Into the confessional ~

Caveat: I’m abandoning my principles in making this post. There is nothing humorous here at all, and the few readers I have might usefully be advised to skip it. This post is principally for me to get the refrain of the past six years set down in writing. My friends have heard this ad nauseam, and they’re tired of hearing it. They needn’t read this. They’ve told me I’m not to blame, but I reject that judgment. One can’t absolve oneself of a great wrong because it is emotionally convenient. It doesn’t work that way.

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice…
—Robert Frost

There was more than one nightmare on Elm Street. I lived on the street by that name in our town for 15 years, and the experience was bracketed at either end by deaths. One I had nothing to do with. The other I caused. There were accomplices, including the victim, but I dealt the killing blow.

The night before my second husband and I closed on the first and only house we bought together, a young man—a kid, really—raced his car up our portion of Elm Street, lost control, briefly went airborne, and struck the big sweet-gum tree in what would soon be our front yard. He died on the spot.

That’s what we learned when we arrived at the house the next day for the last walk-through before closing. The police had been so thorough in removing signs of the wreck that it took a moment to realize something very bad had happened. Tire tracks cut across the neighbor’s yard and her flower bed and disappeared into our front yard. On this balmy spring day, thousands of small pieces of glass glinted like ice over the lawn. An elderly woman from the apartment building next door told us what had happened the previous night. “If that tree hadn’t been there,” she said more than once, “I would have been killed in my bedroom.”

I felt sick for the boy and sick about this ominous development. Although my rationalism rejects superstition, my emotional side remains vulnerable. We’d looked a long time for a house, but now I wasn’t sure I wanted this one. I’d been afraid of death most of my life and I didn’t need my own front lawn serving as a perpetual memento mori. Everything seemed marred and wrong. I was prepared to forgo the earnest money and walk away, but when I brought up this possibility, the real estate agent said dismissively, “Well, it’s not as if someone killed himself in the house. I could see that bothering a person.”

We signed. Not having witnessed the accident made it easier to put out of mind. Still, I often thought about it when I looked out the living room windows. Fifteen years later, we were still picking up stray pieces of glass from the front lawn.

In my mind, that boy’s life ended in ice. My husband’s ended in fire.

We had a rocky marriage. I didn’t realize it until almost the end, but he was an alcoholic, and I fear that certain problems of my own caused his alcoholism to become worse. He lied about his drinking, as alcoholics do, and the lying was what really bothered me. Steve—I can write his first name instead of using initials, because what I write can’t hurt him now—wasn’t a mean drunk. Most of the time I didn’t even realize he was drunk. He went to bed early and I went to bed late. I didn’t know he was drinking in the mornings. I didn’t know he went home at lunch so that he could drink; he said it was to walk the dogs. I didn’t know much of anything. After his DUI he stopped drinking at the bars but found creative ways to hide his drinking at home.

Three times I told him if he lied again about drinking, I’d leave. Three times I went back on my word.

The fourth time I said I was leaving, I pushed Steve to call C., a friend of his who had gone through hell and successfully quit drinking with the help of AA. After the conversation he came into the living room, sat by me and cried and said I’d been right about calling C. The next morning he went to work drunk, clung to his boss and told her she was his family now, and was suspended for three weeks.

He begged me not to leave. I knew he probably wouldn’t make it without me; he had no friends in town and was completely emotionally reliant on me. Still, I bought another house and I went to San Diego to move my disabled sister back to live with me—both decisions proving to be additional disasters in the making.

Meanwhile, Steve was reassigned to another job, which he lost after a little more than a week. This time there was no appeal, although I met with the university authorities and did my best to advocate for him. My sister lived with us for two months while I had repairs done to the new house. In retrospect I can’t believe I was cruel enough to subject Steve to that, and even to ask him for help in doing things.

At some point shortly after he lost his job there came a morning when I couldn’t wake Steve up. He was barely conscious. After my sister and I followed the ambulance to the hospital, I realized I hadn’t brought his wallet. When I returned home I went into the basement, Steve’s locus of operations. All of his pill bottles stood empty, along with an empty whiskey bottle. I estimated that he’d taken 200 pills of various types. He hadn’t left a note. He was unconscious for three days and in the hospital for nine. Only then did I really start trying to help him, but it was too little too late. Why not earlier? I don’t know the answer to that question. To say that I was stupid and naive seems insufficient.

