Sunday, February 15, 2009

Taking a Walk

In Thoreau's essay on walking, he refers to a walk as "a sort of crusade." He asserts (in a charming and hyperbolic way) that the brave leave on a walk and never return. He observes that most of us lead boring lives, full of boring thoughts. We stay safe. We stay low to the ground. We live in the past. But a long walk can change all of that: We can know "self-respect and heroism” once again.

My earliest memory is of being taken for a walk in a stroller. It's a vague snippet of memory, but I recall the view from the stroller as we turned a corner. How exciting to be out in front, to be the first to see around a hedge or a cinder-block fence!

When I was five, we lived in east Long Beach, and my six-year-old sister and I took frequent but short walks, just the two of us. We walked several blocks to school. We walked to a nearby market (accessed through an alley behind our duplex) to pick up forgotten grocery items that my mom needed for dinner. Once, we walked to a brand-new McDonalds to get milkshakes to carry home, but I tripped in the parking lot, skinning my knees and spilling the milkshakes. I cried for both reasons, but mostly I cried in anticipation of my mom's disappointment.

I remember another oh-so-traumatic incident from that year, and it was also associated with a walk. My mom saved S&H Green Stamps, and there was a display case in the grocery store with empty coupon books and a glossy catalog of "prizes." I was aware that the catalog was free, because I'd seen my mom pick one up after paying for groceries. So, imitating her behavior, I picked up a TV Guide from a similar display case, after paying for the grocery item she'd requested. Upon arriving home, I proudly presented her with the TV Guide, expecting appreciation for my thoughtfulness. But she was horrified, and not particularly sensitive to my feelings or my logic ("I thought it was free, like the Green Stamps catalog!"). She actually made me walk back to the store and admit to "stealing" the TV Guide. Jesus Christ...I'd made an understandable mistake; I was hardly naughty. I cried all the way back to the store, and cried as I pleaded guilty to the store manager, who seemed confused and irritated.

When I was six, we moved to a rented house in another part of Long Beach, and during my elementary school years, I walked often. I was chubby, and I sensed I needed more exercise. I also enjoyed solitude, and there wasn't much to be found at home (with two siblings and another on the way). I walked around the block over and over again, aiming for eight times. (I'd read that eight city blocks equals a mile, and I thought it meant "around the block" eight times.) It was a safe neighborhood, and I knew who lived behind most doors. There were cute boys, of course, but there were also school friends and church friends and babysitters and some of my mom's PTA buddies. I was a cheerful little knock-kneed girl with a Dutch-boy haircut and a rather significant underbite, smiling and waving and walking.

A Speedy Mart opened up about six blocks from our house, and my sister and brother and I walked there almost daily, sometimes more than once a day. There was a large selection of penny candy, and full-size candy bars were only five cents (I preferred Big Hunks, because they took so long to eat) (that's what she said). Sometimes, we bought Slurpees or Popsicles. Our parents were generous with money; my mom probably figured 15 cents was a small price to pay for 45 minutes of blissful solitude. (I wonder how many times my parents had sex while the three of us kids walked to Speedy Mart. Gross.)

At about eight and nine, my sister and I sometimes wandered through the neighborhood with no destination in mind, just a desire to keep moving and keep talking. We were fascinated by pioneers, whom we studied in school and church (I had an abiding crush on both Marcus and Narcissa Whitman). For hours--for days!--we amused ourselves by making detailed plans for our own imaginary westward-ho trek. We made mental lists of the food we'd take, the much-loved books and knick-knacks, but mostly the dresses: the brightly colored gingham and calico, the unbleached muslin...the full skirts, the puffed sleeves, the pinafores, the oversized bows tied at the small of my back, emphasizing my slender waist. I was going to be such a cute pioneer. I'm fairly sure Thoreau would have approved.

What I remember most clearly about those years is the sweet freedom. The two of us (or the three of us) could go almost anywhere as long as we went together. We walked single file along a freeway overpass to get to the public library. We walked seven or eight blocks to the park, which was across the street from Helms Bakery, where we could get a half dozen (very stale) glazed donuts for a dime. It was illegal to enter the Flood Control, but my parents were pretty open-minded about such things, so we trudged through fields of ice plant, climbed up the steeply inclined side to the rim, and slid down into the bowels. My heart raced: We might face cops, bullies, or a sudden rush of water on its way to the ocean. It was risky, and very exciting. I miss that more-courageous version of me.

