Clinical and Reality don’t always match up. They do in one sense, that psychiatrists and psychologists can line them up, but it’s never a neat fit. One cannot just go online, read the DSM IV, and find out if you have bipolar disorder. It isn’t a test where you tick off boxes and go aha! And when you have it and read about it, it doesn’t ever seem to sound quite like you. It’s strange to be depersonalized and abstracted and fit into a mold when each case is different and unique and seemingly impossible to decipher yet radically obvious once the diagnosis is put in place which leaves you feeling emptier and more powerless since the gravity of the situation means your whole life will be rearranged to cope and treat and hope that the disease doesn’t get worse. It does feel better though. And in the process you try to hold back the tide of failure. And you’re never normal.
But fuck normality.
This is what they say I am. I am this. It took me a while to accept but I am this. I just don’t fully understand it.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by the occurrence of at least one manic or mixed-manic episode during the patient’s lifetime. Most patients also, at other times, have one or more depressive episodes. In the intervals between these episodes, most patients return to their normal state of well-being. Thus bipolar disorder is a “cyclic” or “periodic” illness, with patients cycling “up” into a manic or mixed-manic episode, then returning to normal, and cycling “down” into a depressive episode from which they likewise eventually more or less recover.
Bipolar disorder is probably equally common among men and women and has a lifetime prevalence of from 1.3 to 1.6%.
… [I]n the past [it] has been referred to as “manic depressive illness, circular type.” As noted in the introduction to the chapter on major depression, the term “manic depressive illness,” at least in the United States, has more and more come to be used as equivalent to bipolar disorder. As this convention, however, is not worldwide, the term “bipolar” may be better, as it clearly indicates that the patient has an illness characterized by “swings” to the manic “pole” and generally also to the depressive “pole.” Bipolar disorder is an episodic or, as noted earlier, “cyclical” illness, being characterized in most patients by the intermittent lifelong appearance of episodes of illness, in between which most patients experience a “euthymic” interval during which they more or less return to their normal state of health.
Summer I’m up. Winter I’m down. It’s fall so I don’t know where I am and often do stupid things. What up and down are, I still don’t know after these years. I know it when it happens, but beyond that the origins of the words escape me as to why they would ever be used in such a manner. The ups and downs aren’t fighting in a prolonged psychic battle over the seasons to gain control of what lucidity I have remaining, they simply exist as a wave that I ride out until its done and hold onto the normal bits along the way that I try to incorporate into my life in the form of functionality. I function, that’s about all I do. Some years are horror shows while others are mild springs. Every year though it’s up and down.
It’s probably drug related. Benzedrine, methamphetamine, dextroamphetamine, all “uppers” but I’m not up. It’s not even like cocaine and I’m more lucid then when on meth.
It’s better and more dangerous.
Down is the same. Benzodiazapines: valium, klonopin, ativan, opiates, all are downers, but they’re warm and inviting and not deadly in the same way or as devastating.
What is between these two poles is supposed to be normal for normal people at least. Fall is never completely normal.
Rachel and Harold finally moved into our house. They were juniors at UW, but they didn’t seem like it. There was a panache of adulthood in the way they spoke and acted with other people. Harold was driven, it was obvious by the intensity with which he spoke when he did manage to speak. Taciturn wasn’t an appropriate way, more like lacking things to say, like he didn’t want to join in the conversation until something he was interested in came along. Rachel was different. She held herself like someone who had experiences that she built her life on, it wasn’t the awkward posturing that occurred at the freshman level where the young-blooded fight to make themselves seem important on a campus composed of over 40k students. Rachel was comfortable in her own skin though she had no idea of what she was going to do with her life. Harold’s mild neuroticism was a good balancing act for her, so I thought. Med school was within his reach and his frenetic drive toward it reeked of determination and helplessness as his career was spun out in front of him from a single decision six years ago that he never seemed to seriously think about reconsidering though he fantasized repeatedly about running away and joining a band. Harold always seemed tinged with mild regret that he didn’t go into the humanities and though devoted to Rachel he envied her.
I helped them move our new couch into the living room which was on the second floor due to a strange mishap with the redesigning of the flat from two flats to one house — we also had two kitchens. The entire house seemed built in a sort of Deconstructionist fashion that crossbred Victorian architecture with the Guggenheim such that nowhere in the house was a wall without a slant to it do to sinkage and shifting over the ages and roofs that intersected with several rooms on only one side of the top floor but not the other side as one would suppose even though the roof was a perfect isosceles instead of scalene. The second stairwell was kindly placed in the middle of the house so we didn’t have to go to the front foyer through two locking doors and a frigid unheated part of the house that in the winter sucked your testicles back into their undescended states to get up to the second floor. This stairwell happened to be right inside the second kitchen. When one of our other roommates, Cliff who had yet to arrive at this point, would cook bacon, it swelled into the entire house filling the lower bedrooms with a disturbed lipid induced hunger that led the lower dormitory occupants lazily upstairs to find that he didn’t cook extra. He also set off the smoke detectors every time to the pains of hangovers. Harold lunged at the couch to move it up the stairs into the second floor kitchen. He was a big man, not a fat man, just big. His musculature was hidden by a larger than normal layer of baby fat, but he wasn’t fat by any means. With his blonde hair and blue eyes he looked like a Hitler youth who had just graduated to the SS. Moving a couch should have been easy for him, but his technique was to brutalize the divan into submission rather than carefully lift with his legs and let his arms and vertically aligned back do the work for him. With a final heave that nearly wrenched a leg off, the couch was into the kitchen. There it slid into living room next door and rested in front of what would be a large television screen.
It had yet to come.
I brought video games in hope that it would.
