I am somewhere outside of Atlanta trying to get a hotel room at a Holiday Inn Express at 11:18 pm without a reservation. The man behind the counter has me at a disadvantage; he knows this. He can charge me almost anything for a shitty hotel room because I don’t have a phone or a laptop (I am making this trek – Ann Arbor to Key West, solo, sans phone or laptop, to prove what I don’t know). I am incapable of booking a room online from my car. I am exhausted. For some reason he, the young clerk, begins flirting with me as he’s ostensibly looking for rooms, complimenting my last name, of all things. It’s not even an interesting name. It’s rather ugly, if a name can be described as such. I don’t know what this guy is talking about. He’s not bad looking. And he’s young, so young. Like, twenty-five, tops. Years from now a friend of mine will disclose to me how she and her husband were checking into a hotel for the night, a date night away from their toddler, and invited the hotel clerk up to their room and he came. It never occurred to me then, in March, 2019, such things actually happen; that I might actually invite this young man up to my room. I wonder, now, how many people have done so, what that would have been like, sex with a strange hotel clerk in your strange hotel room while traveling solo, sans phone, while trying to get over a man you’re exchanging letters with who is currently a patient on the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital, while avoiding the conversation you need to have with your second husband, the one in which you tell him you want a divorce, a month shy of your fiftieth birthday.
“It isn’t mine,” I tell him. “It’s my ex-husband’s. I was too lazy to change it.”
My current husband is always a little annoyed- the only amount of annoyed he will allow himself – when traveling with me and someone refers to him as Mr. [my first husband’s last name]. I never bothered to have it changed. going to social security, the DMV, the post office, seemed like a lot of work. I never really thought about my husband’s feelings. And he didn’t seem to think of them much either. This was, is, a major part of the problem of our marriage.
“I can get you a room for $167, that’s the best I can do at this hour, this late; we only have a couple rooms left.”
“Fine,” I say, even though I know the room isn’t worth more than $130. I’m too tired and too lazy to negotiate with him, to drive anywhere else, even across the street to the Marriott I remember seeing at the same exit. I just want to get to a room, take off my clothes, put on my sweats, watch sports updates (March Madness, NBA, hockey), sports documentaries (30 for 30), read more of Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, I’ve been obsessively poring over the last four days.
When Andre Agassi was seven, his father made him hit balls all day in their backyard. His father bought the house based on the size of the backyard, had a tennis court built back there, bought a ball machine that spit thousands of balls a day at little Andre. “My father says that if I hit 2500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17, 500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.”
I am riveted by Andre’s description of his childhood, his terrorizing, controlling father, his wearing of toupees in his twenties, his brief use of meth a few years later, his marriage to Brooke Shields, his hatred of tennis, his takedown, his comeback, his mentors, his friends, his love of Steffi Graff, his dad and Steffi’s dad meeting, playing tennis, coming to blows, almost fist fighting. I couldn’t get over Andre’s life. How tennis was like a bad love affair, a toxic relationship, the obsession of his lifetime. How Andre’s life was way more relatable than I ever thought it could be: the loneliness and self-loathing and perseverance and obsession.
How it was all just because his dad decided when Andre was a baby that Andre would play tennis. Like Tiger Woods and his dad and golf. Like Michael Jackson and his father and everything.
I try getting friends interested in the book, in Andre, in sports in general, in the 30 for 30s I watch alone on my laptop. Most of them - my friends, my literary peers - are like me, like I used to be, close minded, judgmental, when it comes to sports, when it comes to athletes, when it comes to anyone dumb enough to be a sports fan, to express the joy found in viewing a football/basketball/hockey game. You must be a simpleton, rightwing, uneducated, racist, homophobic, a Trump supporter, republican, a dullard, if you like watching sports, was the general consensus. I got it. I used to feel the same. Or similar. But I’ve done a complete 180 and now I can’t get enough (sports). They are the only entertainment, activity, what have you, making me feel better, currently. The only distraction from this angst of feelings. From the uncertainty of knowing what to do about my life, my marriage, the man in the hospital, all of it.
Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, I watch documentaries, read books about all of these men, in order to forget momentarily about myself, about my life as a woman, as a writer.
I watch every Michigan State football game, every Michigan State basketball game as a way to stay close to my (adult) daughter, as something to talk about with her, something to experience with her – texting and tailgates, freezing cold games in snow and sleet and rain, and what else is there to look forward to, anyway? going to bed alone, upstairs, in a child’s room turned guest room turned partial office? Turning fifty, alone, inside a dead, sexless marriage? (or is it the marriage’s inhabitants that are dead and sexless? Perhaps I should invite the hotel clerk up to the room …)
I look forward to watching games the way others look forward to scoring drugs. Or to going out to bars. Or to getting laid. I cry if Michigan State gets beat in a bowl game on New Year’s Eve. I drive my car around Ann Arbor, honking in the Whole Foods parking lot, honking in the parking lot of Buffalo Wild Wings, if Michigan State beat Michigan, my heart beating out of my chest, playing whatever rock song comes on 101 the riff as loud as it will go, feeling alive for the first time in days, weeks. feeling the adrenaline, the serotonin, the great rush … Woo hoo! Go Green! Go Sparty! Kick Michigan’s ass!!! I might as well have my face painted green and white. I am considering having a Spartan tattooed on my arm.
