I Wasn’t Lying About the Fire
If I am with my head down at a bus stop waiting for a sleek, purple hybrid coach, I am in Seattle and I am going home, to work, to therapy or to the gym. Maybe seeing a friend. I had learned about ten years into my stay in this city to double up on plans, even on nights I knew I’d be too tired, because there would never be a scheduling conflict; at least one would be cancelled, never with more than a few hours’ notice. “Let’s hang out” never means that in Seattle. It means “I want you to think I’m a nice person and I don’t know how to say no but I don’t have any intention of following through even if we set a specific date to meet up.”
If I am leaving the house – an actual house with multiple bedrooms and a staircase – for the first time in a week since my arrival, anxiously scanning for mountains, I’m in Columbus, Ohio. My life, childhood included, is covered in mountains so thoroughly that I didn’t know I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I couldn’t see them. I’d also evidently lived in the Pacific Northwest long enough to pine for water – bodies of it, on the ground, gleaming in sun and more often lack of sun, not pustules of it hanging all over the air all the time. I grew up in the desert half a mile from the Sun known as Colorado, anti-humid land where you start evaporating the moment you go outdoors. I’d like to evaporate now instead of surrender my Washington driver’s license for one in a state with some of the worst employment laws in the nation and where the humidity’s like being in a dishwasher. They can handle snow here, even if they got the foot and a half currently falling on Seattle, paralyzing it, driving people to rush the grocery stores for essential oils, mixed-drink makings, Rainier-cherry chocolate and compost bags. Seeing snow plows in neighborhoods and cars staying on the roads – in their own lanes! even while the snow is still falling! – takes me back to Littleton, where I first learned to hate snow with a passion evidently not fiery enough to keep the blizzards away. In Seattle, they only come once every decade or so, which was one of the handful of reasons I “randomly” picked that city when I felt the irresistible urge to get the hell out of my home state. The others: I’d been there before (my dad took me on a college tour down the West Coast since I was adamant about not staying in-state for college) and I needed to leave Colorado since that’s where all my problems were, of course. This superb foundation is why I am so confused that I’m literally losing sleep missing Seattle.
I power-walk everywhere because I am paranoid about not getting enough exercise. If I’m doing so through charactered neighborhoods where more than one person has painted their house purple and you can find ice cream made of mushrooms, fudge, and mocha and independent bookstores are still making it even as rents pierce the stratosphere, I am in Seattle. I spend a lot of time wishing for a glimpse of the stratosphere. Surely, I thought as I was packing up in Colorado at age 20 to head for the West Coast, if you really couldn’t see natural light for nine months out of the year, no one would live there. False. It really does rain all the time, except when tourists come for those five days in the summer – though don’t be fooled: a lot of Seattle’s famous “rain” is really just the air getting thick and complainy. Though don’t be fooled: you’ll still get layered upon layered in wet, especially because umbrellas are the fastest giveaway that you’re a tourist here. You’re expected to sprout gills if you plan to stay. You’ll get used to it, the native Seattleites said. I’ll learn to accept the fading memory of warmth and light and life and love from the sky?
I need about an hour of reading a day. If I am wound up tight because my friend who is loaning me her car was right that you really can’t get around Columbus on public transit, it is because I couldn’t get to the gym consistently the first week I was here until her car was out of the shop and because a lack of reading feels in my mind’s body, that is to say my brain, like a lack of exercise in my body, that is to say my subconscious mind. What that feeling’s name is is extremities-tingling pain. I anticipated a bumpy adjustment – moving any distance is one of the top five most stressful things a person can go through (the others are death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, and major illness). Moving across the country is traumatic. Moving across the country because of a marriage ending is whatever the level above trauma is. There isn’t a good word for it in any of the languages that I know, but that doesn’t render the feeling I’ve been feeling since about nine days before boarding my plane unreal.
If I am weeping and then unable to weep and then weeping and weeping and weeping, it is because I am parting physical company with my beloved therapist. No more regular treks through the grounds, green and full of flowers year round, to the old transition house run by nuns from 1906 to 1973 that his office is in. The days, two a week for over two years, of him lighting flakes of dried sage, cedar, and lavender and wafting the smoke over himself and then me as a practice of wishing beauty, blessing, and the banishment of negative energy for us, are over. The bodywork – helping me break through the nontalking that sometimes descended over me in sessions by standing in front of me, holding out his hand, and getting me to push back with mine as he resisted until somehow my resistance to speaking failed – is not possible anymore. Imagined handshakes and hugs simply don’t cut through deep touch deprivation.
