In July 1971, my father’s heart exploded, and, faced with a comfortless, parent-snatching universe, I said to my husband, “We need to move out of this city. I’m afraid of becoming one of those assholes who wear aviator sunglasses and scream at cabdrivers.” In fact, I already was one of those assholes and had been for quite some time. Still, I was growing jumpy with life in Boston and uneasy with the hard edges I had gone to such trouble to get. My husband smiled mildly and agreed, then disagreed, and finally agreed again, and we set off for Iowa in our VW. He didn’t want to go and I didn’t care if he did or not, but we weren’t ready to face that yet.
We left for Iowa because we both knew that after you’d labored in the city until you felt as charred as a bad steak, it was time to go live a simpler life with the ducks and bunnies. The hippie wisdom then was to grab land in Nova Scotia and farm it, or build a geodesic dome out of old car parts in the Mojave, or grow dope in Oregon and, however you could manage it, save your immortal soul and mortal ass.
It was a generational idea — that we could peel ourselves away from a lousy capitalist society and hammer together a utopia out of notions from Marx, Rousseau, Esalen, Stewart Brand, and the movies. We believed we could do it at a moment’s notice; all we needed was to pack up the van and head toward some trees. We had an untested faith that a cleansing dunk in nature could launder away soul sickness; we would be transformed. Easily.
My husband and I made our quarrelsome way west from Massachusetts to a solid, square house in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, which backed up to a thick woods. As we curled together in the unfamiliar, pitch-black nights of the country, we heard shotguns booming in the darkness outside. Our neighbor to the right looked like Mammy Yokum and poured her garbage straight out the kitchen window. When the plains winter howled like a big animal and licked at the cracks around the doors and windows, people across the way piled up hay bales around their rusty trailers. Someone a mile down the road nailed a rotting deer head high on a telephone pole, and someone else got hauled off for child molestation. One night, I drank six boilermakers in a row and heaved them up into a bush near our house. My vomit froze on contact and hung there until late March.
We tried out the local customs. I boiled cow heart on our undependable electric stove — which housed a mouse family in the lid drawer — and sliced the rubbery stuff up to make big, resilient sandwiches. Like the natives, I made “finger jello” by combining twelve packages of Knox gelatin with one package of Jell-O. Iowans seemed to prefer foods with the texture and bounce of erasers. Meanwhile, in hippie-approved proletarian style, my husband drove a forklift on the graveyard shift. Amazingly, he still had enough energy left over to crank up an affair with a large, depressed woman in his free-clinic therapy group. He and I both wore waffle-weave long underwear around the clock. Enveloped by our identical parkas, we searched for the VW buried in stiff, dirty snow; we stamped sullenly in the cold, jabbing at icy mounds with a broom handle. Once a week, we got together a collection of wrinkled bags and sifted odd, purplish grains at the New Pioneer Food Co-op. I cooked groats and made heavy, chewy breads that had an obscure, soapy taste.
By seven o’clock each evening it was like midnight on an ice floe outside the black windows. Exhausted from doing unfamiliar things we hated, we’d sag together in our cold living room, tired of the weather — which was as unrelenting as bad news — too irritable even to fight with one another. Each night, my husband worked on a novel about an Indian basketball player in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma; the entire book consisted of a single internal monologue by the Indian narrator as he stood at the free-throw line. As winter deepened, the Indian’s thoughts got crazier. Guiltily, disloyally — correctly — I suspected the book was unpublishable. As I wondered why I was saddled with an adulterous husband who was a terrible writer to boot, my self-pity bloomed moonily.
My mind wandered back a million years, before I was married, to my life in Washington, D.C. There, I’d clatter to my low-paying fashion job wearing a pink mohair dress and alligator heels, my fake Sassoon bob tied back with pink grosgrain ribbon. The dress had been paid for on layaway, the shoes were warehouse discount, and I’d cut my hair myself, but in the city the illusion worked and I was as much a part of the place as the pigeons at my feet. Sometimes I’d go out with a government wonk as young and badly paid as I was, and we’d drink whiskey sours until 2 A.M. in a piano bar overlooking the glittering city, where everyone was still awake. In Iowa, thinking back on that time, it seemed as if I’d been a character in a story about someone else.