My husband and I don’t have sex anymore. I turn fifty in a month.
I leave the young flirtatious man in the lobby, take the depressing elevator up two floors, go right and then realizing my mistake, back left, past the ice machine, too close to the ice machine, too close to the elevator, but whatever, it’s only one night, and he said there were only a couple of rooms left. I turn on the TV and flip channels to the numbers I know are sports-related. I keep flipping until I come across a documentary on Dominique Wilkins narrated by Andre 3000. I take off my bra and sit down in the desk chair, instantly riveted by the life story of another athlete I have never heard of: his birth in France, upbringing in Baltimore, his youthful obsession with basketball …
Obsession is obsession is obsession, obsession is relatable; I am constantly obsessed with things, more accurately, I am constantly becoming obsessed with people. It was always like that. When I was young, I was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Ella Fitzgerald. I would spend whole Saturday afternoons at the library reading old Hollywood magazines, reading articles about my obsessions, printing out old black and white photographs to hang on my bedroom wall. At home I have printed photos of the man in the hospital I found on the internet, photographs from articles in local Indiana papers about his band, the one he was in before his family had him committed. In one photograph he is standing with three of his bandmates in the middle of what looks like a 7-Eleven; early twenties, just a baby, the baby lead singer of a band. Hospital confinement long – but not so long - in the future.
I consider calling my husband. I consider calling my daughter. I decide it is too late to call the latter. I take a piece of folded paper out of my wallet, dial my husband’s number. I don’t know why I’m looking at the numbers on the paper when I dial; his is the only number I have memorized. I can’t even memorize my daughter’s.
“I made it almost to Atlanta,” I tell him.
“I love you too,” I hear myself say before we hang up.
I don’t know how to tell him I want a divorce.
I don’t know how to tell him anything anymore.
I wish I could call the man in the hospital but you can’t call a man in the hospital. (Patients may not receive incoming calls; can only make outgoing calls.)
On the TV, Andre 3000 is telling us that when Dominique Wilkins was very young, his father left the family, left them in the Baltimore projects where Dominique made money playing street basketball. People would bet he couldn’t dunk on the twelve foot hoop in the community park and he’d come home with money for food and candy and whatever else his siblings wanted. Before high school he moved down to North Carolina to live with his grandparents – to a tiny town called New Washington – and the rest of his family followed. The high school still had separate proms for black students and white students, but, Andre 3000 tells us, the town came together for basketball games where Dominique was a statewide star. “Dr. Dunk,” they called him.
Right before I left on this trip, I wrote the man in the hospital a letter apologizing for missing his phone calls. Confessing my desire for a divorce, telling him I had driven by some apartments in town, looked them up online. I told him this didn’t have anything to do with him. I’d been unhappy a long time. This was true. I’d been lonely a long time, since my daughter went away to college five years earlier. This doesn’t have anything to do with him, but he’s the only one I feel safe telling. I feel safe telling him almost anything except that I love him. I wish I’d never told him that.
I don’t have a drink. I don’t have a cigarette. This trip is as much about deprivation and sobriety – sober thinking – sober contemplation – as it is running away, running from outgoing hospital phone calls, running from my husband, running from myself. I will barely eat. I will deprive myself of food, cigarettes, alcohol; I will lose fifteen pounds. I will abstain from texting and talking to friends and family members. This trip is a vow of silence.
Later, Andre 3000 says, the small North Caroline town turned on Dominique when he decided to go to Georgia to play college basketball instead of North Carolina State or the University of North Carolina. “We had to leave town in the middle of the night,” his sister says. People were throwing rocks through their living room window, calling their phone at all hours, saying mean, hateful things, making threats. The whole family again followed Dominique – his mother and all his siblings – this time to Georgia. The Georgia Bulldogs had never before played in an NCAA tournament. When Dominique and Georgia had to go back and play North Carolina State a couple years later, a young Michael Jordan led North Carolina to beat the Bulldogs. Eventually, after leading Georgia to its first Final Four, Dominique met Ted Turner, became a player for Ted’s Atlanta Hawks. It’s a decent enough documentary, but Andre 3000 never once mentions anything about Dominique dating or falling in love. He must have had a lot of women wanting to date him when he was a high school star athlete, when he was a college star athlete, when he was playing for the Atlanta Hawks for eight seasons, but we will never know this. We are told Dominique is the eighth leading scorer in NBA history but we are never told if Dominique finds love, if Dominique ever reconnects with the father who left him, if Dominique drinks in his off hours, what Dominique does in his off hours, when he’s not on the court, when he’s not holding a basketball. There are holes in the story. I am interested in the holes as much as the rest of the story.
