Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, Part 21 (the final chapter)
Having returned from the reading at The CAST, which went from exhilarating to extinguishing in the span of ten minutes when Baby Huey put the kibosh on any further performances, Karen and I went into a kind of cordial limbo, and I fell into an increasingly isolating funk. I drank more beer for lunch, got fatter, and I even had to replenish Sandra’s pack of Merits. Hank and I got together for lunch at Taco Bell one afternoon and he could tell I needed to get outta Dodge.
“I know you love your lady, bro,” he said to me over Burrito Supremes and overcooked churros. “But you gotta get up to L.A.. That Seinfeld you wrote was funny as sh-t, you can’t make a go at it from here.”
Of course he was right, I simply couldn’t make the break yet. In the parking lot, Hank slipped me the joint I’d asked him to bring for me. “Cheer up, my friend. We’re still young.”
And being young didn’t help me with Karen, that was also true. Just break it. Just go. It’s long past time.
* * * * * * * *
My unemployment running low, my back sore and stiff 24/7, and rather than move north as any properly inclined young lad would do with similar desires and requirements, I took a bizarre little job at a company called SeaMarks, where my friend DJ worked. Three factors convinced me to take the position: it was easy; it was a paycheck; and it would allow me to remain just as isolated as I was at home. It was perfect for me. Exactly what I didn’t need.
SeaMarks sold ship-to shore-to ship communications systems for fishing, freight, and other ocean and river fleets. This was just before the cellular revolution, and this system, while convenient compared to the other options at the time, still required messages be typed on the boat, transmitted to our office, where employees such as myself would then retype the messages and send them to their recipient craft. Just labor intensive enough to require slackers like myself willing to work midnight shifts for wages barely more than their former unemployment checks.
I always worked graveyard, and many times another shift on top of that on weekends, usually alone in the office, which was in a newer and nicer Golden Triangle tower. The job allowed me plenty of time to write, and I spent a good deal of time working on a Simpson’s spec or rewriting my monologue. But mostly I snoozed. Though we weren’t supposed to sleep, it was always so slow that nodding off on the office couch was inevitable. The printer, an old dot-matrix lawnmower, was always my alarm, alerting me with a ripping unpleasantness to a new message in need of transmission. For the most part, for the few months I was there, the messages tended to be of the intensely unimportant variety. Mostly bored mariners needling fellow captains out in the Atlantic: about whose anchor was bigger, who could drink more whiskey while hanging upside down, which greenhorn was the biggest idiot. Sometimes we’d even call a friend or family member onshore to let them know when a certain sailor would return from sea or to convey some other piece of vital info (“He says the spare keys are in the bottom drawer on a naked lady keychain”). I’m fairly certain, if my memory is not too fractured, that the Atlantic fishing fleet we served is the same one which included some of the boats involved in the monster storm in October of 1991, which was after I’d left SeaMarks. The storm, which battered the fleet and sank the swordfishing vessel Andrea Gail, taking all aboard, was the subject of “The Perfect Storm,” Sebastian Junger’s riveting book and the subsequent film with George Clooney. I remember staring at our map on the computer screen late at night, seeing the little blips in the middle of the endless black that represented boats on the ocean, names of the vessels attached to the blips. As I read Junger’s book, the boat names sounded familiar, and the knot grew a little larger in my stomach as I continued to the dreadful end. Even if memory fails and I’m mistaken, the computer screen in that lonely 2 a.m. SeaMarks office is darker and lonelier in memory than I know it was in life.
“Hey, wake up! Come on! Hey!”
The nudge was firm on my shoulder, the dialect South African in origin and angry in tone, which, I gradually realized, meant one thing: the boss had caught me napping. I looked up at Andrew Koolmees and saw he was wearing a burgundy jogging suit, along with a stern Afrikaner frown on his bald and flabby late fifties head.
“Get up! I don’t pay you to sleep.”
Actually, I should’ve replied, on balance you do. Stifling my attitude, I got up and stumbled to the desk, where I sat in a fog as Koolmees went into the storage room, muttering about what a louse I was. What the hell was he doing here on a Sunday morning before seven? I wondered, as I noticed a big drool spot I’d left on the couch. I only hoped he didn’t see it. Then he emerged from the storage room with an armful of deflated helmets, and I realized what had brought him here to hassle me. A man of many business talents and schemes, he’d been making plenty on SeaMarks, and would make more as a result of a partnership with then fledgling Qualcomm that had garnered him some very attractive stock that paid off years later. That Sunday, however, he was picking up samples of his latest venture, a product that he had designed: an inflatable, wearable football helmet from your favorite team. As far as sports fan trinkets go, it was a brilliant and simple idea. And it was about to make him another bundle. I’d heard from DJ he’d just gotten the licensing rights that would allow him to market the helmets for dozens of pro and college teams, and that he had a lot of orders already. Great, I thought, more fat for his wallet to make up for the tiny something else. He probably cut little holes in his bills so he could literally have sex with his money.
“Pretty soon everyone will be wearing these,” Koolmees boasted as he approached with his armful of flattened vinyl helmets. “I’m gonna make a fortune on these stupid things.”