Exhausted by what should have been an easy job, Harold collapsed on the couch only to find that divans didn’t have arm rests for him to lay his head on. He swore at Rachel’s preoccupation with fashion over pragmatics, but took it back as soon as he uttered the words. I didn’t care. To never let an abuse slip the tongue, I believed from my various amorous adventures that so far had proven faulty, is to let them bottle up inside and finally explode in a catastrophic way that shakes the walls and crumbles the relationship by providing final and unforgivable words. Grace and I bickered all the time and that hadn’t imploded yet, so maybe I was on to something. Harold’s strength came back as his heaving stopped and he went into the kitchen to find some food, my food. It’s an unwritten rule that I have with Grace that my food is for my consumption only, it’s my food, but she breaks it regularly and always tries to replace it, but doesn’t always. Harold pilfered some sandwich meat from our beautiful upstairs kitchen. He offered to buy a replacement. I guess that’s how it’s going to be from now on. I could put up a fight, but it’s useless to fight over trivialities. The downstairs kitchen looked like it belonged in an efficiency with its horrendous electric burners. Upstairs fared better. You could fall down in the middle of it and not wang your head on anything. Huge. The range was a thing of beauty. Six burners, digitally controlled temperature for the oven. All Kenmore Monogram all the way. Harold wished they had Vulcan up there, but that’s asking way too much. I wanted to make so much challah that we would become sick with it every friday night. We could hear Rachel downstairs still moving boxes. The faint crushing sound of a cardboard box about to collapse and a heaving “ugh” from her brought Harold back to what he should have been doing. He ate the sandwich in three bites and washed it down by drinking straight from the faucet.
I tried to mention that we have cups.
He was gone.
I went to the living room and sat down on the divan. It was comfortable, surprisingly so. Armrests would be appreciated, but napping on it would be easier since I could stretch all the way out without my feet pulled up or resting on an incline. I moved in three days before. The 2400 sq ft house to myself. It took two days to get used to the bizarrely dilapidated condition it was in despite being immaculately maintained and painted. The color was the real issue. Martha Stewart pastels in the bedrooms and lower floor, vibrant cadmiums upstairs. Spending time alone in an eccentric house while unpacking started to eat away at me. Deeply. They way that walls didn’t meet as though they were lined up as an afterthought led to constantly running into corners that shouldn’t have been there. It didn’t help that in all the confusion of moving day I nearly forgot to take my meds, twice. That would have been a horror show for the others to move in to. Stretching out on the divan to test its nap quality I soaked in the searing red with two white stripes encircling the top of the room that gave it a sort of junior effect. Soon, a TV would be in here, good people too, we would eat together, laugh together, play video games and nap. School seemed like an excuse to be with like-minded people more than an education.
He asked me to help.
I nodded, but wanted to remain prone on our lovely new couch. I walked down the staircase, always reminded that it seemed slightly too steep for its own good, and saw Rachel. Summer had done wonders for her. When Grace (our fourth roommate of five total in the house and my bff) introduced me to her she seemed sullen and pale. Over the summer she had reclaimed some of that energy, some of the vitality that seemed to lurk under the surface and even engaged me when I came down the stairs — she was beautiful with energy and her black hair with hazel eyes and a sharp stare that brought me back from my divan overdose. There were more boxes to move in and I obliged.
They weren’t that heavy, just clumsy large boxes. I kept thinking to myself why anyone would pack things into a box that they couldn’t carry. And just how the hell they were able to move them in the first place into the truck. The miracles of moving never cease to amaze me. More boxes kept coming and I kept moving them. I was glad to help, I’ve always enjoyed helping others. After several hours fatigue set in our backs and pain in our knees. The last few boxes were eventually unloaded and Harold returned the truck. Half done. I squatted on our front porch and pulled out a cigarette. I promised over and over that I would quit and I would go for long stretches without one, like two weeks, but ever since moving into this house I needed one. It might have been the architecture, probably that I was alone. Now I needed one to simply have one. The lighter wasn’t working so I held it up to my ear and pressed the fuel switch. A faint hiss came out so there was butane left inside. I tried a few times again. The sharp snap is my third favorite thing about cigarettes. The flame burst. The second favorite part is the crackling of tobacco burning under the hot flame. The best part. Smoking it. Glorious nicotine rushed to my head and I chuckled to myself from the warm embrace.
After the cigarette was finished I felt refreshed and lucid. Cigarettes always do that to me. They center me. Creaking bedsprings greeted my reentrance as Harold and Rachel marked their territory. I smiled and envied them, it had been a month for me since I last had sex and a month is just about the time that the lack starts to eat away at the soul as the libido turns into something deeper and darker, pulling the animal instincts up to match the desire for release and pleasure. I went upstairs to the four seasons room that looked out on the back yard trying to push the hormones down. It was a lush yard stretching a ways back filled with ferns. The green was almost overwhelming. The previous tenants had left deck chairs so I left and came back with a book. Like all sunrooms in Madison, this one was on a slant. Every last one of them slanted downwards so it always felt like you were going to slide under the wall at any given moment. It takes a while to get used to it. And like many other sunrooms that I had toured in my quest to find this house, it too had a disturbingly large trap door in the middle with an ancient looking handle to lift it up. I tried reading, but Rachel’s screams were growing louder, I returned to the sunroom with headphones.
She was a screamer. This would be a long year for me and Grace. It’s one of those things that doesn’t come up in screening roommates and you can’t exactly ask questions about it either. It’s just there for discovering.
Cliff was due to arrive that day at some point. He only gave vague times. “Before night” he said. He was a character according to Grace. College to him seemed like it was a means to an end and the end was a job. He was an engineer by day, and by night no one knew. He was the one with the TV. I wanted to live with him because he had a laissez faire quality to him that in one way meant that he could disappear one day to go sky diving and the next spend all day fixing the plumbing before the landlord had a chance to look at it and in between we could play video games together. Everything interested him and engineering was simply a pragmatic choice but his pragmatism usually excluded things deemed superfluous, like philosophy or art. He didn’t have much of a tolerance for those when he came to the house. Grace would be coming a week from then. She would have to get settled into our established routines. That’s the problem with coming last. After a week, we know how to deal with one another and have our own rhythm. She didn’t have her input at the time of creating these unconscious social contracts so she would simply have to ask questions that we would have no idea the answer to due to the unconscious nature of our contracts and she would simply fuck up until she got it right.
After an hour of reading I heard my name faintly through the headphones. Harold was calling for me from the kitchen and I quickly dog eared my book to save the place. Inside I met two freshly showered and towel clad roommates who seemed intent on chatting in their semi-naked state.
A paused settled the encounter.
I tried hard to be neighborly and not imagine either of them naked.
Harold wanted to go to the mecca of food that is Woodmans. It’s a warehouse for food where you have to pick through the produce and the meats to really get at what you want but it’s so damned cheap that it’s worth it. Westowne Woodmans is the best while Eastowne is closer. I agreed and looked forward to the car ride where for once I wasn’t driving.
