Not everything in my life is bipolar disorder. Some things I do myself. It just fits a pattern as well. I’m not sure if I can ever think outside that pattern.
For some reason, all the light switches in our house came in pairs. There’s never just one switch, always a second one that doesn’t work. But two days before the second semester began, when it was driving me mad that they would install two switches for just one light, I unscrewed one faceplate with my leatherman to discover that it is indeed hooked up to something. To what remains a mystery.
Rachel continued to feel better and the results progressed rapidly. We spent most of the first week since New Year’s together on the couch and skipped parties altogether to remain together watching Frasier. She would rest her head on my chest and I would wrap my hands around her lower back aching for more but all she would do was pull closer and kiss my neck and fall asleep burrowed between my neck and the couch. There were no plans for what to do when Harold returned, there weren’t even thoughts about that. Instead she progressed and got better and slowly came back to life and I seemed to be a part of that equation. After a week she broke and opened up and talked, not about football, but about herself whispering in my ear so Grace wouldn’t overhear, it was about her life, and things which Harold never had learned.
Rachel was an only child growing up, like Grace, and didn’t have much interaction with people of her own age. In middle school and high school all of her friends were older students. High school was particularly rough since she consistently made friends with seniors who inevitably graduated and left and she was once again friendless going into the new school year. Though she was outgoing and made plenty of new friends each year, the constant cycle of meeting new people and losing them wore her down and her freshman year in college was hell.
She made no friends at all and rarely went out on the weekend. All of her energy was devoted to studying and it led to a 4.0 gpa but it left her feeling lonely. There was no boyfriend outside of jerks using her for sex and eventually losing interest and all she was left feeling was that men were only interested her vagina like Harold was and Rodger and Henry and Lenard… or friend of any sort for her to talk to and that silence slowly ate her up from the inside out. Silent internment destroyed her old confidence and she retreated further into books and fantasy and even delusion when the winter months came around. In time she went to class pretending with too much vigor that she was a character from whatever book she was reading at the time — thinking the same, acting the same, believing the same as a way to escape. Her estranged behavior pushed people further away and she continued down into alienation gasping for sex after going for nearly two years without it and wanted friendship, relationship, anything. She forgot how to interact and talk to people. When she thought about it from the perspective that she had gained since November she was pretty sure she was depressed stretching all the way to back then. She was desperate for human contact, and then she sat next to Harold.
Through the entire semester she fidgeted with how to broach the subject of befriending him. She never intended to ask him out, cute as he was, she only wanted a companion to drink with and go out to the movies with and talk about football with on the weekend. The semester rapidly passed as she studied him, wondering how she could open her mouth and initiate conversation that was in some way normal and not stalkerish. After the first midterm passed she thought she lost the chance at asking him to study with her, but that often means code for a fake date and she didn’t want that either, but maybe she did — she just wanted something. Instead, the time would have to wait for the second midterm. Her anxiety grew and started to paralyze her as a pit formed in her stomach every time she tried to initiate contact. She obsessed over how to talk to someone else when she had gone nearly a year without talking to anyone but her parents. When she did open her mouth, words failed to come out and she quickly pulled away from the act so she wouldn’t be embarrassed. Embarrassment, the pinnacle of the anxious’ problems. It wasn’t until the final came around that she found the nerve to say something. It was asking him out. She didn’t intend to say those words, but the words flowed from her as though it was natural and what she always wanted to say. She didn’t regret it though, the idea of a boyfriend grew in her mind and she quickly succumbed to the idea of a relationship and waited for him outside of the exam room. Harold is a talker once you find the right subject and what she really wanted at that time was to listen to someone, anyone who would talk, just someone in her life.
It was in the first month of their relationship that she stopped pretending and started acting like a normal human being. Harold was not understanding in that he didn’t comprehend what was so different about her, he simply accepted it and moved on and pretended as though it wasn’t there. He was what she needed at that time, someone who simply moved on without empathy or sympathy but pretend ignorance. As she returned to earth and reality they finally had sex for a second time. Harold was new to relationships and didn’t know how often or how to even initiate sex. She began to crave it. She began to crave the closeness and togetherness that came from sex where he would sweat and press against her and finally come inside of her and the warmth would spread through her and he would collapse and her body would would release and they would fall together with him still inside of her. She would train him to do more and they would be together. She craved intimacy and tried to create it with him. A month into their relationship he began teaching her how to cook around that time. For the first year of college she lived in a diet of expensive juices and protein shakes. Cooking was not even in the realm of things she thought about or desired to do so she abstained from it like she did conversation. The thought was there, but the actions were not. He was a good teacher and she was a good student and she learned a tremendous amount about how to prepare food in a way that was not simply satiating a physical need but also appetizing and she constantly ate because of him, she gained some weight and felt self conscious about it but he didn’t care.