As I tossed wads of paper for my cat to retrieve and listened to my husband typing his rotten book, I decided my abrupt move to Woodstock Nation was symptomatic of a deep character flaw running through me like a fault line. The problem was I treated the world like a cafeteria, selecting a little of this, a chunk of that, a small dish here, a piece of pie there, certain I could make something tasty out of what existence offered me. Too greedy to discriminate, I bounced from choice to choice driven by conflicting and cloudy notions of duty and romance, making decisions variously as a wife, a painter, a hippie, a grad student. I found it easier to paste labels on myself than to consider what on earth I was doing.
With no television, few books, and, for all practical purposes, no husband to distract me, I couldn’t run away from my moods. Nor could I escape by bustling around the house doing extraneous chores, as I sometimes had in the past; our landlord, a kind, hyperactive farmer, had not only laid carpet and installed paneling but, inexplicably, surrounded the tub, sink, and counters with brick. There wasn’t much for me to do other than hose off the surfaces now and then and wonder why the inside of my house looked just like the outside.
Alone in the cold, bricked-up living room, I was thrown back on myself, and all the thoughts I’d tried to silence returned uninvited. I don’t belong here echoed over and over in my head, faithfully, clearly, repetitively. I don’t belong here. By here I thought I meant the country. I would never feel any fondness for the red-faced hunters who strapped hulking deer carcasses on their truck hoods; I would never like our sly, gap-toothed neighbors squatting contentedly amid old car parts; I would always dread finding all the dead varmints my cat lined up on the doorstep night after night; and I would always hate the freezing drive into town and feel like weeping when it came time to leave.
Late at night I heard another, graver voice: I don’t love him. I’d heard that voice before, but hadn’t wanted to listen. Questions boiled up inside me: What were these years all about? Where will I go? Who will ever love me? Will I ever love anyone? How could I make a mistake this big? As it turned out, my bout in the Iowa gulag gave me what I’d hoped to find by fleeing to the country, although not the comic-book version I’d imagined. By saying to myself steadily and resentfully, No, not this, not this, I gradually came to know what I wanted. Cold, boredom, and the hatefulness of my life wore me down to a more honest nub.
Had we not been so cooped up and isolated, I don’t know if I would have realized the truth so speedily. In cities and college towns, we’d been distracted by our busyness, which was of a particular, urban sort: going out. We were always going out, he and I: to film festivals, poetry readings, demonstrations, lectures, dinners, friends’ houses, bars, exhibits, vigils, rallies. In the country, on the other hand, it appeared the objective was to stay in: from the snow, the wet, the bad roads. Once in, we were faced with each other and our own disinterest. Perhaps if we’d been real rustics and not weenies we would have sharpened tools, quilted, made jelly, or cleaned our guns. Instead, we adopted rotten habits.
I drank. Having discovered a warm bar where construction workers, hippies, and art students hung out, I wandered in as often as I could and drank beer after beer, chattering pointlessly. At home I smoked dope, and from time to time in my studio I took speed: purple hearts, white crosses, Christmas trees, crank.
As for my husband, he went nuts methodically. Businesslike, he roamed from biofeedback to hypnosis to regression to massage before settling into a therapy group. Every so often he would break out in a wild, hollering rage and storm around the house waving his arms, blaming me. We stayed even. I was prone to drunken outbursts in which I shattered dishes and screamed accusations at him. You you you you you, we both ranted. If it weren’t for you . . . Our art was dragged into the uproar. He brought home depressed women from his group to read his ghastly novel while, across town, I made quaky sketches on bar napkins.