At that time in moving I only had the fixings from the local overpriced Cap Centre and some cheap food would be a welcome relief to my pocket book. A strange need to observe these two in the wildness also compelled me. Every fall I’ve felt the need to observe, to sit back and let things unfold before me. It never continues that way, I have a habit of inserting myself in people’s lives like Grace does though both of us try hard not to. It’s probably because we choose to observe. It’s probably that.
At Woodmans a vast parking lot is filled with every conceivable car from various social strata. Often, by the liquor section, dilapidated cars and pickups are parked. Cars with cardboard windows and duct tape on the outside. Or pickups that have bumper stickers that border on the offensive side. Down to the second main entrance you’ll find the sedans and the Lexuses. At a budget grocery store like this you’ll always find at least several Benzs or Lexuses and someone with a Louis Vuitton bag. In all my life of going to this store I have never found out why this is, but its true and its there. Woodmans belongs to everyone and is employee owned. So literally everyone.
We parked over by the liquor section for pragmatic reasons. Carrying tonic water in a bouncing cart is a horror show waiting to happen. Harold led the charge with the shopping cart. He went into the zone of finding the best produce and Rachel and I left him to his devices. Underneath it all, Harold was a foodie, despite what the sandwich and faucet incident might lead one to think. This left me with Rachel, who though amiable, was three years younger than I was and I’m always wary of younger people. Grace is as well. They lack life experience and many lack anything that was thrust on me. They can get an idea of it but not a firm grip that leads to empathy in any meaningful way. So I usually stay away and hide with Grace. Usually. Sometimes they insert themselves into my life. Same goes for Grace, she must have seen something in these two; maybe they were projects for her to work on. Sometimes Grace has project people that she tries to improve — it’s cynical, but so is Grace.
Rachel wasn’t nearly as chatty as I expected her to be. We talked about what we were going to do over the school year which is standard fare for college students to talk about since we really don’t have anything else going on in our lives. I was finishing my thesis, rather beginning it for the second time after a rough patch the year before. I had dropped out of college twice due to mental health reasons and this year would be the last fucking time I would be in college as an undergrad. It would be more than a relief, it would be an existential breath of fresh air. I carefully selected from this list to start the conversation in the hope that she would reply at least along the same lines. Sometimes I want to just talk about my life the way that it happens, but that leads to awkwardness, so I censor myself.
Rachel was focusing on Econ this semester but it seemed half-assed, she had so many gen eds that any sort of major could be built up from her classes but no focus had ever resulted from dabbling in various fields so all she actually talked about were what she was going to take that immediate semester and nothing deeper than that. I would find out more later and fill in the blanks of course. While Harold was sorting through food her energy from before seemed to dissipate. It wasn’t from moving, the ache in muscles and bones, it was like she was going through the motions. She said she wanted to be like Harold, going through pre-med — driven and sure of himself and ready to push through anything to achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. He didn’t talk about much else either. Everything was from the latest medical journal while she dabbled in music and the arts and had little to say about the latest research concerning sickle cell anemia. I thought they were a strange matchup, but relationships rarely work where the two people are cut the same way. I didn’t think much of it. Most of my relationships last between 1 and 6 months, the mean and median is probably around 2.5.
We toured along with Harold through the market. Produce took the longest as he had to sample every last fruit in the bin to make sure he was getting the right one because if he didn’t find the best one his foodie senses might revolt and leave him for good. Meat was also interesting. I was never one to inspect food all that closely, but he poked every last cut to sense how firm it was, checked to see if there was any blood, fat content, every last measure he could remember before finally saying the hell with it all he was going to Whole Foods where they actually know what good meat looks like. The rest of the store went quickly and I picked up some Reed’s Ginger Beer. I don’t drink really. Sometimes I do but it’s terrible for me and I tried to cut it out of my system for good. But I slip, in time I’d realize it wasn’t a big deal, but being an alcoholic at one time tends to make me wary of drinking in general. But I like being around other people who drink and talking with them, drunk people are hilarious.
The last time I drank alcohol was the summer before I had to drop out of school. I was manic as all hell. I spent cash I didn’t have, stole several thousand dollars worth of books, clothes, and electronics, and then some how didn’t ruin my liver by spending ten straight days drunk out of my mind. It was fun while it lasted, it’s always fun, that’s the horrible part, it’s the best fun you can have. High on the highest delusions about how great I was and how unstoppable I was. Nothing could touch me and I dared myself to do more. I was lucky not to wind up in jail. I was almost caught stealing twice which only ratcheted up the excitement. Drinking only makes it all worse. When manic I can and do pound beers like a stevedore which only makes the mania climb higher and higher and fuels the wild energy that can consume days at a time in sleepless energy. I fly higher and higher in a euphoric binge on hormones and neurotransmitters until I finally crash. And I crashed. It nearly killed me. Alcohol made it worse and I swore off of it.
So I don’t drink.
I try not to at least.
And I don’t tell anyone why.
Only Grace knows, she knows everything.
Time had passed quickly while I was swimming around in the past. The cart was already being offloaded onto the conveyor belt and everyone had their debit cards out. I pulled mine out. Three way split is going to be the new unconscious norm. I looked down at the full cart. Jesus. It was filled to the top. At least there were two kitchens and two refrigerators in the house to house all of Harold’s plunder. The man beamed down at his daily catch like a prize fisherman. It’s hard not to love him, I can see the boyishness that Grace always likes, which raised more questions in my head when I realized it. The billing came out to $200 which was cheaper than I expected and owed some gratitude to Harold’s eye. With my Reeds in tow we went to the liquor store. Woodmans is also a mecca for alcohol. Aisle after aisle stacked up eight feet tall brimming with liquor of every variety from every conceivable brewery. They even have St. George gin, easily easily the best gin available. And though it can be found in even the smallest liquor store in Madison, it’s impossible to find in the Bay area despite being distilled in Alameda. The beer section is an altar to the gods of brewing that live around Madison and in the Midwest. I’ve been out to the West Coast, specifically San Francisco they have some good beer, some great gin too (still, they claim they have their shit together, they don’t) (we do) (if anyone dares to dispute that, we have Dark Lord Days in Indiana and at Great Taste of the Midwest) (they can have St. George).
