Featured in Colorado Review
The Lost YearsFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Spring 2015
It happened so quickly I couldn’t remember my other life, the life of the well, that ordinary wake-up-in-the-morning-have-a-cup-of-coffee-and-get-on-with-it self. One day I had a routine: I’d write for an hour each morning at the kitchen table, go to work at nine, come home at six, fix dinner with David, and then read or write until midnight. The next thing I knew I was too tired to get out of bed. Something had happened, but for weeks I was too woozy to know what it was. The flu, I assumed. A really bad flu.
My new life did begin with the flu, some virus weaving its way through Los Angeles, perhaps carried toward the ocean by Santa Ana winds. For several days, David had lain absolutely still in bed, sandwiched between the sheets, getting up only for full glasses of water and then long pauses in the bathroom. I’d hear the toilet flush and see him stumble back to bed. Then the third morning he emerged as if nothing had happened, fixed a pot of coffee, took a shower, and raced off to work. He’d been gone barely an hour when I felt the first flush of fever, the ache in my limbs, the sudden pull of exhaustion. I knew the drill. I called in sick and slid quietly between the sheets.
This new life began in 1982, the same year that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” hit the stores and teenagers drove in from the Valley, hanging out at Tower Records and Music Plus and Fat Beats. Adults fixated on another icon, real estate, which was booming. Everyone believed they could make a killing.
But I was too sick to make a killing. For weeks and then months, I remained listless, my mind drifting, my head as light as scattered straw. My lymph nodes slightly swollen, my bones aching, I felt as if I still had the flu and longed only to lie in the dark. I knew that something had gone quietly haywire inside my body, but so quietly that nothing definitive showed up on empirical tests. When I’d first become ill, I’d gone to the medical men: an internist, an endocrinologist, an allergist. On such visits I was told, “We can’t find anything wrong except maybe some allergies.” I was told, “Go home, young lady, and drink some coffee.” I was told, “It might be psychological. You seem an anxious sort. Try not to worry so much.”
True, I didn’t have cancer or ms or AIDS or any of the other horrible diseases I could list, and yet always there seemed to be a fever behind my eyes, a raw soreness to my throat, an infection swimming through my blood, making me tired. Perhaps worse, my mind felt switched off, as if all the lights inside me had been turned down very low. Why wouldn’t I worry?
I wonder now if it was because I’d become so curiously ill that so many of the things in my world seemed absurd, or if it was merely a reflection of the times. Exhausted much of the day, I began observing rather than responding to the oddness around me, noting, for instance, that a homeless man slept under my car each night, his head cradled near the left rear wheel, his legs sprawled, flip-flops twisted; that our landlord, a man richer than God—in a penthouse above our apartment—created a maze of newspapers stacked chest high, forming a passageway through his apartment to a wall-sized bird cage where eight cockatiels lived in ornate, stinking squalor; that a new acquaintance at a party insisted on showing me his colostomy bag; that the couple next door, both engineers, dropped in to introduce themselves, the woman topless, her denim shorts, I noticed, neatly hemmed. I’d tried not to stare at the woman’s pendulous breasts as I invited them in, offering tea and cookies as if this were the most ordinary introduction to neighbors: Let me just get the plates and napkins.
I noticed these things but felt adrift, distracted, unable to react or comment. Or even laugh.
It was late one afternoon in September after I’d been sick for over ten months. I curled up on our blue-striped couch—we now called it the “narcotic couch”—gazing out the sliding glass doors at a smog-filled California sunset flush with colors of dusky rose and lilac and the faded yellow of a bruise. Behind me, the clock ticked loudly and the ceiling fan hummed, while just beyond the sliding glass doors, a long rectangular roof provided me with a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean, a dazzling reprieve from our cramped, stuffy apartment. On nights when I felt well, David and I sometimes danced out there under the stars, the day’s dry air thickened at night by the humid swells of the ocean. The horizon was a thin, pale line illuminated by the tiny, diamond lights of a ship or darkened to an eerie flatness. Our next-door neighbors—the topless engineer and her boyfriend, who rented the other apartment opening onto the roof—worked late at their firm, and during the week, David and I claimed proprietary rights.
