Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Onion Girl

I will admit the following may not be 100 percent accurate, because it is based entirely on my memories, and memories are infinitely fallible. Suffice it to say that everything that follows here is absolutely true... as I remember it.

October 2003...
She was a bit unstable. I discovered this around two months after we first met, at a Friday night after-work gathering at the old Gin Mill on San Mateo. Laughing and personable towards everyone at the table... except for me, who she seemed very deliberately and rather obviously intent to ignore, despite the fact that we'd chatted quite normally just a few hours earlier.

"What the hell did I do to you?" I finally asked, to no reply; eight years later, I still don't know the answer, or whether or not there even really was one.

Despite this inauspicious exchange, by that time I'd already learned the Onion Girl was usually really fun and easy to talk to, and highly intelligent and well-spoken on a variety of subjects. Her sense of humor was among the best of anyone I'd ever met. Sometimes boisterous, but also something of a wallflower. Once acknowledged and accepted by the crowd, though, she more than held her own in any social setting.

She’s also extremely cute, I filed away in a corner of my psyche, but my sights were elsewhere at the time. The Office Basketcase was a stunningly gorgeous and wholly unattainable creature, always willing to have a kind ear listen to her troubles, with absolutely zero commitment to anything more. I somehow failed to recognize that last part.

Relocation of our company’s headquarters soon forced several of us from the comfortable environment of home to the unfamiliar surroundings of Dallas. The Onion Girl was part of the first wave in early July 2004, as was the Basketcase; I was in the second and final group that left Albuquerque at the end of the month. On the drive out, somewhere around Amarillo, I thought about my fellow coworkers in this new and extremely different place... and I realized it wasn't the Basketcase who I was most looking forward to seeing again.

Well now... what does that mean? 

My perception of the Onion Girl altered at that moment, which made me instantly insecure and uncomfortable. She'd never given a single indication – at least one that I recognized – that she ever viewed me as anything more than a friend at work.
And besides, the Onion Girl had told me that she was also interested in someone else. I wasn’t wild about her choice, and I found the entire situation deeply frustrating… mostly because I knew it wasn’t really my place to have any opinion about it in the first place. In any case, that ordeal ultimately came to a head and resolved itself, and my conflicted feelings indirectly led to a piece of writing that would become significant to my future.


My dynamic with the Onion Girl become volatile over the next several months as we awkwardly settled into life in the Metroplex, even more so than it had been in the past. We went through numerous stints of not speaking to one another, some started by her, others with me, always over some seemingly trivial disagreement that would escalate at the drop of a hat into another Cold War.
Our longest silence had dragged on some four months until one Friday evening in mid-February, when she approached me at the local hangout and asked, simply and quietly, "Truce?"

A brief pause. Did I hear her right? Then...

"Thank God, yes!" I exclaimed, hugging her as I fought back relieved tears. I later mouthed a silent "thank you" to the heavens when she wasn't looking.

Later that night, our group moved to another bar for drinks after dinner. As the rest of our friends headed for a table, the Onion Girl and I made our way to the bar... and wound up spending the rest of the night seated there, recapping the past four months of our lives, off in our own world. We closed down the bar just talking.

To this day that conversation remains one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Even though it clearly seemed that we mattered to each other, one subject we dared not ever to address was the precise nature of our friendship. "For whatever reason," I told her in a subsequent conversation, "we take each other personally." While she readily agreed, the Onion Girl also seemed content to leave it at that, and I lacked the confidence to push the issue any further.

September 2005 was an exciting time for me. A serendipitous offer to "string" for an online aviation publication at AirVenture two months before had since blossomed into a part-time job, and the potential for more had me feeling restless at the office.

I initially thought a change in departments would help ease that anxiety, but it soon became clear I wasn't long for the cubicle life. So, on September 12, I turned in my "six-week notice" at work for the decision to bet on being a full-time aviation writer.