If I am doing things not in my nature like dropping in on an old professor, now mentor, friend, papa, without making plans like both of us prefer and without really enough time for the kind of chat that has buoyed me through much darkness of soul and mind over the last nine and a half years, it is because I am a bit crazed with the fear of actually saying goodbye. Papa, surprised but not annoyed, welcomed me on the day before I was supposed to leave for the other side of the country. We talked for the entire time between when I showed up and when I needed to be leaving the appointment I’d made at the optical to have new glasses made for me that day in order to get to my therapist on time. My therapist had just gotten sicker than he’d ever been, slashing our remaining sessions that I’d been counting on to make it through the goodbye process in half, but I needed to say goodbye to Papa, too. It wasn’t even really goodbye – we’d write and talk on the phone, he reassured me, a promise I told myself I could believe because he’s not from Seattle and thus is more likely to mean what he says – but I couldn’t manage to say the words. I was only able to say the words “I can’t say the words.”
“Henri Nouwen,” he began by quoting one of his seminary professors in the ‘70s at Yale, “had to say goodbye to someone very dear to him once. He struggled to get through the farewells. After he’d said all he could bear to say, the loved one said something Nouwen later wrote was one of the most healing things he’s ever received: ‘from now on, all the ground between us is holy ground.’ So, dearest, from now on, all the ground between us is holy ground.” I have shed a tear for each of those 2,008 miles and then some each time I repeat this story.
If I at one point sounded fine with this decision, excited even, it is because I had not done it yet. I didn’t know. My longest friend had been wishing for me to come to Ohio for four and a half years. She and I met in Colorado in 2005 after she moved there from Columbus and helped me pass a class at CU Boulder I was retaking after getting the first F of my life because I could not accept that I was not going to save the world and was “just” a writer. When she initially told me she’d found me a place to stay and would pay my moving expenses, which turned out to be airfare and FedExing the 26 boxes of all my earthly possessions across the country, plus my rent plus give me some toward living expenses, which are just a little over half what they are in the city I’m missing something heavy and sharp and cold and shaking and unshakable, until I had a season of rest and then looked for a job, I noted it as too good to be true.
A season of rest? Plus, a community my friend had spent the last eight years since moving back to Ohio fully vetting? Yes, she said. Rest, a thing I couldn’t achieve no matter how hard I worked, and community, a thing I couldn’t achieve no matter how hard I worked. I didn’t believe my friend was lying – she’s lost everything for the sake of the truth before. It was the “for me” part I couldn’t get my head around. Also, I couldn’t leave my therapist. Also, I wasn’t physically afraid of my husband so putting a country between him and me seemed like just the thing I would do if I were as dramatic and attention-seeking and irrational as he thought I was. Also, I wouldn’t, despite having done nearly exactly this when I was 20, and in the middle of something important then, too (college), actually quit my job with nothing lined up and move out of state. I wouldn’t actually leave my husband, especially with no other guy lined up as he’d asked the first time I told him I was leaving. I wouldn’t actually manage to start all the way over again, never mind that I’d done it before, although that time arriving in Seattle at age 20 I had more: more time to make something of my life and more excuses for being so behind. Less brokenness, though.
If I suddenly want to not leave after years of loneliness and struggling to find another church after the pastor at the one I got married in told me he had a crush on me and it was my fault and the increasing lack of ability to afford to live here on my own, it’s because I am in Seattle and was very human about this decision and didn’t know what I had till I was about to stop having it. “It” is probably not Pike Place Market or the lenticular cloud hat Mount Rainier sometimes wears on those soul-breakingly clear days I submit you will only find in Washington State or the green all the time or the abundant blackberries on the side of every road or the Burke-Gilman bike trail’s blind turns or the way downtown makes the random windstorms whistle or the bus lines that don’t get you to Alki Beach on the weekends when you first arrive in the city and know nothing or the long dark on both sides of the day for more than half the year or the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Fremont or the parade of naked bikers every solstice or the church I met Jeffrey Eugenides in or the library I met Amy Tan in or the auditorium I met Jonathan Franzen in or the best employment laws in the nation or the comfortingly liberal politics. “It” is that I knew it all.
