Monday, September 29, 2008

XVIII: thickening chill

***This is the story of my marriage and divorce. If you are new to the story and want to catch up, you can do so here. If you can't remember where we last left off because I have left you hanging for so long, you can also read here.***

That February, when I finally gave in and allowed Mitch to take over the duty of assessing how much I was worth, was a cold one in so many respects. I had moved closer to my family but there was an icy tension in our visits. When Mitch was with me he didn't touch me or even look at me and he rarely interacted with anyone but my sister. His very presence in my parent's home had a chilling effect on the familiar warmth generally offered there. In my mind I was faking my way through the visits and assumed I was the only one monitoring his waning interest in me. After enduring the strained Sunday dinners or occasional drop-by, I would then have to gird up my emotional stamina to persevere the litany of grievances Mitch would hurl at me on the drive home. By his count, my parents never did enough for him. Specifically, there was the car. He presumed that when we married I would continue to drive the oh, so lovely and adventurous blue and rusting 1984 Pontiac 6000 which I often described as a "4wd in training." My sophomore year of college I drove that thing everywhere - I even managed to get it stuck in the snow on a desolate dirt road leading to the foothills a little south and east of Cedar City. My roommate and I had to trudge back through the snow hoping and literally praying that someone would happen by to drive us back to town. Amid the worrying about missing my late-afternoon jazz band rehearsal and the furtive prayers of pleeeeeeease let a non-psycho killer come and rescue us, we tried not to be afraid of the cows. Or more specifically, the bull. And, if my memory serves me correctly, we snapped photos of each other in our jewel-tone Victoria's Secret ribbon bras in an attempt to be "artsy." I have no idea what happened to those photos but I do remember being very afraid of our so-called rescuers who were three men supposedly on the lone road in search of a Christmas tree . . . in early-ish November. Feeling this was our only hope of rescue we climbed in and tried to ignore the smell of alcohol as we urged them to just drop us off at the first gas station we encountered at the edge of town.

But the deal I struck with my parents in getting married and becoming an independent adult did not include keeping the 6000. Instead, much to Mitch's disgust, my parents gave us the old 1979 Mazda GLC wagon, aka "The Mystery Mazda." The Mystery Mazda had a long and convuluted history that included years of being sent away, only to return boomerang fashion, or a la ressurrection as it continually rose from the dead. My parents inherited the car from my paternal grandparents at some vague time in the early 80s when I was still in the early years of elementary school. I have vivid memories of lying in the "backety back" (you know, the wagon part with no seats) driving home from Idaho Falls wondering how the moon managed to follow me home and also of burning circles into the humped carpet between the stick shift and parking brake. Later, I was sitting in the backety back (we didn't wear seat belts so much back in the day) with several flats of fruit my mom had just purchased at the fruit stands along 800 North in Orem when the back hatch flew open. I started shrieking to "stop! Stop! STOP!!!!!" and wondered why my mom was taking so long to heed my cries, not comprehending as an 8-year old the consequences of my mom slamming on the brakes and stopping as abruptly as I demanded. In junior high we learned the value of the seatbelt in that car when my mom was cut off in traffic and had to veer to the side of the road to avoid a collision. I was sitting in the passenger seat and we discovered her lightening fast compulsive arm swing across my lap which I had toppled right over and onto the floor was insufficient to brace against actual impact. I solemnly buckled up then and there and have done so (save for in the back seat of cabs for an inexplicable reason) compulsively ever since. But sometime before I turned 16 the Mystery Mazda died and was sent away. I assumed the illness was terminal and did not expect to see it again.

