The boy and I were camped out in the dermatologist’s office. It was free clinic night so the room was jam-packed with the skin-diseased, the maybe-diseased like the two of us. Bored and sugared-up kids, boinged around the room and whined at their parents, When we gonna goooooooooooooo?Whennnnnnnnnnnn? The few well-thumbed AARP and Texas Highways magazines had been glommed, so late-comers stared dully into space or fucked with their cell phones.
It had been a very hot hour’s ride up to this bleak med plaza and, despite my cramming food into him beforehand, the boy was low on gas. Meanwhile, he slumped unhappily in his wheelchair, watching me fill out a four page tightly-printed megaform, unhappy with me too. Using my best tiny print, I jotted his every health detail unto the bitter sub-atomic level and he hated it, hated reading all the shit he’d suffered laid out so baldly.
Nonetheless, I wrote on. Hospitalizations! the form demanded imperiously, (where, when, for what, outcome), Medications! (what, dosage, how many times a day, for what condition), Surgeries! (for what condition, outcome, length of hospitalizations, dates) Allergies! (what, time of year, treatments) and last, Skin Conditions! (what, treatment, current or past problem, medications, surgeries if any, hospitalizations).
Next to Skin Conditions! I printed, Moles.
“Okay!” my boy hissed finally, “Just say I’m a wreck!”
“We’re seeing a dermatologist because you had iffy-looking moles,” I reminded him, mommy-like, still scratching away. He snorted angrily.
That night, apres les moles, monitoring the untidy rumble in my brain, I discovered I was busily remembering the free clinics of yore and my old painting studio above the Wee Washit laundromat in Iowa City. It seemed like kind of a mash-up, I thought. Why oh why did I think like this?
“Y’know I was listening to the radio this morning,” Francie was saying to me, eons earlier, back in Iowa City. We were both out of grad school, we both had studios at Wee Washit and the same guys hit on us. She stood in front of me, and like me, wore a watchcap, a scarf and gloves with the fingers cut off since the studios were unheated and that winter was a bad one. Colder than a well-digger’s ass.
“Anyhow,” she went on, fiddling with her airbrush, “this announcer or whoever was talking about communication and I thought, y’know, we need a bunch lesscommunication. Everyone’s too goddamn self-aware these days. Even fucking long-haul truckers talk about their childhoods. So do you ever get bored painting that crap?” She gestured at one of my paintings. “Stripes. Jeez. I mean isn’t it the same painting all the time?”
“Nope.” I said. I thought, she should talk. All Francie ever painted were John Deere tractors. They were really good, though. Had to give her that. But something about her remarking on communication stuck with me. Maybe because I doubted it was the cure-all touted by a lot of pop books and therapists. When I thought about it more, I kind of agreed with Francie. Why not be dim-witted and content?
My then-husband and I were having real problems, mostly because he was psychotic. Personally, I wanted to give up on the deal and wanted even more for him to shut up. I listened to his jumble and nodded wearily; I thought any meaningful talk with a fruitcake was unlikely. But courtesy of RD Laing, mental illness was consideredby some to be a journey into the self and, ultimately, I was informed, the rewards would be large and cosmic .
Communication was what we called it then, formally describing some attempt to speak and be understood. We didn’t reach out, share or respond unless we were in therapy, nor did we even have feedback. Only assholes rapped.
But I’d filed for divorce from my then-husband and, although he was nuts, he’d been sly enough to invoke a new Iowa legalism. This statute now called for mediation by a psychologist or counselor. The counselor/psychologist would then assess whether or not the marriage could be saved. If there was the faintest chance the union might survive, your unhappily-wedded ass could be held up for six months of heavy counseling before you even got a court date.
So that’s how I found myself one morning, at the Iowa City Free Mental Health Clinic, sitting in an orange plastic butt-killer chair, and facing a nice-enough woman who wore a baggy dress, a baggier expression, and some unfortunate ceramic jewelry. Plus, there sat my sort-of-ex-husband, who glared at me; he’d only invoked the mediation rule to fuck with me.
“Well,” said the pleasant woman, “Let’s get started here. Writer for the Stars, would you like to share?”
“Well,” I said. “I don’t really have much to say, but I did prepare this.”
I reached into my beat-up bag and hauled out a bar chart. I’d spent most of the night painstakingly drawing it. My chart detailed, by year, the number of times he’d forgotten to do the dishes and take out the garbage (his jobs), let the insurence elapse, hadn’t paid his student loan, cheated on me with a library sciences grad student, tried homosexuality, refused to wash his hair, forgotten our anniversary, and skipped his Ph.D classes. There was more, but that gives the flavor.
The nice lady paled. “Well,” she said, then nodded to my then-husband, “Would you like to respond?”
“Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit!Crazy shit, crazy shit, crazy shit! ” he hollered. He used words, but this was what actually came through.
No one said much after that.
So, no counseling for Writer to the Stars and, in a few months, a do-it-myself divorce courtesy of The Women’s Center.
Looking back, I’d sometimes wonder if my time with him, a man sick unto death, my often murky thoughts, and my love of difficult people, jobs, and situations had ultimately driven me to write in the first place.
Brooding over some dreadful love, friend, or living arrangement I’d deluded myself into, I’d decide, If I could just explain myself… And, I’d think unhappily,if I could just say it right. If I could just say it really, really well.
But I couldn’t say much. Not then, not for quite a while. Words clogged in my throat like ragweed.
As a result, I was saved from many intolerable would-be friends, possible yet awful lovers, and ghastly soul-clobbering jobs. I didn’t know, back then, that my salvation was entirely due to lucky stars and an instinctive failure to communicate.
Older and not much wiser, I’m still only dimly aware of missed catastrophes.
But as a post-script, like much of my unconsidered life, my husband’s moles are all benign.