Spring approached and they were entering their third month together. At that time in Madison there is a mad rush to find apartments that are just opening so being fleet footed is crucial to landing one. She printed off lists, called phone numbers, and spent her free days wandering from street to street collecting applications and touring apartments and asking questions who’s answers were definitely fudged by the landlords. The ordeal dragged her back to freshman year, another year alone in an apartment without anyone there. She was already spending most of her time at Harold’s in a plea to stay in contact with another human but he lived close and she could commute easily. If they were ever separated by miles, then she would be trapped alone in her apartment again for days as she would long to go outside but invisible barriers would prevent her from walking out the door for fear of some unknown thing but fear nonetheless. She thought maybe she could talk to him over the phone but talking on a cell phone is not the same as curling up with a lover and discussing the boring details of one’s day. Harold knew Grace through some back channel, I suspect it was where I found her though I never remember seeing him there and he doesn’t seem like a sports type, and he told Rachel that he had a house that he and others were renting. It was close to campus so the property values of all the single bedrooms were exorbitantly high, New York kind of high. In the following days she started to panic. Anxiety washed over her and she started to collapse back into loneliness as she failed to find anything in reasonable walking distance from said house. She was nearly at tears one night and choking back sobs she asked if she could live in the house. Harold replied that the rooms were already filled. She said that she knew that.
Sometimes, Harold is very naive young man that cannot see what is right there in front of him and he moves on for one reason or another not accepting it but just pushing forward as though it didn’t exist, and he agreed. He didn’t know he was being used, never would.
Through the spring and summer, their relationship grew more dependent. With her anxiety eased Rachel started talking more and became more like her old self back in high school. She developed some friends and got a fake ID to go out on the weekends. After finals were over she went out every night with Harold to some new bar. He turned 21 back in spring and had waited for her to get a fake before they went out and celebrated. They had sex in celebration. But it was mechanical. She had decided to move in with him and she wasn’t sure that she was ever in love with him. They were together, she liked that, but there was no intimacy and sex didn’t fill that gap. It was just something they did together. The restoration of one’s sanity often produces moments like this, moments of clarity where one finally realizes what a single fuckup spiraled into and how it became a major life choice. Rachel discovered this and decided to live with it. She liked Harold as a friend, he was good to her, he was getting better at sex after a few weeks and she decided that it was good for her to be in a stable relationship like that and maybe one day down the line she would love Harold. It had to be a problem with her that she didn’t love him.
He was kind to her and took her camping multiple times at Devil’s Lake. She would sit by the fire and he would cook in a dutch oven. She tried to fall in love with his drive and his interests and internalized them as her own. Harold could push her to grow and become something better and she wanted that from a relationship after all of her high school failures simply pushed her toward sex. She was happy with him and they made a cute couple. She fell in love with the idea of him as though it was something in her that was keeping them apart, like a defect of her soul prevented her from really caring about this driven and wonderful person but no matter how she tried she could not bring herself to want anything more than selfish togetherness with him laying next to her. It ended rather quickly.
Harold did not have many dimensions.
When meeting someone for the first time you never really meet them. People unfurl their lives over time and being a friend means getting sucked into the hell hole that is often human existence. For some people that means dealing with a friend who has a drug problem, a drinking problem, mental problem, physical problem, educational problems, every last problem known to human existence exists in at least one form in every person and getting to know someone means adopting those. Harold’s problem was that he didn’t have much to him at the time. His drive and passion left him socially inept in many ways and she was the one who was soon dragging him out of the house as all he wanted to do was stay in and cook or read together. That drive brought him closer and closer to being self absorbed and only interested in the things he wanted. Her desire to listen to music and go to shows were ignored and he instead offered what he would rather do instead not in the form of a suggestion but a winner-takes-all format of exchange. That he didn’t actually know how to confront challenges, only how to bypass them and move on as though he had overcome them, began to speak of his underlying nature. In the end, he loved her, but he didn’t know how to love her and continued to try and mold her into him. It was with their first argument that she realized she would never love him in the same was as he did her. She would always care as a friend, but never anything else.
They fought about coffee of all things, coffee was what erupted from the tension. She wanted to try something new for her own tastebuds, something that was outside the strict confines of his own experiences in various roasts. It was her time to buy coffee and she bought flavored — she remembers it well, it was Highlander Grogg from Steep and Brew which is one of her favorites that she would drink with me. She brought it home and started a drip of it, a sacrilegious thing to him and the drip was only there because she was there so often and wanted to be able to drink large cups of coffee in the morning instead of tiny shots of espresso which are in no way as satisfying as a gigantic mug of joe. Highlander Grogg has a particular scent that once you smell it you know it’s flavored coffee from two rooms away. Harold smelled it and went ape. They fought about the coffee but they also fought about everything else. They fought about the camping trips that he persisted in bringing her along to that she gradually started to hate and wanted to be around electricity instead of his persistent self denial of civilization when camping in the forest, they fought about the bars that they continually returned to even though she wanted to try something new and while it was nice to know some bartenders she wanted to broaden her horizons while he wanted to stay comfortable, they fought about what side of the bed she wanted to sleep on since she had no say. Everything came up. She realized that this relationship was never going to amount to anything, he pleaded with her to stay, she left.