But lo, it made a glorious return to our family in time for my senior year of high school shortly after my first car - the nerdmobile, which was always a bit of a poseur trying to live up to the truly great brown wagon that was the Mystery Mazda - was sent away for good. It was christened the Mystery Mazda for unknown reasons in those early days of its return for the many adventures - both good and bad - that were shared within its remarkably sturdy interior. The radio rarely worked and required some banging of the dash with a fist which sometimes toppled my plastic dinosaurs that were wedged in under the windshield. There was an accident in which the driver's side doors were rendered useless and the door frame stuck out an inch or two from the roof resulting in a creative patch work solution of duct tape, that foamy strip insulation stuff and some plastic. The driver's side window didn't roll down for a period either so a drive-through window meant reclining the driver's side seat fully and ordering and retrieving items through the back window. A tricky maneuver I perfected involving the parking brake, unclasping the seat belt, rolling down the back window, reclining the seat and shouting out an order and then leaning forward to pull through to the window (with the seat reclined) and then pulling up the parking brake again and crawling back to retrieve the food. Luckily I was usually with friends who helped, unless they wanted to witness my acrobatics. The ash tray was always full of coins and usually held enough to purchase a 99 cent bean burrito at Taco Bell. The horn never worked which resulted in me developing a terrible habit of hitting it at the slightest provocation to express my road range and a foreign exchange student friend from Denmark inexplicably deciding oinking was a good horn substitute. I doubt all Danes (or more than just the one) oink at other cars but in my mind they do. The oinking eventually morphed into a language of encouragement anytime the car was in poor spirits - which was often. One night, due to the peculiar inability of high school students to travel in more than one car regardless of number (or was that just my friends?), I was driving to some long forgotten destination on the west side of the Salt Lake valley along I-215 when the car began to lose power. The overly packed car of girls started oinking and, we believed, this got us to a Chevron at the near-by Redwood Road exit where the lucky shot-gun rider unloaded all 6 to 8 of us through the back hatch. Because we thought it was funny. I know, you so wish you could have hung out with me in high school. We were awesome. And cool [HA!]. All the Mystery Mazda needed that day was gas. But more often than not, the treatments were more complex. Sometimes the problems were of my own making - like when my sister and I decided we wanted to fish in a more remote lake in the Uintas and drove the Mazda into some backcountry roads where only jeeps dared tread. We lost the muffler and very likely destroyed the shocks but I think my dad was too proud of his off-road, thrill-seeking daughters to scold us. With all its failings, the aging Mystery Mazda did not travel to school with me my freshman year save for a week at Thanksgiving during which I made the most of having a car and made a couple of treks to Zion National Park.

But after another period of sequestered renovation and a year of driving the 6000, the Mystery Mazda returned in all its glory to my possession when I married Mitch. The driver's door was fixed and everything else was put back in running order. I didn't mind. I loved the Mystery Mazda despite its many, many faults. I had participated in too many high school drive-bys, ill-advised road trips and late night "talks" to hate the car. But Mitch hated it. And he hated my parents for it, despite the fact that it was a free car. For whatever reason he felt entitled to receiving a car from them - as if they owed it to him, or at least to me, despite the fact his parents did not give us a car. All they gave us was a vcr on our wedding day during our first private moments together as a married couple. And all this despite the fact that he did not own a car or offer to go to the effort to purchase one. It was yet another point of contention to say the least.

He thought so little of the car that he had no qualms in driving it into the ground. I don't think he ever fully understood how to drive a stick and he rode the clutch incessantly. He tore the bumper off backing out of our covered parking spot and he never bothered to check the oil - a near-sin in my mind since that was the demise of my nerdmobile, seizing of the engine after failure to check the oil. He left garbage lying around inside and treated it like a junker and it, in turn, started acting like one. After surviving all my mom's errand running with four small children bouncing around the back with a German Shepard and who knows what mistreatments during its dead years in some auto shop and my high school friends and I climbing over seats and shoving too many people in - the interior wasn't really wrecked until Mitch came along. Despite all its shortcomings, I loved it for its persistence. Or, at least, my dad's persistence in keeping it running.

It was an especially snowy winter in early 1996. I was working almost due west from where I was living - a commute that did not lend itself well to anything but a car. With only one car, we had to get creative. Which meant Mitch would drive me to work in the morning and pick me up at the end of the day and lie to me about looking for a job or going to a job or exactly what he was doing during the intervening hours of the day while I toiled away in the most ergonomically tortuous position possible in an office setting. I sat at a desk too low for my knees in a chair ill-suited for the human form at a keyboard situated too high for the hours of typing required by my employer who referred to me in the miniature tapes he piled in my in-box as "steno" back in the days before carpel tunnel became an every-day office complaint. I typed out the hours of dictation by pedaling the tape machine on and off with my foot and tried to ignore the seemingly steel-tipped head phones burrowing unwanted piercings into my ear canals. I was sequestered to the back cubicle of a room which no one ever entered except when an insurance adjuster returned from an accident site and dropped a new tape in my inbox from the opposite side of the cubicle wall without so much as a hello. My shoulders and ears and back ached incessantly. There was no email, no internet, no cell phones, I didn't even have a desk phone of my own. If I wanted to place a call (and this was strongly discouraged), I had to use the one near the door to this small oddly, cubicled office which was primarily there for me to use when I covered for the receptionist's lunch break. All I had was an aging (even then) computer with a form to fill in with the dictator's rushed words.

