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Emotional Hegira

Leaving California: 3) Grief

Ann says, as I uncork the bottle of champagne, “We really made a home here. Didn’t we?”

I pop, and pour the bubbly into the tall Swedish flutes. “I think we did a good thing here,” I answer. “Thank you.”

I’m tempted to throw the crystal into the fire, but I don’t. These are hers, and she is attached to things of this sort. When we are done, they will get their coat of bubble-wrap and join their siblings in that near-full box in the corner.

When I first came to this house, after that million-mile journey, I could look through the vast windows of this living room and watch the sun set way to the north of Mount Tam. I eventually realized what a remarkable calendar this was. For the sun would daily slip further to the south, reaching the Golden Gate at the Equinox, continuing to well below Twin Peaks by the Winter Solstice–the exact point, I’m not really sure of, since the clouds and rain of that time usually obscured it. And then it would return north.

I had watched this arc of sunsets for two complete cycles, from Mount Tam to Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks to MountTam, then over again. Now the great red ball glowed over the Pacific, a straight shot through the rocks of the Gate, one last time.

And I am wondering where these nine seasons went.

When I first came to this house–a million years ago?–it was bedlam. Oh, it seemed OK: I had my little monastic bedroom, with a borrowed bed and a borrowed desk, and a door I could close to the world. The couple we shared the house with would bicker, and the baby would cry, and the living room was a chaotic no-man’s land loaded with papers and odd sticks of furniture reminiscent of my first off-campus apartment. But the kitchen was full of good cooking, and I kept a bottle of Absolut in the freezer, and was grateful I had a decent, if strange, place to land.

In fact, I was too busy that first summer to really notice. I still had obligations left over from New York–articles to write, conferences to speak at. And I landed a client here who wasted a great deal of my time, but still paid me handsomely for it. There was money pouring in like I hadn’t seen in a dozen years.

The change came in the fall. I had just returned from nearly a month away–a conference and family events in New York, an assignment in Florida for the insane client–when I, now rich with options, got tired of the domestic stress. Miles had fallen down drunk once too often, and even behind closed doors the anger of his wife could not be contained. The baby cried. I said to Ann, “Thanks, but I can’t continue to live like this.” She answered, “You’re not leaving me alone with them.”

So we commenced a search for another place to share. The roomies, deciding they couldn’t afford this place without us, began their own. By quirk, and with the help of my rental search firm, they found a house first. We were still looking.

Ann and I sat in her huge bedroom on the lower level, listening to the plastic tricycle rumble across the living room floor above. For one of the last times. The phone sat between us. “Well,” she said, “I suppose we’ll have to give notice.” The mechanism we had set in motion had caught us in its cogs. She picked up the phone and dialed.

The landlord sounded so sincere, so California false, as she told us what good tenants we’d been and she’d miss us. Ten minutes later she called us back; she had another potential tenant who wanted to see the house, and would we mind if they dropped in on Wednesday morning? We said fine.

I forget which one of us spoke first after the phone went down again. I guess we were both thinking the same thing. Whichever one of us it was, the words were, “Do we really want to do this?”

We both paused, then said, “No.”

“Can we make this work?”

“We can make this work.”

And we did.

When I first came to this house, a million spiritual adventures ago, I did not understand the significance it would have for me.

Do we ever?

Perhaps I understood–intuitively, as they say–that this place, like California in general, would be a cradle for me, a place for letting go of the past and preparing for the future. But I did not understand the forms that would take.

The darkness began to set in as the sun began to set beyond Twin Peaks. It wasn’t just the rain of my first California winter; goddess knows, after the six feet of snow I’d shoveled the year before, anything would seem benign. It was an inner gathering of clouds.

Some years before, I had said to my therapist, “I feel like something’s wrong with me. With all the death around me, all the people leaving, I’m not grieving. Shouldn’t I be grieving? I feel nothing. Nothing at all.”

He answered, without skipping a beat, “Who has time to grieve these days? We”–it was unusual for him to say “we,” but he was a Manhattan gay man, too–“have spent years taking care of our sick friends and lovers, the substitute families we carefully cultivated. We watch them deteriorate, we try to give them hope, we watch them die, we go to funerals, we deal with their neurotic, guilt-ridden families, and we wonder why it isn’t us, instead of their son or brother. Then we go through it all over again, without stop.”

He suddenly paused, and resumed a cooler, more professional demeanor. “Let me tell you this,” he continued. “When the time is right, and you’re in a safe space–where you’re not worried about your own well-being or the well-being of those you love, you’ll grieve. Right now, you’re just coping as best you can. But when you can finally relax, you’re body will know the difference. And you’ll grieve all right. Big time.”

I found my safe space. I cleaned this house from top to bottom, side to side. I looked at the tired, yellowed paint, and replaced it in each room with clean white, luminous blue, deep jade, lifejacket orange. I emptied the garage of detritus from long-gone roommates. I cleared and pruned the yard, prepared the garden for spring planting. I organized the clutter into some semblance of order, and adopted a new desk, a huge Mission-style oak breakfront, a mahogany table, expandable to seat twelve. I cooked huge cauldrons of soup. I washed the vast windows with the calendar-of-sunsets view.

I stopped writing. I had more important ways to keep busy. I was nesting, padding my cradle. Unconsciously, my safe space.

It was more than the house, of course. It was what Ann and I did with it. We covered each other’s chores, and often each other’s bills. Somehow it always worked out. We had our separate, private wings of the house, and shared the rest fully. We entertained, often lavishly, and filled the house with poets, painters, musicians, people with unusual ideas. I may never have been happy living in California, but in this house I found a comfort I had not felt in a dozen years. And perhaps I knew, from experience, that it could not last forever.

