The End of the Tether
“There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us.” — Samuel Beckett, Proust
I was at Bennington that summer, taking a writing seminar with the fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly, when my ex-girlfriend Moriah emailed me from Idaho. She wrote that she wanted to still be friends and, since she would be in San Francisco for August, perhaps it would be okay for her to come down to Los Angeles when I got back from Vermont and hang out? I didn’t answer because I was pretty sure I didn’t want her to come to Los Angeles when I got back from Vermont and hang out.
In August she emailed again, writing that she’d bought a ticket and would be flying down to spend a week with me. I found this troubling, since I hadn’t answered her last email. LAX, Friday afternoon. Would I mind picking her up? Well, I couldn’t just leave her there. Also, part of me liked the audacity of her just showing up, especially since I was avoiding risk by taking yet another temporary academic position, this time at Claremont McKenna College.
So I emailed back, and then on Friday I showed up at Terminal One. She was the last one off the flight. There was a brief hug, nothing more. Since she’d never been to Lost Angels before, I took her to lunch at a trendy café on Sunset Strip, where we could sit outside in the sunshine, watch the beautiful people nosh, and talk. There was a fifteen-year age difference, but in Lotus land that attracted zero attention. Graying, bald movie producers and young actress-model-whatevers surrounded us.
“So, how do you like Disneyland?”
“I don’t. It’s nothing like San Francisco.”
“Yes, all this sunshine can be depressing.”
Fuck you? That certainly caught the attention of the beautiful people. Moriah looked angry, annoyed with me, or her food, or the city around her, or all three. What had I done? What had Los Angeles done? What had the chicken done?
“I want to leave.”
“I said, I WANT TO LEAVE!” She stood up, left the terrace and started walking down the hill to where I’d parked the car. I grabbed a passing waitress and asked for the bill, then shrugged as if to say, “youth—what can you do?” I tipped twenty per cent, and then followed her down to the car.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to leave.”
“Do you mean leave leave? Do you want me to take you back to the airport?”
“No. I came here to spend time with you. Can’t we just go back to your place?”
“Was there something wrong with the food?”
“No, it’s just—forget it. Please open the door.”
I took out my keys. “Whatever.”
We drove to Brentwood in silence and I wondered what I was going to do with her for the next seven days. She refused to make eye contact with me. She glanced out the window at the passing scenery of upscale, concrete LA, with its transplanted palm trees and homeless orange hawkers. We hadn’t seen each other in three months, so perhaps there was something going on that I wasn’t aware of. Perhaps she was just nervous being around me again, in a strange environment over which she had no control. Perhaps she was just like an iceberg, ten percent ice showing above the surface and ninety percent ice below.
Once we got back to my rented condo, we had a fight, she threw a tantrum, and then we tumbled into bed for oh-how-I-missed-you-so-much makeup sex.
This pattern repeated itself over the next few days of sightseeing and struggle. In between visits to tourist landmarks, from Universal CityWalk to Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, we engaged in knockdown, drag-out scream fests about what I can’t even remember. After we exhausted ourselves shouting, we would storm home, tumble back into bed, and exhaust each other again. Far from being the adult in the relationship, I felt like I was the child, controlled and manipulated by a scolding parent. Honestly, is there anything more destabilizing in life than sex?
By the end of the week, Moriah and I weren’t speaking to each other or sleeping next to each other. When I dropped her off at LAX, she got out of the car, grabbed her suitcase, and stormed into Terminal One without so much as saying goodbye.
“Good riddance!” I screamed. “I hope your plane crashes!”
I’m in Pocatello, Idaho, sitting at an outside table at the Continental Bistro, having lunch with Moriah. It’s a cool but sunny October day, thin bands of clouds drifting across a cobalt sky. We’re laughing, talking, our hands touching lightly, enjoying the food, as well as each other’s company.
