By Ashley Heaton
“I bet when you were in my class all those years ago you never imagined this would be happening,” my former teacher joked as he snorted a line of cocaine.
“You are correct,” I replied, smiling and rolling my eyes. His mood was perhaps too light.
“You know, I was a little embarrassed for you to see my place.” He appeared suddenly pensive, furrowing his brow and running a hand through his hair.
I downed a shot of vodka and fiddled with his stereo, placing Beggars’ Banquet on the turntable. “Why do you say that, Paul?” I asked. The setting in question somewhat resembled my own perfectly acceptable-looking apartment. I did not know whether to feel insulted.
“Well, it’s not as nice as my last place, and you know, I like to think you look up to me. You have this idea in your head of who I am because of who I was when I met you. You’re a smart girl and you’ve got a future ahead of you. And I’m on the decline, you know? I’m…” he lowered his voice to a near whisper, “…downwardly mobile.”
I was a little confused as to what he meant by this. I’d assumed he was quite well-off. Last year he’d released a new book, his most successful yet. I’d even seen it at Barnes & Noble once – prime distribution real estate! He was smart – certainly smarter than me – and was scruffily handsome with artfully tousled hair and a nice-enough wardrobe. He had friends in the upper echelons of the literary and political spheres. He was right; I did look up to him. I very nearly idolized him. Of course, if I was to be honest with myself I would admit he had many flaws, first and foremost the whole drug use thing. Being a romantic, though, I was willing to see past such imperfections.
Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify that this relationship – if one could call it that – had only been in existence on and off for the past year. Nothing improper had happened when he was my teacher, which was a good thing, because at the time I had been 16 and he’d been 32. I’m quite certain he’d never had a second thought about awkward teenage me back then.
I didn’t see him for years, until we finally got back in touch because we had something in common – we both had begun side careers as writers. I reached out to him on a whim, and over time he became something of a mentor and confidant to me. Our relationship had changed quite drastically about a year ago, though, when on one particular occasion we indulged in a few too many cocktails, and one thing ended up leading to another.
It was entirely unplanned but the chemistry between us was electric, of the variety I hadn’t believed existed before then. It contained all the spark of forbidden love, weighted by 12 years of history. Because of the geographical distance between us we’d only seen each other a few times since, but every time we did we managed to get into trouble.
In the present day, he was a bored 44-year-old college professor feeling stifled by the establishment, trying to recapture his youth. I was a bored 28-year-old cog in the corporate machine missing my rebellious teen years. We understood each other and gave each other exactly what we needed – a kind of codependent midlife-crisis symbiosis. It was nice in its way, really.
I was shaken from my thoughts when I saw something I’d never seen in my apartment: a cockroach scurrying across the hardwood floor. I jumped and pulled my legs up onto the couch as Paul threw the remote at the gruesome creature, then attacked it with a can of raid. Once we were certain of no more signs of life he scooped it up as though this were business as usual, opening the sliding glass door and chucking it outside. I raised an eyebrow, better understanding what he meant about his apartment being embarrassing. We both sighed and continued the conversation. I leaned into him, staring through the glass at the peach trees in pale springtime bloom swaying in the wind. He poured us another round of drinks.
As I observed him, I sensed that something was wrong. We’d always had fun together. From what I knew of him he seemed to generally be enjoying his life. But the whole “downwardly mobile” comment lingered in the air as I tried to figure out what he meant by that. I was troubled by his words and worried for him. I truly felt for him at this point; he’d become an important part of my life.
And then I spotted it out of the corner of my eye. More movement, but not a cockroach this time. It was a skeleton shuffling around in his closet.
“Oh, hello,” the skeleton said to me. “Sorry to disturb you two, I’m just moving in and getting comfortable. Don’t mind me!”
Now, most girls would have fainted with terror at such a sight, but not I! I knew exactly where skeletons in closets came from; in fact, I had one of my own. They follow unsuspecting people home from places where skeletons are apt to congregate. Cemeteries. Biology labs. Mine trailed me from a museum exhibit (I think it was that “Bodies” exhibit that was all the rage some years ago, but my memory is fuzzy). It’s been making a home in my closet ever since.
One doesn’t find a skeleton mulling about in one’s closet for no good reason. No, a closet skeleton is like a scarlet letter or an albatross hanging from one’s neck – it’s a signifier of a deep dark secret; a symbol of guilt or shame. Only people with seriously messed up pasts or presents have skeletons in their closets. Mine represented my history, my troubled and troublesome youth. Now I was fine – even on the upswing – but I had seen it all and there was no going back. However, I knew Paul’s closet skeleton embodied the present, because it had clearly just arrived in his apartment recently. It was because of this that despite my ease around such circumstances, I still found the presence of this skeleton deeply disturbing.