Harold and Rachel went straight for whisky. They were relatively new to it being freshly 21 and I could tell by the fact that they by Seagrams V. I stopped them before they made more mistakes. I’m paternalistic when it comes to whiskey and scotch, and beer, and gin, and brandy. I grabbed some Bulleit Rye for them to try out of my aged wisdom of being 24 going on 25 in a couple of months and having gone through my fair share of days drinking the cheapest only to discover that $5 more affords something that you drink to drink and not drink to get drunk. Bulleit Rye is confirmed to be the greatest whisky for less than $20. It’s better than Maker’s Mark which tends on the sweet side for my taste. The rye mash imparts a more full flavored hit. And it’s smooth. Seagrams is like drinking Listerine with how it bites and mangles the tongue and throat. It’s a devilish whiskey with so many impurities that whoever uses it will be assured a hangover. Same goes for Amsterdam gin. But Bulleit rye is hangover friendly. And it’s so smooth you can gargle it despite being 90 proof. It is, without a doubt, the best whiskey for the price.
And then there’s scotch. Lagavuilin, Oban, Tomatin, all lovely with their own distinct differences. I love my scotch and miss it very much, but it’s expensive and I can drink it all day.
They accepted my years of experience, though wondered how I knew all of it considering my sobriety. And later they would be pleasantly surprised by my advice. We rang up and headed back to the car.
Back at the house we unloaded. It was only around 7pm and the whisky is already out. I break open a Reed’s and join them in the sunroom. We all silently look out over the backyard. This place is ours. It is ours, finally. Our patched together family, transplanted from various places across the city, has come together and we are at home in our beautifully disgusting house. Just slightly beyond our yard is the lake. Though we can’t see it we can smell the green cool air coming off of it. In a few months it will be frozen solid and we can go and play on it. I fantasized about how we’ll get brooms and a soccer ball and bat it around and slip and fall and bruise ourselves and then finally come in and warm ourselves. We stayed out there for an hour just sipping away on our drinks. The totality of moving was starting to settle in. The displacement, the unpacking, the hope-to-find-a-place-for-everything feeling was growing rapidly in our minds.
I told them I’d be right back.
Even normal I’m not normal. I still need to tamp down stray thoughts that can spiral out of control. The moment before where everything seemed perfect disappeared and now the total displacement and every crack and every bad detail of the new home started to grow in my mind. I could feel the strange tense anxiety growing in me and I needed relief. Before I would drink. Now I take ativan. I hurried downstairs and in my room did some quick breathing exercises to calm myself down, my anxiety was starting to spin. It felt as though the world was running away from me at a thousand miles an hour and I couldn’t keep up no matter how fast I ran and that I made a huge mistake living in such a dilapidated house with such young people. I shook a little white pill out on my palm. The scored side faced up in case I needed only half a dose. My mind started to spin and things made less sense. I dropped the pill to the floor needing something faster than a two hour response time and returned to the sun room. What I needed was a drink and a smoke.
I came back, paler and shaky. I asked for a pull.
They stared at me. They should have said no. But it would have been wrong to put them in such a position where they would have to withhold something from me. I should have said no. But my mind was not on its tracks. Harold extended the bottle and I took a long pull like I was finishing the last third of half cold coffee floating in the bottom of a mug. It went down smooth and my brain lit up. Half scolded me for being an idiot, the other loved it, I was still up and my manic self was tickled by the influx of alcohol. I didn’t know which one to trust. I handed the bottle back and the loving side of my brain made the downward spiral go away.
I thanked them and wiped my mouth with my sleeve.
I lit a cigarette and the world made sense again.
It was just addiction talking though. I had yet to get anything from nicotine. Or Alcohol.
They extended their gratitude for turning them onto the wonderful world of Bulleit Rye. I crashed into a chair, feeling exhausted from the adrenal overload that I went through. It was over as soon as the alcohol touched my tongue, I guess that’s a bad sign but whatever, that’s just one of those things.
Rachel leaned over and paused while looking at me. She asked me if I was okay. I was. And I wasn’t. Longitudinally I was okay, but then and there I felt like nothing other than struggling for air. I told her that I was feeling overwhelmed all of a sudden. Rachel was kind, she asked if I was feeling better not in a casual brush off to say the right thing and then go back to normal expecting nothing other than “fine” to come back. She leaned forward and touched my hand and stared into my eyes and asked me if I was okay. I said yes. That it was just this house and I had spent several days alone in it and it started to feel weird and the school year was coming and it all built up in my brain. She said she knew how I felt. Her head felt like it was spiraling out of control and it needed something to slow it down after the long day and the displacement and all the work that had yet to be done but couldn’t be done that day. It’s why she wanted a drink. She took another pull. And then there was of course the possibility that she forgot something in the move. One never knows if something was lost, which seems to be inevitable, until the insane task of unpacking is finished and boxes are piled high near or in the recycling.
She offered me the whiskey again and I took another pull. I felt better.
We sat out in the four seasons room and talked about the school year. Harold attempted to lecture me on cigarettes and second hand smoke but Rachel calmed him down. There wasn’t much else on their minds as they were still pushing through the years while I was relaxing in a twilight year of just working on a thesis. The anxiety of class and midterms already hung over them and I offered what little sage advice I could muster up like an older brother extending a shaky hand to his little brother and sister. Maybe a dad is more appropriate. They fell into their familial roles with ease, listening to my advice as though I had bought it with my knowledge of whiskey. They were still young, no matter how old they seemed at times. Rachel though, she did not seem young. She had her moments, but she did not seem like she was concerned with the petty goings on in life. They didn’t know where I got my advice though. They didn’t know why I was going to be 25 when I graduated.
Grace is the only one who knew I’m bipolar. We’ve been friends since forever. I’m a super-senior by the way. The others, I suspect, know there’s something off about me, but would never suspect that I’ve tried to kill myself twice before meeting them. For now I’ve covered it with an anxiety problem. That is at least an understandable thing. Even though this wasn’t anxiety. This was something not normal. I made a mental note of it for whatever that’s worth.