“I bet you will,” I replied, “It’s a great idea.” And I despised myself immediately for stroking the ego of Andrew Apartheid, er, Koolmees.
“And don’t sleep again. I’ll be coming back to check.”
Yap yap yap. I knew he wouldn’t come back. Even if he did, I was fine, I’d be wide awake, I did just have a good night’s sleep after all. When Koolmees exited, I believe that the lights in the office, ever so slightly, brightened.
Most everything else, however, seemed much more dim. If anything could’ve kept Karen and me apart, aside from literally breaking up as a couple, it was me having a job where I worked graveyard shifts during the week and usually sixteen hour double-shifts on weekends. I remember several weekend lunches in the office, alone with Karen, the two of us conversing decreasingly, and interrupted only by the outboard motor of a printer letting me know there was a captain somewhere off the coast of New England who needed to tell a another captain that he was owed a case of beer, or a night with that captain’s new girlfriend, or something of a similarly emergency nature.
Late in my relatively brief SeaMarks tenure, I actually quit for a week, convinced I couldn’t stand the hours anymore. This was the week I worked the P.A. gig on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast of the Padres/Pirates game from Jack Murphy Stadium. I met Jon Miller and his gushing armpits, and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. I got to walk out onto a major league field, and I hung out at the end of the dugout with bench players. And I forgot to leave Karen’s keys for her that morning, which led to a chilly exchange when Shauna, made late for her own appointment because of my thoughtlessness, gave her a ride to retrieve the keys. Karen laid me low: I was young, selfish, and irresponsible. Check, check, and check. Then, when I tried to call her later and apologize more, I found out she’d gone out with Brian, her ex-boyfriend. Boom. Brian, the older guy, who drove the nice car, made the good living selling medical supplies, or real estate, or something that came with much more responsibility and money than day gigs as an ESPN lackey or graveyard shifts sending barbs from one salty dog to another. I was done, out the door, this was it. I was gone. I got very drunk that night. I tried calling Karen a few times, but only got through to her answering machine. They were f-cking each other’s brains out, the visions were dancing and stomping stilettos into my skull. I passed out that night certain we’d have it out about Brian in the morning.
But we never even talked about it. Not a peep. I was too afraid to bring him up. After a day of silence, we reunited and spent the night at her place. We didn’t have many nights remaining on our card, maybe a few dances left now. Single digits.
* * * * * * * *
Shortly after ESPN and Karen’s mysterious night with Brian, Karen stopped living with Shauna and moved. She rented a private wing in a sprawling house high on the bouldered slopes of Mt. Helix. The panoramic view from her bedroom window and balcony stretched out to the ocean, south to Mexico, and north, on an especially clear day, to Catalina. It was out that window late one night that we shared a front row seat for a rare and intense San Diego lightning storm. Captivated as we had been on the train across the northern great plains, when lightning had crackled from charcoal gray clouds across infinite fields of gargantuan blooming yellow sunflowers. Now we sat in stillness on her bed and stared out the window like children again. Blinding bolts crashed down across the hilly landscape. Kapow! Kabam! Boom-crackle-Boom! Kabam! The house shook, the lightning flashed so often it seemed at times like a strobe light. Eyes weary from lack of sleep, we could not look away. The show went on for an hour, like something I’d expect at my father’s place in the Dixie, but not in southern California. It seemed as strange and beautiful as snow would have. A few minutes later, Karen and I fell asleep in each other’s arms, for the last time that I can clearly recall.
I continued working on my scripts, and it was at this time that I found out Seinfeld had filled their writing slots, that my freakshow of an agent had gotten back to them too late, that she had never pushed me early and hard as she should have after they had loved my spec script a few months earlier. Useless. I had to be in L.A., I had to up there, it could never work down here. And yet, just as acutely, I had to be with Karen’s love, I had to be with it, I could never work without it. More certain knowledge. More gnawing pains and symptoms. My back felt wretched all the time, I was sneezing and taking allergy pills daily. And my stomach was a demolition zone. I remember being deathly afraid of eating things back then like cheesecake or Alfredo sauce, or other dairy delights. They’d eat me alive, make me throw up or go right through me so fast they hardly had time to chat. I had to be allergic. And the effect of these lactose-laden goodies today? Nothing. Fine and dandy. Ridiculous.
And so it went in my addled brainbody: Go. Stay. Go. Stay. Go. Stay. Go.
Finally, and unbelievably, I went. What sent me north, however, wasn’t a heart to heart discussion between Karen and I, or a climatic argument about Brian or me or anything else, it was Sandra, my roommate. She informed Ulf and me that, with their wedding date a mere six weeks away, she and Chris were finally moving in together. She’d be moving out of the 32nd Street house in two weeks. Ulf turned to me, smiling oddly, and he asked if I would be staying in the house. “Just you and me, yes? We make fun.”
Hello, Los Angeles!