As we went crashing through puberty, my sister and I began babysitting for neighbors; we worked as a team, earning a combined fifty cents an hour. We were always flush. We took our money and hit the pavement, shopping in downtown Long Beach, eating lunch at Woolworths, sitting through "Krakatoa, East of Java" twice at a movie theater that catered to sailors. Sometimes, we walked home from junior high together, supplementing our babysitting money with our unused bus fare, and stopping for pizza or tacos. I remember going to a track meet one Saturday afternoon (she competed, I did not) and ending up in an unfamiliar neighborhood, where we were hassled by some older boys. We hid in a gas station restroom behind a door that we couldn't lock or even latch, and we pressed our bodies against the door to keep it closed, while the boys pressed from the other side, eventually losing interest. Perhaps like all children, we frequently discussed what we should share with our parents, and what we should keep to ourselves.

It occurs to me now that my dad (who survived an unsupervised childhood) must have convinced my more-traditional mom that freedom was good for kids. Exhibit A: One Easter week, at ages ten and twelve, my sister and I found ourselves in a diner in Victorville, buying candy at midnight, while our Utah-bound Greyhound bus idled outside. Granted, we looked older because we were taller than average. Also, she was tomboyish, and I was pudgy, so perhaps one or both of those things served to keep the pervs at bay. Maybe some vigilant bus-riding mom was keeping an eye on us, but I wasn't aware of that.

We moved to Utah as I was turning thirteen, and I began looking for the perfect three-mile walk (I sought to avoid busy streets or pitiful chained-up dogs). Right away, I found a 3.2-mile square (east of my house) that I walked in fifty minutes. It was delightfully rural, and I passed horses, cows, dogs, farmers, tractors, irrigation ditches, fruit trees, wildflowers, and many three-bedroom brick ramblers built in the fifties or sixties. There were no sidewalks, and I walked on the dirt shoulder, often wearing suede moccasins. Everyone was friendly. Those in cars waved, and those in front yards chatted me up, inviting me to come see a newborn calf, or handing me a paper bag of zucchini or tomatoes from the garden. Sometimes I thought about boys and clothes, and sometimes I rehearsed a talk for church, or lines for a school play. But mostly, I just walked, feeling my muscles work, feeling welcome in this new place.

After high school, I spent four months living in BYU housing with a passel of obnoxious roommates, and I never found a good place to walk. I don't remember being alone, ever. That was probably the point: Given a modicum of privacy, I might have risked damnation by touching myself or enjoying a cup of herbal tea.

In my early twenties, I lived alone in an apartment in Provo, across the street from the hospital on US-89. My three-mile walk took me south a couple of blocks and then directly west. After 1.5 miles, I did a sudden about-face and retraced my steps home. It was all houses and driveways, and even though I walked the same route hundreds of times, I never made any friends. (The only human contact I recall was with a group of teenage girls in a convertible. They shouted something disparaging about my bright yellow tube top, which I was wearing in an attempt to even out my tan.) I don't recall finding this Provo walk relaxing or rejuvenating; it was simply a way to burn calories.

Three years later, I moved out of my apartment and spent one summer in a charmless apartment in Draper with the man who is now my husband. I was in love (still am), but I was surprised (still am) to learn that cohabiting is hard. Long and solitary walks helped me stay sane. I loved walking along Fort Street, which--in 1980--was mostly fields, with an occasional Victorian mansion. The last time I took that Fort Street walk, I wore brand-new Chuck Taylor high tops. About two miles from home, the pain of quickly forming blisters was too much to bear, and I carried the offending shoes, wearing only socks while walking on surprisingly sharp gravel. I would have accepted a ride from a stranger, but no one offered. By the time I got home, I was rabid with pain and regret. Clearly, it was a sign: I belonged in Provo, alone. I listened to an Eagles album, and wept bitter tears.

My man and I spent the next nine months in downtown Salt Lake City, in a lovely (if cockroach infested) third-story apartment with a view of the mountains to the east and the State Capitol to the north. Living together was easier now, and we took a lot of walks together: to double features at the old Trolley Theater on Main (for a dollar!), to picnics at Liberty Park, to night classes at the U of U. I seldom walked alone, since I'd been given considerable grief by transients near the City-County building.

We bought our first house in a crappy little town at the west end of the valley, and stayed for almost two decades. The location was convenient, the big yard was full of trees, and we became a family there. Sometimes I walked alone, and sometimes my husband joined me; I came to enjoy the company, and no longer resented the intrusion. We walked east, making a huge figure eight. It wasn't exactly scenic, and no one waved affectionately, but we maintained a good aerobic pace. Later, we found a slightly more scenic walk that included a mile of tree-lined dirt path alongside a canal. Halfway into the three-mile walk, we stepped off the path and into the trees, to neck briefly before continuing.