The Onion Girl seemed an enthusiastic supporter of my decision; in fact, news of my plans had the unexpected effect of immediately deflating the latest tense situation between us. We were getting along the best we ever had.

Around this same time, the Onion Girl's birthday was approaching (two days before mine) and one of her best friends was in town to help her celebrate. Along with a small group of our coworkers, I joined them for a Friday night party.

About an hour into the festivities, the friend joined me at the bar. "I know she can be difficult," she told me. "I know you guys have had issues... but trust me, you mean a lot to her, and she is absolutely a person worth knowing."

I could only nod in quiet agreement. "Yeah… I know." Indeed, the growing realization I would no longer see the Onion Girl every day was the only thing that tempered my excitement over the looming change in my life. Our familiarity, friendship and – whatever – revolved solely around the routine of sharing an office.

The Onion Girl and I had only ever been out together, just the two of us, once: a Saturday afternoon shortly after the move, spent wandering around the West End and Galleria Mall. We'd had a good time, too, talking about anything and everything under the sun. We even ordered identical lunches (chicken salad) and I'd spent a good amount of that time blathering on about the depth and sincerity of my feelings for... the Basketcase.

Of course, it wasn't like I hadn't considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there may have been something more between the Onion Girl and me. Those recurring silences may actually say a lot, I thought. Is she hanging around our break time hacky sack group just to be entertained by a bunch of ostensibly grown men making fools of themselves, or...? Does it matter that she said, "hey it's me" when she called that time, rather than announcing her name as usual?

I'd finally confided my bewilderment over the situation to another mutual acquaintance a few weeks before the birthday gathering; he'd promptly brought me back to reality. "You aren't the first one who's looked at [her] and said, 'hey...'" he told me. "But I really don't see any sign from her of what you're talking about."

Still, as time drew nearer, I grew bolder. Lunch invitations were frequent. Over sandwiches at Good Eats or teppanyaki at Benihana, little was said about my new job; instead, we talked about our families, our views on life, and our dreams. I learned she had thought about becoming a teacher.

At our last lunch together – Thursday, October 13 – I told the Onion Girl about a dream I'd had the night before about my first girlfriend, and the message she'd given me in the dream. "It's time to live your life for yourself," the apparition had said. "Don't worry about appeasing others, or guilt over your past. It's all right to be a little selfish. You're not here to save anyone but yourself." 

I really believed that then, sitting in that booth at Snookie's. That was another life... before I realized the effect we have on others is the only reason any of us are here. 

Oddly, though, the Onion Girl agreed. "I hate 
that new Coldplay song," she said. "No one should ever think they need to fix or save someone. If you don't like them for who they are, tough shit for you."

On our walk back to the office, my mind stumbled over words I badly wanted to say. I like you for who you are... a lot. I don't know what that means exactly, but I think I want to find out, for better or worse. I'm worried we won't see each other after I leave. 

You're the one I'm going to miss most from here!

If only I'd had the courage to say those words, perhaps everything that followed may have turned out very differently… Or, maybe not. Regardless, as had been the case so many times before, I remained silent, leaving us both to our own thoughts.


October 14, 2005. A day I hate.

It started well enough, with few challenges to be found in moving truckloads of wallboard from plants to construction sites. My replacement had taken to the job very quickly, and with little actual need to train her, the truth was that I had very little to do.

After work, I met a friend for drinks with a plan to see a movie afterward. The Onion Girl accepted my invitation to join us, although she seemed vaguely distant once we arrived at the bar. Buzzed by my good fortune and the (one) Maker's & Coke I was nursing, I was too excited to really notice.

Seated to my left, the Onion Girl had remained silent as I regaled the bartender about seeing the bar's namesake P-51 at Oshkosh. "I wish I had options like you," she said suddenly, in the middle of my story. "It's like I have nothing going on in my life."

A million times over, I wish I'd said something else in reply. Almost anything would have been better.

"I don't want to hear that."

