The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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We checked out of the motel and ate breakfast in an old diner next to a gas station. Teresa ordered a child’s portion of pancakes, and they came with a whipped-cream smiley face. I ordered a skillet named after a World War II battleship. Afterward we drove to the state park and rented an aluminum canoe and two fishing rods. Walking a path through lush woods to the river, I wondered what Teresa would say if I asked her to run away with me.
We’d known each other for five years but had only recently become a couple. A month earlier I’d taken the train from Chicago to Illinois State University to be her date at some ridiculous barn dance put on by her sorority. I got drunk, and all I saw was her. I told her that I loved her. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she said she knew and that she loved me too.
That morning before breakfast I’d told her again, and again she’d said it back to me. This was all new for us: these declarations of love, this weekend trip. We’d met when we were sophomores in high school in 1986, working at a clothing store in the mall. During our first shift together, on break, she told me her parents had divorced when she was very young because her father had gone insane. I told her I understood, and she said I probably didn’t. A few seconds of angry silence passed. My father had been in a mental hospital, but I didn’t feel like telling her that.
After a few weeks of working together I started chasing Teresa around the stockroom. Sometimes she’d kiss me, and other times she wouldn’t, but she hinted that we might want to find a more private spot someday. She’d admitted that she’d had sex and had liked it a lot, but we didn’t sleep together until years later, the night of the barn dance.
In the canoe I took the back position because I knew how to steer. I was nervous about canoeing on a river, being used to lakes, where one can sit virtually still for hours, entering a state of near hypnosis at the sound of birds and the smell of the water. A river, even a slow one, always takes you somewhere.
We got in the boat, and I paddled out. Teresa turned to me with her too-large sunglasses and orange-lipstick smile and called me “Captain.” She laughed and flicked water at me with her paddle. Be serious, I thought. I didn’t want us to drift into a downed tree or a sandbar and tip over. I pushed the paddle in deep, and the canoe moved forward. A tree came up fast on my right side. I grabbed it and pushed off. Then the wind hit us just right, and we were out in the current, drifting.
The day before, I’d met Teresa’s father for the first time. Remi was an unemployed manic-depressive. He lived with his second wife, a therapist named Carla, whom he’d married not long after Teresa’s mother had divorced him. Carla adored him and took excellent care of him. Like my dad, Remi had been in a mental institution, but unlike my dad, he hadn’t responded well to medication. I’d expected him to look insane — wild eyes, overgrown hair, cigarette burning down to his fingers — but he appeared unremarkable. His black hair was combed neatly. His shirt was tucked in. The lower buttons strained over his belly, which I knew was plump from lithium-caused weight gain, but he looked no different from any man who shopped for shirts less often than he increased in size. By comparison my father, despite the meds, often left the house unshaven and dressed in his outdated polyester overcoat with faux-fur collar and the red stocking hat he’d bought at a gas station. He’d once been mistaken for homeless.
Teresa had told me many times that Remi had a religious shrine in his bedroom. When he insisted I see it, I thought it might reveal the depth of his illness, but it was just a few candles, a crucifix, and a handwritten Our Father, all arranged in a plywood box Remi had made so he could take the shrine with him wherever he needed to go. I was unimpressed. My grandmother had twice as much religious stuff in her guest room.
Remi took us for ice cream in his very new, very clean, completely uninsane-looking Honda. I was surprised he had a license. Apparently the DMV cared only that you could see and remember the rules of the road, not whether you were planning on driving three sleepless days to Las Vegas in your house slippers, which Remi had done.
I also played my guitar for Remi, at Teresa’s insistence. She often told me my musical ability was a “gift from God.” Though I didn’t consider myself religious, the experience of making music was like being directed by some sort of deity. I’d taken to the guitar the same way my father had taken to the piano. When he was young, music teachers had told my grandparents that he was a prodigy and that sending him to college for anything other than music would be a waste. I’d heard the same from guitar teachers who operated out of musty rooms the size of closets in music stores that sold off-brand gear. I was semiaware that I was just a big fish in a small, dank, unaerated pond, but I still never missed a chance to play and enter into that fugue state where everything else seems irrelevant.