Surprisingly, we found a somewhat bucolic walk when we moved to a Dallas suburb in the late nineties. A planning committee wisely chose to leave some trees standing, and a paved path curled between fenced backyards, creating a quiet and private place to walk. On the rare occasion when it wasn't unbearably hot and humid, it was dangerously slick with ice, but we soldiered on. Toward the end of our time in Dallas, we adopted two big dogs, and they joined us on our walks. Adjacent to our subdivision was an empty field (temporary, I'm sure), and at the far end of the field was a stream in which the dogs happily splashed.

We moved back to Utah a few years ago, to a suburb south of Salt Lake City. Once again, there are friendly neighbors who wave eagerly from cars and front yards; there are adorable children who call us by name, and politely ask to pet the dogs (no, but thanks for asking). We have our basic dog walk through the neighborhood, and an additional Equestrian Loop that we take in good weather. For early-morning exercise without the dogs, there are options in all directions, including a paved walking path in nearby Draper. It's safe, scenic, and seems to go on forever. I should be walking there now, instead of sitting on my butt writing about it.

“So we saunter toward the Holy Land…” says Thoreau, and I'm reminded of walks taken at the Nestucca Sanctuary on the Oregon Coast. The sanctuary is two unpaved miles from Highway 101, and while I'm there I walk that four-mile roundtrip every day. Close to the sanctuary, the forest is lush and damp. Closer to 101, it opens up, and wide meadows fall away on each side of the winding dirt road. There's a point where I can't resist spreading my arms, turning my face to the sun, and bursting into private song, usually my favorite line from one of Leonard's best: "...and even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!" My voice is less than melodic, and less than strong, but I stand and celebrate spiritual strength in the face of inevitable loss. One can become giddy, on a good walk.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dear Boxholder

In early 1979, the same week as the accident at Three Mile Island, I spent a week in Northern California with a man named Mark. I'd answered a personal ad in Mother Earth News (“Let me dazzle your nights, and improve your daze”), he'd responded with a request for photo, and a month later I'd hopped on a plane.

When I got home (sadder, wiser, a little gamey), I immediately grabbed a spiral notebook and wrote it all down. What’s the fun of casual sex if the details blur thirty years later? I included all the sordid and often-embarrassing particulars, and scribbled “Gidget Goes to Hell” on the first page.

When I read it now, I’m a bit ashamed of over-reacting to events. I would even go so far as to say I relished drama, and tended to create drama. And I'm certain I sent a lot of mixed signals.

According to the spiral notebook, my parents didn’t approve of my plans. “My mom studied photographs of Mark’s remote cabin, looking for unmarked graves. She offered many and various bribes to get me to stay home where I belonged.” Aunts, cousins, co-workers, and neighbors felt the same way. “They shook their heads despairingly and hugged me.”

There’s a lesson to be learned here (I didn’t learn it, but here it is, should someone else choose to learn it). Romantic partners will come and go, but friends and family will always be there. Always. Some might be judging, criticizing, ridiculing, acting out, envying, projecting, and covering their asses...but they’ll be there. It’s probably safe to assume they love you, and they (almost always) want the best for you. Even so, I ignored them.

Ten minutes before I left home for the airport, Western Airlines called to say that my flight had been canceled because of a union strike. I failed to take this as a sign, and several hours later I was on a standby flight to San Francisco. I was wearing my first straight-legged jeans (it had been bell-bottoms up until this point) and a gray turtleneck sweater. My shiny brown hair was cut in a trendy shag, and Mark (in a letter) had keenly observed that I looked like Jane Fonda in Klute. I was carrying a brand-new leather clutch “…that gave me a definite Charlie’s Angels’ aura,” and I’d checked a red Lands’ End duffel (their largest, the one recommended for sea voyages).

Everybody lies (except Mark when he said I looked like Jane Fonda), and I had lied. I’d claimed to weigh 140 pounds, when I’d weighed 157 pounds. However, I’d had the good graces to starve myself, so upon arrival I weighed 140 pounds. Another lesson I plan to learn eventually: When leaving hearth and home to meet a stranger in another time zone, it’s probably a mistake to show up hungry, and in a weakened, vulnerable state.

Because I was arriving several hours late, and on a different airline, and hadn’t been in touch with Mark (because he only used pay phones), I was a bit worried. But there was no need. I was on an escalator, going up, burdened with my duffel, and I spotted a man standing at the top of the escalator, off to one side, grinning at me. My first thought: “That can’t be him.” My second thought: “Please, God, don’t let that be him.” But he opened his arms for a hug and said,
Give me fifteen minutes before you catch the next flight back to Salt Lake City.