The insurance company refused to fund an inpatient rehab program, saying that Steve needed to have failed at an outpatient program first. On his first day at an outpatient program, such a violent fight broke out between two participants that the police had to be called. Terribly frightened, Steve had an accident—he only told me this much later—and never returned to the program.

Not long after that I drove him five hours to an inpatient program that said they had an open bed. When we got there, however, the bed had been taken and the program had been told that insurance wouldn’t cover Steve’s stay anyway. I argued with the insurance company; the program argued with the insurance company. Nothing.

I scheduled him with a self-pay inpatient program locally, but the program required that the patient call to confirm that he’d attend. He never called. Two months later I tried again. He never called.

The day before Thanksgiving, he told me he needed help. After several hours at the local ER, a hospital two hours away accepted him into short-term rehab. Nobody mentioned an ambulance. I drove him up there in darkness; by the time we arrived he was vomiting. The day after Thanksgiving he called to say he was being released. Less than 48 hours in detox? I made the drive again. He said he would never go back to a locked ward. They had confiscated his belt, without which his jeans wouldn’t stay up, and his shoelaces, without which his shoes wouldn’t stay on. He was afraid of the other people on the ward. The next time he had to detox, he refused to go to the ER, so I persuaded him to detox at my house. All I knew to do for him was to make sure he kept drinking water. I had already begun suggesting that he move in with me and my sister, but he refused.

I proceeded with a divorce. The lawyer had said that assets from my parents’ estate, which were earmarked for my sister, could be jeopardized if Steve had a DUI and killed somebody. Much later I found out this was almost certainly untrue. Steve wanted to put off signing the papers, but I wouldn’t let him. When he finished signing, he gave me a look of rebuke and hatred. I deserved that.

I took him to doctor’s appointments, the ones he didn’t cancel or refuse to go to. Once you try to kill yourself, we discovered, many helpful medications are off-limits. Nothing allayed his anxiety. Finally his psychiatrist put him on Seroquel. I thought he was sleeping so much and missing AA meetings because he was drinking. He was, but he also was knocked out by Seroquel. One morning he called at 4 a.m., thinking it was afternoon.

I went to Al-Anon meetings, which I found useless. I called complete strangers from these meetings and blurted out every sordid detail of my behavior and his problem, but there was no consolation. Steve was dying in front of me. It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. C. flew in from the East Coast to see if he could help Steve. When I called him later, he was pessimistic. Steve wouldn’t talk to him seriously, he said. Steve was in denial.

Filled with anxiety, I lay on my couch or in my bed day after day and tried to get warm. My bones were cold, a feeling I’d never experienced before, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Nor could I get to work very often. The roof, which I’d had inspected before I bought the house, leaked every time it rained. Then came a major ice storm, which caused a tree limb to drop straight through the roof and attic and impale itself in the ceiling of my spare bedroom. The sun came out then, blindingly, glaring off all the ice-covered surfaces.

When the end came, it was on a day we had argued. Two days later the coroner called me at work, at my ex-father-in-law’s request. Alerted by neighbors, the police had broken into the house on Elm Street and found Steve’s body. It wasn’t hard for them to reconstruct what had happened. Steve had run out of matches and tried to light a cigarette from the stove burner. When the fire caught, it caught him too—alcohol was on his shirt and his beard. He inhaled fire. The police said he could not have suffered more than a couple of seconds. They were soft-pedaling it for me, I believe. Steve had time to stagger into the dining room, grope at a chair, and overturn it as he fell. There were burn marks on the floor. There were burn marks on the buffet. His pocket watch, which the police retrieved, was burned; his wallet was not. At the hospital we weren’t allowed to see his body.

I knew I might be killing him by leaving him, and I left anyway. I didn’t have to do it. There was nothing I had to save myself from. My guilt and grief threw me into a severe depression that eventually forced my retirement and caused physical debilitation. It’s something I’m struggling to fight my way back from. Steve exasperated me with his unwillingness to converse or to plan for the future, yet I have missed him greatly over the past years. He will never leave me. One of the few things I’ve learned in life is that the people you’ve loved never do leave you entirely, even as you go on to love others.

The last time I saw Steve was at our local grocery store. He was wearing his ratty old suede jacket. I threw my arms around him and began crying. His face was impassive. As far as I can remember, he didn’t say a word.