I know what it is like to have a whole town turn on you. Well, not a whole town, but a whole literary community. This was one of the first things I wrote the man in the hospital back in August. This is one of the first things we bonded over: our ostracization from proper society. I remember tears filling my eyes reading one of his early, consolatory letters. I felt an instant kinship, a bonding, an understanding; I felt understood, I felt released from judgment, cleansed. All that. We were both societal outcasts. Underdogs. Dirtbags. Scumbags. Scum.
I take out his most recent letter, dated January 24th, almost two months ago, set it on the nightstand.
I flip channels. Sports update. March Madness hype. Duke. Zion Williamson.
I hold the letter in my hand – stare at the red words handwritten on blue paper, read the words I’ve read twenty, thirty times before, read them again. Try and read the scratched out sentence that ends a paragraph in which he says he can’t tell when I’m being serious and when I’m kidding. I have tried several times to try to decipher the words beneath the squiggles that render them illegible. I have held the letter up to flame and to direct sunlight and to a bare bulb. I have used a magnifying glass, glasses. I have stared and stared at the letters beneath the series of red circles that disguise them. It is a form of [self] torture! Knowing there is something more beneath the surface I cannot get to, a clue I cannot uncover. I give up again. fold the letter back into its envelope, tuck it and myself into bed.
I turn out the light and lie in the motel bed in Atlanta, Georgia and think about the man in hospital lying in a hospital bed in New York. I think about what that must look like – what his blanket is like, how thick or thin it is, what material it is made of, what he is wearing to sleep, if he is warm or cold, if there are rats, mice, roaches, how many ambient sounds are surrounding him, if his roommate snores, if he is thinking of me, if he has my picture hanging on a wall by his bed like in a movie, like in the Army, if he has my letters close by, under his pillow, in his hand, if he ever thinks about me while falling asleep, if he is thinking of me now, if he watches college basketball …
I wake in the morning and drink the shitty motel room coffee and get back on the road and drive. it feels good to drive. it feels good to be moving. somewhere, anywhere. Forward. Forward movement. Everything is okay as long as I am moving. self-soothing mechanism. A neglected child rocking herself in her bed. I drive through shitty Atlanta morning traffic, I drive through the rest of Georgia, down into Florida. I pass the largest American flag I have ever seen on the side of the road somewhere just over the border in Florida. I pass a Trump sign several miles later. I don’t stop until I get to Venice, two hours south of Tampa, on the gulf side of the state. Outside the Venice motel where I get a room, a truck is parked next to me and the bumper sticker on the truck reads: “Welcome to Florida: over 4 million of us have concealed carry permits. Enjoy your visit.” I write this down in my (Harriet-the-Spy) notebook. I want to remember to write about it in a letter addressed to a hospital in New York.
I check into my Florida motel room just in time for Michigan State’s first March Madness game. I have one of my headaches, one of the migraines I get once, twice a month, the last year, maybe two. I mark them on the calendar. Chart their levels of intensity, how many Advil I have to take, what time of day they come, what time of month. They seem tied somehow to my menstrual cycle, to my hormone levels. Six years ago, came the night sweats. Waking 3, 4 a.m. drenched in sweat as though in a sauna, as though my bedroom were a steam room. I would have to get up out of bed, get a towel from the bathroom and dry off; my drenched clothes left on the floor. The smell of sweat is not unpleasant. Or I did not find it to be so. There was a pleasing sense of cleansing that came after the night sweats, a lightness felt in my body and mind after, as after a sauna or steam room, as after acupuncture. The migraines are much worse. The worst migraine I ever had I thought my brain was bleeding. I thought I was dying in the literal sense. It hurt like hell to raise my hand to scratch my nose. I thought even if I wanted to there was no way I could go to the E.R. It would be way too painful – all the movements – in and out of cars, in and out of bright light – to get there.
I take an Advil from the pillbox in my purse, swallow it with water. Advil only helps temporarily, lightens the headache for a couple hours. I know it will return stronger than before in the time it takes to play this game. Sleep is the only cure. In the morning I will wake without the headache but in its place, something like a hangover, the same fatigued feeling, the same feeling of ennui, the same desire to masturbate. I swallow the Advil and wait for the lessening to begin.
MSU is playing some team I’ve never heard of, Bradley, the Bradley Braves, some small university in Indiana or Illinois, I couldn’t catch which. I don’t really care. I sit on the edge of the bed, cross-legged, watching intently. I am getting to know the players. Since it is only game one, I am only vaguely familiar with their names. Cassius Winston in his signature white headband. Xavier Tillman. Matthew McQuaid. I am only half paying attention. My mind wanders back to the hospital. Back to New Jersey. A postmark on every letter I receive. Though the hospital address is New York, the postmark is New Jersey.