Sitting in her apartment again, alone, she felt the walls suddenly close in. He continued to call her and she continued to ignore him. She looked briefly at one bedroom apartments but gave up when she saw the prices. And then she thought about how happy he did make her when he wasn’t being an ass and maybe this was just a rough patch without realizing that three month old relationships shouldn’t have rough patches like that and that deep down it was probably a defect with her that was causing all of this. She thought about all the previous boyfriends she had, ones who were looking for sex and women were one of only two avenues for that and she never cared about them either, it had to be a problem with her. Harold was different, he wasn’t there just for sex, he cared about her. But she couldn’t stand him. Maybe Harold was okay, maybe if she tried harder it would be okay and she wouldn’t be alone. The walls started to close in on her, she wanted to be together though she longed for something different. She went back to him and saw his sad eyes and felt she could do no better. He was imperfect but she could change that as she was imperfect and she could change herself. And they were happy and he took better care of her. She slept in the same bed, learned more about how to cook, did his laundry, and accepted her decision and tried to change.
But Harold doesn’t know how to handle challenges in relationships or otherwise. He wouldn’t know what to do seeing Rachel laying in a puddle of vomit from an overdose. He wouldn’t be like Grace who called an ambulance and scrambled to look for what I took. He would melt down and cry for himself. He would flail. She knew this and looked for an out. She just didn’t want to be alone in the process.
Harold was not a survivor.
In the weeks of Harold’s absence, Rachel and I didn’t have a relationship. It was company and bonding, a safe place where she felt at home and wasn’t alone and wouldn’t be left alone. It wasn’t love, it wasn’t kismet or finding the love of one’s life in a place where you didn’t expect. It was just lying on the couch with a greater intimacy than most friendships born from struggle. It was intimate, I had been there and saw what she had done to herself. She had bared her soul through scars as I had to her. She didn’t want sex, she just wanted to lay on a couch knowing that someone understood her. Grace shrugged her shoulders when she noticed us spending the days together but silently disapproved of what was once just a fling turning more serious — she would probably have to clean up the mess I was creating.
Harold came home late in the evening and saw Rachel working on her laptop in the living room. By the second week of January she had recovered significantly and was starting to catch up on her incompletes. Some classes she simply dropped, but she held onto a few in a desperate hope of completing them. I thought she shouldn’t, but what do I know, I often don’t know. But she was working at least and he sat down beside her and gave her a kiss. I was in a chair across from them and had stopped chatting with her when he arrived and I noticed her wince a bit. For all the difficulty she had with Harold, she didn’t want to break him, she didn’t want to hurt him and see him crumble and ruin his dreams in the process. I left the two of them alone and went to the upstairs living room to write a short story I had been brooding on. I heard murmurs from downstairs but couldn’t make out any words. Closing my eyes I ignored my writing and returned to the couch. Grace joined me on the divan and started playing video games. She usually didn’t care if I was doing work, it was a public spot and I didn’t have any rights to hog it. I joined her.
She asked me if I knew what I was doing.
I said no.
She sighed. She couldn’t judge, she had broken up relationships herself, if you include musicians it’s probably a dozen at least. She only told me to keep my distance from Harold so it isn’t a friend stealing his girlfriend away. That he would take harder. But she thought Rachel suited me well despite my rule against dating people as fucked up as I am. Apparently I was happy, happier than with other girls I had been with. I took her word for it. I didn’t feel happy, I felt calm, like things fit together. We continued to play on and I beat her throughly.
That night I was out on the back porch enjoying a frigid cigarette — American Spirit Blue, light blue that is, now you have to specify the shade. Rachel appeared and dusted the snow off of a chair and asked for a light. She didn’t smoke, she just wanted to try one to see if it would help. Cigarettes and bipolar disorder have a strange relationship with me. I’ve started and stopped smoking every year I’ve had the illness. In fall I often start smoking as school starts and my anxiety builds and the stress from school threatens to overwhelm me. Then in spring I feel better and I drop them like it was nothing. Mania later sets in and I need something, anything, literally anything, to calm me down and focus the chaotic confusion that comes with it. Then I get tired of them and I drop them for all of about two weeks before school starts. It’s not a vicious circle, it’s self medication. Rachel wanted to self medicate and I obliged.