At this moment, we expect the Protagonist to bolt upright in bed, shaky and sweaty, this being one of those moments where the P. experiences some awful event, only to realize he’s been dreaming. It’s a cheap trick to fool an audience into thinking something is happening “for real,” when in reality none of it is happening for real, its all just a fiction within a fiction.
This is not one of those moments.
I know it’s disappointing, like the alcoholic who leaves a rehab center and walks straight into the first bar he sees. It’s so obviously the wrong move that there’s a certain schadenfreude in watching someone make it. It’s the train wreck, the tsunami, the car crash that we have to slow down to watch, the one we can’t avert our eyes from. Only this is no accident. All it took was a phone call, saying she missed me, saying that that week had been so terrible not because we hated each other, oh no, but because passion is so uncontrollable.
Moriah still lived with her mother, so we spent the weekend at the Best Western CottonTree Inn in Pocatello, indulging our uncontrollable passion for each other. We only left the room to visit the salad bar at Sizzler’s, one of the few safe Pocatello dining choices. After we’d exhausted the weekend, our passion, and ourselves, I flew back to LA with her promising to come visit again.
I actually believed this would be a good thing.
Two weeks later, I picked her up again at Terminal One. This time, she ran to me smiling, and there were kisses and strong hugs, hot outbursts of words and feelings.
“I missed you!”
“I missed you, too.”
“No, I mean it. Wow, I really missed you!”
“Me, too. Really.”
That was more like it! To be overwhelmed is what we crave most in love. Uncontrolled, frenzied sex in the yellow loading and unloading zone—yes! The Molly Bloom version, “yes I said yes I will Yes.” Since many of us don’t actually get this, we crave the romantic fantasy. And yet if we do get it, suddenly everything else in the world pales, as lust and hormones flood over the barriers of self-control. It’s not being able to stop thinking about someone, not being able to stop touching someone, looking into another’s eyes and connecting with the voice of their heart. It’s not something that can be chosen or deliberately selected. It just happens. There is no because. Or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves.
It’s both exciting and erotic to imagine a future together. We started talking about ours. But there was another impediment to our being together: she couldn’t stop talking about her ex-boyfriend, John. John this and John that. Poor John. John is frustrated with his life. John wants to quit his job. John wants to run off and live in Europe. She wouldn’t mind going with him, except that even though they’re still best friends, they could never be together again like that. Besides, she wanted to be with me…
Twenty minutes of John this and John that and I was sick to death of hearing about John. I just shook my head, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. I wondered what the hell John looked like. I wanted to fucking kill John.
By the end of her second visit to LA, I was half-mad with passion, half-mad with jealousy. We got in the car and drove down the 405 back to LAX. As the traffic slowed to the LA freeway standard of 5 mph, I looked over at Moriah, looking out the passenger window at the stalled traffic and suddenly I felt a wave of I-don’t-know-what-the-hell wash over me. Uncontrollable passion, perhaps. I reached over and took her hand.
“I think I have feelings for you. Strong feelings.”
She took her hand back. “I’m sorry, I don’t feel that way.”
It felt like someone drove a semi into my heart. We finally made it to the airport. She took her carry-on bag from the back seat, shut the door and walked away without a goodbye. Before I could even scream something, she was gone.
On the drive home, all I thought about was how do you explain behavior like this? What does literature teach us? Perhaps like Justine in The Alexandria Quartet, Moriah suffered from The Check, a past crippling experience: “some great impediment of feeling which I became aware of only after many months. It rose up between us like a shadow and I recognized, or thought I did, the true enemy of the happiness which we longed to share and from which we felt ourselves somehow excluded.” Like Durrell’s narrator, all I needed to do was push past the Check in order to get Justine—I mean, Moriah—to love. I thought John was the Check in her life, the past returning like a shadow that prevented her from loving. But in the Quartet the Check turns out to be a fiction. Another fiction in a fiction. I turned up the stereo and Tom Petty sang, “All Mixed Up.” I couldn’t decide if he was singing about her or me.
