After he dumped me, driving away from Los Angeles was like yanking my hand away from a hot skillet. I climbed up the I-5 through the grapevine and past the sign for Andersen’s Pea Soup. I’d always wanted to try that soup, but there was no more time for lollygagging through the countryside.
There was a time when being alone on the road would have scared me, but my heartache trumped my dormant concerns of hitchhikers slashing my throat, prisoners on the run, flat tires and freak snowstorms. I was a woman alone in the world. Childless, mateless and freefalling towards forty, I was officially a veteran of failed relationships. I was a love flunkie.
I stopped at a Denny’s just south of Fresno. I felt safe at just about any Denny’s in America. I’d moonlighted there in my early twenties and knew they had decent standards and predictable food. The last thing I wanted was a case of the runs to ruin my elaborate plan. A grilled cheese sandwich on wheat always made me feel better until I turned fifteen and then I continued to order it partly out of habit and partly because I wished to rekindle the security I had associated with it since my childhood; long before boys, bills and boring jobs or even before the concept of boring made itself known to me as a valid feeling. From age zero to fourteen the world was safe and surprising and abounding with mystery, magic and good intentions. Like most childhoods, minor upsets occurred; like when my Dad threw my pink blankie with the silky border out of his Datsun window going 70 on a family vacation somewhere near Provo, Utah. Or during a game of Cowboys and Indians when I hit my brother in the head with a toy gun and saw the color of his blood for the first time, but those battle scars just didn’t stick with me like problems did these days.
Sitting at the counter at the Denny’s I watched a waitress with caramel hair flirt with her baseball-capped boyfriend. He planted himself at a nearby booth to enjoy the view of her butt sidling to and fro as she picked up plates and poured coffee. Outside the window, acres of grapevines and peach trees crept over the lazy hills in rambling rows awaiting the fall harvest. I finished my sandwich and paid the caramel girl, tipping her as much as the bill. I remembered waiting tables and vowed, one night after scraping a layer of Pizza Hut grease from the bottom of my non-skid shoes, that I’d never forget and would handsomely reward folks still humping it in the service industry.
I climbed back into my car. When I bought my Toyota Prius in 2004 my Dad declared, to anyone who would listen, that it was the smartest thing I had ever done. Admittedly the hybrid set of wheels gave me a renewed sense of purpose and I justified the hefty car payment by convincing myself that I was setting an example for the rest of humanity. Not only did I feel righteous, I barely had to stop for gas on my way to Seattle. Truth be told, I’d really purchased the car for Ruby, my seven year-old niece. From the moment she was born, my life had changed. I suddenly saw the world through her eyes and realized that every single thing I did, every ounce of chaos I created, had an impact on this jolly sprite with blue-green wonder eyes and golden-brown hair that curled madly like a wild fern. As I watched her grow she excelled at giggle-fests, puddle-splashing, cookie-dough tasting and slug-stalking. But today, these warm fuzzies just weren’t fazing me. I was down.
The things that once made my heart sing, like a butterfly kiss from Ruby, or watching the sun dip behind the horizon, or tweedle-deeing down a cop-free highway while whistling along with “Rockin’ Robin” just wasn’t cutting it. I couldn’t re-boot myself. I was done lacing up the gloves and jabbing at every hope of happiness. And as I shot north, toward the means to my end, glimpses of my life whizzed past me like the green signs dotting the highway.
First Break-Up – 1 Mile
Disappointing Life – 11 Miles
Dreams Dashed – 14 Miles
Wrong Place Wrong Time – 19 Miles
Major Mistake – 22 Miles
Bad Choice Junction – 35 Miles
Divorce #1 – 56 Miles
Hodgepodge Career – 77 Miles
Nobody Likes Me Everybody Hates Me – 79 Miles
Iron Never Hot Cafe – 82 Miles
Divorce #2 – 86 Miles
Overqualified Creek – 88 Miles
Dumped – 97 Miles
I was a big, fat nothing and I wanted to dissolve into nothingness. I was ready to expire. I had pictured my death so many times. I even wrote the note: I’m done. Please give all my stuff to people that really need it. Sprinkle me over the Puget Sound and tell [current lover] that I loved him best of all.
Once, in the midst of an earlier spell of hating myself and starving for the attention of a different man, I swallowed a handful of pills. As twilight descended, I sat on the couch and waited for soon-to-be failed relationship number eight to return home. I felt the pills elbow their way to my stomach and I started to panic. Cold sweat crawled up the back of my neck and through my scalp. My lips felt tingly and numb like they do after a trip to the dentist. He came home late from work. By now I was leaning over the kitchen sink moaning. I felt green. He forced me to vomit up my last great act. Ironic, I thought, as he held my hair away from my face, purging was one of the things I did best from age 16 to 22. I laughed and the pills came up in chalky clumps looking like hopscotch on a rainy day and the silt of my self-loathing sediment, lay at the bottom of the toilet.