The things he gave me ~

Two posts ago I mentioned that my first husband had inadvertently done a great deal to shape my later life. Of course, he left me with many brightly shining, enriching things. (Not jewelry; we were grad students.) He took me to my first Monty Python movie. He introduced me to “The Basement Tapes” and to “Layla” and to Elmore James. He converted me into a lover of “Star Trek.” He bought me books by Virginia Woolf.

But if you tenaciously follow the thread of causation—which, admittedly, is to walk a fine line amidst a tangle of other contributing threads—he gave me three bigger things that brought me where I am today.

1. When we were both in college, two years before we even began dating, he introduced me to an acquaintance from his part of Missouri.

2. When we were at graduate school, he told me about an open editorial internship at our university’s scholarly press.

3. He left me.

The acquaintance was the young man who, eight years later, became my second husband. I might have met and talked to him otherwise—all three of us, for a brief time, worked for the campus literary magazine—but I easily might not have. I was quite shy then. Although our marriage was figuratively bumpy and ended badly, our literally bumpy road trips took us to beautiful places together. Maine, New Mexico, Utah, Michigan, South Carolina. The museums of D.C. We stayed together a long time. My second husband had much more music to introduce me to, as well as art, as well as a huge reinforcing dose of Monty Python. (I sing the philosophers’ drinking song upon request and sometimes, to people’s dismay, not upon request.)

The internship, which I jumped at, gave me the background to do freelance book editing. That in turn gave me the qualifications to eventually land a job producing publications for the grants office on campus. Those for the public, like the magazine I reshaped, featured campus research; those for researchers were geared to help them find funding and run their projects.

I worked in the same office for 23 years because I was compensated decently, considering that a master’s in English usually gets you nowhere fast, and because my job constantly evolved and expanded. It spanned the transition from typesetting-and-pasteup to desktop publishing, as well as the transition from “What’s the Internet?” to the ubiquity of web sites. I ended up doing editing, technical writing, feature writing, graphic design, web management—the whole catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek said in a different context. It was often stressful, sometimes scary, seldom boring.

Without the divorce, I would have had no reason to join a divorce coping workshop on campus. There I met a woman, K., who would become one of my best friends. Interestingly, K. was then working at—you got it—the research publications job I would later hold. The grants office happened to be housed one floor above the office where I was toiling as a “word processing operator” and copyediting books in my spare time. Meeting K. in the lobby one day when our acquaintanceship hadn’t yet bloomed into friendship, I learned that she was being promoted and that her job would be up for grabs in a couple of weeks. This heads-up enabled me to be excruciatingly well-prepared when I applied for and then interviewed for the job. Which I got. Worried that I’d been favored because K. knew me, I asked her about that one time. She told me that the committee’s decision was unanimous and that my editorial experience was the crucial factor. Thank goodness. Thank FH.

I remember saying goodbye to K. and her husband, L., when they moved away more than a decade ago. I gave them both long hugs and then marveled to L., “If it hadn’t been for [FH], I’d never have known you. Isn’t that weird?!” The world seemed sad and smiling and mysterious all at the same time. Had I been wearing a hat, I might well have tossed it up, Mary-Tyler-Moore style, right into the wondering breeze.

How Bondo wrecked my marriage ~

Well, okay, that’s not true. Seven posts into this blog, I have lied already. Bondo, a fine product used for auto body repair, did not wreck my marriage. Serious problems, most of them originating with me, did that. But Bondo played a prominent role, like a sinister musical motif that repeats again and again under the main melody.

Not long before our wedding, my future first husband (FH) and I received signs that we should rethink what we were about to do. These signs, constructed by our friends mainly of posterboard, all read the same thing: “Turn back!”

No, that’s ridiculous. FH and I received no literal signs, although I think I came close to getting one from my father. But signs in the figurative sense—those we got plenty of.

The most obvious one was that we had begun arguing long before the wedding date was set. But such a mundane sign, although the one we should truly have paid attention to, is far less fun to write about than the others.

Like this one: Two months before our wedding, FH spent his small pool of car-designated money on a vehicle that only one of us could drive: a used Triumph Spitfire. This noisy, bumpy ride delighted him and terrified me. I could not then drive a stickshift, and I wasn’t about to learn via the Spitfire. So I was upset and distressed at his choice.