I’d lied, but Mark had lied more egregiously. He’d said that he was 34 years old (13 years older than me) and 5’11” (an inch taller than me); that he smoked pot “…on very special occasions, with someone I care for;” and that he lived in a cabin in the woods with three dogs, two cats, and one skunk. He’d sent photos.

This little old man at the top of the escalator, stooped and unkempt, wearing a patchwork vest and too-short pants, and carrying a leather shoulder bag (a purse, really)…could this be the man from the photos? Maybe, if the photos had been taken ten or fifteen years earlier, or had been expertly retouched, or both. There was a certain Seven Dwarfs quality about the guy. I stood there, remembering my favorite photo of him, in which he looked healthy and robust in jeans and a black T-shirt, chopping firewood. I wanted that guy.

This guy, though…he looked hopeful. I knew how he felt: I’d seen “hopeful” in the mirror plenty of times. Later, we would disappoint each other, but standing there at the top of the escalator, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to try.

We walked to his adorable navy-blue Triumph, stowed my gear, and headed for Capitola, a seaside town about a hundred miles south. The top was down, the scenery was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I found myself willing to make the best of a bad thing (which is my way). We stopped for Mexican food, and I shoveled it in. I no longer felt the need to wow this man with a slim-line version of me, and I was desperate for the calories. I was an Amazon next to Mark, who—over a late lunch—happily admitted to being 44 years old and 5’7”. He also admitted to being a cultivator/dealer, and handed me a stack of photos (from his purse) of hundreds of healthy marijuana plants, high as an elephant’s eye. He seemed proud; they were lovely. (I just hoped that by the time they caught him and sent him to prison, I’d be safely back in Utah.) And regarding the three dogs, two cats, and one skunk…well, they either ran away or died, because I never saw them at the cabin.

We stopped at a grocery store, and then checked into a motel in Capitola (I still have a handful of complimentary postcards). I changed out of my jeans and turtleneck and into a white T-shirt and matching bikini underpants. The motel room had a kitchenette, and I perched on a countertop seductively, while Mark busied himself preparing his favorite iced-coffee-tea-milk-honey mixture in a gallon container. He finally noticed me, and came and stood between my knees. “You’re a leggy devil,” he said.

I’d had a chance to observe him—in the car, the restaurant, the grocery store, the motel—and I didn’t hate him, and I didn’t find him entirely unappealing. He’d fought in Vietnam, and was in the habit of squatting in that Asian way, with his feet flat on the floor, and his butt an inch from the floor (I suppose many people squat that way, but I associate it with Asian men). It often seemed that his thoughts were elsewhere, and not in a happy place. He seemed isolated and lonely. I could see that he didn’t adore me, and wouldn’t adore me, but I could also see that it had little to do with me. He wasn’t going to let me in, period.

Naïve and optimistic, I thought I could make things better by seducing him from my perch on the countertop, but it only helped for a few minutes. “I feel like fuckin’ shit,” he said when we were done.

I, on the other hand, had never felt so wholesome. I felt squeaky clean next to him, with my recent hair cut, subtle makeup, perfect teeth, smooth legs, filed nails, and pumiced heels and elbows…my When It Rains It Pours necklace, with the little Morton Salt girl and her umbrella. As I recall, a huge effort wasn’t required in my early twenties: some Flex shampoo and crème rinse, some Baby Magic lotion, some Dr. Pepper LipSmacker, and I was good to go. Maybe Mark wasn't used to women who wore mascara, or shaved their underarms, or stocked their purses with tweezers and emery boards and travel-sized bottles of Wild Musk.

Every day, we walked to a nearby market for food. Mark prepared meals, and served each item in its own small (communal) bowl. I remember bowls of crab chunks, red snapper chunks, Wheat Thins, Ritz crackers, almonds, mushrooms, thinly sliced cabbage, melon, strawberries, raspberries, small cookies, and black licorice. I remember loving everything. We used our fingers, instead of forks or spoons. And we sat on the floor to eat, or we sat cross-legged on the bed, but never at a table or counter, and never on chairs.

I slept soundly, and each morning woke to the sound of a blender. Mark prepared huge smoothies for us, and always gave me a handful of nutritional supplements, which I probably needed. The smoothie was fairly gross, but it struck me as a friendly gesture, so I drank it. I didn’t think he’d try to poison me. If he wanted to kill me…well, I didn’t think he’d opt for poisoning.