But worse yet, I had no ally. I believe one can survive even the worst jobs with a co-conspirator. Often we find the most surprising friendships when thrown into difficult work situations - whether they are long-lasting or just to endure the trial of the job. But everyone else was permanent and I was a "temp" and therefore sequestered out of fear I might contaminate the others . . . or something. I had to prove myself before they were willing to pay me more than $6.50 an hour or whatever piddly amount I collected for their torture. I sat at the same table in the break room with the other stenographers who happily chatted away about their enviable lives - the complaints they made of their husbands seemed so very minor to what I was facing and yet, I took it as an excuse for my own. . . everyone struggled in marriage, I guessed. When I was included in conversation it was mostly belittling. I was younger than the others but not by much. I was not yet 21 and the other girls were in their later 20s. Perhaps they resented me for my youth. But whatever it was I cringed when they focused on me. They pointedly asked about my husband - what does he do? At one point he worked at Gart Brothers, another he worked for an auto parts store but most of the time I believe he played Nintendo and spent money on items I never saw. I was reassured that they had each quit school once they got married and tried to ignore the knowing glances they exchanged after I insisted I would be starting school again in the spring, I was just in the process of transferring. I dreaded becoming one of them and yet I longed to be accepted by them.

Valentine's Day was the worst. The other girls (I think there were three) spoke in fast, high pitched tones on the days leading up to the 14th about their lofty hopes for the day. One girl in particular stands out in my mind and in that fuzzy image she is perpetually wearing yellow stretch pants and an oversized sweater with permed hair tied up in a scrunchy. She was pregnant and completely self-absorbed. Lunch conversation revolved around and was led by her. For Valentine's she received the largest bouquet of red roses I had seen to that date, which isn't saying a lot since I had never received more than a single rose (and never from my husband) and due to my dad's allergies, my mom never got flowers at home either, but I had seen some stunning roses delivered to my freshman roommate so I felt I could judge. Yet, at lunch she lamented how off her husband was in pleasing her. She just knew he had not purchased whatever precious item her heart desired. I was jealous and tried desperately to concentrate on my meager lunch and sink into my slightly removed corner of the table but inevitably she asked what was in store for me. I fingered the new locket hanging around my neck and quickly elaborated the story of its origin with sweet elements of thoughtfulness on my husband's part as I showed off the pictures of Mitch and I inside.

The truth was we had been in Shopko a week or two earlier where I had spotted it. I never wore much jewelery but the romanticism of a simple, every day locket appealed to me. I pointed it out to Mitch and hinted that maybe he could get it for me for Valentine's Day and he shrugged and said "why don't you buy it" and walked away to look at something that could hold his interest. I tried to get him to buy it but he shrugged and said it wouldn't make any difference so I bought it knowing if I didn't I wouldn't be getting anything. I carefully cut up one of our left-over sepia-toned wedding announcement photos and placed our photos inside but waited to wear it until Valentine's Day. I felt it was a lie when I said it was a gift from him because he wasn't involved in the process one bit.

At the time, my dad played cello in a community orchestra which performed an annual fundraiser ball at the Capitol each February. The seats were pricey but my dad gave us a couple of sets of tickets and encouraged us to go with friends. I had never been and was excited at the prospect of getting dressed up and dancing with my husband. He agreed to go if he could invite his best friend Benji and his girlfriend Christy. I consented because I wanted him to go. As with the locket gift, I embellished the story of the ball to emphasize how elaborate and well-thought out the night was planned by my husband when describing it to my co-workers, when reality was very different. No one dared dance at the ball because none of us knew how to waltz or do anything but sway back and forth and turn in circles when dancing in pairs. Essentially we knew how to hug in relative time with music. I still wanted to try it out as others were doing but Mitch refused. I left that part out. But the real reason I embellished the evening to my co-workers wasn't necessarily to show off or misrepresent my marriage, I really thought it was a magical evening. Relatively.