I wasn’t happy with the drama reverberating around us. My drunkenness and his nuttiness seemed bogus — like badly written parts we’d been given at the last minute. Back then, I believed marriages ended only for large, horrific reasons: gambling with the grocery money, an affair with the paperboy, an unexplained disappearance to Mexico. It seemed too petty, too ordinary to say I was just sad, I didn’t care, and my life was dreary. It wasn’t much of a story. It was the kind of revelation that would be greeted only with indifference. So rather than telling the truth — that I irritated him and he bored me — we played with booze and madness like two children left alone with a box of kitchen matches.
Still, our lives went on. He worked in the factory and I painted in my freezing studio above the WeeWashit Laundromat. The images I made then were flat, sharp, bladelike forms I called Iowa Weeds. I claimed to have gotten the idea from the meadow outside our house. Actually I didn’t think about the meadow at all, except about how I’d like to burn it off and pour a concrete slab for parking. What I really thought about was a city. I’d never been to this city, but I could picture it. It had big, curving freeways with triple lanes of traffic that rose on pylons and circled in intricate, scary cloverleafs. The buildings were made of green glass that reflected the light like sunglasses. At night, from overhead, city lights glittered red and yellow for miles on either side with the cheeriness of costume jewelry. The city roared with trucks and with planes coming in to land and with the perpetual sound of traffic. The city was crowded, crammed with people I’d never have time to meet, whom I’d never know, people who were black and brown and red and yellow and white, who chattered over the din of traffic and led lives as complicated as mine.
The image bewildered me. I’d never lived in a city like it. The East Coast cities I knew — Boston, New York, Washington — were as comfortable as flannel. This city of my waking dreams was like Oz, remote and glittering. It scared me. It wasn’t a city with subways, pizza by the slice, and parks where old men played boccie. It was a place where I’d have to drive a big car in murderous traffic, where I’d find a job in a remote glass building, where I’d be alone. It was a cruel place, and I was haunted by it.
In my everyday world, I was tired of drinking and tired of buying dope from my hearty Swedish dealer. I despised the cold and slush. I hated the gray-brown grass that poked through the snow outside my house. Mostly, I felt crappy about having married someone I didn’t love. It seemed like the worst thing I’d ever done, and I decided the only decent thing to do was leave.
I composed a short, brisk speech that made no mention of love or the lack of it but merely suggested that we were going different ways. One night, while we ate dinner, I recited it to my husband. He looked at me with cold, flat, fishy eyes and didn’t speak. I rambled on nervously about how we wanted different things and we weren’t making each other happy. I said I thought we ought to separate.
When I’d finished, my husband told me I was sneaky, that he’d had no idea I felt like this, that out of nowhere I’d bopped him on the head with it. Silently, I agreed with him, but for different reasons; I had been very sneaky lately, in unpredictable ways.
For one thing, I was shoplifting. I’d stolen three eye shadows just that week. I observed my own behavior curiously; it seemed as if chunks of me were snapping off. This must be what’s meant by a breakdown, I thought. Parts of me I’d always taken for granted were chipping away like the edges of a shoreline. I’d never cheated on a test, never lied on my taxes, never stolen anything. I was astonished how easy it was and how little it bothered me.
After I brought up the idea of a separation, we entered a DMZ of the heart. Mostly, we were carefully polite and didn’t talk much beyond inquiring whether the other wanted butter or had slept well. It was as though we were two lone riders on the high plains who’d stopped to talk, eyeing each other squintingly, about to wheel off in opposite directions. We didn’t know what to say now. We’d been married ten years and we’d already said a lot, most of it hurtful.
One night, sitting in my bricked-in bathtub under the yellow overhead light, I began to cry noisily like a child. Hearing me, my husband raced into the bathroom and knelt by the tub. “It’s just so sad,” I wailed, my face red from the steam and tears bouncing down my cheeks. “We’ve loved each other so much and now it’s all gone.” My husband knelt by the brick edge of the tub and cried too — loudly, even histrionically. Has he always been such a bad actor? I thought. At that moment, there was a twang in my skull like a guitar string breaking and I felt myself go cold inside. Suddenly the room seemed too bright, illuminating in embarrassing starkness my blotchy skin, my knees poking up like a couple of undiscovered islands, my hair lank and ratty. I abruptly quit crying and patted my husband’s hand while he wept shining, phony tears. “Hey, it’s OK,” I told him, wanting him to shut up. “It’s OK.”