Though I’d been lying on the couch for three hours, I hadn’t had a restful sleep, but a heavy, dreamless collapse. I woke as tired and disordered as the moment I lay down. Now it was early evening and I wondered where David was. He usually came home for dinner if he was working in his Venice studio, where he made beveled glass doors and windows for clients, often bringing home take-out—soup or fajitas or a big salad. I wondered if he’d called or if I was supposed to know where he was.
As if I’d conjured him, the phone rang. It was seven.
David sounded hurried and distracted and slightly irritable. “I’m finishing up a job with Roy and I’ll be late.” I heard the whine of power saws, the blur of talk, and some harsh scraping like industrial sandpaper against wood. “Coming,” he called to someone in the room. Then back to me, “So you’ll be okay?”
“I’m on the narcotic couch.”
But I knew he didn’t have time for sympathy. I worried he’d grow tired of being with someone who spent a part of each week languishing on the couch, unable to do grocery shopping or laundry or even go to the movies. Aware of the pause, I wondered if Roy was listening in or grinning at David from across the room, holding out a tiny bag of cocaine. I wondered how much cocaine Roy had already snorted, how late they were going to work. David and I didn’t do drugs, but Roy often stayed up forty-eight hours straight to finish a job, and even David, who averaged only five hours of sleep, couldn’t keep up with him. Suddenly I sat up, nerves wired for trouble. “Where are you?”
“At Roy’s studio,” he said. “I just told you.” And then quickly, “Gotta go. Gotta get something to eat. It will be a long night.”
After I hung up, I wished I’d asked what they were working on—a French country–style bed, a layered deck, or maybe just distressing wood for a floor—and what kind of deadline they had. Roy’s clients were mostly Hollywood people, minor tv actors but also producers, the kind who sold a series for $50 million—big bucks in the early eighties—and who scrutinized every corner, every glaze, every notch of the work Roy did. David, I remembered now, was just helping out.
I settled back on the couch, relieved to know I could just lie there, idle, aching, letting the night absolve me.
After living for a year in Seattle, David and I had returned to Los Angeles in the fall of 1981, the year Boeing laid off over four thousand workers. When we discovered our own jobs were soon to be cut, we rented a U-Haul, packed up our stuff from the little yellow house near Lake Washington, and drove back to Santa Monica, with just enough income to tide us over for a few weeks. To our relief, our old landlord, the Money King, hired David immediately to manage some of his apartment complexes (a part-time job), and I worked temp jobs during the day—long, boring assignments that made the once-a-week, three-hour night class in writing at UCLA my dessert.
Within three months, David shared a studio in Venice with another glass artist, but he lacked contacts and we needed more money. The Los Angeles market for fine craftsmanship was extravagant and fickle, and we’d been gone for over a year, so it was fortuitous when David was introduced to a man named Roy, a man who’d become all the rage in the Hollywood world of designer-everything.
“Everybody says this guy’s a wizard,” David told me that night as we were fixing stir-fry in our small kitchen. It was one of my good nights and I was helping, cutting up broccoli and peppers and onions and measuring out the brown rice. “Some kind of maverick woodworker, you know, with a lyrical feel for the material.” From what David had heard, Roy built and refinished floors, making them look rustic, rough-hewn, and beautiful, by distressing and sanding and then texturing them with five coats of gloss. He also constructed fireplaces and mantels and built massive beds that could have graced seventeenth-century French castles, beds held together with wooden pegs, the headboards thick and primitive and masculine. Later I’d understand that everything Roy made required punishing physical labor, weeks—often months—of intense work, and like everyone in Hollywood, he was always behind schedule, some finicky part of the work delayed.
A week later, we were invited to the desert to meet Roy and his wife. Because it had been one of my good weeks, I was optimistic. I’d worked four temp days at Paramount Pictures Studios and had even finished a new story, working through lunch hours and late into the evenings. I knew that if David could work with Roy—bidding on jobs together or sharing clients—we’d be able to live in relative security and I wouldn’t have to worry about my low productivity, my time on the narcotic couch.