I’m not talking just familiarity. I’m talking intimacy. Intimacy of knowing not just where you are at every given morsel of time, but why approximately 87 percent of the intersections intimidate even LA drivers (Seattle was designed by two people who didn’t like each other), why we don’t salt the roads during a snowstorm (because the melt will wash into Puget Sound and freak the salmon out), and why moving from one place in America to this place in America is a deep culture shock (the Seattle freeze, which lasts all year, snow or no). This is the intimacy of commitment: I stayed somewhere long enough as a grown-up, albeit unintentionally and all the while sprinkling my talk with far-flung dreams of establishing residency in other countries, that I not only knew the placeness of that place, but that I built that knowledge by myself – before and after the time I had relationships there. I learned how to get around the downtown Seattle of 2006 by the sounds the wheels of Metro buses made on the different streets. I came to be able to tell which neighborhood I was in by the intensity of the burnt-ness in the smell of coffee in the air. Blindfold me and plop me down in the middle of anywhere between Everett and Tacoma and watch: I will know where I am, at least for the next few years. The place they call Seattle now is not the Seattle I moved to in 2006, the Seattle I loved until 2012 when I lost the community I’d had since I was but months in the area, or the one I dragged myself through without knowing how damn much I’d miss it from then until January of 2019.
If I’m suddenly eating much more unhealthily, it’s not just because the depression my friends thought staying in Seattle and with my husband was deepening has not yet lifted. It’s not because eating right is too expensive – three organic produce items here costs as much as one organic lemon in Seattle. It’s because I’m in Columbus and I’m just not used to managing so many social opportunities. There is a support group or church small group or recovery group or divorce-care group or Bible study or movie night or girl’s night or – reversal of reversals – someone texting you last-minute to hang out every night of the week including Sundays. In loving memory of Seattle, though, I tamp down on my excitement at new friendship prospects and may always do so – or for however long it takes to break a 12.5-year habit. I’m also not used to having to throw food away – as in, in an actual garbage can not a compost bin. Or Styrofoam at restaurants or plastic bags in grocery stores, either.
If I’m eating out more, I am in Seattle for another month and I finally get how blessed Seattle residents are in terms of authentic variety and options/tolerance for people with food issues.
If I start reporting that the weather wasn’t so bad, I have just left my going away party the good people at the crisis center I will be leaving tomorrow put on for me at Seattle’s best Jamaican food place.
If I get wistful for the first time about the beauty of the islands of Puget Sound, even though I’ve been on a ferry dozens of times since that first mesmerizing ride visiting Seattle as a 17-year-old with my father on a road trip to visit colleges, I am days away from leaving Seattle. I have gotten in touch for the first time ever with what I’m persuaded is my love of this city.
If I’m excited about how close Chicago and New York City and Washington, DC are, it’s because I am leaving Seattle without having straightened out my priorities. I keep forgetting that my little sister’s now a two-hour drive away, but she, like my husband, probably doesn’t know or care where I am. My therapist says that this move isn’t a mistake either way: I’ll either find what I’m looking for in Columbus or I can come back, this time with an appreciation for the place I’ve been struggling so long in. But I don’t want to work so hard just to find out I don’t like things. I don’t have time for that. I want to work hard toward something. I want to be building something. I seem to be perpetually stuck in expending atomic-bomb levels of energy figuring out how to do a thing – social work, eliminating belongings to make it easier to move states – that I don’t end up wanting to do, and the feeling I get from wasting so much time and energy on stuff I can’t use is that of being in a shrinking room painted with poison.
We’re continuing our work on Skype, but my therapist also said he hopes I come back. “You’re very unique. You’re an interesting person. I enjoy working with you in person.” At the time he told me, I was certain I would not come back. How is it that I still don’t know myself?
If my dreams are suddenly about doing that half-hour walk up the hill of Stone Way from my first job in the legal field to my beloved therapist’s office, it is because those were days when, though separated from my husband, struggling to find a community, discouraged vocationally, having just dropped out of seminary, I hadn’t thought about that time as my last couple years in the city I chose to begin my adult life in. If my dreams are suddenly about Elliott Bay Books or the cute, resisting-fancification Seattle of 2006 or the smell of the creosote on the bike trail I took to the worst of my soul-hardening jobs or the park in downtown clotted with more and more of the city’s economic refugees that overlooks the viaduct they are, at the time of this writing, finally tearing down (it’s been condemned for years as too damaged to survive the next earthquake) and then Puget Sound and then Alki Beach and then the gentle ridges of Bremerton and Bainbridge, it is not because I was content with what I had – is that even a good idea if what you have is hurting you? – but because I thought I would have an infinite number of somedays to enjoy it even as I researched relocating to Denmark or New Zealand or Australia. I didn’t know, I didn’t remember, the stupid pain of separating from somewhere that never made me happy.