As the last notes of the piece (one of my own compositions) rang out, I looked up at Remi. On his face was an odd, bemused grin. He stood and thanked us for visiting.
Later I told Teresa that I was worried I’d upset him. Really I was worried I’d connected with him.
On the river I took a few minutes to get comfortable with the current, then checked the depth with my paddle: it didn’t hit bottom. I cast out a line and offered the other rod to Teresa, but she said no, pulling off her shirt to sun herself in her bikini top. I caught an ugly junk fish of some kind. It had giant, gold-rimmed eyes and a sharp dorsal fin that nicked the soft flesh of my hand. I tossed it back.
We drifted slowly, and I caught a few more silver fish, each one flashing in the sun before I returned it to the brown water. Teresa had her back to me, and I admired it for long periods, enjoying the idea that she was my girlfriend.
We turned another corner, and the river grew narrower and darker. The trees on each bank nearly touched overhead, creating a tunnel. “Creepy,” Teresa said with an exaggerated shiver. I decided we should paddle back, but when I went to pull in my line, something was on it — something heavy. I shouted, and Teresa turned around in her seat. The fish and I battled for several minutes before I finally felt it coming up. At the last second it darted toward the front of the boat, Teresa screamed, and I leaned over just in time to see a large, eel-like tail break the water. I grabbed the knife off my belt and cut the line.
“What the hell was that?” Teresa asked.
I had no idea. I’d been fishing since I was a small kid and had never seen anything like it.
Once, in junior high, I’d caught an odd-looking fish with large scales and taken it home to show my father in hopes he could identify it. I wanted greatly for him to be the kind of father who’d flip open a book and point to a picture of the fish and give it a name. But I found him asleep on the couch, the sun hitting the coffee table by his feet. So I went outside and threw the fish as far as I could into the woods.
© Christian Tuempling
Teresa and I drove back to Chicago with the windows down. The smells of trees and then farm fields filled the car. Teresa remembered a dream she’d had in the early hours of the morning, about riding in a big glass boat in the middle of some wild ocean. Behind the boat, fish and rays leapt into the air over its wake. Through the glass bottom under her feet was the bluest sea she’d ever seen, spotted with brightly colored fish.
I smiled and told her that men have different sorts of dreams. She asked what I’d dreamt of: War? Stock markets? Space travel? I told her I’d dreamt I was in some basement, duct-taped to a folding chair, while a guy with a giant fist of a face walked toward me with a big can of gasoline.
“Oh, you did not!” Teresa shouted, punching me in the arm and laughing.
I saw the sign for the Illinois state line come into view like a semitruck cresting a hill. My mood soured at the thought of returning to my college apartment, and I let Teresa take over the driving. I’d hit a low during the past semester, a depression worse than any I’d ever had. I needed to declare a major and couldn’t. Some days the mere idea of getting dressed seemed to present a series of fateful choices, each of which might send me in a starkly different and irreversible direction. I’d lie in bed for hours, skipping class, paralyzed by this existential flu. I feared I was losing my mind.
“What if I’m crazy?” I asked Teresa now.
“You’re not,” she answered. “You just think you are.”
“What if I’m going to be?”
“I think you’re afraid you’re going to be because of your dad, but I don’t see it, John. I don’t.”
I watched the suburbs pass. Night fell, but the city lights held back the dark. Teresa always discounted the seriousness of my father’s condition. Remi was worse, she said. It felt unfair to me that she did this. She hadn’t lived with my dad, hadn’t been with him every night as he’d excused himself to go to sleep at 7 PM after two glasses of whiskey and his meds. But she was right about one thing: his life, unlike Remi’s, was within the range of normal. Maybe this was why I could talk about being afraid of becoming like him. Maybe Remi’s being so clearly mad made it impossible for Teresa to speculate on what her mental-health inheritance might be.
She exited the highway and pulled into a gas station so I could take the wheel for the city driving. I grumbled about the misery of Chicago traffic. Teresa told me we could have sex at my place before she left to go to her parents’ house, if that would help. It would, I told her.