I whirled around and looked it deep in the empty eye sockets. “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you here?” I implored of the skeleton.
It laughed. “Oh, I think you can figure that out! Isn’t it obvious? He’s got issues galore. We met in the bio building at the university. Boy, the moment I saw him I knew I’d found my new home.”
Paul’s face flushed bright red and he fumbled awkwardly with the stereo volume, anything to drown out what was happening.
I pondered the situation. He was clearly unhappy with the state of his life. The more time I spent with him, the more I had noticed the increased frequency of his drinking and drug use. I’d consoled him through more than one crippling panic attack in the past few days alone. And he would blow massive quantities of money on nights out, money I was pretty sure he didn’t have.
“What is that skeleton really doing here?” I asked.
“Well…ah, this is so humiliating,” he stammered. “I can’t imagine what you must think of me. I mean, if anyone finds about the skeleton…my career would be over. God, what would my students think?”
I was beginning to tear up. “You must really be off the rails. You’ve never been the type to have a skeleton in your closet.”
Paul looked tense. “The truth is that I hate this city and I hate my job,” he said, his voice sounding resigned. I had known he would have preferred to live elsewhere, but the intensity of his bitterness was news to me. “I want to work up north, back east, just about anywhere else really, but…it’s so hard to land a new job when you’re a professor. I’ve been trying for years. I’m up for tenure here, you know. I’m scared I’ll be here forever. That I’ll be stuck.” He continued, motioning to the lines on the table and the empty bottle of vodka beside them. “That’s what this is all about.”
“Oh,” I said, taken aback. “I’m sorry to hear that. But…I can tell there’s something else that’s bothering you. Isn’t there?”
“Well…” he trailed off, appearing to struggle with whether or not to tell me something. I looked from him to the skeleton and back again.
“Go on,” the skeleton teased. Its levity was off-putting. I felt a pit in my stomach.
After a long pause, Paul finally spoke. “I thought I’d met someone really special here. But she’s gone for good. And I doubt I’ll ever meet someone else in this shitty town.” I was shocked that he would share such a thing with me, especially since these two relationships had apparently been playing out at the same time. I silently thanked the skeleton for egging him on.
It was then that I realized Paul was not just numbing his existential pain with drugs and alcohol – he was numbing the pain with me. I’d never be a real possibility to him. I was to be kept a deep dark secret; I was just another proverbial skeleton in his figurative closet.
Suddenly my thoughts were flying out of my mouth. “I know we live far away… but you’re looking to move anyway, right? Why can’t we try to make something of this?” I immediately regretted my words. It was then that I realized I had caught feelings for him, and now I felt like a fool, desperately throwing myself at him while I watched him pine for another woman.
“How could you still have any interest in me, knowing that I have this…thing…in my closet? What would someone like you, with your whole life ahead of you, know about skeletons in closets?” He sounded almost annoyed, as if he thought I could never understand.
“I know quite a bit about them, because I have a skeleton in my closet too.”
He looked stunned.
“It’s really sweet that you care so much about me,” he allowed. I saw it in his face. He knew how I felt and he didn’t like it. “I care about you too,” he paused, looking thoughtful, “but I can’t date you.”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing now?”
“Well, yes…but…I can’t see you after this.”
“I can’t be with a girl like you.”
My heart pounded in my chest. “What do you mean by ‘a girl like me’?”
“Well, you know. The other woman…she was closer to my age and she certainly wasn’t my student. It was an appropriate relationship. She was a good woman, the kind who went to church every Sunday.
“Are you saying I’m no good?” I could hardly contain the rage I felt at this point.
He casually popped a Xanax while I seethed. “You know what I mean. She was going to fix me. She had no baggage. Someone like her would resent the skeleton in my closet so much as to make it leave. You, though…you’re like me. You accept the skeleton in my closet. You have a skeleton in your closet.”
“But I accept you as you are – skeletons and all.”
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t make the problem go away. You can’t fix me.”
“No one is going to fix you. You are going to have to fix yourself.”
I hurriedly picked up my things and left, running out the door and under the peach trees as the blossoms fell. It appeared springtime was just about over. When I got home I realized the skeleton in my closet had wandered off into the night, never to be seen again. I hear Paul never could get rid of that skeleton in his closet.
Ashley Heaton is a Los Angeles-based part-time journalist and full-time rebel. Her writing credits include Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Conde Nast Traveler and Racked.Instagram: @ashley.e.hTwitter: @ashleyeheaton