The sun began its descent over the lake. Pink hues seemed to color the ferns with an even darker green response. The bottle was passed around and I was feeling better. Grace would be here tomorrow and I needed her to lean on. With her I could give updates and feedback for when I’m going off the deep end and I know she would try to keep me from being hospitalized. She would chastise me for drinking but playfully so though it brought up bad memories of years before when I spent ten days partying with ten different girls and disappearing from her life so she didn’t know if I was safe or not. I ended up on a skateboard zooming down the hill on Johnson St laying face down with my hands in front of me pretending that I was a torpedo. I was thinking about how comfortable the house would feel when she would come when I noticed that Harold seemed like he needed to talk. He fidgeted awkwardly in my presence as though he was ready to burst, like I was doing something wrong. Rachel was resting her head on him like she was leaning on the comfort of human presence rather than affection as she kept her body from contacting him seemingly to keep him at a distance. Alcohol lubricated my tongue and so I attempted to relieve the tension. He opened up and talked about his classes. Despite his drive he ran into an anxiety ridden road block when it came to organic chemistry. The legends of of its difficulties had seeped into his mind and he continued to postpone the class until this year. He was tired. He kept repeating that he needed more time off, more relaxation, more escape from the grind that was wearing down his passion. Classes kept getting harder and harder. I continued to nod, having been through my own difficult semesters. One day at a time, one paper at a time, that’s the only way to approach it — plow through it like a running back bursting through a defensive line after squaring his shoulders and going north and south. Then, what remains of what you did is what you did. Football, like life, has a zen quality to it. The game is won a single play at a time, success built on success and reaction to reaction. The players that execute perfectly by following the flow and their instincts are the ones that succeed. Over thinking things and going against the up and down of the waves is death. In life, if one can judge the flow of things and ride with it rather than against it will succeed more often than not, no guarantees, luck is always involved, luck more so than what most people give it credit for, but finding that tide, that rhythm, is key to my survival. Tomorrow I expected them to be better. Harold moved away from the his tired revelation and talked about the latest medical discovery. I found it interesting but tuned it out as I continued to drink. Rachel didn’t speak. She just listened and absorbed his passion. She struck me as smart when we talked and every time I talked to her she seemed older than she was. She graduated at 17 having skipped a grade and wandered around in the intellectual world of general education classes. There was always a turn of phrase that I didn’t expect from someone who’s 21 and revealed a deeper intelligence about life. I had only seen that in Grace.
I took another sip of alcohol, knowing how bad it was for me. It has the possibility of wrecking havoc on my freshly stabilized moods and causing currents in the tide. In reality, it wouldn’t have enough to do any real damage, but it could fuck things up for a while like it did in the past. But living a life of a puritan sometimes leads one to say fuck it and step off the ledge a little and come back down to Earth to feel once again outside of the hypochondriac bubble of shielding oneself from every last possible mood destabilizing event. The whiskey tasted sweet.
The love birds had fallen asleep, tired from the day’s travails, and I chose to sit in silence looking out at the changing sky. The lake smell tickled my nose and felt earthy and calming. I reached for the bottle again. An hour or two later I discovered my compulsion. I was drunk from my persistent sipping. I staggered indoors and discovered Cliff single handedly carrying a TV in.
He asked where to put it and I motioned upstairs and led the way.
I had never met Cliff. He was a friend of Grace’s and I trusted her word. Cliff turned out to be a mechanical engineer and rather handy too. After leaning the television against the wall he muttered that he would be back in a non Terminator sense and indeed returned with his power tools. In several minutes he had the television mounted on the wall and ready to go. I ran to my room, in a rather sloppy run, and grabbed my video games. Upstairs I presented them as though they were golden treasure.
He saw that it was a classic console, N64. The controllers still worked too even though one was a little bit wobbly which made subtle, non power moves, a little difficult in Super Smash Bros. Cliff went from affectless to being a child on Christmas. He hurriedly connected it and put in Super Smash Brothers and we played. Half an hour later a thought occurred to me. I asked if he still needed help moving in. He didn’t. Cliff barely owns anything. Like Grace he could easily live out of a suitcase and wouldn’t mind it one bit. I deeply envied that ability to be so mobile and not need a duo of doctors overlooking my moods tying me down to prescriptions and a nearby walgreens.
His sentences were short, and always would be short and efficient. Like other engineers I had met, talking is not bonding, playing is bonding. I liked to listen and can’t stand silence with strangers, silence is reserved for friends. So we bonded over video games. It was a tete a tete between Kirby and Fox. We exchanged wins and hurled insults at each other, well meaning insults, and were loud and obnoxious and wrapped in an exhilarating game without substance other than being together with someone else.
I woke up on the divan not knowing much. My head was still a little wobbly and the TV was on. Panic sunk in. I rarely panic when I have a drink, I’ll have one glass here and there, but that day, starting a new school year and having the possibility of destabilizing again sent me into a frenzy when combined with the possibility of not taking my meds which would rain hell down on me as I went into partial withdrawal and could expect at least one bad day if not a week or more from my idiocy, so my head swam. Still drunk from the night before I set off in a dead run down the kitchen stairs to discover how dumb I had been. I landed on the ground with a nearly tumbling thud as I tried to redirect my energy toward my bedroom. I didn’t remember anything after Cliff left and I think I fell asleep — he seemed like everything that Grace had said, a strange but interesting man. I scrambled at the door with half drunk hands and found my pills. In the little day by day pill dispenser I found last night’s divot to be empty. I slumped against my night stand with relief that I had not been that stupid. I took my morning dose and laughed at myself. Missing a dose is almost as bad as being drunk but doing both together is really dumb because in the end I’m basically an addict. Sitting down on the bed I noticed just how inebriated I was. I wasn’t hungover, I was still drunk. I laid down flat on my back with my legs dangling over the edge wondering how long it would take for this to pass and what Grace would say about my sorry ass. I wasn’t even cognizant enough to tell what I was doing to myself, I just laid there with the room spinning slightly.
A small rapping noise tried to echo but flailed in vain against my large mattress.
It came again.
I didn’t stir.
A woman’s voice said my name.
I leaned up and saw Rachel standing there.
She asked if I was okay.
She double checked.
