Sandoval's voice was rough, and had that well-worn quality of professors everywhere who speak clearly, often, but drink too much coffee. He had a strong vocabulary and used words in text and conversation that I secretly had to look up later.
He smelled like guy soap and Sweetarts, and was the kind of chubby and barrel-chested that made me want to snuggle up on him and take a nap.
This one's going to be a long one – and a bit of an emotional ride. Buckle up, kids.
[Content Warnings: discussions of mental illness as the friends/family of someone who is mentally ill, emotional abuse, gaslighting. Pretty intense on those last two. Take care of yourself.]
His first message to me online was long, charming, and silly. He told me later he'd read and re-read my profile dozens of times before sending it, because he wanted to get it right.
A year ago, a sudden medical emergency damaged his eyes and significantly reduced his ability to see clearly. He used the term "blind" to describe himself regularly, sometimes as a joke? But told me he wasn't actually legally blind. Nonetheless, he couldn't drive and told me he might need my help in dimly-lit buildings… Such as the coffee shop where we met for our first date.
He had an uber driver bring him to the date, and it made him a little bit late. I spent that time vaguely panicking because the room was definitely dimly lit, I wasn't confident in my ability to recognize him on sight, and there were so many people there. What if he couldn't find me? I texted him to let him know where I was sitting, but he hadn't responded to my texts in about twenty minutes, since he said the car was there.
Panic. Stress. Anxiety. AAAH!
But he stepped into the coffee shop, scanned the place, and immediately broke into a smile when he saw me. "Your hair is so bright!"
We got our drinks and sat down at the only available seat – the couch. I hate sitting on the couches and recliners in coffee shops – it was too comfortable. What if I spill my drink? Plus, especially on dates, I like some nice hard distance between me and the person I'm with.
He was so close, when he moved, I could feel it in the entire couch, and thus my entire body.
We immediately took off talking about any and all subjects. It was a fluid continuation of our conversations over text and the dating site. But possibly my favorite subject we discussed (for hours and hours) was Dragon Age.
I am a massive Dragon Age fan. There was a period of about six months at the beginning of 2015 where I did nothing but play Dragon Age and obsessively write fanfiction. It was what taught me to love romance as a genre. I did the math once and I had written over 120k of words in a six-month period, almost all of it romantic fanfiction.
Sandoval ran a fan forum for Bioware games. (Bioware is the company who makes Dragon Age, for the uninitiated). I kept stopping myself while rambling about the similarities between the Elven and Tevinter gods, my take on spirits, and What Anders Did, like, "Oh my gosh, I'm sorry, I'm probably boring you."
He threw his arms out as if to gather opinions from the room. "Do I look bored to you?"
Without either of us realizing it, the coffee shop was closing. A young kid came up and told us we'd have to clear out in about ten minutes. I hadn't even noticed we were the last people in the shop, or that the workers were cleaning up. I had been so absorbed in our conversation – I don't know if my eyes had ever left his face.
I asked if he wanted to drive over and look at Christmas lights at the park (the same one I'd taken Smiley to) and he said yes, emphatically yes.
I was very aware that he had told me he might need help in the dimly-lit coffee shop, and now that the sun had gone down (When had that happened?) I assumed he'd need help in the parking lot, too. But I had no idea how I was supposed to help. I took to quietly saying things like "There's a step here" and "Watch out for that pole," worried I was doing it wrong or he'd feel like I was being patronizing or trying too hard. I was uncharacteristically shy, mumbling "There's a curb here – we're going to step over some rocks – OH NO WHY DID I TAKE THIS ROUTE. I'M SO SORRY."
I also did a massive face palm as we were in the little parking lot beside the park.
"Oh my gosh, you can't even see the Christmas lights, can you? I am terrible at this."
"No, they're very pretty hazy blobs of colored light."
But honestly, neither of us were looking at the lights. We stayed in my car to avoid the cold and stumbling around in the dark, and talked for a few hours more. The windows steamed up around us no matter how much defrosting I directed at them, and I told stories about cops coming up to my window expecting me to be having sex in a steamed up car when actually me and my friends just had nothing else to do but sit in parking lots in college.