I tore up the Interstate going 90. The good thing about a death wish is that one stops caring about trivial matters like speeding tickets, bad breath or eating too much chocolate. I munched on a Hershey’s Special Dark and recalled April 18 by Sylvia Plath:
the slime of all my yesterday
rots in the hollow of my skull
and if my stomach would contract
because of some explicable phenomenon
such as pregnancy or constipation
I would not remember you
or that because of sleep
infrequent as a moon of greencheese
that because of food
nourishing as violet leaves
that because of these
and in a few fatal yards of grass
in a few spaces of sky and treetops
a future was lost yesterday
as easily and irretrievably
as a tennis ball at twilight
This was an important poem. She was an important person. She mattered. I did not. I was no Plath, Hendrix or Hemingway. I was just a girl who was done with her life. The man of my dreams had left me on the side of the road. I had swung wide with my trust and launched my frailty starboard hoping he would steady the bow. But this fellow wasn’t ready and all the Om’s in the world weren’t going to steady my nerves. I let out a long lonely wail and pulled over at a rest stop to pound the steering wheel with both hands. Why would I even want to be with someone that didn’t want to be with me? Stupid self-help clichés. Stupid, expensive, fuel-efficient car. Stupid man with the crooked grin. Stupid girl with the patchwork heart. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
I had no more needle and thread to repair myself. So I drove up to my sister’s hoping that they wouldn’t mind stitching me up. This was the first time in my life that I had truly fallen down in front of them. I always tried to be the sister I’d read about in books and seen in movies. Part mom, part girlfriend and part cheerleader, I coddled, conspired with and rooted for them in equal proportion. I doled out bite-sized morsels of advice culled from thousands of hours of therapy. I left long, fat silences after they told me nothing was wrong. I sought out their favorite foods, scents and colors. I endorsed their woes and tried not too be too heavy handed in my counsel. I did my best to keep any pain and discomfort away from their corners of the world. This, of course, had proved impossible, life being life, but I had managed to not lean on them too much throughout my own bad times by laughing all my failures off as “great learning experiences.” But as the years melted away like polar ice caps, the person I thought I would be some day, was nowhere to be found. And this final disappointing darling had been my last straw.
My sisters Terry and Anne live on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle. Ever since they had moved there I revered Whidbey like a second home. The island had quickly charmed me and surpassed my love affair with my home state of Montana. The weather was moody along the rocky beaches that filled up with purple starfish, vacant crab shells, blue glass and trinkets after each new tide. Whenever I left the mainland and rode the Mukilteo Ferry the wind fingered my hair and for an instant, everything felt free and promising. It reminded me of going abroad. I always waved to the Ferry master as he ushered me off the boat with the rest of the herd, with the flick of his thumb directing me towards the right lane he tossed me a wink, like I’d been invited to a special party on the island. My sisters’ arms were waving and open wide, ready for hugs. They always rushed to greet me smelling of clean hair and new perfumes. We’d link arms and trot up the hill to winding roads leading to burrows of wild artisans, organic families and beady-eyed hermits. I’d trot behind gazing at zigzag paths that led to chocolate farms, wineries, hidden-away thrift shops and kilns.
My two, very different sisters, lived five miles from each other on the island. It seemed both had found good men and made sense of their lives. Anne was raising a family and worked a few days a week getting paid to pop people’s boils with a local dermatologist and Terry, when she wasn’t telling people to ‘open wide’, was raising Alpaca’s. Heading toward their sensible lives on my worst day struck me as both self centered and necessary. Whidbey was my last great refuge and the only place I could dock with a heavy heart.
My vision of spending the Fourth of July weekend with my boyfriend had been shattered by the reemergence of his ex-lover. I was crowned the runner-up and left town. When I first set out I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, but my car turned instinctually north. I crossed the California state line and climbed up the Siskiyou Pass. The moon was rising and my eyes started to adjust to the purple-blue sky. I stopped at about 11pm in Ashland, Oregon to look for a place to sleep. I was on a tight budget and finally found the Super 8 and maneuvered into a parking spot. I blocked the front window with my sunshade, reclined the passenger seat and curled under an afghan and a couple coats and tried to sleep.
When I woke, there was a layer of frost on the car windows. I scraped it away with my Albertson’s Discount Card, grabbed a cup of free tea in the hotel lobby and hit the road. The pine air smelled fresh and the sun glistened off the frost on the grass. I turned my heat on high and rolled the windows down. And then suddenly, with no warning, the sadness returned. I had forgotten it for just a spell but thought led to thought, and soon enough I found myself mulling over the methodology of my suicide.