In front of my apartment building I pulled the car into a no-parking zone and flipped on the hazard lights. I placed my hand on the door handle and fought the urge to cry.
“Do you want to come home with me?” Teresa asked. “An exciting night with Rob and Rita might be just what you need,” she joked. The mention of her stepdad’s name reminded me I was driving his car. We’d spent so much time in it over the past two days, it had begun to seem like ours. “Come on,” she said softly. Her parents were driving her back to college in the morning and could drop me off at the train station.
I made the hour-long trip with her through downtown, past the deserted industrial South Side to the suburbs. But when we got there, the driveway was filled with cars. Teresa had forgotten about some dinner party. She suggested we stay in a motel. She would put it on her credit card.
The only place either of us could think of was the Pioneer, a seedy establishment a few suburbs over, on the opposite side of the interstate from my parents’ neighborhood. The Pioneer had been there forever and had a reputation for drugs and prostitution. Its sign was designed to look as if it had been crafted from rough-hewn logs, but it was now black from decades of tractor-trailer traffic.
The clerk asked us whether we wanted hourly or nightly rates. Teresa laughed and said for the night.
“Nice place,” I said as we entered the room. What kind of pioneers would have built it? Maybe the kind who gave up before reaching the Mississippi.
I flipped on the wall-mounted air conditioner, and it grumbled to life, rattling a framed photograph of a mountain lake, its mirror-flat surface reflecting the peaks. I sat on the lumpy bed and raised my eyebrows at Teresa. She put her bag down next to the TV and forced a smile. The last two hours of watching me scowl at the world had probably spoiled the mood for her. I asked what was wrong, and she said there was something she had to tell me. She asked me to go outside — she’d be out in a second.
I stood under the motel awning and watched the interstate traffic. On the other side of the highway was a storage complex: an endless landscape of corrugated steel doors. Somewhere beyond it was my parents’ house, where I’d lived just two years earlier. I looked at my watch and knew that my dad was already asleep and my mom was watching the news. I felt a sharp pain at the idea of their finding out where I was. We’d had another blowup recently, and my mother had told me not to visit, but they would have been upset if they’d known I was a half mile away and didn’t call. I imagined my mother’s car appearing on the road, then slowing down as she craned her neck to get a better view of a man at the motel who looked like her son.
The door opened, and Teresa came out. She’d been crying. She took both of my hands in hers and said she’d never told anyone what she was about to tell me. I nodded expectantly. When we were seniors in high school, she said, just before graduation, she’d gotten pregnant and had a miscarriage.
For a millisecond I thought: Thank God we never had sex in high school. Then I felt terrible and small for thinking it. I took her in my arms and told her what she needed to hear: that this didn’t change anything.
Her arms wrapped around me, and hot tears fell on my shoulder. I held her tighter than I’d ever held anyone, and I imagined — earnestly, stupidly — getting her pregnant someday, when she would want the child.
Back inside, Teresa and I had sex, locked together on top of the bedspread in a trembling clench. The sounds of traffic and intermittent voices reached us. Headlights flashed across the wall. I finished, my neck stiff, my feet pointed straight back as if I were diving into water, my head full of grandiose ideas that came from seeing life in a panorama, and I felt very sincerely that I would never leave her.
Then I was back in my apartment, and Teresa was back at school. We talked on the phone every night. I begged her to take the train up for a weekend, but she said it would be hard. She’d declared her major — occupational therapy — and now had to decide whether she would stay at ISU or transfer to Northern Illinois University.
Northern was closer to me. I asked her to choose Northern.
We began to talk less frequently, and most nights I’d take my guitar and sit in the empty walk-in closet in my hallway. I lacked the energy to sing. My voice would waver and go flat, leaving me out of breath, as if I’d woken from a dream to find myself standing.
I called my therapist late one night. I’d been drinking, but Todd had told me I could call him anytime, in any condition. He’d recently begun allowing me to see him twice a week for the same money I’d been paying for weekly sessions, which wasn’t a lot to begin with.