She didn’t cough or wheeze like most first time smokers. She only had problems flicking the ash from the tip. It takes practice to do this properly, that and flicking it far and wide away from the sidewalk into the street where the coal will flicker and break apart in a spark show at night (I always take juvenile delight in the spark show). She took a few drags and inhaled deeper than I did. She smoked like someone desperate for their fix, not a first timer. But she had never smoked before and she seemed like she needed it. And it helped. Her body relaxed as she tilted her head back and blew the smoke vertically and laughed to herself at how good it felt and reached over and put a hand on my thigh and squeezed lightly. She rolled her head to the side and faced me and thanked me. I told her that it wasn’t a problem and she said that’s what she liked.
Earlier that day Rachel told Harold that she was depressed and that she had planned to kill herself. For a long time I only thought she had ideation, but never a plan or even tangential plan, she never mentioned it to the psychiatrist. But she had confessed when we got back that she longed for the day that the blade would dig deeper and luck would strike and it would all go, she was even pushing it deeper and deeper every time hoping it would happen but didn’t have the strength to actually go through with it consciously, it just had to happen, like me, it would be a relief if it did but taking that final step, consciously, was not a possibility. It was a good thing I kept my pills away from her. Harold flipped into a confused mess. He didn’t ask what he could do to help her. Instead he began babying her and saying he wouldn’t let her out of his sight and tried to strip away her freedom. Psych wards are the only places where stripping away one’s freedom is in any way appropriate and life inside of one becomes hell as you long to go outside and walk in the cold though you never wanted to when you were inside at home in comfort. He didn’t see that she was better than when he left her, and he didn’t bother to find out if there was anything that helped.
Cigarettes apparently helped her.
Harold was inside reading all he could from his medical journals and wikipedia and forums on how to treat depression and how to live with it. She sighed several times in between drags blowing the smoke out through her nose after mentioning it to me. I’ve found that depressed people sometimes have the most appropriate reactions to things, sometimes a cigarette is all that is needed. She said that she wanted to go back to my parents. I said she could but she declined. We were still for a moment and I mentioned that I beat Grace in a game. Rachel chuckled at the thought of Grace failing at anything. I always beat Grace in video games. Rachel talked a little about what she was reading, how she had more work than she originally thought she did as she had several books to read in the matter of a few days and that she thought it would be good for her to keep busy but had her doubts about actually finishing with any acceptable grade. Sometimes it is better to stay busy, sometimes it’s better to fuck it all and relax. Her cigarette finished before mine as she dragged on it looking for her first fix to grow exponentially as she inhaled harder and harder and then it was done. She leaned over and kissed my cheek and said thanks again. Standing up was a little wobbly for her as the nicotine had wrapped its firm grip around her brain. I smiled as she went inside and felt a deeper calm than what usually came from my evening smoke. Things seemed to be fitting together in a way I hadn’t planned but it felt better than I would have expected. I had infatuation several times before, like with April, but I didn’t feel calm. I had togetherness with April, but looking back it wasn’t a relationship, it wasn’t intimate as we guarded our lives from one another. I was an open book to Rachel and her book was open to me.
I stayed outside and lit a second cigarette and wondered whether I made a mistake and if I had if I had made the right mistake. The weekend seemed like it would be a long one. It was filled with Harold — Harold buzzing around — Harold never leaving her side — Rachel brushing against me while we poured our coffee in full view of Harold while she teased me — Rachel touching my hand as I reached for the handle of the coffee pot and lingering while Harold cooked eggs next to her — Rachel sitting opposite me on the couch and sliding her feet against mine while Harold read forums in the chair. It was exciting. I was excited. When she came out of the shower in her short bathrobe and bent over when looking for food in the fridge I slid a hand up her thigh and she giggled lightly. We carried on in full view and Harold saw nothing. I had never chased someone, and neither had she.
Harold started working at the hospital the next monday. Rachel left the first floor to join me in the living room. We talked about meaningless things while I watched TV. After the show was done she confessed that she thought she was a failure. She dropped all of her classes that morning. I hadn’t seen her much over the weekend but apparently she felt worse, the move toward normalcy retreated and she felt overwhelmed and anxious and she thought that maybe fucking it all was a better option. That morning she sent out emails to drop her courses. The strange thing to her, though it was not strange to me, was that she felt better emotionally. Though the anxious cloud that hung over finishing was gone and she could breathe again, she wanted another cigarette to calm her mind down after making such a drastic decision. We smoked. She kissed my cheek again, and we spent the day watching movies. Harold lingered in my mind.