Halfway through the game something interesting happens. Something of mild interest that the commentators and later the media pick up on, turn into something larger. Coach Izzo walks onto the court to reprimand a freshman, Aaron Henry. He wags his finger in Henry’s face, touches his hand to either Henry’s stomach or hand or both, it’s impossible to tell. There is a time out and Coach Izzo “lunges” at Henry again in the huddle. This is the word the media will use to describe Izzo leaning forward in his chair. The media will say Henry’s teammates had to “restrain” Coach Izzo. As though unrestrained Coach Izzo might have, what? Strangled Henry? Killed him? Battered him?
Michigan State will win the game, 76-65, but the rest of the evening and the next morning, on sports shows, on morning news shows, there will be discussions of Coach Izzo’s behavior.
“I wouldn’t want a man wagging his finger in my face,” one female sports commentator will contend.
The media will report the next day: “Coach Izzo is unapologetic.”
A headline will read: “MSU players defend Izzo after screaming incident.”
Cassius Winston will comment: “Coach Izzo is filled with passion and emotion and love… when he’s getting after you or when he’s yelling it’s never out of harm, it’s never out of hate. It’s literally him wanting the best for you and him challenging you and pushing you to be the best you can be.”
Facts: Henry was responsible for 5 of 9 turnovers, was 3 for 7 in shooting, scored only 8 points, had only 3 rebounds, in game one of March Madness.
The next game, game two, against Minnesota, Henry will score 9 points, have 9 rebounds.
But it will be in Game 3, against LSU, that freshman Aaron Henry will really shine. He will have “the best game of his career” (he’s only a freshman!): He will score 20 points, make 8 rebounds, six assists, one “turnover masterpiece” … A TV sports commentator will declare of Henry, “He responds well to chastisement.”
And I will think, “Hmmm. I wonder…me too?” I will wonder what I might be like inside a relationship in which I am called to task, asked to be better, to do better. A marriage is not a team (or is it? or can it be?) and a husband (or wife) is not a coach (or are they? Can they be?). I will wonder what it is like to have someone care enough to yell at you, to lunge toward you, to wag a finger in your face. No one has cared that much about me since I was very young, since my mother informed me that the way I mopped the floors was “piss poor,” or the way I washed dishes was “half-assed.” Since my paternal grandmother said I must have mental problems because I flunked the parallel parking part of the driving test twice. Since my paternal grandmother put me on a scale at age sixteen, bra and underwear, to inform me I would never have a career, never have a boyfriend, if I didn’t lose weight.
I watch with interest the replay of the incident on various news and sports shows. I am fascinated with every aspect from Coach Izzo’s strutting out mid court to meet Henry rather than wait for him to make it to the sideline to begin berating him, to the look of surprise and nonbelief on Aaron Henry’s face as he is being berated, the way his arms stretch outward, the way his hands open, signaling disbelief to us at home, us viewers on TV. I watch intently, wondering what sort of relationship the man in the hospital and I would have if we were ever together in real life. If he would berate me. if he would call my writing half-assed (if it was). if I would refer to his music as piss poor (if it were). if we would love each other enough, as a college basketball coach loves his players, to challenge each other, to push each other, to meet each other half court, to lunge, to have to be restrained, to push each other to be the best versions of ourselves, the best writer and musician we can be!
It is Friday and I am at a botanical garden in Sarasota. I am alone, of course. Even though this morning I drove over to my mother’s condo, surprised my mother. 95% of the time, I am alone. I make sure of it.
There is some sort of celebration of Gauguin in the gardens; quotes from him all around on small blue signs between large trees, in every flowerbed. I find something about them and his biography off putting. All of the quotes seem obvious, too general, mundane. They fail to move me. I don’t even bother to write them down as I did the bumper sticker message on the truck in the motel parking lot, as I did the sports commentators comments on TV. On a wall in the botanical garden mansion displaying the artist’s work along with his biography there is a plaque that reads, rather unapologetically:
“[Gauguin]left his wife and five children to become an artist full time. Established himself as the head of a small artists’ colony.” [this I find worthy of writing down]
Maybe I am jealous, envious of a man’s freedom; freedom to leave his family, to abandon his wife and children, to leave his country, “for his art.” How dare he! How dare he get away with this when I am the mother of a grown child and I feel unable to get away with anything! I will be the bad guy, inarguably, undeniably, if I leave my husband, my second – fool us once, Elizabeth!
The biographical plaques go on to tell us the great artist fathered three more children with two more women (both Tahitian), attempted or contemplated suicide, and died of a syphilis heart.
A syphilis heart – how romantic!
Maybe I am envious of a man’s ability to reproduce the entirety of his life! The ability to shirk the responsibility of fatherhood while at the same time possessing the lifetime ability to procreate! How many children will the man in hospital father? with how many women? He is already thirty-four, it’s true, but what is thirty-four when a man can reproduce into his eighties? Sure, it’s not typical for the layman, but I can name several actors, artists, musicians and other celebrities who have done so! Just think if Bob Marley hadn’t died so young, if the brain cancer hadn’t cut down so many years of potential fatherhood! (When he died, he had 12 children with 7 women! He was 36.)