Todd’s voice was calming. He asked if I was thinking of harming myself. I told him not any more than usual, and he laughed. I told him I was having trouble with a piece of music: it was like hearing the voice of God and not being able to translate it. A common problem for musicians, he said. He’d see me Tuesday.
The school year ended, and I spent most of my time in the walk-in closet. I set up a chair and a small table in there. My guitar leaned in the corner and seemed to greet me when I arrived. I often drank vodka and tried to work on a new composition I’d started. At times my fingers lacked the strength to push the strings down, and I would simply sit with the guitar and drink.
The piece was the second in a series of short neoclassical works. The first — the one I’d played for Remi — had taken me months to finish, as I was operating mostly on intuition rather than from any training in classical music.
Stuck, I called Teresa and asked if she remembered the first piece. She said she did, and that while she’d thought it was beautiful, it had sounded like two different compositions. Somewhere in the middle there was a change, she said, and from then on it wasn’t the same anymore.
Teresa still had to make her decision about school. I called often and raised the subject of our relationship. “I don’t think we can make it if you stay at ISU,” I said. “I think we need to be closer, or this isn’t going to work.”
The following day she called and told me she’d chosen ISU. She said she was sorry, but it was less expensive, and she was already there. I found myself unable to speak. She asked if I was OK and promised to come see me soon.
For a while I was despondent, but my mood eventually lifted. The composition took on new life, and I stayed up nights working on it, writing a single note at a time. I’d play the entire piece, each time adding the next note, but only if it felt right. I ate little and was reminded of the sharp mental clarity that comes from fasting.
I called Teresa late one night, waking her, and I apologized. She said it was all right; we could talk. Outside, the lights down Clark Street seemed to wink suggestively. I was facing what I needed to face, and it felt good. I had this piece of music, I had this girlfriend, I had everything, and we had so much in common, more than she realized.
I asked when she’d be coming to see me. Before she could answer, I said that I’d had an interesting conversation with my father. For years my parents had referred to the reasons for his hospitalizations only in lay terms, but, prompted by a psychology class I’d taken, I’d asked what his diagnosis was. Episodic schizophrenia, he’d said.
It probably didn’t mean anything, I told her. His doctor had encouraged him to try lithium at one point, which suggested manic-depression. Or whatever. No one knew in the end. The doctors did their best, but the terrain was still new. My dad also told me that, when he’d been hospitalized, his mother had advised him to turn to God, and he’d been unable to explain to her that God was the problem: God was the one doing the talking. Which was a relief to me, I told Teresa, because I didn’t believe in God. I segued into a description of the music, the sound of it, the completeness of the world it created, and then the promise of the life we’d have together, how deeply I loved sex with her, how it was life itself, how someday we could get married, I just needed to figure out a major, which I was getting closer to every day, I mean — come on — it was the sort of question that answered itself when a person was really honest about it.
Teresa stopped me to say that she was looking at her calendar. Oh, my God, I said. I cannot wait. I cannot wait.
A week and a half later Teresa was at my door. Her smile was sunlight, divine. I took her hands and brought her inside, and within seconds we were naked, together again, her voice escaping in gushes.
Wow, she said when we were done. That was fun.
Fun? I asked.
Yes, she said.
Fun wasn’t the way I thought of it — no, not at all. I took a second to go to the bathroom and splash water on my face. Sex was profound. Fun was for idiots. That stupid sorority. Had it done this to her, or was this who she really was?
Back in the bedroom I suggested we try again and see if we couldn’t upgrade sex to something better, and she told me curtly that I knew what she’d meant. Annoyed, I told her that I didn’t know what she’d meant, that sex was infinitely greater than fun. Fun was riding a dirt bike, fun was waterskiing, fun was punching a fucking clown. The metaphor collapsed. My mind raced for answers, and I looked sharply out the window at a flash of something, a reflection of myself in the changing light. Then I turned to see her face devoid of expression.
Let’s get something to eat, I said. Let’s get the hell out of here.
At the corner of my apartment building, I couldn’t stand the harshness of the city light on a cloudless late afternoon, and I said we needed to go back. I wanted sunglasses. How in the hell could she stand the light? I was sorry, I told her, but we would just have to wait until it was night or order in or whatever.
