Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wisconsin: An Introduction

Some kvetchers have been complaining that I haven’t written anything lately. Well, it’s because I’ve been sad. And sick. And when that happens, I can’t write a word. Not one that anyone wants to read, anyway. I’m going to warn you right now: you may not want to read this. Especially those of you who think that my little notes are something of a trainwreck. This is the trainwreck extraordinaire, methinks. So. Fair warning.

I remember when I was in grad school, I took a class on nonfiction. I was really excited about the class: the whole thing was reading essay after essay and trying to write essays of our own. No research papers. Just nonfiction. I was so pleased. The first class, the professor read my essay out loud. The next class, we had to read an essay that excerpted the book Prozac Nation. I read the essay, and thought, yes. I can write about sadness and depression and drugs and the things they do to your brain.

So I poured my heart into this little essay. I told about Wisconsin and shopping at the Piggly Wiggly and how it made me want to drive my car into the nearest streetlamp. I told about depression and getting treatment and how drugs didn’t really help when the problem was you.

I wrote this thing, I turned it in, and I waited for him to choose me again. Except, this time, he didn’t read my essay. Instead he handed it back with a gigantic B emblazoned on the top with the comment, and I’ll never forget this, Depression just isn’t funny. Find something new to say or move on.

I wanted to kick him. I wanted to take my essay, rip it into 623 pieces, and sprinkle it over his receding hairline. If life were just like the movies, I would have done all of those things. Instead, I did none of these things. The next week, I wrote a new essay. This time it was about being a woman. I talked about my experience with inequality at a job I had with a manly man company and I tried to say something funny. He wanted funny. This time, again he gave me a B. His comment: Don’t get so emotional. It’s just not interesting.

It’s just not interesting.

Now, I wish I could tell you that this man pushed me hard through the rest of the semester to turn out something new and splendiferous, but I can’t tell you that. I wrote a few good essays, I wrote a few mediocre ones. By the end of the semester, his scathing commentary led me to despise him. He was a misogynist, I told myself. He hated depressed people. He hated people from Chicago. He hated me.

Of course he didn’t. He didn’t care about me one way or another. He probably never thought about me for more than the two minutes it took for him to skim over my essays. I was just another writer in a pile of writers who knew how to string a few words together in a readable way but not, unfortunately, in an enjoyable one. It’s taken me a couple of years to realize that I was sitting in a class taught by a curmudgeonly old man who was telling me precisely what any journal’s editor would tell me upon reading my essays. It doesn’t matter if I put my heart into it. It only matters if people want to read it.

And depression just isn’t funny. He’s right, the motherf*cker.

Okay. But. I’ve been in the depths of it. I remember one year when I was supposed to be in college but instead spent all my days sleeping until three o’clock. I failed all my classes but one. When the semester ended and summer started, I lay in wait for the mailman. For months, I hadn’t been able to get out of bed before three, but now I stalked the mailbox from noon until five. And I was victorious. I got my report card. My parents couldn’t understand why they hadn’t seen it. Oh, I said. I got it. I did fine.

I’d turned into a brilliant liar. Or maybe not so brilliant. They wanted to believe me.

Eventually, I dropped out of school and got a job. A few years went by before it hit me that badly again. By then, I’d moved to Wisconsin. Nobody could believe I’d done it. Wisconsin, land of the cheeseheads? Once, not long after I moved there, my friend Tim wrote me an email with the subject line: Cheeses of Nazareth. The message said only, what is this place, the promised land?


But the subject line was funny, and for the next couple of years we kept it. We’d exchange emails two and three times a day and sometimes I couldn’t tell which Cheeses of Nazareth I was answering.

I can always tell when my mood is at its lowest when I start to make Macaroni and Cheese. I once told a roommate of mine in college that it was one of my favorite foods and she said, "You’re kidding. That’s white trash food."