That Saturday, as we drove southeast into the desert, the land looked as uniformly brown as a paper bag, only its tedious flatness dimming my enthusiasm. Nothing moved here except a scattering of tumbleweeds in the occasional wind, the sky a relentless, searing blue. After two hours on the road I wondered if we could be lost, as there were no landmarks to guide us, nothing but the gray ribbon of highway on an endless plain. Then a small market came into view, a lone gas pump out front.
“Land,” David laughed, bouncing a little in his seat. “We’ll stop and get a Coke, check on these directions.”
“Get me a popsicle. Raspberry if they have it.”
“You’ll be lucky to get cherry or grape.” He smiled wryly at me as he got out.
Looking out the window past the store at the barrenness, the cacti and stunted trees, the dull, dingy sand, I wondered who this man was, this Roy, this craftsman genius who lived in the desert. Would he change our lives? Would we like him? Would it matter? For the past four months, I’d worried so much about myself it was a pleasant relief to consider someone else. Then, surprising me, David leaned in the window, handing me a cherry popsicle, the wrapper already sticky. We both laughed, and the next thing I knew we were pulling into a graveled driveway where a white Corvette sparkled in the sun.
Cheryl, Roy’s wife, took me in hand the minute we were out of the car. Maybe she saw me as the weak link in the chain, as someone easily amused, but perhaps I am being too cynical, too sensitive. She was a tall woman, lean and angular, with dark blonde hair and gray-green eyes that narrowed at the corners, not pretty in a conventional sense, but compelling, dramatic, a personality to be reckoned with. Roy was an outsized man with a large head, large hands, bulky shoulders, and long legs; he moved slowly, as if all his energy were held in check. Dressed in faded jeans and a beige shirt, he pushed at his unruly chestnut hair with thick fingers as he said in a soft, boyish voice, “Welcome to the desert, darlin’.” A throwback from the fifties. I smiled. By the time Cheryl had settled me at one of the tables on the spacious patio beside the swimming pool, David and Roy had wandered away toward Roy’s studio.
Cheryl poured me a scotch on the rocks, never losing a beat in her commentary about some tycoon Roy worked for in l.a. She settled down beside me, informing me that she ran Roy’s business, that it was she who took the crap, the bullying, the bluffs, the dismissals, the threats of litigation, “those nasty, aggressive phone calls from clients” when work ran over schedule. She looked poised, confident, and then her eyes narrowed. “This movie monster can’t let a cunt tell him what to do, know what I mean? Can’t give me the money for the job, but he’d throw it away on some prick just like himself.” I knew her curses were casual, simply part of the rhetoric, part of her tough-woman-who’s-seen-it-all attitude. She closed her eyes, her head thrown back, and I saw the faint lattice of lines radiating down her pale neck. “My god, women have it so hard,” she whispered, then opened her eyes and sipped her drink. She stared at me. “But I’m not going to let them get me. It breaks my heart what I have to do, but at least it’s a hustle. I love a hustle.” And then she smiled, her eyes flashing. “If I didn’t have these pricks to deal with, I’d find some others. Yes sir, it breaks Roy into tiny pieces, but I love it.” She took another sip of her drink. “I love my life!” she shouted. “I love my fucking life!”
I smiled too because the scotch felt good going down my throat and today I didn’t feel sick.
“You have kids?” Cheryl asked, changing the subject so quickly it surprised me.
I shook my head. I’m too sick to have kids, I thought, though David and I had rarely talked about children. We hadn’t talked about many things since I’d become ill.
“Too bad. I thought maybe you did. I always wanted kids, wanted a mess of them, but life is funny, isn’t it? What you want at one time is what you can’t get rid of fast enough at another.”
I nodded, not knowing how to reply.