Things had been so hard and Mitch was less and less interested in me all the time and that night, after the ball we went to Benji's apartment to soak in his apartment's hot tub and watch a movie. I have no idea what I wore to that ball or what I did to suddenly become enticing to my husband again but after we changed into our suits and we were sitting on the couch waiting for the other couple to reappear, he turned into the horny teenager he had been before we married. He could not keep his hands off me and before long we were completely making out on the couch and I felt a little scandolous and attractive. We didn't stay for the movie and instead quickly made our way home for a rare night of actual love making. It stands out in my mind due solely to the singularity of it. Which is a tragic thing in a marriage.

But the only real acknowledgement of Valentine's Day I received was a giant heart-shaped cookie in a brown paper bag my parents dropped off on their way home from work. By then the fleeting attraction Mitch had regained had waned and we were back to our daily plodding without a word for the special dinner I was concocting. I still remember my parents standing awkwardly in my living room as I removed the cookie trying not to reveal how touching a cookie was on a day that felt so devoid of love for me while Mitch was off in the wings somewhere to avoid them. It was snowing so they didn't stay long. Or at least that was everyone's excuse.

Needless to say, by the end of each work day, I could not wait to see the Mystery Mazda's crooked little smile pull into the industrial park with my dumb little dog Stuart panting in the back seat to take me away. Mitch was usually still wearing a flannel shirt and sweat pants with a baseball cap when he picked me up - the same thing he wore when he dropped me off - and he was often animated about some new scheme or another he enthusiastically relayed to me as we drove back across town to our apartment where the living room floor was almost always damp from snow somehow leaking in. Mitch continued to talk as I prepared dinner and sunk deeper into myself upon realizing I must first clean the kitchen because once again, Mitch did nothing while I was away all day.

One early morning in February the snow was falling pretty rapidly. I think Mitch tried to convince me to not go in so he wouldn't have to make the round-trip drive in the snow but I knew how precious each hour of work was to our precarious financial situation so we ventured out, leaving early to account for the harsh condition of the roads. We didn't make it far. We turned out of our neighborhood just north of 3900 South onto State Street and while waiting our turn to make a left onto 3300 South, the Mystery Mazda died. In the middle of the intersection. During a near-blizzard. Amid the rush and short-tempers of morning traffic. Mitch completely lost his temper and blamed the embarrasment and inconvenience of the moment on me. On my parents. On this f#*&ing car that was a piece of junk. I wouldn't have dared to try giving it a few encouraging oinks to bring levity to the situation as I would have in years past. With Mitch these situations do not lend themselves to levity of any sort. He just wanted to lash out. And I was there to take it. All I could do was worry about how to get to work. Someone pushed us into the gas station across the street and I called my dad. Mitch complained about how long it took for him to arrive and about how cold it was and pretty much anything else he could think of. I called work, explained the situation and was told I needed to get there as quickly as possible because I was the only one coming in that day so it was vital I be there. Everyone else stayed home due to the bad weather.

My dad came to our rescue and handled everything. He explained the situation to the gas station attendant so they wouldn't tow our car. He took me to work and made all arrangements to repair the car. I believe he even returned at the end of the day to pick me up from work where I had sat doing practically nothing all day while my co-workers enjoyed their snow day at home. And yet, Mitch continued to think my parents did nothing for us and told me the same.

The car was repaired but it never fully recovered. There were other stranded moments and my parents were our dependable rescuers. Even when it was just Mitch, needing a jump in the parking lot after work (he occasionally had a job) when it might have been easier to ask a co-worker. Although I'm not sure he would have known how to work the jumper cables.