She left and I rose to close the door. I didn’t want her to find out more than me slipping on the stairs. Once someone found out about my illness they got sucked into it. There’s no escape from its reach. Every last inch of my mind in some way is always aware of the goings on with a finger on a red button to stop everything, not in a suicidal way — that button is blue, but in a shut-it-down sort of way that stops whatever I’m doing. Last night it failed to press that. That was my fault. She wouldn’t get wrapped up in it like Grace had. Grace had been there for me for the longest time. She saw me in the hospital, she cried in the hospital, she saw the withered pale face of an overdose staring back at her and she called the ambulance and sat with me the entire way, and then she cried. It wasn’t overwhelming for her, it just saddened her. I let her in because she wanted in. Once she got in she learned what the meds do to me, how often I have to see people, how slow my life can go when the world is running rapidly or the other way around. The veneer of stability while I piece together minutes. She was sucked into that and now she goes wherever I go out of love and fear. She still fears that she will lose me some day.
Grace would be here next week.
She’s going to kick my ass.
I kept muttering to my self over and over how she was going to do it. She was a physical person, is a physical person, just over five feet and still managed to play rugby before joining the grad crowd here. Grace was always very proud of her Scottish/Norwegian heritage too that contributed nothing to her stature. We met when I was drinking long ago. Manic, I can out drink anyone, including her. My mind was going a thousand clicks a second and hers was going only one. Dull that with alcohol and I’m still running hot. We were drinking buddies and sports buddies, never lovers, but then roommates. Then she found out what lurked beneath it all.
I laid in bed slowly calming down. As always, like a snapping whip in my brain, things came together suddenly and I sat up. The day rolled past and I sobered up. Harold and Rachel thought it was amusing and I rolled with it. By the end of the day it was amusing to me as well. Their taunts at my bender helped and were good natured. I didn’t see Cliff. He must have been out. Nobody saw him that day. Cliff. How the hell did Grace find Cliff? Maybe while sky driving. That evening we sat around the kitchen eating bacon, nothing else, just bacon, good bacon too. There I learned more about Harold and Rachel. They were a sweet couple.
Harold was from San Francisco. He grew up in the Haight-Ashbury area and his parents were hippies. Dead to rights hippies. They did the 420 outdoor party in the neighborhood each year and were very much a part of the legalize it movement that never seemed to go anywhere until just a few years ago and then they openly smoked outdoors as much as possible which meant every day since the weather in San Francisco is absurdly beautiful. Once medical stuff came around, they were chronically stoned. It pushed him more after they were constantly distant. He never spoke highly of his parents and once referred to them, while noshing on bacon, as dirty hippies even though he often had affectionate stories about them. It was complicated to say the least. Since about 7 he resented their lack of willingness to do anything with their lives and wanted to do something with his. In high school he decided that was becoming a doctor. Since then all he did was read medical journals. He had subscriptions to multiple rags before he entered college where if he didn’t know something he would go to the library and look it up and from there look up more in the way that a foreign student would learn english by hunting through a dictionary. The drive he had was impressive to say the least to a floundering math student like myself. I believed that he would become a doctor some day, and I think I would like him to be my doctor.
He also told me about a little bar that he says is the closest thing on the west coast to living in Madison. It’s called the Tornado Lounge. I’ve been there since then. He’s right. Good beer flows there. He also told me about a little beer store called Jane’s Beer Store. It’s a fantastic beer store. I’ve been there too. It’s in Mountain View if you’re ever in the vicinity of Google and have a hankering for something new. It’s mostly bombers there, but they have six packs and four packs too.
Harold is always full of information like that. He has an unwavering interest in learning things that no one else knows. I thought it was why he wanted to become a doctor — a precious knowledge set that is withheld to many people. But unlike what Rachel intimated, he could talk about other things, they just weren’t the things that most people talk about. Harold’s mind contained a bizarre assortment of knowledge about vintage bikes, silent movies that no one had ever cared to see, could discriminate between blade and burr ground coffee when used in a mokka pot (a wonderfully easy way to make pseudo-espresso), and much more. They just weren’t conversation starters. None of them. I can see why Rachel liked him.
It rather surprised me that when I got Harold talking, he could talk until his mouth went dry and disgusting noises erupted every time his tongue detached from the roof of his mouth. And his past poured out. I always found it reassuring when someone could talk, it’s when someone bottles things up that I always suspect something to be wrong. I try not to talk that much. I have plenty of anecdotes and stories and things I’ve done but it’s also how people know I’m off. They can’t put their finger on it, because I’m not all there when they hear the assortment of things that I’ve done that have little to no connection with one another. Like my zealous love of sports and deep interest in mathematics. They sense it because I’m not, they don’t know about the vast majority of my life. Rachel was surprisingly quiet. As Harold continued with his preferences concerning local coffees she remained in the background. The stress from the previous day seemed to hang over her, but that wasn’t quite the case. I wanted to get to know her, but every attempt I made seemed to be overshadowed by Harold. And she let it happen.
Harold continued telling me the best coffees from the local roasters. No one was the best, only various roasts within each roaster’s repertoire that repeatedly held up to his standards were singled out. I tried to break away and talk to her, but she kept bringing Harold back. I didn’t forget, but I moved on.
With one pork product exhausted we moved onto another. Harold had bought a large flank and he set about prepping it. Rachel hovered around him and absorbed his movements, cataloging each spice and each tie for a repeat performance should she ever roast one herself. I watched the pair. Rachel didn’t just hover, Harold slowed down when she leaned in and expressed interest without asking. When stuffing it he carefully measured each ingredient rather than slapping it together. Harold is an excellent cook, the bacon was the finest I’ve had due to his selection and brilliant cooking (I just slapped it in the pan and let it fry to oblivion), this careful measurement seemed instructive and out of place for a natural chef. He started the lacing of the roast slowly at first so she could observe and then sped up until he reached the end to demonstrate how to tie off. Rachel silently watched the entire procedure without asking a question, without having to ask a question. It was a marvelous to and fro to watch and after it was completed it finished with a kiss.
Harold cleaned and sat back down and regaled me with recipes that he had uncovered from the library. I started to blot him out as he meandered intellectually and waited for the roast. My stomach churned from the smell of parsley and oregano mingling with white meat and butter. The conversation continued and I didn’t follow any of it in my gustatory lapse, no loss, there was not much to follow. I would later find out that Harold, when he has the opportunity to talk, he continues until his body gives out and begs for rest. The rest of the evening, and the week for that matter was spent under a transcendentally dull fog of daily goings on and meaningless somethings and various foods that all converged on week one of the semester when it finally ended and we could all rest once again for just about a month before starting over again.
And then Grace arrived.