“I had one when I was fifteen. Nearly killed me having it, then when I got well, it was gone. Never really saw it. My mother put it up for adoption, but I didn’t care. I wanted a new dress, some high heels. I wanted to see the world, to get on the road and go, go go.” She smiled as if remembering. “All I’d done was complain the whole time I was pregnant, and now I can’t quit thinking about her. About her being lost.” She sloshed whiskey in her glass, poured more, and took a long swallow. I wondered if the pronoun was important or if it had been a slip. “You won’t believe it, but after that I went to nursing school. I used to be in charge of this program in Detroit for drug addicts. Heroin. Smack. Devil-catchers.” She stared beyond me, her face now saddened, older. I think she’d forgotten I was there. “And I lost again.”
“Yeah, they all died. Kaput with the needle. After all that talking I did . . . Monsters!” She grinned suddenly, a foolish grin. “Well, I can’t go back to that, so I stay here in the desert and try to get money out of these movie pricks for Roy.”
By now I understood that all Cheryl required was a captive audience and an occasional willing nod. I knew her stories would plot a familiar route: bad relationships, divorces, feuds, plastic surgeries (she confessed these in detail), debts, windfalls, collapses, perverse triumphs, untouchable greed, and resentment—a flood of suffering and redemption that could fill any daytime-tv show. Later, I’d wonder if money was her weapon of control. But money, I decided, was the result. For Cheryl, it would be face-to-face combat, a willingness to confront, to sink the ship, to play dirty—that was her sword. But I was getting tired. Listening had worn me out, brought back the all-too-familiar fatigue, and I was glad when David rescued me, insisting that I see Roy’s studio, a huge barn-like structure as big as a warehouse built in a shelter of eucalyptus trees behind their house.
I clasped David’s hand as we followed Roy. Dirty skylights opened the ceiling to the sun, yet in the dusty light its brightness was dim, esoteric. Other windows framed two walls, the desert stretching beyond in a smooth flatness. Roy stepped over a dusty piece of lumber, offered his hand to guide me, David right behind. Roy showed us the tools he used, mostly electric saws, cutting tools, a planer the size of my arm. Along the back wall, raw lumber, old and scrappy, pulled down from barns and condemned buildings, was stacked. It looked pockmarked, dirty. I thought it was funky, no good, but then I saw David’s nod of approval.
“That’s the stuff,” Roy said. “The raunchier the better.”
I walked through sawdust toward the wood piled against the wall. The wood’s texture was battered, disfigured by wind and weather, the abuse of natural elements. Each piece was unique. Beautiful in its own way.
And then Cheryl appeared. She linked her arm through David’s. “So,” she said and smiled, tightening her arm, her fingers dancing lightly across his wrist, pulling him close so that their hips touched. “I think we’ll be friends.” She gazed not at David but at Roy.
When we left the desert that night, it was assumed that David would bid on some of the same jobs as Roy, perhaps sharing clients and thus working jobs together, though Roy’s studio would be in the desert and David’s in Venice, fifty miles apart.
On the drive home, as David talked excitedly about the prospects, I tried to ignore the flicker of worry that nagged at such euphoria. Roy and Cheryl seemed theatrical and competitive, with a calculated playfulness, as if each were trying to claim us, not for ourselves but for some private agenda. To me, they seemed desperate, not for money but for something I didn’t yet know. Their lives are coming apart, I thought, and instantly knew it was true. I recognized this. My own life was coming apart, my days haunted, even when I was able to work, by a sense of fatigue and failure, a slow relinquishing of the self I’d known, the curious, ambitious self who wanted to be a writer. In Seattle, for the first time, I’d felt secure in the direction of my life. Though I’d been the rebellious, needy daughter for much of my twenties, the one who couldn’t find a place to fit or an ambition to direct her intellect, in Seattle, I discovered that writing stories galvanized me, settled me, as if I’d begun listening to a conversation I wanted to have. But once I became ill, there were many days when I couldn’t sustain deep thought, couldn’t puzzle out plot or the implications of character, my mind muffled by a fevered body, a broken immune system.