She wasn’t even hungry. Let’s get some beer, she said.
Best idea ever, I said, laughing. This idea, it was coming from her delicious orange lips as if she’d invented drunkenness. So good, so perfect. Let’s make it vodka.
We drank on my bed, and when I’d calmed down a little, she let me approach her again. We had sex as the sun set, the street life outside beginning to heat up, people milling around, drivers honking their horns. The TV across the hallway echoed in an apartment that had as little furniture as my own. It was that kind of building.
Evening came, and we stared at the ceiling, had more sex, stared at the ceiling some more. It was 1 AM, 2 AM. I watched lines in the air: ancient patterns and symbols; maps; da Vinci anatomical studies of men, women, infants; the babble of the collective unconscious. I inventoried my life to more fully possess and feel these wonders. My mind was rich, kinetic, alive. The future was a white plane of emptiness, a bedsheet blowing on a clothesline with nothing behind it, and nobody knew this. But Teresa and I would go into it together. Because we’d come from the same place, we’d go forward in life together and have children. I told her the past didn’t matter. I told her that every single thing that happens is a part of the whole and only brings us to a more developed and current understanding of one another. At this remark her face changed. I reached out to hold her, and she pulled away.
John, Teresa’s voice said, startling me like the sound of a door being sucked shut from a change in air pressure.
She said she couldn’t do it anymore. I was too intense. (Code.) I said OK, then laughed. This changed nothing. The current of life pushed as it always did, and we would go — together, apart, no matter — we would always go, as everyone did, into the complete unknown. Togetherness, separation; knowing, not knowing — all were exactly the same thing. I asked her if we could have sex again, and she said yes.
Morning came, and I got up first. I made coffee, then crept across the old floorboards to peek into my bedroom and see her sleeping.
I sat on the couch in my front room and closed my eyes. The deep pull of exhaustion came, a result of too many nights of four hours’, three hours’, two hours’ sleep. I went straight into a dream in which I had lost my shoes. I crossed a highway and waded through a ditch of black water, looking.
I woke with a start to see Teresa before me, her hair brushed, her bag over her shoulder.
Come here, she said.
We hugged for a long time. When we parted, she quickly brought her sleeve to her eyes to dry them.
I’m sorry, she said.
It’s OK, I said.
The door clicked shut behind her, and I leaned against the wall and slid down to a sitting position. I listened as the sound of her steps in the stairwell grew faint and then ended. I looked at the door to my hall closet and thought of a building I’d once seen where the outside staircase had been torn off and all of the upstairs doors opened to nothing.
The next time I saw Teresa was four years later. She was done with grad school and was renting a two-bedroom apartment on the South Side. I got her number from information, calling from the Northwestern Memorial psych ward. Talking quietly into a phone in the hallway, I could see a man sleeping on a blue couch in the center of the common area. He had a room with a bed, but I knew why he wasn’t in there. In bed you are sick; on a couch you are napping. In a bed you are alone; on a couch you are a part of things. My father always slept on our couch because, even though he slept while my mother, my brother, and I were awake, he wanted to be near us.
Teresa came without my asking, and we sat at a small table in front of an eye-shaped window twenty floors above the snowy Chicago streets. She held my hand and assured me of what I already knew: that I didn’t belong there, that I would turn around. I wasn’t like Remi. I wasn’t like my dad. We both knew this. What we knew beyond this was unclear, but, looking at her, I felt hopeful. She squeezed my hands in hers. Outside my doorway people in varying states of illness puttered by, a few of them peeking in, but most of them content to circle the common area like planets in orbit, the blue couch their sun.
I want to thank John Frank for his essay “Pioneers” [August 2012], about a relationship falling apart during the onset of mental illness. His description of the stages preceding full-blown mania were very like my own experience. Two moments moved me most: the scene in which Teresa breaks up with Frank because he is “too intense” (I’ve been hearing those words since I was a teenager); and the two beautiful last paragraphs about the psych ward, where Frank comes to understand why his father and other sufferers of depression sleep on the couch instead of the bed — they want to be a part of things. This feeling, too, I know well.