I lived in Wisconsin, and I shopped at the Pig. I spent my days living for Tim’s emails (by this time I’d finally admitted to myself that wife or no wife, I loved him), plotting ways to leave Wisconsin, and finding no way of doing it. I went back to school. This time, I got straight A’s. The only trouble was, I wasn’t sleeping.

Finally I went to my doctor and told her my problem. After much questioning, she decided that before she would prescribe anything, I had to promise to visit a therapist. A therapist?

My therapist was perfect as far as I was concerned. He was an old gay man from California who wore Birkenstocks and had a ready box of tissue every time my stories about my mother got to be too much. His sad green couch and I got to be great friends that summer. He’d nod, tell me that I had to change my behaviors or I’d never emerge from this (he gave it a name: generalized anxiety disorder), and I thought, I can’t believe how needy he makes me.

Then one day, he called and cancelled an appointment. It was as if the new guy I was dating had cancelled a dinner.

A few days later, I got a letter. We regret to inform you, the head doctor in the therapy group, that your doctor is indeed the doctor who was written about in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s expose.

What? I thought. I didn’t live in Milwaukee. I lived in Racine. I hadn’t read the article. So I marched my ass over to the library, found the article in question, and discovered that my goofy gay therapist was in reality an ex-priest who’d been defrocked after pleading guilty to having sex with a minor.

I’m not kidding.

Needless to say, I didn’t go back to him again. Those months became synonymous with the blackest times of my life, so forever after that, whenever I wanted to say that something was truly terrible, I’d say to myself, "It’s like Wisconsin."

And the next time that my depression hit, I used that story as my excuse not to go to therapy. That time, I can trace it to an actual cause: you see, that was the year that Tim died.

I can count on only a few fingers the men who’ve been important in my life. Not even they can compare to Tim. And I never even dated Tim. Insane, right?

He and I started out as email pals. Back in the day when the internet was still something that only people who were in the know could access, I joined a JD Salinger listserv. All the people on it were literary types like me who loved Salinger. Not just The Catcher in the Rye, but his other stories like "The Laughing Man" or "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" or "For Esme, With Love and Squalor," otherwise known in my head as the perfect short story.

Sometimes I think Tim thought he was Holden Caulfield. He was quick to jump on the phonies and he was as New York as it got. How to describe him? If you’ve ever watched Sex and the City, he was very like Steve, Miranda’s boyfriend. It was uncanny, really. He was just like him. I couldn’t watch the show withouth thinking of him, a Brooklyn boy trying to fit into Manhattan and finding that it just didn’t work.

The first time I met him, I’d been corresponding with him for probably five years. We had lunch and I went off and spent the rest of the day with Rich. I always brought other men with me when I went to see Tim. It was because he was in love with his wife and I was in love with him and I didn’t want him to know.

The next time I saw him, I brought Chris along with me. Chris didn’t like him. "He’s kind of weird," Chris told me. That’s just his meds, I explained. They’re not working. Tim, you see, was the king of mental illness. My blackest depression was only dipping its toe in the pond of what Tim fought every day. I worried about him constantly. I wondered if someone would tell me if something ever happened to him.

So I made friends with his wife. By then I’d moved to the city, and was teaching and working so hard that I’d convinced myself that my feelings for him were receding. I could be his friend and her friend and maybe find a way to move on. She and I would meet for coffee and she would try to convince me that she wasn’t the bad guy, that she was just trying to deal with a man whose moods were impossible.

The last time I saw him was the week before I went to Japan. He came out to Brooklyn because he couldn’t stand Manhattan a minute longer, he said. We went to brunch at this little French place that I loved. Then we took the train up to Greenwood Cemetery and stopped by his mother’s grave. Someone had bought the spot right next to it. He touched it. "Damn," he said. "There’s no place here for me."

Then we walked through Prospect Park and he said that he couldn’t stand his life as it was, that his meds were impossible and the headaches were getting worse, that his relationship with his wife was at the point where it wasn’t going to get any better. He said he had three friends and I was one of them. He said that he wanted to leave but didn’t know how. Perhaps he would move to the country. You’re talking like Holden Caulfield, I told him. Do you want a quarter so you can call Jane? That’s not funny, he said. I’ll never find a girl who keeps all her kings in the back row.