On the drive home, I closed my eyes, half listening to David’s thoughts and resenting his high-pitched energy. I knew that soon he’d be very busy, and the thought made me both grateful and worried. He’d get up at five, walk out onto the roof in the early morning sun with a cup of coffee, gazing at the light haze over the ocean that blurred the horizon. He’d be thinking about a problem he needed to solve, and then for hours he’d be immersed in work, coming home near midnight. I would be alone. I would miss him. And like him, I too wanted the agitation of desire.
Maybe that’s what kept me pushing against illness, made me experiment with different treatments and diets, cutting out all sugars and prepared foods, taking vitamin C and other supplements. And there would be days when I’d wake up to a veil of light streaming through the blinds and feel a sense of well-being, my body returned. “I’m okay,” I’d think. “It’s over.” I’d wander out into the kitchen, where David was making breakfast, pour myself a cup of coffee, and walk down the driveway to stand drunkenly in the sun.
Two weeks later I’d crawl, exhausted, into the stillness of my bed.
And yet for two weeks, I’d been a woman writing, working, reading, thinking.
As I’d expected, when the jobs with Roy materialized, David’s life became hectic, charged with deadlines and meetings, designs and approvals, and then the work itself. To our relief, he was making money again, keeping us solvent while I managed to keep up with my night class at UCLA—my life support—and continued, in my erratic way, to be sick and then well, overwhelmed and optimistic, a lost cause and a writer.
It seemed that this way of living might go on forever. I don’t know when it began to go terribly wrong or if we were simply caught in the downward spiral of the hustling ambition that made up so much of life in l.a. I try hard to remember. I remember that in early August, Roy moved his studio to l.a. to be closer to his clients, who’d become more insistent, even bitter, about deadlines, and David began to split his time between Roy’s studio and his own. And then in late fall, quite suddenly—or so it seemed to us—Roy and Cheryl split up. I remember only that their fights were epic, full of threats and physical damage. Lawsuits were filed, cars driven up onto curbs and rammed into doors, wood splintering, glass shattering. Roy began doing coke all the time, working without sleep, his money gone, eaten up by lawyers and the chemical excess he needed to keep going. I also remember David coming home late one night, exhausted by the sordidness, depressed by the weirdness of working with Roy. Roy, he said, was not just doing coke, but had lit a crack pipe that night with an acetylene torch like someone wanting to commit suicide. “And all the creeps around him, the stupid fucks who work for him, were cheering him on as if it was some funny prank—ha, ha, just get yourself killed.”
He slumped on the couch. “If I didn’t need to get paid, I’d never go back. It’s like being trapped in dark slime.”
But he did need to get paid. All summer, gas fumes from the cars parked in open stalls beneath our apartment complex wafted through our windows, making me sicker. Even when we kept the windows closed, there was always the lingering smell of gasoline and oil when we stepped out onto the roof, as if even the ocean breeze had betrayed us. We needed to find another apartment, but first we’d have to save the money for a deposit and first and last month’s rent.
And then something did change. One afternoon I was working at home, rewriting a story at the kitchen table, when the phone buzzed. “That saw chewed off part of my finger . . . and I’m on the way to the doctor,” David said, his voice too high, too faint. He slurred the doctor’s address and then hung up.
What part of the finger? Which finger? The whole finger? As I drove into Santa Monica, I thought of a severed middle finger, the fuck you finger—bloody strips of skin and veins, callouses thickening the inside edge, the half-moon of a fingernail—dropped into a plastic baggy, an old shirt wrapped tight around the stump. But he’d said “part,” so, please let it be just the tip.
When I reached the doctor’s office, I saw David in the hallway, a woman standing over him, her small, wizened face crisscrossed with wrinkles, her alert brown eyes sharp and focused, much clearer than those of most of the people in our lives. She barely glanced at me. She had the no-nonsense air of a marine sergeant as she leaned over David. “I’ll need to see that,” she said, pulling his hand toward her and removing the bloody cloth.
