My boyfriend asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital.
I considered how brave I was, thinking of all the times I’ve walked home in the dark alone, how I could chance week-old yogurt without hesitation, how we had once lain carelessly in the middle of the street when we were falling in love. “No,” I said. “I’ll stay and watch the dog.”
We were upstate after learning his dad had had a heart attack. The loss of oxygen in his dad’s brain caused him to seize and twitch. His mom cried almost constantly and my boyfriend Pete and his brother masked their emotions by watching TV and putting off the hospital visit until they were at least seven episodes deep into an Anthony Bourdain show.
I wouldn’t go to the hospital, but I could return their library books, have iced tea with their elderly neighbor, heat up the leftover ravioli friends were bringing them, wash their windows and give their dog treats after it pooped. I could be supportive in those ways. They were exhausted but unable to sleep and hopeful out of necessity. After five years together, I could see them at their most vulnerable, but I wouldn’t let them see me at mine. I would stay home.
Maybe I should’ve gone.
After a while, when we returned to our apartment in Brooklyn, my boyfriend needed more than my microwaving skills. He needed emotional support — someone to just be there, to talk, to not be so entirely wrapped up in her own shit all the time — and that wasn’t something I could serve up.
I was selfish. Jealous even — a painful admission. He had a dad, and I didn’t. It was a juvenile feeling, but, in that time, I thought, “He has to be the OK one because things are slightly less crappy for him.” My dad had died a few months earlier, and I simply couldn’t care for two healing people. So I left.
It all came back to me when I heard Sharon Van Etten’s “I Don’t Want To Let You Down” this week, three months after I ran away from New York City. The music itself is strong and sturdy, but as the modest guitar staggers over small melodic hills, it opens the song up for confession: “When dreams go black, I didn’t want to see the light.” I had given up. I left my co-workers, my friends and my boyfriend and moved in with my mom upstate, secluding myself from every outside problem I could think of. I shut out everyone and holed myself up in my childhood bedroom with nothing but my cat and my 2003-era John Mayer poster to keep me company. I didn’t want to see the light.
Sharon comes in with the chorus: “Overboard/ I don’t want to let you down.” She sings the last line again and again, her voice like the exasperated wailing you do when you’re too tired to cry normally. “I don’t want to let you down.” There was a lot of crying. I cried sitting alone at home at my dad’s spot on the couch, I cried when I went back to Brooklyn to get my stuff from our apartment, and I cried when my dad came to me in a dream starring my ex-boyfriend’s new girl and said “That’s life.”
The first time I saw my dad cry was when we watched the news broadcast on September 11th, then again the next year when his mom died, then again while listening to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.” He felt everything. He let people know that he loved them. His eyes got watery as he packed me up for my move to New York City after I had gotten a post-grad job. “I always knew you’d end up there,” he told me. Yet, here I was, back to where I started, shoveling snow on the driveway where he used to park his mini-van, far away from the dreams he had hoped I would follow and the love he had hoped I would give.
As Sharon sings, I think about my dad. He didn’t have complex plans for me. All I had to do was be independent, hard working and financially stable (which was only problematic when I told him I wanted to be a journalist). He wanted me to be happy. He wanted me to have self-worth. But now I was crawling back to mommy, when I was supposed to be self-sufficient.
“I don’t want to let you down/ I don’t want to let you down/ I don’t want to let you down.”
I don’t know who Sharon is singing to on this song — a partner, a parent, or whomever — but how heartbreaking is it to hear those words — “I don’t want to let you down” — repeated over and over like a daily pledge to someone who isn’t there? It’s as if she’s making a promise: I’ll do better if you come back. Please come back.
I returned to New York in my dad’s mini-van, and Pete and I carried my belongings down four flights of stairs. He willingly took the heavier boxes, I hauled a closet’s worth of clothes and we briefly fought over my Beck record. And then I asked him to stay with me.
“You left me,” he said, looking away, hurt. “When I needed you the most.” He had given up too.
There’s a second voice layered underneath Sharon’s soprano. It’s low, quiet and almost embarrassed. I wonder if it’s intentional how her singsong pleading is paired with a meeker undertone, like dueling personalities. Half of me is too proud to say that I’ve messed up, but half of me wants to beg and wail for forgiveness.
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