Despite how much he hated our car, he monopolized it. He shuttled me around or I begged rides off my parents or occasionally a sibling. On another particularly snowy day - I could swear every day was unusually snowy that winter - Mitch thought it would work best if I took the bus home from work. He had something or other he deemed more important than collecting me after work so I decided to try navigating the complex bus route which required a minimum of two bus transfers. The first bus supposedly stopped at the corner near my office and took me to Valley Fair Mall. It never came so I walked on the shoulder of the road trying to stay out of the snow drifts created by the plows as the streets grew darker in the early winter dusk. Wet and tired and increasingly furious I finally made it to my transfer point after an hour or so's walk without ever seeing a bus. After another 20-30 minute wait I boarded a bus that I hoped would put me in the vicinity of my home. It was in the vicinity but still a significant walk in my sketchy neighborhood in the now black and gray darkness of a snowy winter night. The later it got the more I convinced myself that Mitch was worried about me. While I was waiting for my bus at Valley Fair Mall I debated whether I should run to the pay phone and try and call Mitch to let him know how the commute was going but feared I would miss the bus so I didn't. When I arrived home, wet, tired, hungry and angry I envisioned Mitch running to the door insisting I dry off and warm up and eat some dinner before I had to rush out the door again. I assumed he would notice that despite the fact I had left work a bit before 5 it was nearly 7:30 pm. He didn't. And I didn't have time to be upset or confront him because when I walked in the door he was joking with brother and they greeted me curiously. Mitch indicated that he thought I said I wouldn't be home because of that "thing" I had for school. Yes, that "thing" I had was transfer orientation at the University of Utah and it was at 730 and how could I have possibly gotten there without the car? I barely managed to get home! But I didn't have time to argue or even lament his thoughtlessness, I could only grab the materials I needed for the orientation and the car keys and run back out into the cold and hold back the tears as I drove to the U praying the heater would kick in soon.

By the time I got home I was energized by how well my transfer orientation had gone and the fact that I was retaining the bulk of my transfer credits and how I had convinced my counselor that I did not need more math! I viewed starting school again as the cure-all. I would escape my mind-numbing job and all would be well with the world again because my life would have a purpose. I was losing my music minor but had talked the counselor into some creative uses for the credits and I discovered I was still on track to graduate on time even with my quarter off and the transfer. I had selected my courses for the coming quarter and voiced - for the first time - my desire to possibly go to law school and inquired as to what "pre-law" might entail (nothing, if you are wondering). My head was dancing with the possibilities as I drove home and I was also anticipating a hot meal waiting for me since Mitch and his brother were cooking when I rushed in and out a couple of hours earlier. When I walked in the apartment later that evening Mitch's brother was still there and the smell of dinner still lingered in the air. The memory of my soggy slog home earlier was wiped clean by the anticipation of getting back to school.

But my high spirits were quickly slashed down to size when I was told there wasn't any food left. None. Mitch's brother snuck out as my face fell and my voice tone dropped. Mitch threw something back at me about assuming I had eaten. I tried to fight back but gave up, I didn't want to ruin the evening completely so I took my materials and went to bed hungry clinging to the dream that starting school again would fix everything.


autumn said...

Good post! I completely agree about how a bad job can be tolerable if you've got a friend. Some of my most unexpected friendships have come from working bizarre jobs.

I also liked how you remember the weather. I always remember what the weather is like when I look back on sad times. Interesting.

Tiffany said...

Coldness everywhere--outside in the snow, inside the office, inside the marriage. Good theme.

And the car is a great character.

And I don't like that ex-husband of yours. I don't like him at all.

It's amazing to read this story, picturing a girl I never knew compared to the woman I know now. So interesting and so great to read through this distant lense. Your ability to recall details is amazing.

Soul-Fusion said...

thanks for finding a theme in this mess Tiff - I think I can now come up with a better title.

katie said...

I think I'm having vivid memories of that mystery mazda. And really.....I can 100% see you all oinking at the car.

michele said...

i swear the oinking got us to the gas station!

and i agree with tiffany, i don't like this ex-husband of yours at all either.

lizzie said...

the good ol' mystery mazda! very good post.

Annie said...

mitch makes me so angry!!!

and i too can see the oinking. why am i NOT suprised one bit!!!

KamilahNYC said...

Hey Alyssa -
I am finally caught up in your horrible saga. I can't believe you went through all of this. All I can say, other than being shocked, disgusted, hurt for you,etc, is that meeting you after the fact and not knowing anything about your "prior life" I am just amazed how wonderful you are. I think the first time I met you was at your apartment where you threw some fabulous party for Wendy. And then realized how selfless you were, throwing parties for many at your awesome apartment. It's amazing how resilient and strong the human spirit is and how you must be stronger than most to not only get out of a situation as horrible as this, but to thrive afterward. Thanks for letting me peer into your life!!

Anonymous said...

Total lurker here... found your blog via another blog I lurk. :-)

I am totally moved by your documentation of your divorce.

I am, of course, completely oblivious to how successful or fulfilling your law career is, but I would personally urge you to write more.

Have you tried your hand at fiction? Your non-fiction/autobiographical writings here are fantastic, so I'm just curious.

Also: as a married non-Mormon Christian, I have been praying for you in several aspects of your life.

Thanks for letting us read.

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