David looked woozy, started to sway, murmured, “Hail Mary, full of grace . . .” and instantly she whisked something under his nose. “Steady there,” she said, and he shifted back into focus. Later we’d learn that she’d been a nurse on the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, and seeing a bloody finger, the tip sliced off, didn’t exactly merit high drama. But as I watched her carefully clean the mess, saw David’s confused, anguished face, a shiver gathered at the back of my neck. I felt the sudden pull of disaster, the unraveling of a panic I’d knotted and hidden somewhere deep inside. How would we survive now, two people trapped on the fringe of a life in l.a., our resources depleted, our energy sapped by the constant crush of just getting by? Of course we had no insurance. It had never even occurred to us. We used every bit of our income to cover expenses. But my anguish pushed beyond economics to the existential, as if for the first time I allowed myself to really see that we were both fragile and damaged, physically and psychologically spent, our reserves depleted, our lives held together by the thinnest of threads. Though I’d felt untethered for most of my life, I’d also felt driven, intent on overcoming and competing, finding my way and proving my worth. That I might actually falter had never occurred to me until I’d gotten sick last year, my energy leaking out like the air from a spent balloon. Now, watching the nurse lead David into a treatment room so that the doctor could patch his mangled flesh, I knew that behind all his intensity and concentration, he was as uncertain and terrified as I was. It had always been there. I’d just never seen it.
I thought of Roy and Cheryl, the way they’d sabotaged each other, competitive and determined to make the other suffer. They too were fragile people, but fear had made them mean and angry, kept them fixated on punishment. David and I were different. I was sure of that. But our difference, I realized, also included a naiveté about financial stability, a reluctance to assume the worst, to negotiate failure. When confronted by conflict or crisis, our instinct was to back off, to turn away and wait before we acted. Perhaps this was the result of growing up with alcoholics or maybe it was simply a part of our temperament, a fear of losing control, of being pathetic, of making the wrong choice. As I stood outside the treatment-room door, I knew, as if for the first time, that we had no safety net. I knew that we couldn’t depend on good intentions or sudden fortune or luck to rescue us. We had nothing but ourselves.
Listening to the doctor’s voice talking soothingly to David, the shiver at my neck escalated to a chill. I watched David tuck his bottom lip in and then take a shallow breath. What would we do? What would happen to us now that David wouldn’t be able to work?
I had been brought up to believe in the will, to assume that only grit and determination and the driven self mattered. That night after we got home, David medicated and asleep on the narcotic couch, I wondered if I could reclaim—as I’d heard that people often did in the midst of crisis—my old, driven self. I walked out alone onto the roof and stood staring into the darkness of the ocean. There were no twinkling lights in the distance tonight, no ships seeming to skim across the horizon, but the ocean breeze brought with it the smell of the sea, damp and musty and oddly pleasing. I leaned against the railing, uncertain if I had the energy for what lay ahead. For a moment I wished I were like Cheryl. I wished I could say, “I love my fucking life!” and mean the thrill of combat and controversy, the heat of the hunt. But I’d never be like that. For a moment I felt sorry for myself, for how frustrated and unprepared I was, how diminished by illness, how stupid and shamed by my situation. I wanted to whimper, to curl around myself, but then it occurred to me that this was what all the characters in the stories I loved recognized: the inadequacy of the self in the face of new circumstances, the terror of survival at every level of consciousness. I felt the brush of wind on my face, a burst of salt air. I imagined the swell of the sea, the heavy, white-flecked waves. Perhaps my fear was inevitable but endurable.
And then I saw a bracelet of lights far out on the ocean. Just a glimmer—or was I imagining it, wanting it? I narrowed my eyes, squinting. No, there were pinpoints of light skating in the dark, flickers of movement. Instinctively, I lifted my face to the night air. I knew this might be silly—Lights? So what? You wanted those lights!—but I told myself it didn’t matter. As if the fact of them, the beauty and thrill of seeing them so many miles away, relaxed me, relieving me of some of my terror. I thought, We can leave, we will leave, somehow, we’ll get away.