I imagined several scenarios for my death. My favorite was to do it in the bathtub with the kitchen knife. I was not vain and had no problem slicing myself. I had never been a cutter but had seen many films that involved slicing up one’s body and was relatively certain that I could perform this act. I had a large knife in the kitchen and had always wanted a serrated one but not enough to go to the mall to purchase it. The wide blade butcher knife I had used to cut everything from cheese to packing tape would have to suffice. In this scenario I run the bath, filling it with an entire carton of Epsom salts to numb my body and place a note on the door to call 9-1-1 before entering. I’d seen this thoughtful detail on television and it seemed like a courteous way to inform those entering a house of death. I leave the aforementioned will on the rickety kitchen table and undress. I enter the too-hot bath and crank the knob over to cold and circulate the water in a counter clockwise direction with my cupped hands to ensure an even temperature throughout the tub. For a good thirty-five years, ever since I was allowed to take baths by myself, I have directed the water current. Once the water cools I lay down in the tub. With my head just above the water I look at my naked body. It is motionless and magnified, like a maple leaf at the bottom of a still lake. I swallow a muscle relaxant with a glass of port and wait. I feel the sedative take effect and as I start to drift off, I take the knife and slide it over my left wrist and then the right. My blood swirls in the water and the tub begins to change color. Like an Italian soda I watch as it morphs from seltzer to cherry. I look at my wrists. They’d anchored my hands to hold daffodils, fountain pens, my nephew’s chubby feet, my mother’s face, time, stink bugs, my father’s socket wrench, candy canes, pomegranates, poetry, a shiny red cock, horse reins, a joint, marbles, a rose corsage, downward dog and a bottle of Maker’s Mark. My wrists held my hands upright for handshakes, salutes, waves. They brushed my teeth, wiped my tears, pulled weeds and patted backs. They marked my marital status, showed my age and clenched in rage. I slice once more and it is done.
My second suicide scenario involves driving my car off a cliff. After all, wouldn’t it be grand to end it in the “best thing I’ve ever done”? I decided however, after meeting someone who attempted this and survived with just a scar on her head, that this method is too unreliable. I like reliability. I like a sure thing. I like it when the man of your dreams tells you that you are going to run away for the summer together, that you actually run away together. You don’t leave a person on the side of the road with their bags packed saying, “I need to find myself” only to discover that finding oneself means burying one’s face in the crotch of one’s ex.
I decided that the most sensible scenario was to fling myself off of Deception Pass; a wide expansive bridge over a narrow body of water that connects Whidbey to Fidalgo Island. Once thought to be a peninsula, Captain Vancouver discovered Whidbey was an island only after he had mapped and charted it. After noting that he could travel no further on land, he named the island after his assistant Whidbey, who no doubt was partially responsible for the oversight. Deception Pass is semi-famous for suicide attempts, but the last time I was there the locals hadn’t made it any more difficult for the suicide. During a recent trip to the Golden Gate bridge I saw a sign that said: The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic. There is Hope. Make the Call. First I noticed there was no phone in sight, and then I found myself wondering just how the bridge authorities had chosen the specific wording for this sign. What came before “fatal and tragic”? “Messy and selfish”? “Deadly and downright sad”? Or “Game over man”? Or, perhaps, the truth?
The consequences of jumping from this bridge are in fact, unknown. There is no such thing as hope. We just said that to try and make you feel like you have some control over your existence. We do know that if you jump, you will almost instantly die from internal bleeding as you descend at 75 m.p.h. Survivors liken the experience to being hit in the face by a semi-truck. If you are not 100% sure about this decision may we suggest you enter feet first as this is the only way possible to potentially survive this four second fall. Step forward, leap and enjoy the flight.
Killing myself at Deception Pass would be simple. Park. Walk. Jump. The decision to off myself wasn’t so much about scorning others; it was more about running out of joyful options. I felt very “been there, done that” about almost everything I’d encountered for some time. Conversations bored me, travel bored me, reading bored me, films bored me I bored me, art bored me, and now, finally, relationships bored me. Anne Sexton, another person that mattered, said in Wanting to Die: “Suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” I was all about the tools and I wanted out.
Navigating my way through the 4th of July traffic I exited the I-5 and got into the long line for the Mukilteo Ferry. Exhaust billowed from cars. People made small talk while trying to look dignified as they scooped up their dog’s poop before boarding the ferry by car and foot. I parked on the lower platform of the Kitsap and walked to the upper deck. I stood for the last time, feeling the icy northwest wind play with my hair. Sea lions darted beneath the boat catching the stray fish that shot out of the engine’s turmoil. Sea birds screeched in front of the ferry and jellyfish floated along caught in the current. The captain announced our arrival on the loudspeaker as I saw my refuge rushing towards me. I got off the boat and made my way to Terry’s just a short jaunt from the ferry landing.