At face level, we looked like any other suburban heterosexual couple. We let people think whatever they needed to think, and only pointed out when necessary that, “Yes, but she’s a witch and I’m a fag.” This was much to the chagrin of some of my more political, more judgmental friends. I suppose there are those don’t want to see a driven, outfront activist regress into sybaritic, Middle-American banality. But fuck’em. I needed my safe space.

Did I know that at the time? I don’t think so. Perhaps intuitively.

And in the dark of that first winter, while the sun was setting beyond Twin Peaks, the storm clouds that had been gathering for years finally massed and broke.

I don’t know quite how to describe the process, even now. Frequently it would happen late at night, after guests had gone, and I’d retired to my lair. Maybe it took a couple of drinks to crack the walls that held the feelings in check. But if it started as a trickle, it quickly poured into a roar. It wasn’t exactly like drowning, and it wasn’t exactly like vomiting; perhaps it was somewhere in between. The pressure on your chest, and all around you, as you swirl within a force completely beyond your control; at the same time feeling this toxin forcing its way from your core, your being pushing it out with high velocity, wanting it out, away, for its own survival. Your own survival. They say you can thrash all you want when you’re drowning, but it doesn’t do any good. And I know from experience that you can only gag back so much puke before it wins the struggle. And in this case, I did neither. I did not fight.

What I did instead was cry. Crying is not a behavior that comes easily to me. I suppose I’d rather put toothpicks under my fingernails. Considering the number of reasons I’ve had to cry, and never did, you’d think I was putting toothpicks under my fingernails. When Stephen and I broke up, I did cry; when he died some years later, I went to the beach and built sandcastles all day, even if it was only 40 degrees. When Michael died, I went to stay with friends in Maine, and stacked five cords of wood in two days. When I had to leave my fine apartment because I couldn’t afford it anymore, I threw a big party and gave away everything in it. When I got the shit beat out of me by the gang of fagbashers, I probably drank a bottle of scotch a day for three days. When Dean… no, don’t go there about Dean.

But I didn’t cry.

And now, all the pent-up rivers found their channel. In the safe, private, handsome suite of rooms overlooking San Francisco Bay, the waters flowed. I sobbed. I choked. I wailed. I raged. I remembered.

And what was I crying for? I cried for the loss of each and every good man who had contributed something to my life, whether his body, his mind or his soul. I cried for the loss for a world and a way of life that was rich in beauty, fun, wit, invention and infinite promise. Ultimately, I cried, as I now suppose every man must do, for the loss of myself, of my youth, of all the things I thought could be.

I raged against change.

But change was all I knew. Change was the most reliable companion I had. Change was what I had worked for all my life, change in how people or places or the world viewed themselves. Fucking two-faced change!

But change is the essence of creation, and I would have to come to peace with that. Gradually, I did.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this tidal wave of grief happened all at once, and was done with me. In fact, it happened in fits and starts, most intensely over that first winter in this house, but continuing on and off for more than a year, more than two. And it became so clearly a part of me that I didn’t really need this specific safe space any more. It was odd to feel that drowning/choking wave come on while I stirred the ashes of an evening’s fire. Or in the garden as I pruned the roses. Or in my car, in the Safeway parking lot, as I caught a piece of music with long-forgotten associations. The sensations came and went, I did not fight them, and each time I found myself just a little bit lighter, a little bit stronger. Not strong in the old way of concrete and steel, but strong in the way of those amazing tensile fabrics, which can flap in the breeze but support the weight of a tank.

It’s a strength I realized could be very useful in the years ahead. This house gave that to me. California gave that to me. And for that alone, I am very grateful.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the years in this house were all about some internal spin cycle. There was much good work done here, and fun, too: the healings of friends in physical and emotional distress, the care of others who would have to let go, experiments at what “community” might mean in a changing world, the constant flow of guests from all over the continent, each with their own search and their own contributions. There were many rough times, but many blessings as well.

Of course it would have to change.

When I first came to this house, a million light-years away, I had no idea what to expect. I was too busy sifting through the past. I was too busy struggling with the present. Nine seasons later, when we were stunned with sudden eviction–that California ubiquity known as “Owner Move In”–I had put the past to rest. I still struggled with the practical demands of the present, but, for the first time in a very long time, I began to see the vaguest glimmer of the future.

I sold or gave away most of what I had accumulated, and prepared for more change.

Robert says, some months afterward, when I no longer have my sunset calendar to tell me the season, “Now, don’t take this in the wrong way.” He is about to speak with the liberty of a friend who has known me a long time. He is the only person in California who remembers my thirtieth birthday. He is one of the few people left on the planet who remembers my thirtieth birthday. “I know you’ve never been happy here, but I don’t think you’ve ever given California a chance. All that time you spent isolated up in the hills, living out that het fantasy, you never made the effort to connect.”

I listen patiently. For old friends, you can cut a lot of slack. There’s an irony that the native New Yorker, who used to so avidly defend his city, should hear the native Californian turn the tables. I do not contradict him; partly because he’s right. And then I think, wow, what a New York way of looking at the world.

When I lived in California, which will someday seem like a fond but distant memory, I learned to open, to listen, to receive. And I got exactly what I needed.


One thought on “Leaving California: 3) Grief

  1. Stunning and so makes me remember the time I spent with you in the bay area…those 10pm runs to Edible Complex to pick up coffee and then sit near the bay smoking cigs and getting nervous! That was a long time ago, huh? What knocked me down to the floor was the language around change and movement. I share that Latcho Drom impulse with you. Maybe it is not an impulse at all but instead the way we have been constituted as we move through the Earth School.

    Posted by JoAnne F. Henry | April 20, 2012, 1:28 am

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