New Year, Old Depression
1982 — The new year ushered in bitter-cold weather too late for duck-hunting. Depression seeped back like a dark tide. It was February. Any day now Chloe would start nagging about preparing income taxes. Every year this activity was awful.
Actual tax preparation wasn’t onerous. We both paid withholding. Mortgage deductions were clear-cut. But with no state income tax, we could only deduct state sales taxes. That was the rub, because it played into her obsessive mindset: save every single receipt, pile them all on the kitchen table and add them up — don’t let a taxed penny go uncounted. Which gave her the chance to rake me over the coals for every purchase — loud, empty arguments lasting several days.
Hunting expenses were a fat target since I no longer could deduct them as an outdoor writer. Then there were my credit-card lunches — her definition of profligacy. Anything she missed bitching about when I spent it, she made up for. And doubled-down on ones she already raised hell about. Huge gasoline bills thwarted her, because my answer to those gripes was always let’s move closer to my job — not gonna happen. She was entrenched in her late mother’s rural house.
Temperatures were in single digits. I sat in my home office dreading the upcoming clash. In broad daylight I watched two winter-fluffy coyotes hunt field mice in my frozen pasture, out beyond the stacks of firewood I’d cut with my departed lover’s cuckold’s chain saw. They made that stiff-legged pounce to spook a mouse into movement beneath the snow, then dug it out: the innocently violent dance of predator and prey. I picked up my hunting log to write about them.
But my pen took on a will of its own: Am I a writer? Writing always brings me ease from my lifelong bugaboo, depression. But not when I cannot freely set down some of my feelings. Not writing them fresh makes me fear losing them to the peculiar chemical alterations of unsupported memory. My body begins to run down under work stress and a frustrating and largely unsatisfying life.
I routinely get terrific headaches every single weekend; the doctors say maybe migraine, maybe caffeine deprivation. I don’t drink my three daily quarts of coffee on Saturday, the only thing that keeps me awake during the work week. Docs say a third possibility is “tension” headaches: a week of work tension released all at once on Saturday.
I am unable to write feelings about my life surrounding the job. Things done, seen, experienced. When I lie awake under insomnia I try to remember until memories go gray and flat and meaningless. When I wake up they’re gone…
The language constituted a kind of code for my affair. My log was no place for it, but it was what I had: Reading an article by Gay Talese about Hugh Hefner, I felt a shock of recognition. Hefner was his own voyeur, with a sense of looking over his own shoulder to watch what he was doing. A sensation I remember vividly from Christmas in Paris with H. and spring in Seattle with Chloe because I wrote about them fresh. I will lose recent events because I didn’t write them down…
As it turned out in the long march of years, that wasn’t true. But my brain was in turmoil, and I needed to write something. It struck me as ironic to use place-names as code for women who joined my life-list of missed opportunity to get laid.
Orcas Island: where I traveled by ferry in the rain on a junket, but did not look up the blonde resort masseuse whose candid invitation I turned down in Seattle, where she came to get laid because island pickings were thin. She said she never hit on guests, so being literal minded I figured my status as resort guest would preclude a second chance.
Yakima, for an antic gal pal of Sean the liquor cop’s main squeeze, farm girls both, bagging orchard apples for him and me. She said my butt was so cute she’d like to see what else was under my clothes. Women were certainly bolder than in my youth. But despite my affair I was backward as always. I chickened out. Sean never let me live that down.
I added Westport for a whole different reason: to represent a flood of memories running all the way back to a virginal Florida copy boy. To the time I was hopelessly enthralled to a married woman for whom I forsook Chloe the summer after the Army. The woman who told me when I was no longer a virgin she would be content to stay married if she could just have me for weekends, which hurt my youthful feelings. The woman who ultimately forsook me and broke my heart. The woman who, after I married Chloe, had a drawing table so close to my desk in our Nassau publishing house she could confide island trysts with various men enamored of the hot expatriate divorcee.
Back in my arms again on a moonlit Pacific beach.
Ms. XX Pizan’s feminist writers had educated me in the seventies about many things female. For instance a restless wife’s yearning for a tryst outside marriage, to which Glenda alluded in the sixties, stinging my tender sensibilities when I thought she was the love of my life.