I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded; of course I didn't want her to feel down. I wanted her to be inspired by my new opportunity, not depressed by it. "Sure you have options," I added clumsily. "I don't want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself."

Little more was said that night. The Onion Girl demurred when we invited her to come to the movie with us, and instead quietly said goodbye to us outside the bar. I didn't see her drive away.

She wasn't in the office the following Monday; in fact, she was out for the next five days, and upon her return at the start of my final week even eye contact was avoided.

Those last few days passed with nary a word said between us, despite the fact our cubicles were right next to one another. Anything I could think to say to her sounded hollow in my mind anyway, and inappropriate for the office. There were no more lunches.

Friday afternoon, as I said goodbye to my coworkers and made plans with most of them for a celebratory gathering that evening, I continued to eye the Onion Girl's desk nervously. This was it. What was I going to say?

By the time I worked up the courage to walk over to her cubicle, the Onion Girl wasn't there. I waited a few more minutes, under the pretense of going over the plant numbers one final time with my now-former boss. Still no sign of her. I waited some more, walking laps around the office. The Onion Girl was nowhere to be found.

When I eventually gave up the search and walked to the elevator for the last time, the words I had said to her at the bar echoed in my mind like gunfire. I could still hear it as I walked past her car still parked in the garage.

March 2007...

"I've been trying to wrap my brain around this dream I had three weeks ago ... In the dream, an acquaintance of mine, one I haven't talked to in some time, suddenly appeared, wearing a red sweater. I remember that, because in real life I'd only seen her wear red once, and it had made an impression on me. Anyway, in this dream I had a conversation with this estranged friend... a very deep conversation. I wish I could remember details – I know in this dream we talked at length – but I forgot most of that conversation when I woke up. Shaking. And with "her" first question to me in the dream reverberating in my ears. 

"What have you learned?"

February 2011...

That is the question that compels me to write about this now. Nearly six years later, I still don't really know... or, I'm still too stubborn to admit the answer to myself.
Yeah. That's certainly closer to the truth.

I know now that my growing feelings for the Onion Girl scared me. There's really no other way to say or explain that. I also understand now that I didn't hide some of my feelings – including jealousy – as well as I thought I did. Certainly a few of our "silences" that followed were my doing.

Of course, I also chose to manifest those feelings in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, the thirtysomething equivalent to pulling her pigtails and then running away. It’s easy now to say I really should have told her how I felt; it’s equally obvious that life in the office would have been a veritable hell between us had those feelings not been returned.

So why didn’t you tell her when you no longer had to worry about that? I certainly wanted to, and I planned to… but I also thought I’d always get another chance. Until I didn’t.

There was another, darker reason, though. The truth is that I didn't want to be… burdened. I felt I was on an upward swing in my life, and I didn't want anything – anyone – to distract me from it, so I turned a cold shoulder.

I also knew the Onion Girl had something going on with herself, and it was something I knew I was ill-prepared to handle. Through no fault of her own, she revealed to me the limits of my empathy, and my willingness to take on the challenges of standing by someone – even someone I cared about very deeply – as they suffered through their internal turmoil.

To not be afraid of their inner demons, but to embrace them as your own and help them stand up against the evils of the world and from within their own mind, in whatever capacity they'll have you in their lives. And to recognize the rare and hallowed significance of that trust they've placed on you to be there.

I think I’ve finally learned those lessons. I just wish I would have learned sooner. It hurts beyond words to know that I failed such an important test... and every day since, with seemingly no possibility of ever seeing the Onion Girl again to try and, somehow, reset our history, I've faced two irrefutable truths.

Throughout what I've managed to turn into a moderately successful career as an aviation writer, I’ve written every word with the faint hope that just maybe, one day, the Onion Girl might read them and smile.

And, each and every day that has passed since seeing her for that last time in October 2005, my mind and heart have conspired to ensure that I will never forget what might be the biggest and most damning mistake of my life.
You arrogant asshole; you fucking coward. You know what she meant to you... And yet, look what you've done.