By semester’s end, I had interviews at the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago, Ball State University in Muncie, Wright State University in Dayton, and Claremont McKenna College again. I had also been back to Pocatello once more, after yet another round of emails and phone calls. On that trip, she broke down in a crying fit, pounded the bed with her small fists and, hyperventilating, sobbed that she really did love me goddammit! It was quite a performance, better than the middle-class melodramas on primetime TV.
So I decided to take her to Chicago with me, and even bought her ticket once she’d told me about the time John had taken her to Sicily and paid for everything. That trip had ended their relationship, but since I was now in full-blown competition with a ghost, I knew in whatever part of my mind specialized in self-delusion that our trip would only bring us closer.
On Christmas morning I drove from Los Angeles to Pocatello, via Las Vegas, to pick up Moriah. Instead of stopping on the strip, I pushed on for another three hours until I finally had to stop in Mesquite, Nevada. Mesquite was a few casinos and a lot of desert stretching off as far as I could see into Utah. I exited, parked the car, and hurried through the casino doors, desperate to use the restroom. Afterwards, I grabbed a quick sandwich and coffee, and then walked back out through the casino. Just before I reached the front doors, I paused and looked at the last bank of slot machines, flashing lights and ringing bells almost totemic in their ability to attract worship. An old woman turned to me and pointed at the machine in front of me.
“Are you going to play this machine?”
It must be fate, I thought. “I am now.”
I dropped four quarters into the machine, pulled the handle, and out poured $200 in quarters. I cashed out and left Mesquite, convinced the gods were smiling on me and I was about to have the best trip of my life. Everything would come together in Chicago and I could finally quiet the voice that nagged every time I worried about Moriah and my future.
I arrived in Pocatello a little after midnight. As I walked carefully up the frosted-over driveway, the outside light switched on and Moriah ran out the front door, all flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers, and jumped into my arms, hugging me and wrapping her legs around my waist. We kissed and she continued to hold on tightly.
“I love you! I love you! I love you!”
Okay, it was a cheesy moment. The night sky was bright with stars and the waxing moon, the air chill and crisp with an arctic wind sweeping down from Canada. After another kiss, we went inside, where she was baking almond biscotti. The house was warm and embracing, there was a fire burning in the gas fireplace, and this scene of domestic comfort disarmed me. Her mother was back in San Francisco visiting her sister, so we had the house to ourselves. Fourteen hours in the car had left me sore and tired, but as we stood in the kitchen, munching hot biscotti and drinking tea, I felt renewed, the nagging voice momentarily quieted.
“Poor darling, you must be exhausted.”
“Not any more. By the way, I won $200 when I stopped in Mesquite.”
“Good! More money to spend in Chicago.”
“I hope you’re packed and ready to go.”
“Of course. Let’s go to bed.”
We walked up the stairs hand in hand and entered her bedroom. She switched on the light and I looked at myself in the mirror. Stress radiated out from my eyes and there were crumbs in the corners of my mouth. I dusted them off, and then I noticed a photo taped to the lower right hand corner of the mirror. It wasn’t one of me.
“Who the hell is that?”
“Who is—oh, that’s John.”
“Why do you have a photo of John taped to your bedroom mirror?”
She pouted. “He’s my best friend.”
“How would you feel if I had a picture of my ex-wife in my bedroom?”
“Well, give me a picture of you and I’ll put it up, too.”
I looked at the thin, drawn, black and white face, black frame glasses magnifying dark, deer-in-the-headlights eyes. He looked like a 40-year-old child.
We got into bed and she turned her back to me. I tried to get her to turn around, but she curled up and fell asleep.
In the morning, she woke up smiling, but when I cuddled up with her she threw another tantrum, screaming that she didn’t want to go to Chicago, John would understand, I never would and she hated me and I needed to get out of her house NOW!