Harold spent most of his day at work and was pulling 60 hour work weeks so Rachel and I had more than enough time together. I wasn’t helping her recover in the sense of actively giving advice or tips or little tidbits, there are none. Depression is something personal and has to be discovered and eventually dealt with in its own way. All I could provide was empathy and an ear and an embrace. She still didn’t know what to do with her life and she felt more distraught over her future now that she dropped classes. She had dabbled in upper level classes in several fields ranging from economics to psychology but never found any that stuck with her even though she would often reply that she was pursuing econ or some other field without ever keeping it straight which major she mentioned to which person. She was an undeclared headed for five years of college. It was at that point that she began to cry. The sense of failure that had lingered from dropping classes came back and she saw herself stuck with a sheet of gen eds and nothing realistic. All the prestige of being the first to college in her family was wasted on dabbling and nibbling at the edges of a degree that seemed like it would never come. And then came the realization of how far into January we were. Grace overheard and checked on her. It was Grace’s suggestion that Rachel take a semester off and focus on getting better that sunk in. This was advice that I had taken twice and I was the better for it. She curled into a ball and said she wanted to disappear. Grace is less gentle than I am. She rolled Rachel over onto her back and Grace’s dark hazel eyes bore into her soul as she said that if she really felt like that she’d throw her into the psych ward if she ever said that again around her. Grace had uttered this threat to me before, when she hears the words disappear, a mantra that I had repeated to no end before she knew what depression was, she doesn’t hold back. She was not a touchy feely person when it came to depression after she dealt with me. Rachel had stopped crying after the threat was issued and stared in horror at the towering figure. Grace audibly punctuated each sentence of her commands. I still don’t know what tipped her over the edge to be that direct, or what drove her to be overly harsh as a more gentle tone would have been appropriate, and not only in retrospect but also in that moment it seemed like a rash and dangerous thing to do, but she did it. She never told me why though I knew it was because of what I had put her through. Sometimes Grace just snaps. It’s quite rare and she’s only done it with me maybe once a year, but it happens. Her calm is not eternal. She was probably mad at me too. Rachel had stopped crying about her lost future. Relief would come later when she had healed. She curled up with me and tried to shut everything out. I was mad at Grace and we would later have it out and she would apologize to Rachel.
Harold was of little help that week. Rachel wavered in her recovery and he hovered around her without providing the company she needed and probably made it worse through all the discomfort he imposed on her. All he needed to do was sit on a couch, let her curl up with him, and watch a movie, just a simple act of company with what little empathy he could muster attached to it. But he busied her with questions about the minutest details of what she wanted for her food, how she was feeling that day, checking off little boxes to put in a spreadsheet that cataloged her recovery. It drove her mad and drove her away.
It was a saturday.
He left for work at 8am.
I slept in.
She crawled in with me and fell asleep.
She didn’t want sex.
She just wanted to be together longing for intimacy.
After we slept in till noon that day she seemed happy, she was happy. It seemed to trigger her recovery where she began to smile every day when she saw me and continued to do it occasionally when Harold left early and Grace was still asleep hogging as much of the bed as she could. Grace wouldn’t know anything about it for a little while, but she always found out about what I was doing before anyone else did. She did suspect something more was happening. With the school year beginning again on Monday we would have entire days together while Harold was at class, at the library, and then at the hospital. For a brief moment that day I felt bad for him, but he was in a loveless relationship for a long time without ever seeing it. I justified it to myself.
Once the 23rd came and Harold was gone Rachel was ecstatic.
Rachel and I danced around one another, teasing one another, even more when Harold was gone to the disgust of Grace who had to watch the whole charade. After Rachel joined me in the bedroom it initiated the flood of rejection we both felt toward Harold. We teased each other and spent more time with one another in a closer and closer way only broken up when Rachel was trying to play footsy with me in a vain attempt to be couple-y but ended up brushing against Grace who jumped slightly at the kitchen table. In her typical sisterly fashion she pulled me aside while Rachel was taking a shower. She practically slammed her coffee down as she was so irritated that I had turned Harold into a cuckold and didn’t have the guts to confront him about it and I didn’t push Rachel to come forward with it and I had also upset a very delicate balance of roommate relations and she didn’t know what was going to happen and it was a bad idea for Rachel to transfer from Harold to me in terms of living arrangements and that I had violated my rule of not dating people who were mentally ill like I was because that would introduce stresses that could destabilize me. And then she could lose me or go through another round in the psych ward with me sitting in a chair disengaged from reality. She ran out of breath before she could finish her laundry list of things that she was self-righteously and sometimes self-contradictorily pissed about. Harold was her friend and she had invited him to the house and the tryst that Rachel and I began which was turning into a relationship would hurt him, devastate him, and she would have to own part of that equation. And then it could hurt me. I wouldn’t be stable forever and she couldn’t be there forever and Rachel might not be able to handle it. Grace was afraid for my life and rightfully so. I apologized to her. That was all I could do. Sometimes Grace just erupts and then calms down the second she finishes. She knew I wasn’t following my heart, neither was Rachel, we were following an empathic bond grown out of me helping her through a dark period in time that didn’t even mean it would last but she could always stay with me until she found a new apartment as I helped her toward a new found freedom. She apologized for being so hostile and I apologized again. I also apologized for being me, which sounds shitty from the outside but it is actually something I should do. I put Grace through hell sometimes, I always will. We drank our coffee together and went back to being siblings. We argued and explode once in a while, it was in our DNA but we always made up and continued drinking coffee together, we were just getting into more tiffs lately.