We spent days at the beach, and at a large flea market at a drive-in theater. He made a lot of purchases at the flea market (sweatshirts, overalls, a leather hat with a floppy brim, a rifle, boxes of nails, scrap wood, rope, a pencil sketch of Doberman pups), and I wondered how it would fit in the Triumph (I assumed my red duffel would be the first thing jettisoned). I hadn’t packed any shorts, but he found some cut-offs at the flea market, held them up to my waist, bought them, and tossed them in my direction. Later, he talked me into sunbathing topless on a somewhat-private stretch of beach, and I suffered a nasty sunburn.

He often left the motel to make phone calls (even though there was a phone in the room), and each time he was gone quite a while. I napped, or watched TV. French doors led to a small balcony overlooking the ocean, and I could hear the waves from where I lay on the couch. At night, we watched TV together. I remember “The Wonderful World of Disney,” “60 Minutes,” and “From Russia With Love.” Once, while watching TV, he casually said, “How about a little head?” I looked up at him, confused. He rolled his eyes, and explained. I’d just never heard it called that before.

We had frequent sex, but it was never tender. We didn’t seem present, or connected…not a single time. I don’t remember eye contact. We never acted like lovers, not publicly or privately. We didn’t hold hands, or gaze at each other adoringly, or flirt. Often, the sex was rough. Once, he bit my inner thigh, hard. I don’t know if it was supposed to turn me on, or if it was punishment for some perceived slight. It left a bruise. “My ex-wife said that--for women--there’s a fine line between pain and pleasure,” he told me. I suppose that’s not entirely false.

Occasionally, we amused each other, and made each other laugh, but that always surprised us, and we turned away, embarrassed.

I was raised a Mormon, and had never had a drink, but when he offered me a Tom Collins the first night, I accepted. One led to two, and two led to a joint. I wasn’t able to hold smoke in my virgin lungs, but he came up with a workaround. I pinched my nose shut, and opened my mouth; he took a drag, placed his mouth over mine, and exhaled. That worked very well (I don’t know if it’s a common technique). I got high right away, doing it like that, and we wasted less weed. When high, I felt just as I expected to: happy, easy, sexy.

We fell into a routine of booze, pot, and sex. Our last night at the motel, we had another excellent dinner, and I slipped into a pink silk shirt that came to the tops of my thighs. This time, after drinking and smoking, something went wrong. My heart raced, my skin crawled, and I became confused and paranoid. I ran to the balcony railing to summon help, but, before I could scream, I felt Mark’s hand around my upper arm, pulling me away from the railing. I wasn’t afraid of him, just everything else.

“I’m dying,” I whispered. “I can tell.”

“You’re not dying,” he said firmly, like a parent.

He led me to the bathroom. He turned on the shower, pulled my shirt over my head, and stepped into the shower with me, still wearing his jeans and T-shirt. I couldn’t stop sobbing, and occasionally my fear bloomed into hysteria. But he put his scrawny arms around me, and kept the warm water pouring down on us, and eventually I calmed. He fetched my robe, led me to bed, and pulled the covers back for me. I got in, and he removed his wet clothes. Just as he was getting in bed, I threw up: on me, on him, on the clean sheets. He took it in stride, and led me back to the shower, and then back to bed, wrapped in a towel.

“You’re okay,” he said calmly, meeting my eyes. But I really thought it was over for me, that I’d never see my family and friends again. “I thought I’d never hold another baby,” I wrote, “or eat another orange.”


After three days in Capitola, we checked out of the motel and drove a few miles west to Santa Cruz. We spent several heavenly hours in a restaurant that was also a used-book store. We ate pancakes; I bought Ann Vickers and The Caine Mutiny. After breakfast, we headed for Willits, up the coast a couple hundred miles in Mendocino County.

Because of the airline strike, I didn’t have a ticket for a flight home. I’d called the airline frequently from the motel, but never got through to an operator. “That was worrisome,” I wrote in my spiral notebook. As we drove north, I called from pay phones whenever I had the chance, but without luck. I called my mom once; she wasn’t home, but I chatted with my younger sister, assuring her that all was well. She reminded me that I needed to renew her subscription to Seventeen magazine, and said she’d tell Mom I called.

We were no longer in the Triumph. Earlier that morning, Mark had gone out to make phone calls, and had returned in an old pickup truck, no explanation offered. The gallon of iced-coffee-tea-milk-honey was between us on the bench seat, and when he wasn’t drinking from it, he was smoking (tobacco), lighting one cigarette off the last. He didn’t smoke much, except when driving. He was uncomfortable sitting in one position for long; maybe smoking helped.

We stopped often, and for extended periods. I waited in the truck, keeping an eye on the valuables. We stopped at a chiropractor’s office, Guns Unlimited, a bank to make a loan payment, Safeway for cigarettes and groceries, and half a dozen phone booths. We stopped at several houses and apartments, and he carried paper bags inside. It was probably related to the drug trade, but at the time I was fairly oblivious to that possibility (dangerously so, perhaps).

