hurt? Understands a broken heart?”

“I could not break your heart. I was nothing to you, you were probably glad to be rid of me when it came.”

“Do not feel you can judge me so. Yes I was cautious, you made me so. I did not know why you made me feel I should hold back, I would have happily given you all of me, had you returned the gesture in kind.”

“I held back nothing from you. I gave you all of me and you returned with icy cold.”

“If you held back nothing from me, what remained that you were able to give to her?”

“I am here you know. I gave him fun and fire and sparks and ease, all the things you withheld.”

“I withheld them because of you, I sensed your presence on his skin. Though I did not realise truly what it was. I thought you both better than that.”

“You misjudged me. I am weak, I am vain, I am a terrible man who does not deserve love. Maybe I mistreated you, but I knew myself unworthy. Even when we met again as our future selves it did not work, with no outside influence. You are beyond me, as was she. I aimed for the sun when I live in the gutter beneath the moon,”

“You are all these things and none of them. You think of love as a tangible thing with only one form.”

“The two of us together represent the whole that you were looking for and still seek. This is what makes you weak, that you cannot see what you have and enjoy it for what it is. Love has many forms. Your memories serve you unkindly, she gave you everything she could while your body belonged to me.”

“And she gave her the pleasure of her body while the kind, gentle, you belonged to me. If we were one person, we maybe could have matched your vision of what love should be, but one person cannot be two people at all times. We all show different sides and different moments and for different people. Have you yourself not been many people through loving each of us? You are loved and desired. Even when we met again did we not have the pleasure denied us in the failings of our youth? Maybe that was the reason for our rekindling. Not this soulmate dream that clouds you from seeing every wonder truly beseeched on you. Ask yourself is it a mistake to keep looking and face the pain or a mistake to look in the first place? Each of us would lose memories and lessons that have graced our lives had you not kept seeking. Maybe there is one more maybe there is twenty more, does that mean you shouldn’t seek again?”

“I don’t have the energy to be hurt like this again. She was you and her combined, that thing which I had sought and I couldn’t even make it work when presented with my perfection.”

“Then was it truly perfection? Or would it not work naturally?”

