As I was waiting to see the doctor last Friday, my cellphone rang. I looked at the number, didn’t recognize it, weighed the xeroxed notice banning cellphone use against my boredom against the chance that it was no one I knew and/or wanted to speak to, and chose to answer the call.
“Hi, uh, Chelsea,” said a fuzzily familiar voice, “it’s Ernie.”
Ernie. Huh. Ernie was my last live-in boyfriend; we broke up in May 2003. Ernie and I are at the same university, in the same department, studying the same area of literature. This year, Ernie has a fellowship to write his dissertation, so I rarely ever see him. It was therefore odd to hear his voice. We don’t call each other. We aren’t friends. We aren’t enemies, or at least we weren’t enemies before, to clumsily foreshadow the end of this story.
“So,” said Ernie, “I’ve been reading your blog for the last year.”
Huh. I thought. This can’t be good.
I have not been kind to Ernie in my writing. I have not been exactly fair, if to be exactly fair is to be certain to tell the good in equal weight to the bad and the ugly. I have not been fair if to be fair is to be careful not to write things that would unquestionably hurt my ex-boyfriend’s feelings were he to read them. I have not been fair if to be fair is to be sure to muddle with time and place and identifying details as to make all personages unrecognizable.
In his eyes, I have not been fair, and to be fair to Ernie, I admit I have not been fair. I shall return to fairness, in a moment.
On his end of the conversation, Ernie stormed on, the wind whipping his voice away from his cellphone while I sat in the doctor’s office, one ear alert to the happy possibility of my name finally being called, of my being summoned to the inner clinical sanctum.
“Yes,” said Ernie,” your blog is brilliant, as you know.” I thanked him, and then I told him where I was and why this time might not be the right time to discuss this matter.
Ernie kept on keeping on. “Well,” he said, “some of the things you said about me were quite nice and others were quite hurtful. But what really concerns me,” he said, “is how mutual acquaintances have been calling me ‘Ernie’ in my presence and laughing.”
Ernie is, of course, not Ernie’s real name, as my real name is not Chelsea and Donny’s real name is not Donny and so on. “Ernie” is, as most of the names are here on my pretty dumb things, pseudonymous.
As Ernie spoke, I kept on interjecting how this time was not the right time, that I was glad to talk about it all, but right now, in the doctor’s office, while I was sick, running a 100 degree fever and waiting to be called, was just not a good time. Finally, Ernie heard me, and we agreed to talk on Monday.
On Monday, we did talk. I spent the weekend sick and miserable and, when I wasn’t steeping in self-pity, I was thinking about this Ernie matter, and what I thought, rightly or wrongly was that it was deeply odd for him to have been reading my blog for a year. Ernie was married in June. He has a brand spanky new marriage that undoubtedly retains that shiny newly nuptialed smell. He is on the job market. He is defending his dissertation soon, well before I even have two fully formed chapters. He seems to be doing really rather well, so it surprised me that he would spend any time at all laving himself with the bittersweet masochistic pleasure of my written pain.
I also thought that I really didn’t see what could possibly be productive in discussing my writing with Ernie. For a variety of reasons, I feel very adamantly that I’m not going to be bullied into taking down posts, and so that wasn’t even a topic I would consider discussing. Finally, I felt that if people are referring to him as “Ernie” in his presence, the man here known as “Ernie” should take it up with them, not me.
I carried all of this thinking into the conversation, which may or may not have been positive. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t. But when I called Ernie on Monday, I began by telling him essentially what I’ve just outlined: that I didn’t feel he should be reading my blog; that I wasn’t going to take anything down; and that he should directly address the people who have been making him feel uncomfortable, as I have no control over anyone else’s actions.
When I finished, Ernie said, “It really hurt to read that you never really loved me.” I responded that I’d never exactly written that, and he, essentially, told me to be quiet and listen.
Listen I did.
Ernie, to employ an expression that I’ve used here before and which I actually stole from him, held forth as Mussolini from the balcony. He unleashed. He let loose. He held nothing back. His voice shook with anger, and his breath ran ragged at the ends of his running sentences. He didn’t pause, he didn’t stutter, he didn’t hesitate, he put his verbal pedal to the medal and he went for it unimpeded. He was an emotional juggernaut. He was like Mohammed Ali, and I felt like George Foreman all fatigued from slugging and flagging under Ernie’s forceful words hitting me like big hard fists.
He was hurt, he said. He felt betrayed by the intimacies I’d exposed here. He felt humiliated. He was, quite simply, incensed with anger and bitter with pain.
And to be fair, Ernie has a point. I didn’t, when I wrote the things I’ve written about him, soften any blows. There are very few moments when I linger rosy on the charming moments I spent with Ernie. I have not, for example, expressed how warm and accepting his family was of me, how they took me in on holidays and generously supported our relationship. I have not, for example, narrated stories of Ernie’s bigheartedness, of how he would go out of his way to try to make me happy, of how he bought me food and cooked for me, of how when he moved out he left behind a lovely vintage lamp and a numbered print, just because I really liked them.
I have not written about how during the weird apocalyptic days right after 9/11, I clung to Ernie because I needed and loved him. I haven’t in short, written about how I loved him. And that was really not fair.
I have, instead, chosen to write and write again about how I ought not to chosen to be with Ernie, how it was a bad decision I made with the best of intents, and how I manipulated the relationship to serve my own confused, pained needs. I have taken my anger out on Ernie on these pages, and that might or might not be fair, depending on your point of view, but I wrote what I wrote because I needed to figure it out and, in the end, forgive myself for it all.
I have made other mistakes. I should have been far more cognizant than I was of the fact that mutual acquaintances do read this writing and that they might view Ernie differently because of what I wrote. I did not, however, think of this point, and that was a gross oversight on my part. I can only say that when I started writing these pretty dumb things, I had no idea what they were or where they were going or who might read; it was all new and it was all freeing, and I suppose I was a bit drunk on it all.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some small part of me didn’t hope to hurt Ernie with what I wrote. I am a very flawed human, and I can’t help wanting to hurt a person who caused me pain. I would be remiss if I didn’t take responsibility if I didn’t admit that small sadism. I would also be lying if I said I don’t regret it now.
Perhaps our conversation might have gone differently had I not opened with my staunch refusal to discuss my writing; perhaps then we could have had a conversation. Perhaps then what Ernie would have said to me would have been less a diatribe and more of a discussion. But perhaps not. Perhaps Ernie just felt so angry that nothing but invective would have sufficed.
He talked and he talked. He told me that he felt like a caged animal never knowing if he’d come home to find me a suicide. He told me that I’d revealed myself to be a horrible human being. He finished by saying this: “If you live a long, happy life filled with prosperity and lots of friends, or if you die soon, after a short, cold, miserable existence, I don’t care. I don’t want anything to do with you again, ever.”
If it was Ernie’s desire was to hurt me, he succeeded. If it was his intent to make me think about what I’ve written, to take responsibility for it in ways that I hadn’t before, he’s done that too.
I really don’t know how to end this piece. I’m assuming that Ernie isn’t reading my blog anymore, but if he is: I’m sorry I hurt you as I did.
Beyond that, I really don’t know what to say. I wish I could make it better, do it differently, be more fair, have a do-over, be kind and rewind, but I can't. I have made mistakes, and I apologize for them.