Rachel joined us after the tiff and Grace was kind to her. She had said her piece and let it go as soon as the apologizes had ended it. Rachel was bundled up for cold weather and wanted to smoke a cigarette with me while we drank coffee in the frigid cold. It would later become our thing in the afternoons when she needed a caffeinated pick-me-up to get her through the day. It continued every morning after the first week and then every afternoon through February. Harold never suspected a thing. He just thought we were becoming good friends, and we were becoming good friends, one that would remain long after we left the house. But Harold was always hard pressed to see what was happening right in front of him.
The upstairs den next to Grace’s study sat unused and I moved my desk and papers up there. I didn’t ask, didn’t have to ask, it sat unused for four months. Having that room to myself, which Grace would have to traipse through to get to her study, gave me space that I desperately needed. Staying inside of my bedroom day in and day out passing the time through reading and watching TV and curled up with Rachel had driven me to a different kind of insanity that could only be relieved by growing out into a new area. I sprawl like Grace does and we often butted heads over turf for our things. It took me all of a day to acquaint myself with my new surroundings and find a greater relaxation in having a second place to call my home. I thought I would do more studying in there but I spent most of my time reading while watching TV on my laptop. It was secluded, it had Grace in it, it was all I really needed.
With classes behind me I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had thought about grad school and philosophy seemed interesting, but I was done for some time. A break was needed and a job would suffice. A job would come later, a break would come first.
The 25th was a Wednesday and I drove to Chicago with Rachel nodding along to NPR. Chicago has always been in my heart ever since going there on a class field trip and took a boat ride and walking tour of the architecture where I’ll always remember the corn cob shaped towers that even back then I thought were a hideous example of what the 1960s dumped on the world in terms of architecture. I’ve been around several major cities in my life and none of them really compare to Chicago when it comes to architecture. The reason is the Fire. The Chicago Fire devastated the town and wiped out the majority of existing structures effectively erasing the city. It was cleansing (architecturally speaking) and they responded to it without planning. Buildings would rise without significant regard to what was around it forming a hodgepodge of architectural philosophies. Now, the lack of city planning has resulted in a walking museum of towers where every age and idea is represented. It’s relaxing to be surrounded by such ideological chaos. Chicago has always made me want to live.
It was freezing cold when we arrived and stereotypically windy as hell as Lake Michigan never ceased to provide a cold front of horrifying wind. I managed to find parking near Millennium Park and cringed at the obscene prices. $35 a day is too much but then again, Madison is about $25 (fuck Madison parking (anyone who has parked there will know what I mean (tow trucks lingering around 3pm on Johnson St anyone?))). I’ve seen the giant bean what feels like a hundred times and the fountains even more and I rarely paid attention to them anymore. But Rachel had never been. She laid underneath the bean and stared up at her reflection for what extended beyond just minutes and felt like hours and I laid down next to her. With no one around at noon on a Wednesday it felt like we would be undisturbed for hours and never looked at or judged one way or another for what we were doing. She traipsed through the fountains and I tried to explain what they were like during the summer but failed to do justice to the whimsy. But that was not why we were there. We were going to get lost in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Every time I go to Chicago I go to the Institute and some how always forget to do anything else. It is the pinnacle of what museums should be — too filled with information and glory to be absorbed or appreciated in a single visit. Each time I go there I find new things in permanent installations.
It also helps me when I feel depressed. The continuity between the contemporary artists to the ancient Egyptian art forms a pattern and flow that is warm and inviting. Its overwhelming significance in the passage of time connecting me, the museum visitor, to works of art that had survived for thousands of years only to be cherished and protected and displayed for thousands of people is a wonderful feeling, it’s not even a feeling, it’s just a connection to the passage of time that when depressed I feel like I can slip into without thinking about it. And that thousands of years from now people might see the art that resides in the temporary exhibits and google the biography of the artist (Google seems like it might survive that long). I know little about art history that applies to the exhibits. Very little. It’s only the things that peak my interest and I have time to hunt relevant information down on the internet that I know anything about anything and that’s a small amount since I have no background in theory or reactions. I never really bothered with the background details, just as I never bothered with the background philosophy that drives so much of contemporary philosophizing, I only passively absorbed what I liked. Ernst Mach is one of my favorites.
The other great thing about the institute is its size. It’s gloriously huge. Some galleries you can spend a day in because of the artwork but walking at a breakneck pace through all of the institute you’ll possibly cover it in a single day but miss out on a great deal along the way. The first two times I went I tried to take everything in all in one go starting at 10am till close and I just made it through everything and each time I found new things to absorb. Those first few times I missed the vast majority of what it had to offer. Now I find an installation that I like and I spend the day in there. There’s more than enough to make up a single day. I’ve made it through almost a third of the Institute over the years by working through each exhibit one at a time and I am by no means close to finishing any time soon.