If I dream with more regularity about the doors of every studio by myself, duplex with two good-for-that-season roommates, house owned by former parent figures, house with eight other women, apartment I intended to share with my life partner, apartment I shared with a good friend upon separation from that life partner, house I shared with a pretty terrible roommate and one great one who was replaced by one who seemed great but got brainwashed by the terrible one, and apartment I did share with my almost former life partner, and struggling to close those doors, it’s maybe because the world is burning and the people I love are not okay – my little brother has just texted, one week after I left Seattle, that my last grandparent has died 12 days before my trip to Colorado to say goodbye to her. I hate trying to close doors on – I mean in – dreams.
If my dreams are of a quirky Seattle that fit me well, it is because they are dreams. That Seattle got overrun by rich, white techies and corporations who evade taxes by claiming they’re providing jobs and neglect to mention that they are also supplying the bodies for those jobs – at one point 1,000 a month were moving to Seattle. If I persist in clinging to the unreality of dreams, I am still shaking with the shock at the feeling of longing to be back in Seattle, the city I’d been telling my therapist for weeks and my husband for a few years I didn’t like anymore but am now this very moment a day and eleven hours away from, driving nonstop on the fastest route.
And if I tell you that our you-and-me house is on fire, it is because I feel the thousand knifey fingers of smoke down in my alveoli and not because I am okay leaving my city. If I tell you I’m leaving, it is not just because you squabbled over spending $40 extra dollars on transportation to a marriage workshop that cost $900, demonstrating a clear disregard for its exquisitely tailored teachings. It is not just because, instead of pulling over or asking if we could sort things out when we got home, you felt fine jerking the car over into the next lane nearly ripping the front bumper off of the car behind us and then swerving your merge into the back bumper of another car. Or because the car thing was an escalation from your previous property-damaging bursts of random anger, few and far between, but not isolated incidents void of pattern. It is not because I blinded my eyes to your efforts following your request for six months to prove you wanted this relationship after I said I was leaving the night you swerved the car; it is because there were no efforts following your request for six months to prove you wanted this relationship after I said I was leaving. You said, “You got another guy lined up?” and then, “This is devastating! There are not second chances with you!” as if we had not broken up five times before our wedding, which you threatened to postpone until we were healthy, with no plan to get that way; as if we had not separated twice, one of which you initiated abruptly on Valentine’s Day and didn’t tell me where you were for three days and only then informed me of your plans by CC’ing me on an email to a couple on the elders team at the church that betrayed us, and both of which lasted at least 11 months; as if you had not told me you felt no love for me on our wedding day and the only reason you were with me was because of Jesus and, the day you found out about my suicide attempt, that you’d been thinking about divorce for a while.
If planning holidays without my input, which you did because you did not pursue my input, feels salvific rather than like routine relationship gestures, if offering a foot rub feels heroic and like enough to conquer the agony canyon between us, then this is why our house is on fire. If I risked and ultimately did end up sacrificing saying goodbye to my grandmother, someone I have loved my whole life, for saying goodbye to a city I learned too late I didn’t want to say goodbye to at all, it was because the house really was on fire, I told you the house was on fire and that I was alone, I was alone, I was alone, I had no more water, and you, the one who promised from now on to join your life with mine for the rest of it, did nothing.
Megan Wildhood is a creative writer, scuba diver and social-services worker known for her large, idiosyncratic earring collection. Her poetry chapbook, Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017), ruminates on sororal estrangement and volleying the challenges of growing up on the planet that’s very nearly on fire. An excerpt of her novel manuscript was published by AMP, Hofstra’s literary magazine in May 2019. Her other work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Sun, and Yes! Magazine. She regularly writes for Real Change and Mad in America. She wants to connect with other weary humans around issues of mental and emotional distress, creating real community from the ashes of individualism and finding real hope if only as an act of defiance, in these tattered days. You can learn more at meganwildhood.com.