Fall 1988

11/19/88

I’m in my third year of graduate school, a year of coursework away from starting my dissertation. I drive down to campus for a night of reading academic journals, but on the way to the library I meet four other graduate students (two I liked, one I despised, and Ginny, whom I have yet to realize has no interest in sleeping with me), who talk me into having a drink.

We go to a bar, cracked linoleum floors slick with grease and watery beer. Offer an opinion on Dukakis or Derrida or something like that, a Miller Lite argument, jocular and ill-informed, fully krausened and beachwood aged, utterly devoid of logic. The silly-jism is rejected with the mocking disdain it fully deserved.

Parked two blocks away. Stagger past the elevated station, consider riding back. How man, four? five? “You all right?” Hey pal, you’ve had more than any of us. See a crack in the sidewalk, place my right foot at the start, extend my arms wide — eloi eloi lama sabachthani, muddafugga — and walk across the crack like a canyon-spanning Wallenda. Don’t miss a step. All right, one. Close my eyes, extend my right index finger, pull back my hand, touch my nose. Bitchin’!

Get in the car. Five stoplights in the city. Can’t go too fast, or too slow either. Stay way behind whoever gets in front of me. Whatever you do, don’t swerve. Pass the fifth light, steer into a wide curve leading into Evanston. Nobody beside me… think I’m still in my lane. Three additional lights, two stop signs. Driven this road long enough to rely on muscle memory. After the third light, hang a left onto my street. Pull into the alley behind my apartment, find my spot. Made it.

Step into the apartment. Cold night, so my glasses fog when I get inside. Take the glasses off, put them in a jacket pocket. Look around; roommate’s home with parents. Alone, in the dark. Take off the jacket, hold it in right hand. Think about trip home. If a cop stopped me, would have been a certain DUI. Lose license, hefty fine, night in jail. A swift end to the life I’d been living.

I realize that’s what I had wanted. And I failed, just like I was failing at everything else.

I lift the jacket above my head, and fling it down on a metal chair. It’s not until the next morning that I realize my glasses, stored in a pocket, had been shattered.

***

Between January 1987 and November 1990, I did not wrap my car around a tree, get tossed out by any of my roommates, lose my graduate school stipend, have my stomach pumped in an emergency room, get fired for showing up late to work, have a sexual harassment complaint lodged against me, stumble into Lake Michigan and drown or suffer some other embarrassing accidental death on the streets or rail stations of Chicago, or have my ass kicked within an inch of my life by someone who decided I needed help with my self-destruction.

Which demonstrates yet again that it’s better to be lucky than good.

Life is composed of a number of transitions, and this one was a doozy. A curious five-year spiritual journey had ended at the same time I started graduate school. I was faced with a entire series of new experiences: managing my finances, sharing an apartment, teaching, working as a proofreader. I also declared myself ready for a serious romantic commitment, despite my fear of commitment. I wanted love, demanded it of the world, without knowing how to offer it.

I was also on an acne medication which has been linked to an increase in depression. An increase in alcohol consumption, a prerequisite for graduate study at my university, most likely compounded that side effect.

There were many new challenges to face at the start of my graduate studies. And a combination of poor decisions, bad luck, and unfortunate timing led me to a dark mental state which I never hope to visit again.

***

Her name was Meredith, but everybody called her Merry.

Actually nobody called her Merry, because her name wasn’t Meredith, since I’ve never known anyone named Meredith in my life. Meredith is a fiction, an amalgam of several women I knew at this time. Some of what will be written about Merry is based on reality, and some of it is entirely fictitious. , Merry was created in the hope that none of the women I actually knew at the time will be embarrassed at seeing herself in this melodrama.

Merry was from Nashville, and we didn’t attend the same college. She had moved to Chicago after graduation, and was a member of the church I attended between my undergraduate and graduate students. We became friends through the church’s young adult programs, but after I left the church I didn’t see her for two years. Towards the end of my first year of graduate study, we wound up on the same bus rout. I found Merry to be as bright, articulate, and fun to be around as I remembered, and we exchanged phone numbers.

We saw each other a few times over the course of six months. We enjoyed each other’s company. She knew I had left the church, but didn’t press me for an explanation; she saw I was struggling with dark emotions, but offered support rather than judgement. The problem, though, was me. I was desperately lonely, but too afraid to let anyone see how much of a mess I was. And she was committed to a church I had sworn never to visit again.

I stopped calling Merry. She left a couple messages I didn’t return. Perhaps Merry realized how messed up I was, and stopped calling because she knew what I needed at the time was not a girlfriend, but professional help, or maybe she decided it was time to move on. Whatever the truth might be, all I know for certain is that, after a few more random encounters at libraries and grocery stores, I haven’t seen Merry in over three decades.

***

After four years of stumbling, I finally got myself straightened out. I went into counseling for my depression. I switched my acne medication, and moderated my alcohol consumption. I got a job, which provided the stability I desperately needed. I started dating, and enjoyed learning about the women I met. By the time I met the woman to whom I’ve been married for a quarter century, I had controlled my self-destructive impulses.

I don’t believe in looking back, and wouldn’t change a thing if such an impossibility were available. So in order to complete the writing exercise I was recently assigned, I’m going to create another fictional character, one who’s much like me but managed to not push Merry away. Let’s call him Bernie, and imagine he allowed Merry to help him get straightened out a few years earlier than when I actually did. I want to see where Bernie ended up, after deciding to turn left instead of going straght.

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