Rachel decided what we were going to do. She was wrapped up in the world of art as soon as she entered the glass palace and started on the third floor exhibits. She knew what she was looking at too. She just started talking. At first it was talking to herself. It was mumbling with a few discernible words. I wasn’t sure if she was being polite to the absent crowd of people in the museum or if she was reticent to speak at all. She came alive. She grew louder and louder and continued talking without me responding as though she was teaching a private seminar to whomever was around. I followed her around the exhibit as she chatted to herself about the figurativist revival that the artwork clearly fell into and how she wished that Billy Childish would receive more attention than Damien Hirst — especially for his wood cuttings that were both macabre and hilarious, pretty much everything from the Stuckist movement tickled her. I asked what that meant and she launched into edifying me about the tango that conceptual art and figurative art danced with one another where they seemed to be opposing forces that I thought were reconcilable. Art is filled with tensions that I don’t understand. They had a Tom Friedman, it was brilliant, I finally got conceptual art.
When she was done with the exhibit she grabbed my hand and led me down the hall. Half the day was spent in the exhibits that I toured every year absorbing them from an aesthetic viewpoint but never from a conceptual one. I knew there was a conceptual background but as I’ve already mentioned, it never interested me that much. With her as my private tour guide it interested me. It wasn’t until we got to the surrealist exhibit, one that I had been working toward for some time though I always made time to walk through at least briefly because they have an incredible collection of everything from Miro to Dali. She found the exhibit to be as daunting and wonderful as I did. She stopped talking and slowly walked around leading me by the hand from painting to painting. When we paused I would wrap my arms around her from behind and she would lean into me. We stayed there until late afternoon in awe of what had to be deranged minds that produced such innovative yet physically twisted portraits of fictional and real worlds. It was a lens that I could empathize with and she seemed to as well. In the late afternoon we hurried through the rest of the exhibits mostly chasing each other through them in an effort to claim that we saw everything or at least more than the other to feel a strange sense of accomplishment that we could convey to Cliff, or Grace, or Harold when we returned and had to make conversation. We paused for a moment in the African art exhibit to take in a whole other continent’s opinion on what constituted expression. It was not enough. The museum was closing and the staff loitering around to make sure that we didn’t do anything obscene seemed annoyed at us. We left walking through the main floor with her leaning her head on my shoulder.
It wasn’t far to the parking but it took forever. Rachel dragged along, wanting to go back. She wasn’t sad, she just didn’t want the day to end for the moment to slip back into a past. At the car she seemed sullen again and ill prepared for the three hours ahead of us. After we climbed in and I was waiting for some heat to develop so that I could grasp the steering wheel without numbing my fingers she spoke. She wanted to get a hotel room and come back the next day.
I fumbled for words. I wanted to. I desperately wanted to. But I wasn’t sure I could be that guy, one that breaks up a relationship in one definitive final move, one that steps in and steals someone away while the other person is left not knowing. I had already done this. I had already destroyed their relationship, but not in such a direct manner and I didn’t want to believe that I would do it. But she was doing so much better. I convinced myself that I would do it for her. But I also wanted it for myself. I thought the two were mutually exclusive when they weren’t. Weather proved to be my friend. A front was moving through and I latched onto that as a final excuse.
I texted Grace to let her know. She was not amused mentioned that this was too high school for her and asked if I knew what I was doing but I had already assuaged my guilt with meteorological reasoning.
Rachel had alerted Harold who understood that safety was paramount and she pulled up a map to a nearby Hilton on her phone. The drive was short but for me it was one of the tensest moments of my life. She did all the talking at the front desk and got us a single. For some reason I was obsessed with the fact that we didn’t have luggage and what the front desk must think of that while sliding my credit card forward to pay for a single night and I could swear that I was getting a look from the receptionist — or is it cashier? — but really it was just the look of someone bored with their job seeing someone else stay at a place that they couldn’t afford.
The elevator ride up had an agonizing distance between our bodies as we both felt the tension to throw ourselves at one another but were weighed down by the gravity of us building up to a night together in a hotel.