My slender Scot with reddish brown hair that went strawberry in the summer who spent her weekends being thrown in the air chasing after a rugby ball despite being woefully small for it yet made up for it by being small enough to be hurled ridiculously high in the air had arrived with hardly anything to bring. She had been living in Toronto for the summer and sold all her earthly possessions — including her beloved clothing collection in a final last ditch effort to overcome her hoarding tendencies but those would come back in a flash as she accumulated new things to never let go of, books and papers — and traveled in a suitcase and a half with her only main possession being her laptop and her camera which she some how always got on the plane along side a carry on because she would never check either laptop or camera. ‘Starting over’ she called it. New country, new things, new possessions, new people, I fucking hated her for being able to do that. But I loved her all the same. And she needed a bed. Not my bed, never. Thank god. That’s like incest or something even weirder. After she dropped her things into her room we set off for a mattress without our hellos. That could be saved for the car, stores were closing and finding her a place to sleep seemed like the most important thing at the time.
We climbed into my old Dodge Neon. It was from 2000 and had made its way through fourteen years of life without so much as a scratch on it. It wasn’t a miracle that it still ran, it was well cared for, it was more a miracle that any car of any kind can survive that long and still only have 101,000 miles on it. Driving it was always a pleasure. It broke down some years down the line, as all cars do, but it was long enough to say that it had a good life, some fantastic times, a few harrowing ones too, and in the end it did more than just serve its purpose as a vehicular means from point A to point B, it was part of my extended mechanical family that included my laptop and cell phone without any of them I would be devastated and lonely. We drove out to the east side of Madison to a Sleep-Whatever store. In the car Grace told me about the wonderful world of Toronto, how it’s like New York in that all the people are still bitchy, rude, and on their way to some place more important that you are, but cleaner. Cleanliness was always paramount in her world. It wasn’t next to godliness, or godliness itself — that was making too much out of it for an atheist like her. No, it was just very important. Her persistent badgering transformed my car from a wasteland of empty cigarette packs and water bottles (long story) into a clean and detailed form of transportation that suited her needs. I usually cowed to her demands. Grace was smarter than me and put together in a way that she didn’t break or need maintenance like I do, just the occasional do over and radical lifestyle change to clear her head and life and Toronto served that purpose well. She came back clearer and older than when she left. In college she seemed wild in a responsible way that ground her down into dust and by graduation time she seemed depleted as years, beyond four years, of college had drained her of the will to study another sentence. It wasn’t rampant hedonism that contributed to the burnout, that wasn’t her style, it was just the grind of doing everything to please everyone and then me. I still think I pushed her over the edge. But she stuck around. And she came back. And this new Grace was lively like I first met her, the bitchy Canadians did her some good.
At Sleep-Whatever we bounced on beds. The salesman was clearly upset by our behavior. He was clearly used to the harmonious married couple that came in and decided which bed to buy based on whatever the floral pattern embroidered on the pillow top which they would never see anyways what with sheets and all. Grace and I behaved like six year olds. Each new bed was discovered with a flop and a bounce before the salesman could tout the stats and positives of having an inner coil mattress or memory foam pillow top or certain count of said inner coil mattress springs. Grace just wanted the bounciest one. We tried the full size ones and then moved up to the queen sized mattresses. And it was there that she swam.
There was so much space.
She tried to swim up to the top of the mattress and spread her arms completely out to fill the edges with her finger tips. She looked like she was in heaven as she sunk through the memory foam into the inner coil spring mattress whose count was 800 per mattress. She tried a few more, but returned to her soft and gentle lover that first proposed a larger size to her. She bought it with about ten minutes left before the store closed and the salesman was clearly pleased with his unorthodox couple. By closing they had hauled the mattress out to the car and quickly went inside as they saw the impending problem facing us.
I was driving a Neon and I didn’t bring rope.
Two problems with this picture.
This sort of thing always happens when I’m with Grace. It’s not that we’re dumb, or that we lack street smarts, or any of those things, we only doing things spur of the moment. Doing things that way often leads to a lack of rope. This is not the first time either. She was outside the Frances and I was moving out of the dorms, the Frances is basically the dorms but for people just fresh out of the dorms looking for a new apartment but not wanting to go far from downtown. Grace wound up there with a craigslist roommate that changed twice over the years and never got to close to either roommate. She was moving out to the Tenny Park area to get a break from the bustle of downtown. I was rather manic at the time and offering a hand to anyone that needed help or a car to use. Grace’s asshole parents where no where to be found in her life so she was completely stuck. No one had taken me up on my energetic offer at that time so I was free and she was a friend in need so I helped her even though she didn’t ask me and just sat on her few possessions outside of the Frances feeling distraught at not having anyone to help her while surrounded by well intentioned families. We had already become drinking friends by that point where she was a junior and I was a frosh, we’re the same age but years apart in grades. From the courtyard of Sellery I saw her sitting on her things. I helped her move into her new place, forgetting my stuff in the process. It was there that she made herself valuable for the first of many times. She reminded me to move. It was back at the dorms that I looked at my rather large bookshelf and realized I had forgotten something.
Grace brought this up, not me, when we were walking the mile to Home Depot to get what we needed. She laughed at my various attempts to strap my mattress, my box spring, and my bookcase to the top of my car that ultimately involved her sitting in the window with a hand on everything so it didn’t slide around (in which case she probably wouldn’t have been of much use either). She questioned whether anyone would steal a mattress. I had no clue if anyone would or how that would ever happen.
The ride home was precarious. The length of the mattress meant that it hung down over my rear windshield, blocking my view that way. And the width of it draped over the sides into my blind spots. On top of that, literally, was the box spring that formed what looked like a half ass attempt at writing a lower case lamda. It was also then that I decided that she couldn’t punch me so I told her that I got drunk.
Getting drunk is a massive taboo for people like me. It can take a normal stable person and make them do ridiculous shit they’re not proud of. It can take someone like me and trigger a slide into depression or mania days or weeks down the line. Grace knows this, she’s seen it happen, she’s the one who stopped drinking so I would stop drinking. And she waited until home to punch me. The entire ride home she didn’t speak to me. What I did to her was like base jumping and posting a picture from beforehand with the tag “I’m alive?” She took it harder than I did and thanked me for the welcome home present. Last year was good, she wanted it to stay that way.