So I stumbled downstairs after my overnight bag, which she’d thrown over the banister, and then scurried out the front door. It was colder than Moriah’s heart outside, the car windows blanked out with frost and, as I quickly discovered, the door locks frozen so tight that the car doors wouldn’t open. As I stood outside, freezing in the late December Pocatello morning, Moriah appeared in the doorframe wearing her flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers.
“I HATE YOU, FUCKER, I HATE YOU!”
I jiggled the key until the driver’s side door finally popped open and I jumped in. Key in ignition, start engine, flip on heater, release emergency brake and get the hell out of there. As I backed out of the driveway, I thought of the money I would be out for her ticket to Chicago. Suddenly, my winnings in Mesquite made sense. I could break even on this trip if I could just get down the street, onto the Interstate, and back to LA.
The car stalled.
Moriah ran down the driveway and banged on the passenger window. Her hair was a tangled mess, her dark eyes wild, her breathing shallow and intense.
“WAIT! I WANT TO GO WITH YOU! PLEASE DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT ME! PLEASE! I’M SORRY! I’M SORRY!”
I hesitated, staring at this out of control creature, and in that moment of hesitation I lost whatever momentum I had. I restarted the car, put the gear into reverse, and backed slowly into the driveway. Moriah followed me up the hill. I got out, but left the engine running.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry. It must be the medication.”
“Medication? What medication?”
“I went to the Health Center a couple of weeks ago and they diagnosed me as SAD.”
“So what? I’m sad, too. Now more than ever. Christ am I sad.”
“No, S-A-D, Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a form of winter depression, treatable with antidepressants. I started taking Zoloft a couple of weeks ago, so I can’t be responsible for how I’m acting.” Her eyes teared up. “Please be understanding.”
We stood looking at each other, the sloped nose of the steaming car hood between us. If she were clinically depressed, that would certainly explain the massive mood swings, the unstable emotions, and the seemingly unexplainable behavior. But in winter in Pocatello everyone was sad; everyone had some form of winter depression. It was a common side effect of living under four months of gray, depressing skies without hope of sunshine.
“Please come back inside. It’s cold out here. Don’t leave.”
I hesitated once again.
“Please? I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”
So I reached into the car and turned off the engine. Since I cared about her, I couldn’t just abandon her at a moment like this, and over the holidays as well. She had stayed in Pocatello instead of going to San Francisco with her mother in order to be with me. If I stayed with her, perhaps I could make things better. Psychologists call this kind of reasoning the Rescuer Syndrome, but in truth the rescuer was the one in need of rescuing. Knowing I was doing the wrong thing, but knowing I was doing it for what I thought was the right reason, I followed her back into the house, where we took a hot shower together, jumped back into bed, took another hot shower afterwards, got dressed, and finally got in the car and drove to Salt Lake City for our flight.
The plane landed at O’Hare. So far, Moriah had been fine, reading P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, chuckling her way through Bertie and the silver cow creamer, occasionally reaching over to take my hand.
We picked up our suitcases and took a taxi downtown. The sky looked like a badly erased chalkboard. We checked into the InterContinental on Michigan Avenue for the next four days. One advantage of attending MLA is cheap hotel rates at 5 star hotels. One disadvantage, besides spending three days surrounded by 10,000 English professors, is that the conference is usually held in places like Chicago in the frozen heart of winter.
My interviews were scheduled for the following morning, so we had an early dinner at a Chicago deep pan pizza place. After the meal, it was too cold to walk around, so we quickly looked at the Chicago Water Tower and went back to our room. I felt stressed, not because I really didn’t want to move to Muncie or Dayton, but because I didn’t know when Moriah would flip out next. But she just curled up on the bed with Wodehouse. When I put my arm around her, she responded coyly at first, and then turned her back on me.
The next morning I woke up early, put on my interview coat and tie—never a suit, since it was assumed that poor grad students, struggling adjuncts, and visiting assistant professors didn’t have the money to wear a suit—and went over to the Marriott for my interviews.