Inside the room she kicked off her snowy shoes. She didn’t turn around but paused for a moment and then took off her shirt where the sight of a bra sent my heart skipping and then pants then socks then bra then underwear and then to the bathroom. I poked my head in and saw her naked body sitting on the side of the bathtub running her hand through the water to feel its warmth and test the temperature of the bath. She looked up and smiled and motioned for me to join her. I swallowed hard. April had rejected me. Claire had rejected me when she found out. With her my problems weren’t as overt but instead created a vast distance in my mind. But Rachel did not not care. She did care about us being together and that was new. I guess she cared about me all the way back then in a way that would last longer than I thought when it first started. I slipped out of my clothes while she watched and laughed as my feet were entangled by the gathered fabric of my pants. At first I thought of hanging my clothes up but the sight of her slipping into the tub lightly splashing water at me told me to drop it all where I was standing and take a running jump. I slid in across from her so our legs knit together. We uncomfortably laid in the bathtub with legs stretching around one another in the slightly too narrow bathtub because bathtubs are not in any way built for sex or cuddling, but we didn’t care. I could see her scars, all healed over but lacing all the way down her legs crisscrossed and ending just above the knee where any modern skirt would show the dark marks to anyone who took even a casual glance downward. Leaning forward I ran my hand along her inner thigh to touch them and following the trails up to where her thighs joined and instead of bristling at it she moaned softly as though the touch of another human being brought back distant memories of what it was like to be close to someone. It wasn’t the same as when we teased each other in the house, it was a touch that seemed to awaken a part of her that she had not felt before. She looked into my eyes when I pulled back, not with lust but with happiness that can breathe without walls or lies or boundaries. It was the first time since the end of summer where my previous girlfriend dumped me after no longer being able to handle my manic self that began back in May where I was so filled with energy that I slowly drove her insane with the number of things that I dragged her along to that I finally felt normal.
I felt normal.
We didn’t have sex, that was something she still didn’t want, would want for a while until depression and her antidepressant released her from their grip. Instead she slid around to my side of the tub and toyed briefly with my erect cock before sidling her back against my chest and wrapping my arms around her breasts. We laid like that until the water turned tepid but neither of us wanted to move first. When it chilled to room temperature and we were prunes We toweled off and laid in bed. She only wanted intimacy, closeness, company, and someone she could talk to openly who knew her openly, not sex, not the thing that brought her to man after man looking to use her. Instead, we laid in bed like we did when she first crawled in, feeling ourselves against one another and ending everything that held us back. There would be no tense elevator rides, there would be no awkward glances, we had accepted that we were in a relationship that we did not know how it was going to work but didn’t care.
She talked about Harold, laughing at him. Harold who was at home believing that we were in separate beds under muumuus, Harold who thought we were friends spending an afternoon together and he saw that she was feeling better after spending time with me and how great a guy I must be. I felt guilty until she pulled herself tighter against me. So this is how affairs start I thought. She talked about all the ways that I was different from Harold, how I could touch her scars and it would remain erotic while if he touched them she would bristle. How I knew how and when to hold her and when to just sit with her and how she never needed to say anything about what she was going through or explain any of it because I had already been through it but she felt comfortable and calm discussing it with me because I wouldn’t just pity her or give her some relationship sympathy but that she felt that there was real empathy. How she felt closer to me in ways that she hadn’t with anyone else. And then she kissed me and fell asleep. I laid there knowing exactly what she meant. She understood a part of me too. I fell asleep holding her feeling normal and comforted.
I felt normal the next morning.
We shared coffee and lamented that Chicago only had non-smoking rooms now after legislation made smokers as notorious as meth addicts. You can’t even smoke in parks there and that’s outdoors and if you give people ash trays and politely tell them to use them they will. I still smoked in Millennium Park. I’m not an asshole about it either. If someone has a genuine objection, or any objection for that matter and comes over and tells me to stub it out I will oblige but no one has ever done that and I will continue to have my fix outside where I damned well please. We didn’t take another bath together, or fool around, we ordered room service and answered it in towels and cuddled together while we ate. Madison was far away and we lived in a little bubble for the morning acting as an aged couple taking a retreat from home life. Around noon we went back to the museum and tried to finish the exhibits but failed to get through even half of the remaining installations. We would have to go back sometime again.
Going back to Madison we rehearsed the basic cover story that involved only saying that we had two rooms instead of one even though Grace would know better and I would have to appease in some way. Rachel told me Harold’s text reply to her staying. I laughed and pitied him not sure which feeling was stronger or which one I should pay attention to. What I payed attention to instead was that Rachel was animated and continued to talk about the museum. She wanted to go back again and finish it and restart it. We agreed to go to Milwaukee some time to see their museum of modern art where the structure itself resembles a boat with a metal sail that unfurls looking out over Lake Michigan. I had never been and neither had she but it was always on our to-do lists of places to go that we had driven by time and again without ever stopping.
Rachel seemed normal and acted normal.
I tried not to think about home.
When I opened the door, Grace was on the couch. She disapproved in a way only a sister can, an exasperated sigh. One that didn’t blow up and tell me off for being such an idiot or being selfish and self involved or hurting someone or dragging Rachel along with me and her not standing up for herself or any of those things, it was a sigh that said that she didn’t know what to say to convince me of anything and that I had left her powerless and worried and I should feel guilty about reducing her to that state.
I did feel bad about that, but only that. Rachel didn’t feel bad about anything.