19 February 2001
In 1997, during the darkest, bleakest period of my life (being recently widowed at the time), I did something especially sensible: I bought a brand-new Jeep Cherokee, allowing my late husband’s Toyota Camry, called Frankencar (because it was built from the carcasses of three dead Camrys) to go to its final resting place.
Now, despite all the anti-SUV mania around, the Jeep was an immensely practical car for me at the time: I lived in Vermont, where 4 wheel drive is more of a necessity than a luxury. I wanted to believe that I’d be getting back into woodworking, so I wanted something that I could lay plywood flat in. Believe it or not, most SUV openings are less than 48″ wide, even if only by a little bit. Weird, since a lot of people haul 4′ x 8′ sheets of drywall or plywood or something.
While I could have bought a truck, I also wanted something I could haul other people in. Since the Jeep spent a lot of time with three or more people in it, that was probably a very good choice.
At the time I bought the Jeep, I was underemployed and technically homeless, staying at a friend’s while in transition. I bought it with the spoils from a client who’d tried to cheat me (such a lovely thing to try to pull on the newly widowed, no?) and as a representation of something in my life that I could depend on. For I had lost everything I cared about. The other thing that came out of that was the money for Odyssey, a fiction writing workshop. This pair of expenditures (and their funding source) was a symbol of my toughness, my refusal to give up despite having lost everything.
Until I sold my Jeep the other day, I didn’t realize how much it meant to me. And, ironically, I wouldn’t have realized how much it meant to me if I hadn’t remarried.
Last week was Valentine’s Day and, though I’d been married before, it was the first one I celebrated while married. No fault of my husband’s, but it was a lousy day. First of all, I was on edge all day. I knew I was on edge, but I thought it was because I’d been ill, or because I was tired, or because my job was a source of stress. But I’d be wrong about all of those. In fact, it was simply a) that the first time I was married, my husband died before our first V-day as a married couple and b) we’d been married five months when he died. Getting remarried in September, well, guess what day that magic interval fell on? Right. The same time between the first marriage and my husband’s sudden death from a stroke was the same interval between the date of my second marriage and V-day.
Or, as I joked with a friend, the first husband hadn’t made it to Valentine’s day so I’d married later in the year this time.
So, after the end of Valentine’s Day, I started feeling a weight lift off of me. Part of me couldn’t really LIVE until after “the day” had passed when I’d been married longer than I had the first time. And, during the last six weeks, that “waiting for the other shoe to drop” really took its toll. I knew it was there, I just didn’t know what it was. I can only describe it in acoustic terms: it’s like some annoying noise, like someone clawing on a chalkboard, has started out so slowly and increased over time so much that you aren’t aware of the noise, only the irritation it brings. And then, suddenly, the noise stops and you look around and go, “I put up with that for HOW long?”
It had gotten worse since I got back from my grad school (MA in Writing Popular Fiction) residency. There’s a long story to that, but basically my late husband was jealous of my skills as a fiction writer and subtly sabotaged them. He’d make innocent remarks like, “Well, obviously YOU’RE the novelist in the family,” but the intonation was clear. Not long after we started living together in 1994, I stopped writing fiction. After he died, I thought I’d never write again. Then I went on anti-depressants and felt differently. I wrote a story and was admitted to Odyssey, a six-week science fiction writing workshop. I did it to prove to myself that I could still write. I wrote while there and proved it to myself, but there was something still missing. I found it really difficult to write fiction, difficult in a way I hadn’t before. In September 2000 I wrote a story that I knew was good. Not perfect, but better than others I’d done. I was admitted into grad school, but when I came back from the residency, I was honestly terrified: write a novel in two years?
This is ironic: I used to write trash novels for pay before meeting my late husband—they took me, on average, six to eight weeks. I’ve also written four technical books. I know how to do it, I know I can do it, but some part of me was afraid I couldn’t do it now. I literally sat there and shook over it for a while.
Last night, looking around me, my long-time obsession with knitting suddenly made sense to me: it was something safe to excel at, something that my late husband wouldn’t be jealous about. Woodworking was sort of taboo because it was a “guy thing.” Computers he hated, though I later found out that was a posture that he hadn’t expressed before. I was good at them, thus he had to dislike them. You see how these calculations go. Well, in order to live with them, I sabotaged myself. People do that, often without realizing. I just didn’t know how to end the sabotage.
And then I knew that I still had a tie to that bleak period: the car. I’d been planning on getting another car, not for a reason that made sense to me, but suddenly I understood the logic. Well, OK, not suddenly, but I understood it after I actually parted with the car. I needed to cut the tie between the old life and the new in order to really feel like I wasn’t just marking time but was actually living. So, Friday night, not actually planning to buy a new car, I came home with one. A nice one, with leather seats even. I’d been to three dealerships that day and finally one of them made me a deal I could live with, one I was actually enthused about.
Then the roof fell in, metaphorically speaking. Everything I’d been holding off came up and sandbagged me. I had a lousy weekend, despite having a nice new car and a wonderful drive with the family. Suddenly, I’m able to concentrate on work, fiction writing, and all sorts of other things. Weird, huh?
So I’m late on my first grad school submission. I was being really hard on myself for being a bit too frozen to write quickly. I’ve been working on it, just hadn’t gotten the word count on what I was supposed to be writing. I did, however, manage to write an out-of-genre short story during the six weeks. However, now that the noise has stopped, I think it’ll be a whole lot easier. Not just writing, but living.
The Jeep had a lot of interesting memories: driving with friends to go listen to open mic nights in Vermont in winter; driving around Odyssey, especially going food shopping with my Orthodox roommate Naomi; driving across Flagstaff in an El Nino whiteout with three screaming cats when the only thing I could find on the radio was a Fresh Air interview with Marilyn Manson (the cats having tired of Herb Alpert, the only tape I’d packed); visiting my stepmother in Albuquerque; driving up to San Francisco to visit my now-husband Rick only to find my car vandalized; driving through ice storms; overheating the brakes crossing over Yosemite to visit my dad.
The Jeep was a total champ. In four years and 86,000 miles, the only things I had to do (other than the routine maintenance) were change the tires and have one brake job. During that period of my life when I couldn’t even rely on myself, the Jeep was a source of stability in my life. May its next owner appreciate it the way I did.