You fall for them at dirty dive bars, when their hair is parted just the right way and Sonic Youth blares on the jukebox. You’re just the right amount of drunk off PBR when you move in for the kiss. At first you’re not even sure why you’re trying to kiss this person. You hate this person, someone exactly like your parents always cautioned you to stay away from. But you kiss them anyway and their mouth tastes like cigarettes and Jack Daniel's and it makes your stomach tingly in the way you thought you couldn’t feel anymore about another person.
You fall hard for this person, and you’re eager to give them every second of your day. Every iota of your emotionally-charged being is theirs for the taking. They smile at you and it feels like you could kiss them until you’re too weak to move your lips. You wake up next to them and you feel like you’re still dreaming, that their very face was a gift bestowed upon you only in the REM cycle of sleep.
It’s only until you’re already in too deep that you start to realize that something is eerily wrong with this one-sided situation. You want to reach for their hand always, but you hold back—knowing that there is a divide between what you’re allowed to do to this person in public, and what you’re allowed to do to them in private. You spend hours staring at your phone, waiting for their name to flash across your screen. You try Adderall because you believe it will help you focus and sort through your emotions. Instead, you lay in your driveway for three hours listening to Lana Del Rey and crying.
Eventually you realize you’re alone in this love. Whether you have become an actual couple or just a blurry friendship, you feel more alone when you’re next to this person than when you shut yourself off. You try to find a reason to leave that will finally stick. One more fight that will cause you to drive away in your car for the final time. You tell yourself one more night spent alone and you’ll be done feeling sorry for yourself.
We’re drawn to toxic people because that’s what challenges us. Whether we subconsciously feel the need to expand our horizons, or find something dark in us, or feel like we can save them, they always seem to stick the most. These toxic people burrow deep into our brain because they’re the ones that don’t flatter us with pleasantries. They’re the ones who don’t text us back for days, make us cry into our pillows, and make us forget who we once were.
Toxic people cling to us like lint to an old t-shirt fresh out of the dryer, or cigarette smoke to your favorite shirt after a wild night out. We can wash and rinse and try to forget, but they always come back to us in pungent waves. Toxic people make us remember that we all can get lost. That we can stumble along, break down and rediscover ourselves. They exist in our lives not as a past or a future, but as a constant reminder of the terrible vulnerabilities of our hearts. We think back on these people as a lesson learned or something too terrible to speak of, but in the end they exist to remind us that dark things happen but the heart perseveres.
—Follow Shawn Binder on Twitter: @ShawnBinder