It was nearly four when I took the elevator back down to the hotel atrium, in search of the bar. The interviews had not gone well. I didn’t want to stay in LA and I wanted to move to Muncie or Dayton like I wanted to move to Pocatello. I needed some serious downtime to think now that I was almost at the end of my tether.
As I walked across the atrium, I looked over at a set of couches and saw Moriah sitting there, waving at me. What was she doing?
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.”
“I can see that. What did you do, follow me here?”
“I got bored. I thought I would meet you after your interviews and we could go to the Art Institute. Are you alright?”
“I really need—” Her eyes were soft and flat, no doubt Zolofted into oblivion. There was no way she would understand what I was feeling, what I had just been through. This wasn’t a midlife crisis since I didn’t have a wife, family, steady job, or soccer mom minivan to act out against. This was a life crisis.
“Great. Shall we take a taxi? I’m sure it’s freezing out there.”
She stood up and kissed me. “I love you.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
So we visited that icon of Midwestern stoicism, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” then went European and checked out the Picasso’s and Matisse’s and Braque’s and Miró’s. Afterward, we had dinner at Spiaggia and pretended we were dining at a trendy trattoria in Florence or Rome.
“You know, in Sicily they serve ice cream in sticky buns.”
“Well, here in Chicago they serve tiramisu on a plate.” The last thing I needed now were remembrances of things past of John and Sicily.
“You’re in a fine mood.”
“Yes, I am.”
Our conversation went on like that, sniping and riposte, thrust and parry, until the end of the meal. Then we walked through the cold wind blowing down Michigan Avenue, past the brightly lit Christmas displays of upscale department stores, and went back to the hotel, where we repeated our bed-and-book routine. Once again, I put my arm around Moriah and tried to draw her close, but she resisted, keeping her back turned until I finally gave up.
We were flying back to LA for New Year’s Eve. Our flight left at noon, so we woke up early, hurried through our morning routines, packed, checked out, and took a taxi to the airport. Chicago had been a complete waste of time and money for me, as I not only didn’t get a job, I also didn’t get laid for four nights at a 5 star hotel. Moriah was chemically flattened out, which seemed preferable to the soaring highs and lows of her non-chemically flattened out self. But she’d lost all interest in sex. Verbally, she was still as prickly as a Sonoran cactus.
We had a connection in Detroit, so the first leg of our flight back lasted less than an hour. Up, then down. After that, we had a three-hour layover at Detroit Metro Airport. So we sat down on uncomfortable plastic seats outside our gate and started reading. Suddenly, Moriah closed her Wodehouse and stared at me.
“You’re going to leave me.”
“You’re going to leave me.”
“Who told you that? The little voices in your head?”
“You’re going to abandon me in Los Angeles, I just know it.”
She stood up and marched off, her boot heels clicking loudly against the laminated floor. For the next two hours, until the gate agent called our row for boarding, Moriah walked up and down the departure area, circling past me every ten minutes with a dark look from her even darker eyes.
What was wrong with her? What wasn’t wrong with her? I decided to be nice to her, to be the understanding boyfriend, to forget about all my problems and concentrate on just getting through this someway, anyway I could.
The plane was half empty. About forty-five minutes into the flight, somewhere over the empty checkerboard of Iowa, she started moaning, leaning over as if she were going to be sick.
“Moriah, what’s wrong?”
“You’re going to leave me.”
“I’m not going to leave you.”
“You’re going to abandon me.”
“I’m not going to—”
“HE’S GOING TO LEAVE ME! HE’S GOING TO ABANDON ME!”
She unbuckled her seatbelt and ran into the lavatory.
After fifteen minutes, a line formed outside the lavatory door and the flight attendant told me to get her out of there. I got up, pushed past some unhappy passengers, and knocked.
“Moriah, come out, please, let’s talk about this.”
“I HATE YOU, FUCKER!”
I shrugged my shoulders at the flight attendant and pushed my way back to my seat. The flight attendant knocked.
