There are, presumably, a lot of men named Gray. This is a story about one of them. His name doesn’t really have any particular metaphorical importance. He’s not subdued or subtle or medium or in-between or anything good you’d want out of a man with a name like Gray. Instead, he’s a combination of tragic and awful. Usually I go through a lot of work to anonymize people when I write memoir, but I don’t think I’m going to bother this time. I’m a little salty, even ten and fifteen years on. The reasons will become apparent.
I first met Gray because I was nineteen, living in Portland, Oregon, and dating someone named Heather. Heather isn’t her real name, because she’s a sweetheart and there’s no reason not to anonymize her. Heather was a few years older than me, and if I recall correctly, Gray was a few years older still. Heather and Gray were primary partners. I was Heather’s side relationship, more or less.
I first met Gray because I heard my doorbell ring and I went downstairs and answered the door and some bike jock was standing there. I didn’t recognize him, so I assumed he was there for one of my roommates.
“Are you Magpie?” he asked, ominously. Everything that man did in his entire life was ominous, I think.
I was excited to meet my metamour, but it seemed a bit odd for him to show up unannounced. “What’s up?” I asked.
“We need to talk.”
See, that’s like, that man’s ominous catchphrase. “We need to talk.”
So we went on a walk, Gray and I. He kept trying to convince me that we were enemies. That we needed to fight. That I needed to break up with Heather. For my own part, I was nineteen and full of revolutionary fervor. I tried to convince him that we were both anarchists, that our real enemy was the state and capitalism. That neither of us owned Heather, and that I certainly wasn’t going to break up with her just because her jealous partner told me to.
I didn’t convince him, I don’t think, but I didn’t fight him either. He went home, and I went home, and I continued to date Heather and avoid Gray.
* * *
Heather and I didn’t last forever, or even all that long. The chemistry was wrong, and I was in the wrong part of healing from trauma, and we faded into friends and then acquaintances. I skipped town, as was my style at the time. A year or two later, I was back and I went and hung out with Heather. Gray and her had broken up a year prior. “You have to see this,” she said, and led me into her basement. She opened a cardboard box and pulled out a stained glass window.
The window was a portrait of Heather and Gray. The words “we still love one another” captioned it. It wasn’t a tiny window, either. Probably two or three feet tall. I’ve never made stained glass, but I just assume that wasn’t finished in a day.
“Gray gave me this on our anniversary, a year after we’d broken up.”
So at this point in the story I want to do two things. First of all, I want to assure you that I am not telling a story in which Gray goes on to do anything worse to Heather. I haven’t kept up with Heather, but nothing specifically horrid has happened, to my knowledge. Secondly, I want to acknowledge that this is a strange story to tell from my own point of view. I’m not the most harmed party, because I was never in a relationship with that man. Still, this whole thing looms large in my mind, a strange parable of the depths of human experience.
“That’s fucked up,” I said to Heather when I saw the window.
“Yeah. It is.”
* * *
Another year or so later, I was back in town again, and I was looking to skip town again. A friend offered me a ride from Portland to the Bay. I took her up on it. “I have a craigslist rider, though. This guy named Gray is coming with us.”
“No,” Gray told me, once he found out I was going to be in the car with him. “This is my vacation. You cannot come.”
Poor Gray. I never once acquiesced to one of his demands. I came anyway.
In northern California, we pulled into a state park campground. The driver slept in the car; Gray and I slept on the ground outside. Fear came over me, and I kept my knife in my hand, under the black hoodie I was using as a pillow. I was convinced that Gray would try to murder me in my sleep. So I didn’t really sleep.
The sun rose, as is its habit, and I hadn’t been murdered, and we skipped out of the campground because we were punks so we hadn’t paid and we needed to get gone before the ranger did his rounds. We kept on down the California freeway. We blew a tire. The tow truck driver told us there was only room for two of us in the truck, so I volunteered to walk the couple miles to the repair shop. I was used to walking on the interstate.
“Aren’t you going to bring your bag?” Gray asked. “Since we’re going to leave you.”
“You’re not going to leave me,” I told him, because it wasn’t his choice.
At the tire shop, I talked to him frankly. “I slept with my knife in my hand last night,” I told him, “because I was convinced you were going to try to kill me.”
“That makes sense,” he acknowledged. “I spent most of last night thinking about killing you.”
It was so nonchalant, so honest. I didn’t even respond.