I busied myself in the parked truck. I filed my nails, tweezed my brows, reviewed my check register, and swallowed all the white placebos in my birth-control pack. I ransacked the glove box, where I discovered letters from three women who, like me, were eager to share air fare. I read a High Times magazine, and recited “Somebody Said That It Couldn’t Be Done,” which I’d memorized in third grade.

I wanted to stop for lunch, but Mark didn’t, so he dropped me off at a restaurant, where I ordered corned-beef sandwiches to go, and chatted up the bartender. That was fun; I felt like a grown-up. If I’d needed help, I could have asked him for help. So…I guess I didn’t need help.

Mark also dropped me off at a laundromat, with a handful of coins and a pillow-case full of his dirty clothes. There was a pay phone, so I called the airline, and then my mom, but she wasn’t home. I called my aunt, who was home with a newborn daughter. I said Testing 1-2-3 before calling, to make sure I didn’t sound like I’d been crying.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You sound like you’ve been crying.”

I told her that he wasn’t a bad person, just not my type.

“Come home,” she said.

I told her I’d come home soon, and asked her to call my mom.

“We love you,” she said.

Back on the road, we stopped to visit a woman in a trailer park, in her own nifty Airstream, all hippie chic. I remember this fondly...maybe because I didn’t have to wait in the truck this time, and maybe because she was so enchanting. She was in her early thirties, wearing a gauzy halter dress with visible underarm curls. She offered iced tea (my first), and I watched as she gracefully and deliberately brewed loose tea and poured it over ice. She was friendly with Mark, but didn’t flirt. She was very kind to me, like a much-older sister, and she hugged me when it was time to go, and made cooing sounds. In the truck, feeling all warm and fuzzy, I said, “Wow…she was nice.” And he said, “Yeah, she’s one of my dealers.”

We were heading for his two-room cabin in the mountains east of Willits. As we left paved roads, I felt myself getting nervous. (This is exactly the kind of situation about which I’d warn a daughter or a young niece: the no-one-can-hear-you-scream scenario.) I questioned, in my spiral notebook, why I stayed. I mean, we weren’t head-over-heels; most of the time, we weren’t even friendly. Getting home wouldn’t be easy (then, or later), but it was possible; staying with him didn’t seem any less dangerous than hitchhiking. In my notes, I explained it this way: “I was his guest. He invited me to his home, and I accepted. I felt an obligation to see it through. And there was the possibility that things would get better.”

Despite that show of devotion and optimism, I see (as I read my notes) that I’m easier on him now than I was then. I suppose it’s related to age and experience. The younger version of me found lots of reasons to be disappointed, outraged, even snide. The older version of me cuts him some slack for having survived the horrors of Vietnam (I don’t think he was lying about that, since he had no reason to think that military service would impress me). I see him as a sad and solitary vet, with some undiagnosed PTSD, trying to find his way. In the words of L. Cohen,
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.


It was a long ride to his place, with a lot of twisting and turning. We passed cabins, trailers, and teepees. We passed hippies with ragamuffin children and dogs. We met Mark’s neighbor, Crazy Dave, and they chatted. Dave lived in his truck, and collected some kind of disability check. He came by the cabin occasionally to help with heavy lifting and to smoke dope. I didn’t think Dave would be of much help in an emergency, but I still paid attention to the location of his truck, which was up on blocks.

To Mark’s credit, the cabin was recognizable as the one in the photo. It had a solar-powered generator, and a solar water heater, with a shower head on the back porch. The lack of privacy bothered me, and I only showered once, while he watched from a kitchen window. After that, I surrendered to filth. I was no longer wearing makeup or dresses, but just the same pair of blue jeans every day.

It had been a long day, and I slept soundly after the booze, pot, and sex. The next morning, as Mark fired up the chainsaw, it became evident that this would be a working vacation. There were trees to fell, and firewood to haul. We worked together to cut down two trees, which he sawed into manageable chunks, which I carried down the hillside to the cabin. I fell repeatedly, and I had splinters in my hands, wrists, and forearms, but I was a good, obedient soldier, and—my God—it was a beautiful place.

Mark loved guns, and was eager to impress me with his marksmanship. That afternoon, he got a pistol from the cabin, and we walked to a clearing. He fired at an old water heater on the other side of the clearing. I wasn’t prepared for how loud it was, and I nearly fell to the ground, my hands clamped to my ears. He asked if I wanted to shoot, but I said no thank you.