The two nymphs, the soulmate and the temptress slipped back with effortless glides into their pack. My mind swirled now, a thumping, pounding noise. My own voice shouting at me they may be right. Maybe if it wasn’t her. Maybe she wasn’t what I saw her to be. Maybe I was blind to failings not of adequacy but of my rational thought. The bruises on my heart did not feel as if they were healing though. Her words scared deep, her voice overpowering my own. “I gave you all of me, but you were weak, pathetic. A drunk, a terrible lover, a terrible boyfriend. You lived up to none of the early promises you gave me and I wasted myself on you. If you made it so far in life with nothing to show for it, maybe life is wasted on you,” I needed a drink.

~~~

The lake evaporated around me. I found myself sat, pint in hand in my favorite booth at the pub. Happy days gone by when I could enjoy my own company and a drink before both became too much for me. The walls still decorated in their garish red and yellow stripes. The floor worn, sticky in patches all around. The beige undercarpet showing through the red and cream cheques. I sip my drink. It is cold and refreshing, it does not burn my insides as all drinks recently would. I savour the taste, enjoying a drink for the first time in months. This brings forth a reminder, forgotten in my misery since her leaving. The drink did not start when she left, it started when she was. If so perfect was our love then why did it drive me to numb myself?

“It wasn’t because you were scared of how much you loved her. Don’t let that bollocks even cross your mind.”

A fourth nymph sat opposite me, perched on the edge of a cocktail glass. This was the one I feared most. The only lover who had tolerated me for years not mere months and the only one I had returned that length of feeling for. My heart too keen to always look ahead not enjoy what it had. I felt like someone had said that to me recently. It rattled in my brain like the first clear thought for years. It was possible to love all twenty-one within a lifetime because I was always rushing to seek more. Sometimes I found more, sometimes I found less, but resting and embracing a moment seemed beyond me. Maybe that was the lesson I should have learned. Let things run their course not force fate’s hand by trying to seek it out.

“Of all of us I am probably the closest to you in nature. That is why we were good for our time, but our time had to end. We are too similar. Too scarred in the same way. Where we can support each other, we can also destroy each other. You saw that then and got away. Why could you see it with me and not with her? Are you that much weaker now?”

“Life has taken its toll. My failures are many. None more so than her.”

“Your only failure is you let the lessons we each brought you in our times escape. You believe the anger, pain and torment is all you took from each of these past lives. We could show you many times you failed. You hurt many of us. Many of us hurt you. That is not what matters. What counts is how you take those lessons and learn from them. You still seek perfection as if it were an object to be found. You no longer see what is right in front of your face with your desperate clawing for some fairytale. You have given love, you have received love, in many forms. This should be a lifetime of learning, yet you have not grown, you have receded. You could no longer leave me when you saw the destructive path we travelled together. In the same position again you would grab me tighter and cling to me. She did not do this to you, you did this to yourself. The lessons we teach you will not see until you realise that.”

The nymph fluttered her wings and began to lift from the glass slowly and gracefully.

“That is it? I expected more from you after all we shared.”

“There is nothing more I can tell you you don’t already know, and I lack the power to make you see it if remain unwilling to open your eyes.”

“They don’t feel closed.”

“Then maybe we are doing this the wrong way round and you need to realise why you closed them to understand how closed they are.”

With that she was gone. I slumped back into my chair enjoying the crisp cold taste of a drink for pleasure not for its own sake.

I lingered in the pub for as long as this strange netherworld would allow me. Pondering on the questions posed. Were these many different loves of my life all truly grateful to have known me? For the lessons we learnt of love and ourselves in our times together if for nothing more. I had always believed that there was just one. That perfect someone for me out there and the reason for my current suffering was my failing when that someone had come along. What if there are multiple someones though? What if the purpose is just to enjoy each day, each moment for what it brings and life and love is a constant lesson to learn with no end to the journey? That idea was a torment in itself. If there is no end what would be the purpose of a journey? A lifetime of suffering with nothing to show for it beyond a few fleeting moments of happiness? I dreamed of a better world where happiness was constant. I knew that world existed, I had seen it in others. In grasping desperately for it myself I had given too much, too little, cheated, lied.  Looking always for something more, beyond the amazing in front of me. If amazing wasn’t enough, whatever would be? Her, I thought, but here I was again a victim of myself having had her and failed her.

“Have you considered it was me you failed, not her or yourself?”

She towered over me. A green luminous sprite the same as before, this one though the size of a tree. A fact I knew for certain as we stood now in a wood and her head stood level with the treetops. Her voice boomed. That loud, boisterous personality I both loved and despised. A picture of contentment in my mind, we had everything and nothing. We had no future but we forgave each others past. No wild passion, but a tender way around each other that brought much satisfaction. She was to me the ideal of my giving up on hope. She was beneath me, nothing like my dreams of the woman I would end with, but I could have done and been satisfied. She took my failings and still stood by me. Eventually my aching need for perfection burned through my soul tearing our settled life apart. How would someone I knew to be that which I just settled for make me open my eyes as the nymph had promised.

