What once was


Original graphic design done by Walker Hardy.


My blurry, blue eyes lock onto the dark, gray asphalt of South 405 as I fly through the Oregon mountains and pass into the valleys of Northern California. The dashing of yellow lines drags my focus to the jet-blue semi truck passing over my right shoulder as it begins to swerve, explode and spin out of control. The black rubber from the massive tires creates scars on the road. As the automobile deforms, enfolds and becomes ruined, my weeping heart relates to the inanimate object on the highway.

PART 1: a cub and his mother 

As a little boy, I was attached to my mom’s side like a cub is to his mother. I was a sick baby boy; eye infections, throat infections and ear infections caused me to sleep in my parents bed, scared and needing that secure comfort. I would follow my mom around like a shadow and watch her eyes seep her deep emotions. I learned to always reciprocate everything she did because I was her shadow. Yet, her loving soul always nurtured me and eased my anxious little mind. Whether she was lullabying me to sleep with her sweet voice, counting down from a hundred to zero, or telling me to dream about a calm, sand beach with a clear blue sky, it put my mind and my eyes to sleep because she was safe. 

My mother was peaceful, calming and loving. I had a dependable, secure, affectionate primary caregiver growing up, who influenced me to feel securely attached, confident and safe, giving me a base to explore the world. 

I remember hearing loud voices outside my closed door in my 12 x 12 room that emulated a gross, yellow fluorescent light inside of it. I twisted the knob to the door, avoiding the screeching cracks from the rusty bolts that would blow my cover. After opening the chipped, white wooden door and sneaking downstairs, I peeked through the banister planks, hearing my mother and my father fight vocally. 

“What are we going to do about this money Doug?” Shannan said

“Son of a gun, Shannan, I don’t know!” Doug screamed. 

“I can’t keep doing this Douglas.” 

Smacks bills onto the table and leaves.

As Shannan walks out of the kitchen and passes the bottom of the stairs, my father follows right behind her, leading them to see me at the base of the stairs, crying. 

“Look what you did Shannan,” Doug said aggressively. 

“Look what I did?” she remarked. 

Shannan walks over and reassures me that this isn’t my fault and that I didn’t cause these problems, yet I still felt somehow affected through my deep connection with my mother. In that moment, I saw it in my mother’s eyes and it became my vision and my rupture. Something that was once safe, exploded — becoming broken and insecure. 

I continued safely exploring the world as a young boy, until the winter of 2009 when it came to a halting stop. Winter is supposed to be the happiest time of year for me. The falling of snowflakes, the sweet smell of pine, the joy of love and the sense of family. Yet, as we gathered as six people together in our home, there was no sense of joy, just a sense of a disorganized group. I gazed up into my parents’ eyes and heard the words ‘divorce’ harshly come from my father’s mouth as his front teeth hit his lips, exaggerating the vowel at the end; feeling like a painful shard of glass piercing through me. My ears started to ring as my childhood understanding of this secure concept of a trusting and loving relationship was uprooted and severely distorted. 

A journal article, Security in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood, says that “a secure preschool child can shift to having an insecure attachment later if there is a severe disruption in the caregiving system … like divorce.” 

As the split grew to be finalized and I got older, I was still attached to my mother’s side like an appendage or another heart; feeling what she felt, the pain, the anxiety and the worry. John Bowley, a British psychologist, defines attachment as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” 

Where before I had a consistently balanced, caregiver who was responsive, the divorce presented me with a caregiver who adopted more of  an inconsistent attachment style. This introduced fear and mistrust in my loving relationships that I had yet to experience. 

I saw my mother date other men. Some would come and go, some serious and some stayed. Some that I met and some that made me uncomfortable. However, I subsequently learned to grow into that style, evolving me into an anxious form of attachment, where before it was secure. 

I learned both ways of attachment. As a child, I was securely attached to my mother’s emotions and as a teenager, I had a positive working model of myself as a younger child, until the divorce happened.

This altered my perception of myself and the reality of loving relationships. My anxiety attachment grew from my primary caregivers’ life switch, now causing me to be ambivalent; exaggerating my emotional responses as a way to gain attention or thinking I’m unworthy or unacceptable of love because of the neglect that my mother’s experience gave me. 

According to Bowlby’s studies in 1973, ambivalent children have a negative self-image and can exaggerate their emotional responses. Along with this insecure style of attachment, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, expanded on Bowlby’s studies. Ainsworth described ambivalent/ insecure attachment as the “distress when a parent leaves … a result of poor parental availability … these children cannot depend on their primary caregiver.” 

Adolescents and adults explain more about attachment theory and find that “attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships.” 

PART 2: a boy and his lover 

I met him virtually on Oct. 19, 2021. I stumbled upon his username, “brimedhatboy” and clicked on his profile picture of Slater, a strikingly handsome, cowboy man. He looked like a comic book character. He had a bright-blonde buzz cut, his chiseled body was a tattooed patchwork of meaningful inks of his childhood, his mantras or his themes to life. I took a chance and sent him a message thinking he would never respond. Slater resided in Oregon, seven hours away from me, but to my surprise, he responded and pursued me. 