It wasn’t that simple, of course, nor was Ulf an ogre or anything approaching. But my bare white room in that bare white house repelled me. And I was sad about our kitten, Puddy. We had been forced to put him to sleep the previous week, when he’d contracted a parasite that ate him alive in a few days, or maybe it was feline leukemia rearing its head again (as it had with Karen’s cat), but they couldn’t be sure. Not surprisingly, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to go to the vet with Sandra. The charming little sleeve leaper was gone, and without him the house had lost what little charm it had.
Sandra moved out first. We gave each other a hug, and I said I’d miss having a cute roommate who answered the door naked.
“Shut up, I don’t even remember that, it’s so embarrassing. You’re coming to the wedding, right?”
“Of course I am.”
But I wouldn’t; I’d be too afraid to ruin it by showing up as a single dark cloud.
Ulf was next to leave. I remember nothing about his departure except the unshowered smell of his room after he’d gone. You never would have known he’d moved out. It was in the walls, I think.
I was the last one. The place was empty except for my paltry possessions. That night, my last in the house, I spent alone.
The night before I actually moved to L.A., I’m certain I spent at Karen’s on Mt. Helix. But I remember nothing of it. I don’t remember any tearful goodbyes, no long nights of passionate sex, nothing. Except Karen saying we’d be fine.
“We’ll make it work. You have to go.”
I believed her. I had to. I was so green. And if I weren’t, I never would’ve left.
* * * * * * * *
Late the next morning, in the middle of 1991, my second stepfather arrived at the Normal Heights house in a rickety pickup truck to help me move out. With him were my little brother – then 16, skinny and small for his age, but a great kid, nothing but a good heart – and my stepfather’s old friend from Saipan, Manny, who weighed about 400 pounds and walked with a cane, his Carolinian girth covered in a tropically printed shirt that must have required a circus tent of fabric to produce. Manny mostly watched, and chewed his Betel nut, as we shuttled my meager belongings into the bed of the truck. My desk, chair, and mattress were the only pieces of furniture.
I would follow them on the drive north for the next three hours – back spasms biting into me, my leg burning in pain – as my elderly stepfather drove 48 miles an hour, at most, from onramp to off. I’d been pitifully slow to make this inevitable move, I might as well make the final drive just as slowly. But all I could think about was Karen, and how lonely I already felt. I wasn’t going to take Hollywood by storm, I thought, cursing myself. I wasn’t going to get myself into the mix. Nothing would change, only my address. This was such a mistake. My back, ever reliable, began to hurt so badly that increasingly I could ponder little else but its physical anguish. It was going to be locked up entirely when we got to L.A., I knew it would be, and I’d be hunched over like a geriatric. I had the spine of an eighty year-old man. That’s all I could figure back then, all I'd been told. Poor kid.
“We’ll make it work. You have to go.”
We’ll make it work. We’ll make it work. I kept repeating Karen’s words silently to myself, wincing in pain, it was all the thought I could muster. We’ll work it out.
It didn’t work. Neither did we.
* * * * * * * *
The next year and a half that I spent in L.A., living most of it in a roach and burglary friendly studio a few blocks from Hollywood Boulevard, when I fell apart completely for the first time, is a book in itself. The next one. If they still publish real books then. I want a hardcover, and paper pages made from trees felled by the burly stars of “Ax Men.” I hate e-readers and virtual books. My wife loves them.
Ah yes, my wife.
Sadly, and stupidly, but grace incarnate in the end, I gave up and moved back to San Diego in late 1992, crawled back really, to get a teaching credential at SDSU, or so I claimed. My real motivation, not shockingly, though pitifully, was to win back Karen. But I had not the slightest chance. She wanted nothing to do with me, was hostile to all my entreaties, and, worse, had begun dating another man. Talk about a fool, I felt like the biggest one. Living in a large slacker flophouse at the top of Pringle Street in Mission Hills (“The Pringle Palace”), attending San Diego State for no apparent reason, I stayed in my room a lot, smoked way too much pot, worked feverishly on a book of stories, and ached urgently to be loved again. I went a few months in this sorry and disintegrating condition.
Then, on New Year’s Eve 1992, I went to a party in Poway at the condominium of the now married J and Quinn. I arrived in no mood to celebrate, and not even the thought of meeting new single women appealed. My feelings of inferiority had their own feelings of inferiority by that point; my dismal psyche was like one of those Escher drawings that seem to go on forever, a man on an endless loop of bafflingly horizontal stairs. And so it was, in this staggering state, that I got together that night with the most low maintenance, high tolerance, curvaceous, love giving, quiet and cool atheist gal any guy could hope to find. I’d met her before and ignored her before, twice, dunce that I am. It would take me years to understand how lucky I was to be graced with a third opportunity. But that night, I guess, I was ready to start learning (though I’d often prove to be a maddeningly slow and hopeless student).
Shortly after midnight, we decided to ditch the party and go back to her place.
“I’ll follow you there,” I told her. “Where do you live?”
She replied, of course, “Normal Heights.”
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thank you to all who read and commented on this blog. As the first draft of a book, it has come to its conclusion. I hope you enjoyed it. Perhaps we shall meet again. And for more on psychosomatic medicine and the mindbody connection, a good start is THE DIVIDED MIND by Dr. John Sarno, whose work changed my life. Peace.)