While David recovered, I took on more jobs, pretending to be well even when I was sick, making myself do what six months before had seemed impossible. I remember sitting at a desk on perhaps the sixteenth floor of some insurance company, temping two weeks for an employee on vacation, feeling dull and irrelevant, a slug among the bottom feeders, a placeholder at a desk. I’d been exhausted all week, going to sleep on the narcotic couch almost immediately when I got home each day and resenting the effort it took to dress appropriately each morning for such a boring job. One day after lunch, after I’d spoken to no one except to acknowledge the beginning or end of copy to be edited or typed, when I’d passed, as invisible as a ghost, other workers in the halls, I printed out a large sign and put it on my back: TYPING FOR THE MASSES, as if I’d entered the ranks of the socialist labor force. It brought a few punchy comments and some friendly laughs, and for the rest of the week, I didn’t feel quite so alone. Of course, I constantly admonished myself for not getting a better job—Typing! Changing commas! I mean, really!— but I used all my “good” energy to write stories, to begin to dream again, and I wasn’t about to give that up.
After his finger healed, David refused to go back to Roy’s studio except to pick up his tools. In a few months he was able to start working again. Small projects. Repairs. He didn’t have many commissions, but he’d become more cautious and had begun painting again. And now he came home for supper.
Maybe it was just that—a return to some kind of order, a life without the drama of Roy, a lessening of terror that gave me the courage to apply to mfa programs in creative writing; that would be one way to leave. And on a sultry day in March, the letter arrived, waiting for me after a day at another insurance company, my eyes still aching from staring at a computer screen for eight straight hours. I didn’t want to open it, to find out. And then I did, blindly, stupidly yanking out the single page of acceptance. “Oh, Christ!” Iowa, a place I’d never been and couldn’t quite imagine. Thrilled, I ran out onto the roof and shouted to the ocean. “We’re going! We’re leaving! Fuck you! Goodbye!”
That June we packed up our furniture and books and art supplies and drove across the country to Iowa City, Iowa, with its foursquare farmhouses, its gentle, rolling hills, its studious politeness and perfect rows of corn. “Jesus, we’ll be Midwesterners,” David said as we passed through the flatness of Nebraska and western Iowa. To our surprise, Iowa City seemed a quaint place, almost a village, thrilling and new, a city of writers. Oddly, as we drove the last twenty miles down i-80, I thought of Cheryl that day we’d visited in the desert. I saw her pouring more whiskey, her eyes seared with sadness, and then as she took one swallow, her chin jutted out and she snapped, “The prick! I’ll make him pay!” I wanted to laugh. That was how she survived, pushing, always pushing.
We’d left Los Angeles with such relief, there was only the sun’s warmth on the roof to miss on cold, snowy nights in Iowa when the wind howled and bare branches brushed furtively against our windows. I always hoped that eventually I’d see those difficult years in Los Angeles as useful, perhaps even necessary. I hoped I’d be able to extract meaning, to appreciate or at least mourn a painful, confusing time. After all, I still had days of inexplicable fatigue, what would come to be called chronic fatigue syndrome, a medical anomaly with almost no treatment. But this never happened. All I understood from those years was that I was humbled and had endured the mess and muddle of a marginal life.
After we finished unpacking our dishes and organizing our books, I gazed out the second-floor window of our small rental house in Iowa at the peonies and purple coneflowers blooming in a neighbor’s yard, feeling grateful, even charmed by their beauty. Outside, birds chirped, the sky a blue-white haze, but inside my small, still-empty study it was quiet and shadowed by trees. I glanced down at my notebook, words already written, a story in the making. Quickly, I sat down atop two stacked boxes and turned on the desk light to read what I’d come here to say.
Note: Some of the names in this essay have been changed.
Patricia Foster is the author of All the Lost Girls (pen/Jerard Award) and Just beneath My Skin. She has published over fifty essays and stories in such magazines as Ploughshares, the Sun, the Missouri Review, and the Antioch Review. She is a professor in the MFA Nonfiction Program at the University of Iowa.