The brown and green leaves began to swiftly fall off the dry, cracked branches and rot into the wet soil of Chico. The weather starts to become gloomy, where shadows hover above and cry, cleansing previous scars or breaks. It was the beginning of fall and Slater and I were moving along quickly. Seeing Slater’s name brighten up my phone had a similar effect on me, but the need of wanting him to talk to me or get to know me killed me. The slightest ounce of attention he gave me felt like the warm, fuzzy fall hug I needed to continue marching on through this storm. 

We messaged on the phone every day for weeks, calling and having discussions, either short or long, about anything; how my internship was going or how he was doing at work. We were there to not only get each other through the days, but to support and offer a sense of love, security and true connection. FaceTiming at night and watching his eyes close as he begins to dream, all I wanted was him to dream about me. I saw it with him so clearly. 

During one phone call, Slater was talking about his life in Oregon; his best friends, his spots for obtaining peace of mind or fresh air and he says,

“You should come visit me some time.”

“Oh really, I would love to actually, I really like you a lot and want to see where we can go,” I said. 

“Being in-person is the only way,” Slater said. 

It was settled. Nov. 3, I was going up to Oregon to see this guy that I had been intimately involved with only for three months, yet I felt so strongly for him. I packed my sacred heart, my bags and puzzled into my 2007 tan, beat-up Prius. I drove “Berth” through the California valleys, into the cold, snowy city of Portland, Oregon. 

As I pulled into his city, my chest tightened as the numerical distance between this man and myself grew narrower. I passed the calm, forest highways and entered the chaotic streets of downtown Portland. I passed all the blurred signs and lights, I pull over, put on my hazards and I’ve arrived. My heart paces abnormally as I see the buzz-cut man notice me pulling over to stop. He gets in my car, and gives me the warm hug that I needed, calming my nerves. 

His red puffer jacket reminded me of Santa and his charm overwhelmed me. His sweetness made me weep internally and his eyes made me feel he cared for me already. He wore black slacks, the ones you get tailored and had freshly cut, dyed ‘do. He had a confident, sexy manner of being mysterious and new, exciting territory. There was something about him that drove me crazy enough that I had already wanted to consistently fetch his attention. 

I stayed in his home with him for four days. Four days I spent getting to know in person, who Slater was, what he liked, what he didn’t and almost being a shadow. On Friday, we stayed in. He ordered us noodles and meat, known as pho. We ate together on his translucent, expensive kitchen table. We talked about what we loved, what we hated, we laughed, we flirted and we got down to earth. I felt safe and secure finally meeting him. 

On Saturday, he took me to the Portland coast. He took me to Cannon Beach, where we both went to the local sweet bakery. He clowned on me for my weird choice in getting a carrot muffin, while I “secretly” with his knowledge, stole a bit from his chocolate. It seemed truly unreal. From walking the wet sand beach together and awing at three pastured horses near the water, to the dogs harmoniously playing together, I was at peace on the calm beach with its clear blue sky. It felt like the dream my mom consistently played out for me that shut my eyes before the storm or divorce. 

On Monday, we woke up facing one another as we both opened our eyes. We laughed, smiled and kissed, not caring about morning breath. I felt comfortable and secure waking up in his tan, wooden bed and the pure white sheets; I was fully engulfed in this. He got up to leave the bed. As I watched him walk away in just white underwear, all I could think about was how lucky I was that this could be my person. He made me coffee, which he only drinks black so now I drink black. He made avocado, bacon and a poached egg that we both ate for breakfast. After eating and enjoying the atmosphere created by his bright, glass windowed, open Portland apartment, we went and explored more of why he loved this city. On Sunday, he left me alone all day because he had to go to work. 

Here I was, alone and in this person’s apartment. I had the key to his safety box. He trusted me to not steal everything, to not rob him completely or do something un-accordingly. I cared for him, needed him and wanted him to see the good in me. I was in his life all day without him and my mind became blurred like the weather above. 

My torso and hands started to tremble as I felt my rough, clammy palms start to make me nauseous. The cold shiver, cloudy brain and anxious shake only perpetuated me further into forcing myself to distract my nervous system from him.

I wanted Slater to reassure me because I was anxious that he was gone for just one day. I felt restless and constantly checked my phone to see if he texted me, thought about me or wanted to see how I was doing. So, I left his apartment. Wearing his jacket that he gave me, I went around his town, exploring his favorite recommended spots like the cafe, St Honore Boula where I got a signature, Pain au Chocolat that I ate with steam evaporating off the hot bread. I went to a thrift store in Fairview where I got my go-to brown and green, “save the planet,” tote bag. I personalized my own tour to take my mind off of him being gone. I tried to focus on anything else other than this man, his life and wanting to feel seen. 