And all I could think was, you never even saw me, did you?

Then I went away to Japan. While I was there, I wrote this travelogue that I emailed to my friends and my students. Tim wrote to me: this is beautiful. You should publish this. He also said something about how he’s been messing around with encrypting his email and every word I ever wrote to him was safe. He wanted me to know that.

I can’t remember if I wrote him back. Yes, I did, because the next time I checked my email, there was a response from him. Then, two lines later, there was another email, from another friend, with Tim’s name in the subject.

Somehow, I knew what that email would say. But I didn’t click on it. I clicked on Tim’s email first. So I could pretend. I read it and reread it. It didn’t say anything, really.

Then I opened the other email. The same night Tim wrote me that email, he came home, sat down at his kitchen table to eat some dinner, and died. His wife found him the next morning, but it was too late.

I was in Japan. I couldn’t go to anyone and say, "Excuse me, but there’s a funeral tomorrow that I need to go to." Instead, I went up to my room, cried, and pretended nothing had happened. I made it through the remainder of the trip in a daze (strangely, this was when the John Denver’s head incident happened), and I’m certain that not a single person knew that I was grieving.

When I got back to Brooklyn, I called his wife and explained why I hadn’t been at the funeral. "That’s okay," she said. "But I need you to do me a favor." She’d had Tim cremated, she said, and needed to buy a plot. She knew that his mother was buried somewhere in Brooklyn and wanted me to help her find the place.

I told her I’d meet her at Atlantic Avenue and we could go to Greenwood together. New Yorkers, of course, don’t drive, so taking the train was the only reasonable option. She got off the train toting a giant Barneys New York shopping bag. "What’s in the bag?" I asked.

She kind of shrugged. "I didn’t know what else to do with him."

Good god, I thought. She has Tim in a Barney’s bag.

I couldn’t stop staring at it as we got on the train. It didn’t take long to get up to Greenwood, and the people there knew exactly what to do. It didn’t matter that the plot next to his mother was taken, they said. They could move the mother and then they’d be together.

I helped her pick out his urn and the spot they’d move him to. She said I could come to the interrment if I liked but I said no. That’s for family. Then we left.

A few weeks later, I met her for a movie. She wanted to go out and eat sushi, so we went to this place in midtown where I’d seen Miranda from Sex and the City eating once. There, she told me that she was having trouble with Tim’s life insurance. The autopsy showed that he had too many pills in his system, and they were saying that maybe he’d taken his own life.

I told her no. Definitely not. Not him. Never.

And yet. But I didn’t voice my doubts. I didn’t tell her about how he’d encrypted my emails and how he’d written me a note the night he died telling me how important I’d been to him. I didn’t tell her how he told me he couldn’t live with the things his body was doing to him anymore and how terrible their relationship made him feel. I didn’t tell her that, if I were checking off a list of warning signs for suicide, he probably fit every one.

I didn’t tell her any of that.

Now, if this were a movie, the next scene would show me and her getting through our grieving together, but in reality I couldn’t stand to be around her. No matter how much I’d loved him, supporting her was just too much for me.

I was weak.

And also, if this were a movie, I’d have spent the next few years memorializing him or something. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I jumped into my slut phase, dating multiple men at the same time, sleeping with half of them, and drinking far, far too much.

Other things happened. My dad got sick, my cousin died, my grandfather died, and I decided to move back to Chicago. A big part of my reason for being in New York was gone, you see. And then Chicago was even worse. I had a terrible job at a terrible school and terrible living conditions. I gained forty pounds in those two years. Good god, right?

The cloud is almost lifting. Sylvia Plath described it as a bell-jar: everything you see you see through a haze. I’m seeing far more clearly now than I was a year ago. I am.

I’m sad still, but hey. I’m still standing, right?