My distress reached new heights when I received a call, only two or three days after this purchase, telling me that FH would be in the hospital overnight due to a wrenched back. He had taken the Spitfire out for a little spin on icy back roads near his home and had wrecked the car.

At that point, lights should have appeared in the sky spelling out a message: “This boy-man is not ready to get married. He needs his freedom.” The fact that I recognized FH’s irresponsibility but chose to overlook it should have produced additional lights in the sky saying: “This girl-woman is too stupid to get married. She needs independence.” Sadly, none of our friends or relatives reported seeing such messages.

Another sign was that my mother, instead of suggesting that we abandon ship, proposed that we move up our wedding date from May to January and hold the wedding at my parents’ small bungalow in Perryville, Mo. This odd suggestion was presumably motivated by the fact that my father was in the middle of a trial year teaching at a community college in Colorado, and he could be back for Christmas break. Much later I suspected that another motivation was to ensure the wedding would be small, very inexpensive, and a done deal before my father could grow more cantankerous about it.

FH and I blithely agreed to Mom’s suggestions, for reasons that now elude me, even though it meant we would be living apart for the first few months of our marriage—FH finishing his bachelor’s degree in Missouri, me finishing the first year of my master’s degree in Illinois.

As the wedding approached, signs fell fast and furious.

There was the impressive thwack, a cross between a thud and a bullwhip crack, made by the back of FH’s head as he hit the wall when he fainted post–blood test at the doctor’s office.

There was our music selection for the wedding, a Bach prelude (suggested by me) and the theme to “Midnight Cowboy” (suggested by FH). I readily approved the latter, a lovely piece of music, without considering the inauspicious nature of its wistful, mournful, high-lonely sound. This musical combination, possibly unique in the annals of weddingdom, undoubtedly mystified our guests.

But there were not many guests to mystify. The wedding was being held at least an hour’s drive away for everyone except my grandfather. More guests dropped out when our wedding day was ushered in by snowfall that soon became a blizzard. Everyone has heard old-wives’ tales about whether it is lucky or unlucky to get married on a rainy day, but I’ve never heard any such axioms concerning blizzards. I’d be forced to guess that they are highly inauspicious. So the gathering was family-only except for my best friend, T., who served as piano player. (This was payback, since she had browbeaten me into playing at her wedding two years earlier, an experience that had thrown me into paroxysms of anticipatory anxiety for weeks.)

Not long after the wedding, Bondo made its appearance as part of a heroic effort by FH and one of his brothers to repair the extensive body damage on the Spitfire. FH had not done a thorough job: he had wrecked the car but, unfortunately, had failed to total it. I soon grew to flinch whenever Bondo, which we bought in alarming quantities, was mentioned. It stole away at least half of our weekends, necessitating trips to FH’s mother’s house so that he and my brother-in-law could work on the car.

Eventually the car was more Bondo than metal. Numerous parts were needed for the car as well, a seemingly endless chain of them, including (if I recall correctly) a new top. This auto odyssey continued through the majority of our marriage, which lasted less than four years before we separated for good. Subconsciously I began to associate the Spitfire with our marriage: Neither would ever be in working order.

The Spitfire was FH’s property after the divorce, but I don’t remember what became of it. However it ended up—whether junked and scavenged for parts, left to rust in someone’s gravelly side yard, or cubed by one of those giant car-crusher things—I imagined it feebly calling out for more Bondo.

When FH left—and he had good reasons—I was devastated. My bitterness lasted for years. But he contacted me on rare occasion, like a dot of Bondo here and there maintaining a slender connection. Both of us made second marriages that ultimately failed. The rare conversations or e-mails continued. In due time, as technology advanced, we became Facebook friends. Now, I believe, we may be on better terms than we ever were during our marriage, though we seldom talk and only occasionally e-mail. As the great short-story writer Alice Munro has said, “Nothing changes really about love” (“Amundsen”). Of course, FH hasn’t yet read this post, and life can turn funny on a person. But we’ve talked about these things in various marriage post-mortems, and I have faith that he’ll see the humor in it.

He is happily married now. He is an excellent attorney, a superb poet, an accomplished photographer. As far as I know, he is good at everything he does, and he remains the most intelligent person I’ve ever known. Quite unbeknownst to him, he shaped my subsequent life pretty decisively. But more of that in my next post. Are you still with me?