Again, somehow I had this internal feeling of being alone or not wanting to be alone just because he was away and not caring for me at that moment. 

I got back to his apartment, opened the door to the lobby, said hello to the doorman and used his key card to get into the stained-glass elevator. I went to the third floor, apartment 1-2-6 and used his key to open his silver front door. I stood in this man’s apartment, almost dissociating, waiting for him to come home. He knocks on his own door and I let him in. It felt odd, but almost like something I could get used to. 

As the evening grew darker, I knew it was the last night we had together before I trekked back to Chico. We decided to stay in and wanted to just spend quality time together. We watched four different movies, cuddling, talking and being present the whole time. The last movie, “10 Things I Hate About You,” became background noise as we became intimate, ironic. 

My hand pressed around his neck as we started to passionately kiss, interlocking our faces he began to move his hands down my flexed spine. My tight grip loosened and I moved my hand down his naked chest as I played with his heart necklace. As we kissed, I felt his neck and face almost move away, back out and my heart dropped. 

I felt unwanted, repulsed, and how he pulled back just made me melt by his side, lightly tracing over his inked body, touching the healed scars from the needles. After the movie ran the final credits, we moved from the hardened couch to his soft queen bed. We started to interlock our faces, swapping saliva passionately and then he did it again. I’m on top of him as I feel his hands come off my body and his head corks left. I feel the passiveness to get off. I get off and roll to the other side of the bed. The sheets now feel cold and hard. Before, Slater felt like a hot furnace, warming me as I shivered. Now, I lay cold and confused. 

When we woke up on Monday, I was dreading leaving because my anxiety needed to clarify a couple of things from the confusing, previous night. As we headed to my car together, I told him … 

“I really like you,” I said 

“I really like you too, you’re cute” Slater said 

“I’m happy to hear that. I just like … is this something that’s casual for you?” I remarked. 

“Well … we barely know each other.” Slater said 

My ears began to ring instantly and I blacked out from there, just like in my childhood when I knew my parents were splitting. I knew what was going to happen. 

After the conversation, we arrived at my car, he kissed me and I left. I got into Bertha and began weeping as the sky began to cast shadows and weep along with me. I told myself I should have known as I drove the next four, out of the seven hours back home, in tears. Speeding, blaring my music down the highway, I knew it was over before he said anything. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t change anything, I didn’t push, I didn’t lie. I was authentic and showed him that I cared. I drove to Oregon because I wanted to pursue him and thought he wanted to pursue me, which drove me crazy with how this had happened. 

I woke up and would plead to see his name on my phone. The glaring, harsh white light from my cracked iPhone 11 dried my eyes until my head grew painful. My mind would run to the ground, wishing, wanting, hoping that he wouldn’t break the secure connection I thought we had. 

I felt as though I had in my childhood. Something that was once safe, secure and almost something I was dependent on broke. From childhood experiences, I grew to be anxiously attached to Slater, and coming home to Chico was the rudest awakening. What I was afraid of happening, happened. It began to break off and communication became sticky with me. He told me “everything is fine, I’m just going through a lot with work and my life” then ignored me for weeks on end, so I called bullshit and it was. 

The hard thing is this theme of “what’s wrong with me” can be actually normal. Adults and adolescents go through divorce and many children find themselves with the similar feelings that I do. This constant, rampant manic state is relatable for other people who have deep soul hardships with connecting intimately now and feeling attached. 

Research done within the Security In Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood journal, they studied on adult attachment and it “shows that it isn’t the traumatic experiences of children with attachment that matter but rather how good the adult understands what happened to them.” 

I was anxiously attached because of how I grew up. I didn’t know anything else other than to blame myself for not working it out, calling myself crazy because I can’t stop thinking about him, wanting the answers, wanting him to explain himself and why he doesn’t like me anymore. I finally understood that feeling of going “stir-crazy” stems from my childhood experiences and how things happened to me, not what happened to me.  

People learn from their experiences, and when it’s brought subconsciously into the present they may cause hardships in our day-to-day lives. It’s important to have self-reflection on how things happened to you, not necessarily what happened. 

Trying to find a way back into my routine without feeling obsessive or feeling attached to Slater, all I could relate to was that jet-blue semi truck. Something that felt like an indestructible object or that was once sturdy is now tarnished, unfixable and broken. The dissolution of the connection between him and I felt like that. It felt so passionate, so strong, so powerful that it could take anything. Yet the smallest move, or mis-hap, can destroy everything that was once built to drive far, far away. 

A year later, I realized that my emotions relating to the inanimate object hurling down the highway lead me into living a facade. I bore my most vulnerable self to Slater and the divorce was a vulnerable part of my life. What I’ve learned is to separate myself from the feelings of others. I’m not broken, tarnished or ruined from what I’ve previously learned in the past through a divorce. I’m designed as a human to have a passionate, beating heart that attaches, breaks, but one that can love again.

Walker Hardy can be reached at [email protected].