The conversation turned to serious subjects, despite Sandoval repeatedly saying, "I realize this isn't appropriate first date conversation, BUT…"
He told me about his childhood, being raised by a single mother with a paranoia disorder, the abuse he endured at her hands, and her continued stalking of him even now, 20 years after escaping her house.
It went hand-in-hand with an issue I was having at the time. One that's still hard to talk about, but relevant to this story.
I had a best friend for many years who I knew was borderline, but it hadn't really affected our relationship (I didn't think) until 2016, when I started to see a therapist for my own mental health issues. My therapist believed our relationship had only worked until this point because when my friend would lash out and tell me I was a horrible person, I believed her. I walked on eggshells to stay in her good graces and took her every complaint as a serious thing to work on. Once I started seeing a therapist, started working through my childhood abuse, developed self-worth, and learned how to assert my own rights and needs in a relationship… all we ever did was fight. When my friend told me I was an awful person, I would apologize for hurting her, but would not agree with her assessment of me. The fights became more frequent and bigger. I would be yelled at for not responding to her emails within an hour (while I was at work), or not asking her enough questions about her personal life (which she refused to answer when I did ask). At one point I sent her cute snapchats to watch while she was on a long road trip and she lost her shit at me for bothering her (but at other times, if I didn't message her enough, she'd lose her shit that I didn't care about her).
I was seriously debating how to handle the friendship, whether I could somehow de-escalate it and we could become less in-depth friends, when Thanksgiving happened.
See, I had sort of… a running joke? A conspiracy theory? Like a year before this, I had offhandedly mentioned to Chris… what if my friend's girlfriend didn't exist. I had only ever seen one picture of her, she was never in the background on snaps. When I went to visit my friend for a week, her girlfriends (my friend was poly, too) were nowhere to be seen. She told me she asked them to leave her alone so she could have alone time with me… but she never got texts from them? The girl who has a meltdown if you don't text her a certain amount of times a day was perfectly okay with her girlfriends not texting her?
But like… I felt like a horrible friend. A horrible person, even. Like, who comes up with something like this? Who is told things about their best friend's girlfriend, and instead of being happy for her, adds them to a long, internal list of clues for their conspiracy theory.
I genuinely thought I was some kind of asshole with a running inside joke with myself.
I didn't think it was real.
Over Thanksgiving, my friend randomly sent me a picture of one of her girlfriends at her grandma's house. It was the second picture I had ever seen of her. But… in the first picture, she was white. This picture, she was Asian.
Maybe I'm remembering it wrong.
I mean, that first picture was blurry.
Maybe I'm racist and an asshole.
Pulse pounding with how wrong it was and how fucked up I was being, I did a google image search on the picture she sent me.
Her girlfriend wasn't real.
The picture was of a model who was very popular on Instagram, and it had been taken two months before. It had hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. I mean, was it possible this was her girlfriend who just had an enormous career on Instagram that she neglected to mention to me? Eh. My friend had told me I couldn't have pictures of her girlfriends because they were both trans women who were extremely uncomfortable with their physical appearance and hated cameras.
So, I mean. You do the math.
I didn't confront my friend about this. I had no idea what to do about it. What would you do if your best friend in the world was flat-out lying to you about a large part of their life, and you found out?
I felt like I was losing my mind, honestly. I wasn't sure what was real anymore. She told me she was starting a new job in the spring teaching online classes at a local college. So I googled the school, and checked the course listings, where professors names are listed. Even an adjunct professor of an online course – their name is listed there. But I couldn't find her anywhere on the website at all.
Cute Boy got severely worried about me, because every day I would tell him more things I'd researched about her and found to be false, or stories she'd told me about people she'd spent time with, and how amazingly cool they had sounded, and how... very likely they were not real. He was scared I was becoming obsessed, double-checking every single thing that she had ever told me. But later he told me it made sense - "An enormous part of your life was suddenly not real. I'd be freaking out, too."
My friend's circle of people consisted of her two girlfriends, her best friend from childhood, and two coworkers she was on a semi-friendly basis with. I decided the safest option was to talk to her other best friend. I went on Facebook and looked her up… neither of them had posted on each others' wall for like three years. But that doesn't really mean anything. I don't post on my friends' walls – we talk in private.
First I emailed her best friend at the email address that was often CC-ed on emails to me.
It bounced back.