I leave the mansion unimpressed. Or, maybe that is a lie. Clearly, I have been impressed by Gauguin’s audacity, if not his output. Or, oh, of course, his art is fine. Is pretty to look at. And so forth. And so on. But nothing really to feel inspired by. Particularly as a woman. Unless it is to rise up in opposition to men such as Gauguin. To equal or surpass him, in terms of art but also in terms of sheer nerve, in his unashamedness, his boldness, at seeking out pleasure (for himself).
A little while later I am walking among the mangroves, spilling capfuls of water onto flat leaves for the lizards to drink, when I overhear some men on a houseboat, “Time to start drinking!” one of them calls. I don’t know what time it is. Two. Three. Four, perhaps. It doesn’t matter the time on the clock. It is time to start drinking! And here again I am envious. Envious of men, their freedoms, their consumptions, their self-indulgences.
I am envious their literal freedoms as well; not for myself, but for the man in hospital. My love, you and I should be on a boat somewhere in Florida. You or I should be calling to the other: “Time to start drinking!” Surely, these men have done bad things. And yet here they are: free, on a boat, drinking, and where are you?
I have been forced into realizing – since meeting you – forced into remembering; I let go the fight for mental health, mental wellness, after divorcing my first husband, reneged on my commitment to fight for better treatment, better medicine, a lack of confinement, after witnessing the locking up, the locking down, the confinement, of my first husband on numerous occasions. Now, again, the idea feels strangely laughable – a man or woman locked up, confined, unable to move about freely, while the rest of us move at whim, doing whatever old horrible things, to whomever we choose – though I know there is nothing really to laugh about. It is all so sad. A human being unable to walk freely into a 7-Eleven, onto a boat, because of some idea of mental illness when we are all mentally ill. You, me, the woman who wrote the review of your album, every woman who patted her on the back. Her husband, her peers on the faculty at the university that employs her. The collective “us.” The collective “we.”
Thursday, January 17th
I just feel so lucky that we’re friends, that you’re my friend, and I worry about you and wish we were riding around in a truck and going to have beers in some shitty Indiana bar and get in fights and listen to country music.
Sometimes I fantasize about walking through some stupid ass literary event together and everyone staring at us because obviously we’re cool as fuck and everyone else – or, “the literary community,” as you said – are “fucking losers.”
I am at my aunt and uncle’s house in Venice with my mom the night following. We’ve already been to dinner, sat outside with other men and women in their sixties and seventies, husbands and wives who dress alike: in long shorts and baggy t-shirts. I’ve already participated in hours of familial conversations, endured my uncle’s hands on the backs of my hips, his lips reaching for mine. Now I am sitting on my aunt and uncle’s lanai or back porch or whatever Floridians call these things, attempting to figure out some new, fast-paced card game while listening to my mom, aunt, and uncle talk about their Florida neighbors and celebrity gossip and golfers, while listening to whatever pop music is loudly playing on my aunt’s Alexa. It’s a lot of stimulation, a lot of noise and movement and thinking. It’s hard to keep up, with the conversation, with the game, with my family’s questions for me. and all while Selena Gomez is singing. And Lady Gaga. And Ed Sheeran. It’s just a lot a lot a lot. it’s too much to think about, too much to take in, too many voices, words, noises.
Suddenly I feel sick. Nauseous. Light headed. Dizzy. Confused. I don’t understand this game, I can’t keep pace with the play, with the chitchat; I don’t care about playing it, I don’t want to talk, don’t want to play. I hate this game, all games. I want to be alone. it was a mistake to come here. the point of this trip was to be alone. alone with my thoughts. Thoughts of the man in hospital. to not have to pretend anymore. back home, every night when I checked the mail or my husband did, I had to pretend not to be disappointed if there wasn’t a letter, or pretend not to be ecstatic if there was. More often than not the performance involved pretending not to be dejected. Pretending not to be dejected is exhausting. I am so tired of pretending. I can’t pretend any longer. I can’t pretend for my family I am not eccentric, a fancier word for crazy.
“I feel sick,” I hear myself say out loud. Instantly I regret it because instantly everyone stops talking, instantly everyone is looking at me, as though waiting to see if I will vomit. Only Ed Sheeran prattles on. I should have specified, and do, “not that kind of sick.” I stand, walk over to where the TV is located on the other side of the room. My uncle has it muted but programmed to one of the March Madness games. Michigan Wolverines vs Florida Gators. I sit down on the floor, on the rug in front of the TV, my back to my relatives. I just want to sit and watch basketball. I just want to sit and listen to the commentators. I want to enmesh myself in the details of the game: fouls and points and rebounds, time outs left, seconds to go. I want to think about the goings on in the game, the players’ names, the coaches’ tactics, and nothing else.