“Only in that I didn’t do right by you. We were a pairing of need not desire.”

“So you no longer see the truth of what happiness can be?”

“I see that I had it and I lost it, and if my vision of perfection is not mine to keep, why go on searching for imperfection?”

“Imperfection has its place. Where in the world do you see this perfection for which you strive? Which of your friends you idealise the life of have you not sat with and conselled at some point? That was our perfect, that was our purpose. Maybe we weren’t perfect ourselves. Not the most passionate, or romantic. I don’t have the olive skin and perfect figure your loins desire, but I did have the intelligence to match you and we looked on life the same. Until you closed your eyes and went back to your old ways.”

So this was what they sought, to pin me down to some admittance that I was always wrong. That they could each have satisfied me and it was my search for happiness which brought unhappiness.

“I have the right to seek my happiness, I’m sorry if that’s at the cost of others.”

“You do not mean that. This version of you thrives on the suffering of others. Like a mask you can hide your own suffering with. Think on times you have been truly happy. Those among us you have supported, cared for. Friends you have been there for time and time again. You hide behind your lustful ways as they are easy to concede to, they are not the ones that have come close to real happiness though. The sooner you see that she was just a passion of your loins, not your match in any way you will see it was just another lesson on the path.”

“So you would take me back?”

“No, that lesson has been learned and passed. You may find another, you may be alone. You are happiest when helping others, when challenged mentally. Put your physical desires to bed, do not let them drive you, or the shame of what she says is as true as you see it to be.”

The leaves shook with her snapped rejection. It was not a rejection of me however, I began to see that. It was a rejection of the person I allowed myself to be when I placed the physical before the soul and assumed one would outweigh the other.

My scene changed once more as I sat on a single cot in a small cell. Beyond the bars a conveyor belt shipped past memory after memory in the shape of the nymphs, now all back to their natural size. As I watched them pass round and round in a never-ending cycle, I began to see a pattern emerge. For each I loved for their soul alternated with one I loved for their form. Was this the truth of my life, had I not truly been seeking perfection all this time but just the opposite of that which I possessed.

A gentle song filled my cell. A tune I had sung as a young man. I realised it was my own voice I heard, my mouth was moving, my heart mending. Memories flooded through me of times I had sat with friends, those I thought had everything I desired, as their doubts and fears of what I imagined to be their perfect lives streamed from their mouths.

I had been sucked into my own soul instead of opening it to others. “Me and you against the world,” She had said. These were untrue words though, designed to separate me from those who would protect me from myself. She was the worst of me embodied in human form and I had allowed her words to enclose me and shut me off from the person I had once been. Even from the person once strong enough to walk away from such self-destruction. I had allowed her to make me weak by making myself weak. By closing my eyes to the obvious in front of me, she and I were the embiodimemt of the same misgivings, on the same unobtainable quest. I had hidden from myself, closed my eyes and drank to pretend I was happy long after that particular lesson should have been learned and released.

“Do you see now?” The fourth nymph asked as she passed on her rotation.

“The mistakes I’ve made have been in not learning and moving forward. You are each a repetition. Maybe none of you were meant to be forever, I rushed through life always chasing more, but just going round in circles. She was just the latest lesson I failed to learn, not some perfection I cannot obtain. I have been my happiest neither alone nor with one of you but in either state when open and welcoming to the world and my friends. Closing myself has led me here, not the vicious tongue of a child who doesn’t know better.”

“These changes will not happen overnight. Your eyes may open and close many times in the weeks and months to come before you truly regain yourself, are you ready to face to pain?”

“Even if I am what difference will it make? I have gone too far down this path.”

“No-one is ever too far down the path. Seek love wherever you can find it. Just maybe avoid the purely physical until you are ready for fleeting moments to pass.” These words she spoke with a teasing wink knowing full well my weakness. “Friends will serve your soul better, but as long as you are being true and have your eyes open when you go into something, allow everything to be what it is.”

She smiled a knowing smile, my love of feeling anothers warm body joined with mine would not desert me long once I felt myself again. The many times down the years our love had rekindled purely as lust informed her the truth of my appetites. My appetites would take some satisfying now I felt my soul tingle with warmth once more.

Some days would be hard and it was important to take my time to rebuild myself, she spoke the truth. The evil words that haunted me were a whisper not a scream now. I could keep them down and allow the real me back into the world.

I wake. My eyes, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, not stinging with tears shed in a restless night. I reach out to the other side of the bed. It is cold and empty. That is better than cold and full. I allow myself a little smile, my face still remembers how, my journey begins anew.

Amazing, right? Such a deep message inside a deep story. If you liked the story, please support the author by buying some of his other books.

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