Our encounter in the tub haunted me for years afterward. Of course, I was the one who was a phony. I was crying because it seemed sad I’d spent so many years pretending to feel what I didn’t feel. I was crying because there was no pay back.
After that, selling my belongings seemed like a reasonable thing to do — selling them little by little, selling what I was sure would not be missed, saying nothing. We stopped being polite. I existed in icy reticence, squirreling away money, hiding out in my studio, hunting for an apartment in Iowa City. At home, my silence became even more pronounced. In response, my husband began to yell. He hollered steadily from the time we got up each morning until I left for the day. When I returned each night, he was still roaring, the splintered bits of whatever furniture he’d destroyed that day scattered around the house. He bellowed nonstop, not even pausing to sleep; I’d lie in bed with pillows tight over my head like earmuffs, out of ideas. After several days of this, I drove into town, leaving him to destroy the house, his shouts and crashes echoing in the distance.
I drove straight to the mental-health clinic and stalked into the office of my husband’s psychiatrist. I’d never met him before. He was spooky, his skin the color of Roquefort, his hair and beard yellowy white. Wrapped in a wrinkled, black raincoat, he looked like a prune. His young girlfriend was folded into a Z shape on the couch, looking moist and plump. She stared at me blankly, chewing her lower lip, while I beat on the doctor’s desk with my skinny fists. “When is this silly son of a bitch going to get well?” I shouted. “All he does is break up the furniture and yell. Coming here has just made him a better nut. He knows more ways now to be a nut and more reasons why he’s a nut.” I ripped open my parka. “I weigh eighty-nine pounds. He’s making me nuts, too. Are you going to cure him, or what?”
“Oh my,” the doctor said mildly. He lit a Kool, drew on it hard, and coughed. “I had no idea. No, I didn’t know he was like that at all. No indeed.”
“So what should I do?” I asked him, really wanting to know.
“I think,” the doctor told me carefully, pausing to tap the ash from his cigarette, “I think it would be a very good idea for you to leave him. Would you like some Valium?”
Now my life began to move very quickly. A friend who was leaving town offered me her apartment, another friend let me borrow his truck, and, after dividing our belongings straight down the middle, I left my husband forever.
I lived in town, had a series of apartments, a series of jobs, a series of boyfriends. Nothing was stable but my habit of painting every day. During off hours, I applied for jobs out of state. For some reason, the jobs I applied for were nearly all in Texas. The University at the Permian Basin had an opening in the art department year after year. I loved the name. Saying the words Permian Basin to myself, I imagined the taste of salt in my mouth, palm trees, gulf waters, and large, leaping fish. There was also another picture in my head, of a perfectly round, hot sun high up in a sky as hard and blue as enamel; of brown, stubbly grass; of a horizon stretched like a pencil line dividing sky and earth. It was a picture from the paperback cover of Larry McMurtry’s Movin’ On, which I’d read sometime back. It had made me want to travel around photographing rodeos.
As it happened, I moved to Dallas to teach for six months. Flying into Dallas/Fort Worth at night, I looked down at the shining lights scattered below me while a drunken cowboy kicked the back of my seat with a pointy boot.
“Wassa pretty gal like you doin’ in Texas?” he asked over and over while I gawked.
As the plane dipped lower and lower through the bruise-colored sky, and the boot whammed into my seat again and again — “Wassa li’l gal like you gon’ do here?” — I finally said, “I think this is where I’m going to live.”
It turned out I was right. I came to Dallas and never left. Unlike the country, everything I’d imagined about the city was true, and everything I’d thought would happen did.