“Honey, you’re going to have to return to your seat. The captain has signaled turbulence up ahead.”
No shit, I thought.
The door opened and Moriah walked back to her seat. After a few minutes, she started crying again, moaning softly, then louder like a wounded beast. The flight attendant, sensing a possible emergency, tried to comfort her and that’s when Moriah started screaming. I stood up and moved to an empty row at the back of the plane.
She sobbed fourteen rows ahead of me for the remaining three hours, until landing. Then, as if nothing had happened on the flight, she waited for me on the Jetway, and then took my hand as we made our way to the baggage carousels. We picked up our suitcases, took a shuttle to the car, and then drove to Brentwood. It was New Year’s Eve and Moriah spent the countdown to the silver ball dropping in Times Square and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” curled up on the bathroom floor, throwing the Mother Of All Temper Tantrums. I’d like to think that Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma” was playing in the background:
But I know that you know that I know that you show
Something is tearing up your mind.
Tell me, momma,
Tell me, momma,
Tell me, momma, what is it?
What’s wrong with you this time?
I spent the countdown on the phone, trying desperately to book her a flight back to Idaho and out of my life. There are five commercial airports in the greater Los Angeles area and not one airline had a seat left on a flight to Salt Lake City, or Pocatello, or even Idaho Falls. I even checked San Diego. Nothing was available. I would just have to drive her back to Idaho myself.
Moriah spent that night locked in the bathroom and I spent the night restless on the couch. The thought of driving to Pocatello, turning around and driving right back to LA was almost as exhausting as the drive itself would be. Still, I had to get rid of her. Her behavior surpassed middle-class melodrama, even farce, into a realm I wanted nothing more to do with. I went downstairs to check the oil for the long drive ahead and that’s when I discovered the car wouldn’t start. Further investigation revealed that the timing chain had slipped. It was New Year’s Day, everything was closed, and the fucking car wouldn’t start.
I went back upstairs and Moriah sat on the couch, sipping a cup of tea. She looked like she’d spent the night wrestling with some serious demons. I didn’t know what to say to her. We stared at each other and then I got the crazy idea of asking her for John’s phone number. He would drive down and take her off my hands. He was John, after all. I looked again into her troubled eyes and forgot about that idea.
“Okay. We’re going to take a little drive.”
She didn’t say anything.
“There’s just one problem. The car won’t start.”
“We’ll stay here then.”
“If you say so.”
Her voice was flat and monotone. Zoloft. At least she hadn’t thrown the cup of tea at me. There was nothing I could do for 24 hours. I knew the next 24 hours would be hell. They had to be. The last 24 hours had been hell. How could the next 24 hours not be hell?
Surprisingly, nothing happened. The next day I had my car towed to a garage and I rented a compact. On the off chance that something had become available I called the airlines and found her a flight home from Las Vegas. A four-hour drive each way beat a fourteen-hour drive, so I quickly loaded up the rental car and drove Moriah south into the desert, turning east before Palm Springs and flooring it to Sin City. She stayed silent, and when I pulled up to the departures curb at McCarran International Airport, she got out of the car and walked silently into the terminal like a drugged zombie without so much as a goodbye.
I watched her disappear into the crowd, then put as much distance between us as I could, as quickly as I could in a crappy rental compact. Fueled by caffeine, sugar, and despair, I headed back to the far end of the continent, a man finally at the end of his tether, clipped, flea’d and pared.
About the Author
Bruce Gatenby has a Ph.D from the University of Arizona, and has taught at a number of universities in both the U.S. and abroad. He currently lives in Dubai. He’s written three books, including the novel The Kingdom of Absurdities, a dozen screenplays—two with Ovideo Assonities, producer of the hit film “Scent of a Woman”—and published articles and fiction in 3:AM Magazine, Eyeshot, Gadfly, Word Riot, Lowestoft Chronicle, among others. He was also once deported from Switzerland, but that’s another story.