Back in the car, we kept driving, and they left me south of the Bay so I could hitchhike to Santa Cruz in the morning. I was glad to be away from him.
I laid down in an orchard on the side of the highway and fell asleep on my back and had sleep paralysis dream after sleep paralysis dream. Feral cats eating my face. Thieves standing over me, deciding what to do with me.
* * *
Fast forward yet another few years. More this time, I think, but I couldn’t promise you. My memory has never been particularly sound, and all of this was at least a decade ago. I was back in Portland, and I went over to see my friend. Knocked on the door of the punk house.
Gray answered the door.
Besides as a strange and violent aberration, I hadn’t wasted too much of my life thinking about that dude. The world is full of creeps. No need to fixate on that one in particular. But he opened the door and he saw me and it was like I’d punched him in the gut. I ruined his day, his week, his life.
“You know, Magpie,” he said to me, after awhile. “Sometimes when two men just really have a problem with each other, they fight it out.”
This asshole was still trying to fight me.
He went on to tell me we could make an event of it. Maybe mud wrestle as a fundraiser. Just… it was the only way for us to really clear the air.
I wish I could tell you that the moral high ground was the only option I considered. Instead, I’m pretty sure I told him, more or less, that I wasn’t going to fight him, I wasn’t going to wrestle him, but if he so much as fucking touched me I would destroy him.
Which was bullshit on a couple levels. I was certainly bluffing—I would have lost. It was certainly macho, and playing into his bizarre worldview. But that afternoon I didn’t want the moral high ground. I wanted to scream at him. Hit him. Drive him away. Whatever it would take to make him leave me the fuck alone forever.
In the end, though, I ignored him. I went up to my friend’s room and a bunch of us hung out for a few hours.
Until Gray came in, in a bathrobe. “Magpie,” he said, “we need to talk.” Like the first time I’d met him, only with less clothing.
I followed him down the stairs, into the bathroom, where he’d drawn a bath. He took off the towel and got in the tub.
He offered me a seat. I kept standing.
For the next half an hour at least, he unloaded his problems on me. At the core of it were a few things. First, and most importantly, Heather breaking up with him had completely and irrecoverably ruined his life. He needed, forever, an intense regimen of self-care. I had ruined their relationship. By turning Heather against him, maybe, or just by existing and breaking up a perfect pattern of bliss.
In fact, there was only one thing that could possibly help him heal.
I needed to fuck him.
It was like when he told me he wanted to kill me. It came out of the same place, and it had the same effect on me. I was stunned.
I didn’t fuck him. I left him in that bath to his fate.
Thank fuck, I’ve never seen him again.
I hope Heather hasn’t either. I hope she’s doing okay.
* * *
Maybe Gray does deserve his name, actually. His grief, ill-founded as it was, had consumed him. Turned him into less of a person, more of a metaphor. More of a ghost, haunted and haunting. A creature of pure, animalistic longing and pain. A dangerous fucking creature of fog and sorrow and anger.
I can almost understand it. I can almost understand him. I’ve loved and lost. I’ve been convinced, beyond any rationality, that my life would forever be meaningless because of a single person who did not want to continue to be in a relationship with me. But I also believe, to the core of my being, that we each have our own agency, are our own masters. If someone doesn’t want to be with me, then it’s not meant to be. That realization has carried me through the darkest parts of heartbreak, a beacon in the distance to reach for.
Gray didn’t have that.
* * *
Gray is one of the most dangerous men I’ve ever met, because in some ways he’s an example of the unknown risk carried within most men (maybe most people). He had all the right politics. He was a polyamorous queer anarchist who rode a bike and lived in a cooperative house. But he listened to Songs: Ohia and once forbade me from liking them because it was his music. It’s fucked up that now when I hear some of their love songs, their songs of longing, I can’t help but think about this simple toxic incarnation of love and longing.
Gray saw the world through only his own eyes. It wasn’t that he thought he owned Heather, or that he could control me, it was that he seemed completely incapable of believing she was a woman with her own agency and needs and desires. Nothing made him more angry, more impotent, than realizing he couldn’t control either of us.
I hope, with all my little heart, that he never acted out worse to anyone than what I’ve relayed above, but I’ll also be surprised. Maybe he’s better now. That would be nice.
Maybe he doesn’t deserve to be remembered for this, but it’s how I remember him. I remember him with my own knife in my own hand, wondering if he was going to kill me in the dark with the redwoods crowding the sky above us.
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