He never threatened me, but made it quite clear that he wouldn’t think twice about firing on intruders. He said he had the right to protect what was his, and warned me that the place was mined, and told me not to wander off. He boasted: “I could shoot a trespasser, bury the body, and disguise the site so well that no goddamn expert could ever find it. No fucking witnesses, no fucking proof.” In my spiral notebook, I referred to this rant as “somewhat disquieting.”

That night, Mark cooked steaks on a barbecue, while potatoes baked in the fireplace coals, and I tossed a salad. He went out of his way to make it romantic, with candles and wine and forks. Crazy Dave dropped by, and Mark invited him to eat, but he chose to sit on the floor instead and smoke hashish (we joined him after dinner). “Dave was pretty burned out, but having a third party was fun,” I wrote.

Later, when we were alone, Mark asked me to share some of my sexual fantasies. “This isn’t Utah,” he reminded me unnecessarily. But I was only twenty-one, and I’d been a virgin until twenty. My only sexual fantasy was sex. I sat there naked on the ratty mattress, a glass of wine in one hand and a hash pipe in the other, trying to think of something juicy, but I could not (I should have mentioned the Airstream chick). My lack of imagination infuriated him. He got up to tend the fire, and returned with a bottle of gin.

“Shit,” he said. “You’re a lot of fun.”

I think part of the problem was this: One minute I was having a good time, and the next minute I was miserable. I was confused about whether this was working out or not, because it was different from what I’d known. He never kissed me, he never called me by name; I never felt completely safe. My moodiness confused him, and made him angry. He accused me of being ungrateful, and being “hung up” sexually.

We lay side by side on the mattress, listening to a Leonard Cohen cassette. Mark frequently interrupted with a shouted “Story time!” as the song reminded him of something. Most of the stories were about women (more accomplished than me, and much better in bed). As the evening progressed, the stories became less sexual and more violent. He talked about life as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, and also as a mercenary. The accounts were gruesome and detailed, and his calm delivery was chilling. He switched back to stories about women, but the tenor changed. The women pissed him off, and he hit one, and pushed another to the floor, and threw hot coffee in another’s face. He talked about a short stint in prison. “I couldn’t tell what was bullshit and what was not,” I wrote. “He seemed unstable, though, and every time he moved his hands, I flinched.”

But later that night, after all the talk and all the booze, he got bleary eyed and said, “Don’t make fun of me.” True to character, “I put my arms around him and held him close, like a frightened child, like one of my Sunbeams.” We fell asleep.

Hours later, a gunshot woke me. The darkness was complete, and it seemed as if the gun was being fired inside the cabin. I couldn’t take a deep breath. My sleep-fogged brain told me that Mark was dead, and that I would be next. I wanted it to be fast and painless.

“Mark?” I cried.

“Shut the fuck up!” he said harshly. (As if “Shut the fuck up!” is ever said tenderly.)

There were three more quick shots, and what sounded like babies crying. I started to get up off the mattress, but he pulled me back down.

“Where the fuck are you going?”

“The babies…”

“Fuckin’ raccoons!” he said.

I wanted to cry, but I thought that if I did, he might shoot me, too.

I don’t remember anything until the next morning, when I woke to the sound of Mark scrubbing the wooden floor. I tried not to look.

“There’s a lot of work to do today,” he announced after breakfast. “There’s the door, and the other cabin, and the holding tank.”

Mark took the cabin door off its hinges, and I nailed a lot of narrow boards to it in neat rows (like horizontal stripes), sanded it, and stained it, and he rehung it. I don’t know why that made for a better door, but I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment.

After lunch, we got in the truck and drove up the road. Sure enough, there was a second cabin. It was much smaller, maybe ten-by-twelve. “Hippies lived here last year,” he said. “Left a fuckin’ mess.” He drove off, with a promise to return soon.

At first, I was afraid to enter the cabin, fearing wild animals or lingering hippies. Mark had given me a shovel, and I held it in front of me, ready to protect myself. But there were no signs of life, save some spiders. I couldn’t see the floor, because there was a thick layer of rotten food, beer cans, dirty dishes, old clothes and rags, used tampons, soiled Pampers, wet magazines and newspapers, animal dung (I hope), a dead squirrel, and a rusty motorcycle. (I’m surprised Mark didn’t instruct me to restore the motorcycle to running condition.) There were trashcans outside, and I hauled them in, and began shoveling the crap into the trashcans. I really wanted a pair of rubber gloves. After a while, I rolled the motorcycle out, and finished cleaning the floor. I hauled the heavy trashcans back outside, and the motorcycle back inside. I wanted Mark to be delighted with the result, but he drove up in the truck, honked, and we drove farther up the road to the holding tank. (“You look like fuckin’ shit,” he said.)