I know my family is staring at me from across the room. I can feel their stares. I am other now, different from them, different than they thought me to be, someone who cannot withstand a game of cards. Someone of weak mind, delicate character: Franny Glass, Blanche Dubois, Esther Greenwood. Zelda Fitzgerald. My uncle comes over and sits with me, sits on the couch, begins talking about the game, about his personal experience with basketball, the years he spent coaching girls’ high school basketball. I wish he wouldn’t. it only reminds me of the outcome: the day he had to leave his job or be fired, the rumors, the accusations, stories my mother has told me over the years, since I was a small child, about my uncle and now wants me to pretend I never heard. I’m the immoral one for remembering. I’m in the wrong for my refusal or inability to forget.
My uncle is discussing basketball with me, giving me a TED Talk on college basketball. This is not what I want either. Can’t he see I want to be left alone? That talking is painful. That listening is painful? That his voice on top of the TV commentators’ voices on top of my own internal voice is too much. Why can’t anyone else see this? Why am I the only one?
Half an hour later I am safely back in my motel room, feeling somewhat like an asshole, but grateful for silence and darkness and muteness. I am in my sweats, sipping hot tea, waiting on the Michigan State/Minnesota game to start. I try calling my daughter but there is no dial tone on the phone in the room when I pick it up. I walk down to the lobby to inquire about the phone situation. “I need to make a phone call and there is no dial tone.” I can tell the clerk wants to ask what’s wrong with me, why I don’t just use my cellphone like everyone else, but he cannot actually say this. Instead, he says, “We are updating our phone system presently, Ma’am.” “So, I can’t make a call?” “Not tonight, I’m afraid, Ma’am.”
I am growing tired of Venice. I am ready to move on. I am leaving for Key West in the morning. The southernmost point in the continental United States. After that I will have to swim if I wish to go further. It is ninety miles to Cuba. A woman my age swam the English Channel recently. I read about her on the internet. Actually, she was ten years older than I am. But The English Channel is only 21 miles. A third of the way to Cuba.
MSU beats Minnesota, 70-50.
I fall asleep wondering how long I’d have to train to swim to Cuba. Has anyone done it? I don’t have any way of googling this to find out. I will have to remember to google it when home, when back in Michigan. I envision the waters filled with sharks. Are there no sharks in the English Channel? This is how dumb I am. Thank you, American education. I don’t even know if there are sharks in the English Channel. I don’t even know for sure if it is ocean or fresh water. I want to say it’s ocean but then why no sharks?
I fall asleep thinking about sharks.
It takes me four hours instead of the typical two to drive from the top of the keys down Interstate 1 to Key West, but it’s so beautiful, the water, the sky, all of it, I don’t care. for four hours I stare out the window at the ocean while listening to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper harmonize, envisioning myself in the water, envisioning myself training to swim to Cuba. I envision the swimsuit I would have to wear: durable, practical, no nonsense, it goes without saying: a one piece. The swim cap and goggles. I envision myself swimming laps in the hotel pool in Key West, swimming the circumference of the island in salt water. I envision myself swimming for hours and hours, knowing that in order to let go of one obsession, you need to replace it with another. Like AA for drinking. Al-anon for a parent.
Duke is playing UCF tonight at 5:30 EST.
The first room they give me at the hotel is on the second floor and overlooking a pool. All I hear are children’s voices, from the moment I step in the room … I go back down, walk back across several parking lots pulling my suitcase behind me, past a family of chickens, or what passes as a family, anyway, though there is no male visible anywhere (“Typical,” I think, then chuckle to myself like the insane, reclusive woman I have become), back into the lobby, back up to the counter. If my husband were here, this would be his job, calling or coming down to inquire about changing rooms. being referred to as Mr. [my first husband’s last name]. But my husband is not here and I must inquire myself. This is good practice, I think, for my post-divorce life, for the life I will live alone. swimming to Cuba.
I ask if there is any way I can have another room, one not facing a pool. I inform him, as though he cares, I am a writer. I need quiet. Solitude. Even though I will surely be doing almost no writing. Note taking, journaling, is not writing. I don’t tell him this.
“There is only one building that does not face a pool,” the young, European man informs me, giving me the face that indicates I will be disappointed, I will not get what I want. Then, the young, European man seems to have a change of heart, or an idea. He calls back over a young couple whom he had just handed a key. He is taking advantage of their limited English (I ascertain this by their response one minute later, which is stuttered and in what we used to call “broken English”). He tells them there was a mistake, asks for their key back, hands them another one, hands them mine. Then gives me theirs. I go up to my new room, which is in the back end of the complex and on the third floor and facing the ocean rather than a pool. It is quiet, serene. No children’s voices calling the name of a dead explorer.
There is no alarm clock. Without a phone – without the TV on - I have no idea what time it is. I turn on the TV. Peruse the in-room dining menu, the first I have come across thus far on my journey. The first alcoholic temptation. By now it is 7, the game half over. I say, Fuck it, what’s one drink, like a true alcoholic. I order a Maker’s Mark, neat, doubled. I order a caprese salad, countering the alcohol with fresh vegetables, or, a fruit, I guess: a tomato.