I tried Facebook messenging her, too. I told her I was worried about the mental health of our mutual friend and it seemed like a good idea for us to talk, since we were kind of the only support system my friend had, if her girlfriends didn't exist.
During this time, I had a busy day at work and couldn't answer emails from her. She sent me like 3 saying "Hello? How's work going?" and then sent one with no subject line, and just the words "Goodbye, Gaven."
I messaged her friend again in earnest, and wrote up a draft email to her coworker friend asking to confirm that she is there at work, and if she's not, I was going to call 911 to her house. She'd regularly talked about suicide to me, especially in the context of me not answering her in a timely fashion, but this was the first time she'd ever flat-out told me Goodbye.
The next day she was fine, messaging me and apologizing for her behavior, "but" I was being a shitty friend (again) to her.
I honestly can't remember the moment it was over. There was a conversation over text message where I told her I was super busy with family stuff over Christmas, and I needed space from her. We talked about having A Conversation after New Years about our friendship and whether we can even have a relationship at all.
The last message I have from her was her telling me she had a lot of things to talk to me about, and how all of our issues could be traced back to how lenient she was with me, how she wasn't clear how badly I was hurting her and she didn't call me out enough on things I did that upset her.
I'm pretty sure I laughed when I got that message, and I never responded. She's never messaged me, either. At some point we slowly unfollowed each other on social media.
For months I kept checking her twitter just to make sure she was still alive and posting. I was petrified she was going to kill herself, like she always said she would if our friendship dissolved.
Some people in my life were really worried about me and convinced me to stop checking. That if she did hurt herself, it wasn't my fault, and knowing would only make things worse.
My heart still aches over this on a regular basis. But overall… I'm so much better without her in my life. My therapist kept trying to tell me her friendship was abusive, that she was a toxic relationship and I needed to cut her off, but all I did was get defensive when she said that. How dare she suggest I abandon my closest friend??
During December 2016 I was in the process of breaking up with my best friend, the second closest person to me besides Chris for the past few years, and I was a giant emotional wreck about it.
Back to Sandoval, though.
He was so supportive, sharing his experiences with trying to cut off his mom, and how hard it was to realize that as much as he loved her, and as much as he wanted to help her, she was abusive, and he needed to separate from her in order to live a full life. I felt like the world's most selfish worm, like I was dumping my friend for being mentally ill, like she was right and I "only liked her when she was pretending to be neurotypical." She insisted that lashing out, talking shit about me, dramatic stunts and threats, holding me to exacting standards of how often I was required to talk to her (but if I sent more than two texts in a row, I was triggering her anxiety, and I was a monster) – all of that was part her mental illness and if I didn't accept all of it, I didn't accept her. So separating myself, telling her that while I understand she's struggling, she's still not allowed to treat me like that… it was everything she'd told me made me wrong, selfish, uncaring, and a fake friend.
I'm convinced now I was her only support system. I think her "best friend" was a lie just like her girlfriends were. I never got a response to my messages. Her job at the college was a lie. If I hadn't gotten emails directly from her work email address, I would wonder if that was also a lie.
One time she told me a hilarious story about how she convinced her therapist she had a boyfriend, but that boyfriend was her cat. Or how stupid everyone at her work was for believing the made-up stories she told them about her life outside of work, and how funny it was when they offered her sympathy, or kindly asked after the people and events she had told them about.
So funny that she can prank these people, trick them into believing anything she wants, just because she states it as a fact.
Yeah. It's hilarious.
In that car in the cold night, staring at Christmas lights, Sandoval told me about his struggle with his mother, and the entire story of my friend came pouring out. And he immediately validated my feelings, affirmed that I was NOT a bad person, and was a solid support to lean on as I tried to decide what to do.
We talked about our interests and hobbies for the first four hours of our date, and spent the next four going much deeper emotionally than I had with most of the dates I'd been on.
I drove him home, to his weird neighborhood that was a one-way street straight uphill and so covered in trees you were basically driving on sticks. I walked him to his door, kicking sticks out of his way, and hugged him tight, burying my face in his soft sweaters and breathing him in. Our hug was awkward – I don't remember why – and I drove home in a hazy cloud. The happy buzz of a fun date with great flirting and possibility hummed on top of that comfortable, empty tiredness you get after a good cry. Like I'd finally set down all the shit I'd been carrying, and I could breathe again.