We worked together to shovel out several inches of mud from the bottom of the holding tank (I suppose it held water, perhaps for irrigation, but I didn’t ask). Sure, there were dead rats, and a lot of rat shit, but I’d seen worse (the second cabin). We worked until dark, and then drove home.

I was a mess, and I hosed off a bit in the shower, but didn’t remove my clothes (I was beginning to like my stinky clothes). I made ham sandwiches for dinner, and really piled on the ham. There was apple cider, and I filled big glasses.

I couldn’t help but notice that we’d stopped discussing my trip home. Did I live here now? Would I need a new driver’s license and library card? What I needed was a plan, but something that wouldn’t piss him off. Harmony was important, because it would ensure my safety. I ate my sandwich, feeling jumpy and a little feverish.

It was hard to admit defeat. We didn’t love each other; we weren’t taking care of each other. We hardly spoke. I’d spent a month dreaming about living happily ever after in this off-the-grid cabin, and healing this man, and being healed. It was such a beautiful, fecund place, and I thought I could make it work. Maybe I could make it work now, but not at twenty-one.

The next morning, I made more ham sandwiches, and sat down next to him at the kitchen table.

“Hey…I’ve got to go home,” I said.

He ignored me, and ate his sandwich.

“My grandmother is very ill,” I said. That was true. “And I sense she’s taken a turn for the worse.” Granted, it was weak, but it was the best I could do.

“I guess Mormons are pretty fuckin’ family oriented,” he said. Again, true.

He said he would drive me to the airport the next day, but I didn’t quite believe him. It was a long drive, and he agreed too readily.

“I’d like you to take me to the Greyhound bus depot in town,” I said. “Today. Please.”

And he did.

That afternoon, we pulled up in front of the bus depot, hopped out, and he tossed my duffel onto the sidewalk.

“Don’t let anyone fuck you over,” he said, standing there on the sidewalk, facing me.


He didn’t seem eager to leave.

“Well, it’s been an experience for you, anyway,” he said.


I was torn between hating him and…not hating him.

“Humans beings are complex animals,” he said. He’d said that before, when he felt inadequate or threatened or confused.

“Yes,” I said, again, and he got in the truck.

“Don’t do coke!” he hollered from the open window.

“Okay!” I hollered back, waving. I’m sure he wanted to be helpful—to be of use—and that piece of advice came to mind. He drove off.


Once in the depot, I bought two Snickers bars and ate them. I purchased a ticket for American Fork (wrote a check…imagine). I called my aunt again, gave her my arrival time, and asked her to pass it on to my mom.

An hour later, I hopped on board. I would change buses in Sacramento, Reno, Elko, and Salt Lake City.

As we crossed into Nevada, a young man in red corduroy pants offered me half of his avocado sandwich, and I accepted. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Home,” I said. It was dark, and he encouraged me to sleep with my head on his shoulder. His kindness unhinged me, and I cried some, but quietly.

Late the next morning, we arrived in Salt Lake City (I’m sure my mom would have picked me up there, since it was only an hour from American Fork, but I wanted to get all the way by myself). I spent four hours in Salt Lake City, feeling kind of like a tourist, and kind of like a homeless person. I walked to Walgreen Drug, where they served food cafeteria-style, and loaded my tray with three pieces of cake and a glass of milk. I walked to ZCMI and bought a pair of underpants, using the last of my cash. (I had clean underpants in my duffel, but it was at the bus depot.) I took my purchase to the restroom, slid into the fresh underpants, and put the others in the trash. I washed my hands and face in the sink. I walked to the capitol building, and slept on the lawn.

At 4:30 that afternoon, about twenty-four hours after leaving Willits, I stepped off the bus in American Fork, in front of the Italian Place sandwich shop. Despite my efforts in the ZCMI restroom, my hair, teeth, and nails were filthy. I was wearing mud-splattered jeans, a stained T-shirt, brown leather boots that laced to my knees, and a huge canvas jacket. I smelled a little funky.

But my mom didn’t care. I saw her from half a block away, and we grinned at each other, and we threw our arms around each other. I’d never been so happy to see her, to smell her hair. She drove me to her house. Once inside, I looked around. “Has it always been this pretty?” I asked. I showered, and borrowed clean clothes. She took me to dinner, with my younger sister, and we ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. I could breathe easy. I was home.

I never saw Mark again (although I sent him a scathing letter, which I later regretted). I hope his personal ad eventually paid off, and he found someone to love. I hope he's still dazzling her nights and improving her daze.