But what I remembered most were stories about “abused wife” syndrome that validated her stark terror of her domineering husband. All I had known back then was he was a bully. Bullies are usually cowards, as he proved the night he caught us and I scared him half to death. Afraid to draw his gun against me, his self-image was so shattered he wound up in therapy. It broke his hold on her. She left him for me. I was devastated when she left me in turn. My only consolation was I had freed her of his tyranny. As affirmed by her coyly reported island affairs.
But she had remarried the asshole.
Which made our whole affair an exercise in futility. From my abandoning Chloe for her, to my Nassau assumption I had freed her for good from the jerk. Had he mended his ways? In Westport she said he had not, he was the same domineering creep as always. Nor had he forgotten his humiliation. He pitched a fit when she was sent from Florida to San Diego on assignment — because it put her on the same coast as me!
Her San Diego assignment meant her art career had taken as strange a turn as my writing career. A ship-refitting company sent her to Navy bases where she crawled over warship bridges, sketching improvements and upgrades, rubbing elbows with fire-control techs, sonar men and command staff. Computer design still was in infancy. Engineers relied on an artist’s eye for proportion and placement of new systems. She was very proud of her Navy flight jacket with ship patches from all her projects.
His tantrum about her assignment was logically absurd. San Diego was 1200 miles south. Nevertheless here she was, kneeling up on my car seat to lean into my arms with moonlit kisses as intimate as twenty years ago. Confirming another thing Ms. XX’s writers said: a woman will damn well do what she sets her mind to do, even under the thumb of a controlling bully. Glenda had set her mind to see me.
She took a Greyhound bus all the way from San Diego — afraid airline credit-card records could be tracked by the computer-savvy asshole. She checked into a capital motel a block from the bus station bundled in her flight jacket, shivering because the mild Northwest spring chilled her thin Florida blood. Turned on the heat!
When she walked briskly across the lobby into my arms, the deja vu was overpowering. I had no idea what to expect. So I temporized, taking comp time to drive her around to various Puget Sound tourist spots. She seemed to enjoy the tour. Back at the office, a youthful horn-dog office manager, a fishing and hunting buddy, said he saw us at a rhododendron park. He was admiring: “Dude, you still got the moves. That trim babe with the long black hair was all over you.”
Dude? I had stopped in to tell him I needed a cover story. We recently had fished the Strait of Juan de Fuca for ling cod, and I said if anybody asks we went back up tonight to catch the morning tide. He gave me a grinning thumbs-up. I didn’t strain his credulity by saying how far she came to see me — or telling him later when we got back from the beach we didn’t fuck.
But we didn’t. We did sleep together in her room. Slept, period. Something inexplicable to a “dude.” It was almost a reprise of the Florida morning in her folks’ Airstream trailer outside their home, when I returned her belongings after our breakup. Almost. They made up the trailer for me to sleep overnight before my long drive back to Georgia. At first light she slipped out of their house and into bed with me. Her hands began exploring, as if considering what my Georgia city editor called “brokenhearted sex. All sad and sweet and final.”
But my young man’s genitals were in deep freeze from the shock of our breakup. I knew I couldn’t. Just couldn’t. So I said hold still. And she did, and we slept. Twenty years later in her motel room I was the one who held still, though I sported a hard-on like a Russian bear. In my maturity, with my new-learned amorality, I knew I could all right. In spades. But she had to initiate, or ask. She didn’t. Tucked in my arms, she had that old wonderfully unconscious way of not noticing my tumescence. So once more we slept.
She was all bright-eyed and bubbly when we woke, just like that long-ago Florida morning. You would have sworn we had good sex. We spent another day together — I had tons of comp time. She shot a lot of photos. Mailed one of me sitting in her room smoking my pipe, looking bewildered. I damn sure was. When she boarded the bus for the grueling return to San Diego, and eventually back to her keeper, she said blandly I suppose you better not tell Chloe I came to see you. That Glenda was something else. At a fish market I bought ten pounds of frozen ling cod for my fishing-trip cover story.
Months later, coyotes in the frozen pasture, my autumn-haired lady-friend long gone and duck season over, winter was setting in hard as I dreaded my annual fiscal flaying. I shut my log. I could find no words to spell out my tangled feelings, or plumb the depths of my black depression.