The room is large and white and bright. More of a small suite. No tub but a large shower. A separate living room. truly separate not just separated by a half wall. A long, meandering balcony with two chairs and a small table. I didn’t bring cigarettes but if I had…
An hour later I am relaxed, sitting in a chair in front of the TV, the caprese salad half eaten, the double Maker’s Mark, half full. sip, sip. Savor! I am ever so careful to savor every sip. With two minutes left in the game, Duke is down by four, but UCF misses a dunk shot and Duke’s Reddish makes a three pointer to bring it to 74-73. I never knew until this game that UCF stands for University of Central Florida. Who has heard of half these schools? With a minute twenty UCF misses another shot. Duke misses two free throws. It’s still 74-73 UCF. Then UCF makes two free throws with 44 seconds on the clock and it’s 76-73. But with 14 seconds left, Duke’s Zion Williamson finally makes a basket and gets fouled by 7’6” Tacko Fall, Tacko’s fifth, and he’s out. 76-75. Williamson misses his foul shot, but Duke gets the rebound and shoots for two. And Duke is up by one: 77-76 with eleven seconds. Time out. 8 seconds. UCF takes two shots, the last of which goes in … and out. Duke wins. 77-76.
And young men in black jerseys (UCF) are crying on the basketball floor.
Later we will all watch UCF coach John Dawkins giving his team a post-loss locker room pep talk. Twenty sobbing young men. One of them his son, Aubrey. The sobs audible throughout the speech.
“I’m really proud of you guys. What you did this year. Representing our university. I couldn’t be any more proud of how you handled yourself on and off the court.”
“We end in tears. That’s because we invested so much in each other and so much in what we were doing. I love you guys.”
And over at Duke, freshman star Zion Williamson is quoted as saying, “The basketball gods - they had our back tonight.”
And I think: wait for MSU, Zion. Just wait.
I make a mental note to inquire about an alarm clock tomorrow morning. I make a mental note to ask in a letter sent to a hospital if he is watching March Madness. I picture the TV watching room of the hospital as the TV watching room in Girl, Interrupted, but with men instead of young women. I picture him as the Winona Ryder character only male. This only makes sense if you have just ingested a double Maker’s Mark after not drinking any alcohol for four or five days. This only makes sense if you are deprived of human contact, two way conversation, this only makes sense if you told him in a letter you were in love with him and he wrote you back a detailed letter explaining how none of his lyrics were remotely about you, or, um, the murderess, who might be you, or might be another woman, it’s impossible to tell, nothing has ever been able to be ascertained for certain from one of his letters EVER …
In the morning I walk across the parking lot again, past the chicken family, to inquire about getting a clock in my room. I try explaining to the international young person behind the counter I don’t have a phone. Very quickly I can see it is pointless, my pitch; as my daughter always says, “No one cares, Mom.”
“We don’t have alarm clocks on the property, Ma’am,” I am told. So that’s that.
I drive to the Walgreens down the street, purchase the cheapest alarm clock they have, some protein bars, some bottles of water. I go to the Hemingway House, wait in line in front of the brick wall even though I have been here many times before with my daughter, with my husband. There is always a line. Papa is still popular in Key West, with tourists, even if his name conjures eye rolls, deep sighs, in the literary community currently. Even if you are supposed to pretend – along with Hunter Thompson, Bret Easton Ellis, Bukowski – he is awful, he is a bad man, and you don’t approve of him, his personal life or his literature.
And even though I have been here several times, even though this is maybe my fifth tour of his house, I find myself tearing up. I don’t know why. If it is because I am alone, lonely. I weep quietly in the back of the group near the pool even though I have heard the story of the urinal, the story of Key West’s first salt water pool, the story of the lighthouse guiding a drunken Ernest home every night from the bar enough times to give the tour myself. I weep quietly, silently. Tears behind my sunglasses, a Joan Didion trick. You should be here.
After, in the gift shop, I buy a copy of The Garden of Eden to send to New York and a copy of A Moveable Feast for myself. I have read both but who wouldn’t often rather read a book they’ve read before and loved rather than try something uncertain. Both have the Hemingway House stamp on them, as if anyone gives a shit about this. I buy a postcard also. I can’t remember what the rule on postcards is as far as sending one to the psychiatric ward of a hospital. But I figure I’ll give it a try. It can’t hurt to try. I have brought the address, folded on a piece of paper in my wallet, for just such a purpose.
Around the corner from the Hemingway House is the Tennessee Williams museum. It’s very small and the building was not his house. It’s just some random building someone decided to dedicate to Tennessee Williams not too long ago. Consequently, there is no one here. No tourists. No writers. I am the only one other than the nice woman working the counter; a volunteer, I’m guessing, which makes it even … I don’t know if sadder is the word, but having just come from Papa’s house, the winding line, the throngs of people, the tiny Tennessee museum feels almost tragic. Though I should be so lucky one day to have my name attached to such a tragedy!