I hadn’t had a normalish year until she lived with me my third year in college, even then it was a lot of ups and downs. I was diagnosed way back in my second year when around January I wanted to kill myself for the umptenth million time, Grace was not around for this one. I’ve stayed in a psych ward since then so it wasn’t like everything was cured with a single magical pill that brought me back to the world of normal people. I would still wind up in a psych ward with her there. It wasn’t a positive force in my life by any means and amounted to me being zoned out and reading at a quarter of the rate that a normal human does but with less than half the comprehension and a desperate desire to leave. I should never have asked for her to bring Blood Meridian. I never wanted to go back. She would be there for that though, she wouldn’t forget but tried hard not to remind me.
Moving the box spring into the house was easy. They’re light, it’s the first floor, piece of cake. Queen mattresses are another thing. Floppy, big, heavy, a nightmare for anyone who has had back problems. Always move a queen mattress first when moving while your muscles are still strong. We moved it up the front steps with it skidding along the concrete on the top plateau and her cursing me for not lifting it higher, like shoulder height when she couldn’t really be said to be doing much in the height department either. I reminded her of this (playfully). She threatened to kill me (not so playfully). Our adventure ended anticlimactically when the frame went down with the box spring and mattress flopped on top. We both collapsed and laughed at our dumb asses. She rolled over and gave me a shove so I’d look at her. She told me to watch myself and stay healthy. I nodded, I can only nod when someone asks that of me.
Grace was back, my final scholastic year would begin soon.
School began for everyone else in the house but me and Grace several weeks later. We had all settled into a morning routine and Grace and I would arrive first and have our coffee while others filtered in and talked and we would absorb and nod and then discuss between us when they left. And so it was rather quickly established that we were the moms and dads of the place. UW always starts on the Tuesday after Labor Day so a thesis ThF guy like me got an extra two days free while the MTWThF folks around the tables had to haul their asses up Bascom Hill at 11am. For those who do not know Bascom, it is a bitch. It is the reason why seniors have calves of steel and freshmen do not. It is tall, it is steep, and it is very long. It is a hill that belongs in the hilliest regions of San Francisco. During an icy winter it is not uncommon for the trudging hordes to see a compatriot slip on the ice and fall down a sheet a dozen feet down while dragging others along without extending a hand and maybe chuckling at the misfortunate. In my experience at UW, people have planned classes around walking up this hell of a hill. Grace only TAs on Th and has seminars on F. So we had the day and the house to ourselves. We both woke up to the smell of Harold cooking, who made extras and was more than willing to share as it was his idea to share originally, and found our sleepy selves in the kitchen. Everyone was tired and Cliff was hungover and said less than his usual self. We divined that he was at some festival in Rock County and that was an overnight with camping on the grounds. How or where he heard of it we don’t know, but the hangover lasted through Labor Day and into the school year. Free beer was his only explanation, he wasn’t big on music but he was big on camping out and drinking to it. We left him to pick apart his food in a partial attempt to overcome the overwhelming nausea that was turning him pale at the sight of toast. Everyone was dressed, including Cliff, but Grace and I decided to show off our slacker status and show up in underwear and bathrobes. She deliberately went to breakfast in her bra with my Green Bay Packers pajama pants that she stole from me years ago after they lost to the Niners (and never returned them, it’s not like it was a bet, she just took them, and her Niners gear is too small for me to grab from her in revenge) just to fuck with people as to the nature of our relationship.
In our living situation there is never much to be said on the first day of class. An awkward anxiety hangs over it as roommates get ready for another long semester of class and hoping to god that they survive another class by the end only to welcome finals as a final release from the season. College is masochism practiced to get jobs that are less masochistic than college. All that is ever said on a first day of any substance is ‘good luck’ and that is often the parting shot that is given to someone off to class. Grace and I said our good lucks as our roommates left and I brewed another pot of coffee. After Cliff left and we were alone we sat in silence for some time just drinking one of Harold’s finest beans pushed through the asshole of a drip coffee maker and not his espresso machine. It still tasted great. After a few minutes I got the feeling that she was studying me. It’s a look that I discovered way back where her eyes are slightly wider than normal as though she was trying to take in more light and discover the true platonic essence of the subject. She was doing it to me. I knew why. I moved into the living room and turned on the TV. She followed me. Watching. She also takes notes. I turned on the console and she grabbed a controller. About a dozen games later she declared that I was a dumbass and we played on till afternoon. It was time I turn the tables on her.
“Did you meet anyone in Toronto?”
This was something she stayed away from mentioning when we were in the car. She glared at me.
“I’m thinking it’s a Quebecer and that’s why you’re embarrassed to tell me.”
“He was from British Columbia and he was studying film.”
“His name is Walter. I met him at a gallery opening that I crashed for free wine. He was drunkenly sneering at the same painting I found to be rather gauche and then we toured around the art gallery ripping on the derivative works.”
“God, why do you want to know?”
“And then I spent the night at his place.”
(…gripping conversation ensued…)
Our conversations never amounted to much at all besides short one word pesterings or relaying long winding sentences about what we were studying that the other could barely get a grip on. Teasing out the details of sex, that she had done this to me with every girlfriend I had. She never had a sibling, I was the closest thing she had and sex was something we never willfully talked about with one another but eventually spilled the dirty details. She spilled the dirty deeds about how Walter had this thing about sniffing that she initially thought was allergies but was from doing one to many lines in his day and how he was an art snob to a degree she couldn’t believe existed as he actually got mad when she mentioned Damien Hirst in a semi-negative light saying that The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is total crackpot shit from someone who clearly has never attempted to kill himself. Walter got mad. She said that maybe if Hirst would try to kill himself he’d get an original idea. Walter erupted. They fucked like mad. She smiled at herself and moaned a little. She still doesn’t like Hirst, but hate fucking was a nice twist.
She put down the controller and swung her legs onto the divan/couch and attempted to keep herself upright without the use of an armrest while crossing her legs and then she hugged me. I was not well versed in the practice of chit chat and often resorted to sibling interactions like I had with my own brother and she was not well versed in communicating period. It was only when the words actually mattered that she found her tongue and said simple but true things and acted when necessary or even just when it would help. She hugged me rather than saying anything. Her struggle and inability to express emotion eventually laid heavier weight on the things she ultimately says. When she said to me that she loved me like a brother, it was more important than it coming from my own. My brother loves me, but he did not have to climb an emotional mountain to say it.