“This is Tennessee’s birthday week!” the woman behind the counter, the unpaid employee, I have decided, says ever so chipperly. Of course, I know this, that Tennessee’s birthday is March 26th; Aries like me. Since I started work on my play, I have been reading all of his plays, two biographies, whatever I can get my hands on. In truth, I have been obsessed with Tennessee for years. I have stayed at the hotel in New York City where he was living when he died for many years; my husband and I stayed there in January when I met my agent at the restaurant directly across the street. I don’t know what the point of it is, if I somehow think it will bring me closer to greatness in my own writing…but no, I don’t think it’s that. It’s not that at all. It’s whatever it was that made me as a sixteen year old spend my Saturdays at a library printing out old movie magazine articles on Marilyn and Jimmy Dean. I love staring at photographs of Tennessee, I love saying his name out loud to myself and to others, I love reading his words, reading about his life, the gossip, the unrequited romances, his profound sadness. It is the same sadness as Marilyn. As Jimmy. As me. All three had tragic ends. How will my life end? I have begun to be curious about this. It’s something I think about staring at photographs of Tennessee. Thinking of him alone in the hotel room in New York City, the bottle of champagne, the bottle cap he was alleged to have choked on… the newer suicidal theory. In keeping with our dear friend Hemingway around the corner. It’s a wonder every writer doesn’t take her life. “What’s wrong with you?” you want to say, if one doesn’t. Why are we still alive?
“We’re having a party for him tomorrow night. If you’re still in town you should come,” she says, handing me a flyer, an invitation.
“Thank you,” I say. “Maybe I will,” knowing I won’t. knowing I’ll be in my room, watching sports center, watching a game or a documentary or nightly updates, writing a postcard, writing notes in my notebook. I pay my ten dollars, take the self-guided tour. There are only two rooms of memorabilia. A couple cheap chairs set up in front of a small video screen, which I watch first, a short documentary on the playwright; I already know almost all of the information. But I don’t mind. I like being reminded. I have a fondness for repetition. Repeating facts.
In the next rooms is a photograph of Tennessee and Frank Merlo, his longtime lover, who was fifteen years his junior. Tennessee had a thing for younger men, same as me. Tennessee had a thing for tragedy, which the younger men provided, same as me too. There are excerpts from Tennessee’s journal and in one entry he is asking himself, “How do I tell my Little Horse that he is my whole world?” and as I stare at the photograph, at Tennessee’s Little Horse, at Tennessee’s words. I wonder if the man in hospital and I might one day move to Key West, buy a small house, put in a salt water pool. I am no longer wearing sunglasses but no one is around to see me weep so it doesn’t matter.
After I leave the museum I put the address of Tennessee’s actual house into my GPS, follow the guidance. Follow the roads to a small white cottage. Nothing showy like Hem’s house. Tenn’s house is comparably… well, homey. Small, neat yard. White fence. I picture Tennessee and his Little Horse standing at the gate as in the photograph at the museum. I picture the man to whom I write my letters standing – a free man, finally – in front of the house next door. I picture a typewriter on the kitchen table, an ashtray with a cigarette still smoldering propped in it, a screen door banging open and shut.
I keep driving. Homeowners are staring.
Back at my hotel, I am bored. Or I miss my mailbox. Something. On TV, CNN or FOX News, I don’t know, I watch them interchangeably, they are talking about Justin Bieber sleeping in an oxygen chamber. Everyone on TV, or, I should say, all of the women on TV, look oddly airbrushed. It’s impossible to tell anyone’s age or mood or emotion. Everyone is similarly smoothed and outraged, but in an uninteresting, dispassionate manner. A lack of characteristics, or character. I walk around the room staring at the decor, think about why it was chosen, by who, every little object. On a shelf in the bedroom is a small collection of books. Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, The Everglades: River of Grass, The History of Fly Fishing in 50 Flies, Cuban Elegance; but when I reach for one – the Hemingway - I realize they are all one entity. There are no actual pages. They are hollow. They are just for show. I think how perfect that is, how much of the literary world is just for show. Hollow. Superficial. More often than not it doesn’t matter the words inside, only the name on the book, the book as an object, the author as object. Author as persona. Author as capitalistic commodity. Minor celebrity. A name to drop at a New York City party.
Monday, January 20 (morning)
Yesterday I saw a documentary of Buster Keaton at the art museum in Detroit and the most memorable anecdote was concerning the break up of his second marriage, of which he allegedly said, “What do you do when you come back to your dressing room and there’s a naked girl standing there?” This is one of the many reasons I don’t believe in morality. Morality is based on lack of opportunity, in most cases. (or, the lack of a desperate need to survive, alternatively.)
At any rate, you will have experienced four main horrors of modern life: war, addiction, mental illness and fame. Which offers you plenty material to write songs about! But also, so many opportunities to lose yourself (like Eminem! Ha ha). It makes sense to me now why the other three members of The Doors and most of The Beatles turned to meditation and eastern philosophy – coping and survival mechanisms.
I’m already worried for you. I hate writing that sentence.
I wish we were somewhere off in a quiet cabin together, writing and reading and still. But I can’t envision you in stillness, can you? This is where you lie to me, tell me you can.