As I pulled up to her beach cottage, Terry ran to hug me and I felt tears spill over my lids like an unsupervised kitchen sink.
“The parade is starting in two hours and everyone’s meeting at Bayview Corner. Hurry and change! We’ve got to get the truck ready. Get upstairs and get unpacked,” she said in that bossy tone that I loved.
Even though Terry was younger than I am, she was one of the few people in the world who had full permission to order me around. I liked her take-charge attitude and complied easily. I drug my stuff up to the guest room.
Everyone in this small coastal community came out of their dens for the Whidbey Island Independence Day Parade. Adorning their jeeps, tractors and tricycles with patriotic themes and the entire island celebrated each other’s freedom as the vehicles passed and candy flew. The theme for this year, Terry informed me, was “Independent-Sea”. We’d garnish her Toyota Stout truck with ocean paraphernalia and Ruby and I would be the little and big mermaids. I said a silent prayer that the truck roof would hold me and sat down to unpack. I didn’t want to put on my mermaid costume. I didn’t even want to go to the stupid parade. What a big, phony show. Nevertheless, I dug out the old green spandex bottoms with the floppy fin and a purple bikini top and stuffed my hair into a red curly wig and flopped downstairs with the fin catching on each step as I descended. Jarvis, the dog, did not remember me as the woman he had just licked ten minutes prior, and barked like I was an intruder. I gave him a treat, loaded up the decorations and poured a rum and coke for the road as we headed to the parade route. When we pulled up Ruby give me a giant hug. For a brief second, as she garnished my hair with starfish and seaweed, I thought how my death would affect her but this thought withdrew like a poked sea anemone as I took another sip of drink and we got busy decorating the truck.
The parade and holiday were one big blur. I remember waving and throwing Tootsie Rolls to the townspeople. I watched my birthday-suited nephew build mountains of sand at the beach and then destroy them by systematically stomping the piles down to their original size. Build and destroy. Build and destroy. This male ritual went on until we ate some barbeque and lit some sparklers. I stayed numb with a healthy dose of rum and coke and shards of sunshine trying to blast past my vintage sunglasses.
In the days following the parade I slid down that slippery slope of deep depression. It always felt to me like walking down the street and tripping; my body making an awkward attempt to stay upright but due to the angle, force and gravity, I inevitably crashed to the ground. If I fell like that in the real world, my first instinct would be to right myself, laugh it off, look back to blame a rift in the sidewalk, adjust my shoes as if to say something is wrong with them too, and rush away with my face bright red. This is a normal reaction. But when I’m depressed my impulse to that kind of fall is to simply to stay and let people walk over and around me. As I lay there, feeling the cold cement against my hot cheek, a tear slithers from the sky side eye to the cement side eye, they pool their tears and jump to the concrete with a splash. Out of the corner of the cement side eye I watch, as the tear seeps into the earth, spreading out tentacles of sadness and reaching out to other pools of disappointment. When I’m like this I lay in bed, on my side, and move as little as possible. My body is static but my head is alive like New York City.
My sisters were oblivious to this landscape. They wanted to know the details of the break-up, the tabloid version, not the Oliver Sacks version. I complied and enlisted them as dutiful corroborators. I slept and cried alternately for a few days at Terry’s, hoping that the city would sleep and I would begin to see what was good about life again. I walked the beach with Jarvis looking for shells and glass and picking up his poop. I shopped in town searching for something to erase my funk. At the toy store in Langley I bought a small plastic wind-up tomato with a silly grin on his face. I bought it because I was sure that I had never seen, nor would I ever see again, a tomato that walked sideways. I wrote for many hours and watched the ferry chug back and forth across the channel but eventually words bored me so I moved to Anne’s house.
It was more hectic at her place with the kids running and climbing on everyone so we’d wait until the house was asleep to talk. One night we nursed a cup of cheap merlot in a sippie cup and painted each other’s toes in a color called ‘Orchard of Cherry’.
Anne’s concern was all over her wide forehead and her eyes searched mine for the answers I couldn’t find and slowly I drifted off to sleep.
A week passed. Crooked grin called to admit his betrayal, but it was too late. I was done hanging my heart on a man’s coat rack. I’d made up my mind and there was no turning back. I left Anne’s house on Thursday morning and went to a cafe to write. I planned to visit Deception Pass that afternoon for my big exit and in the meantime I would try to document my final feelings about the world. I would have a grilled cheese and arrive at the bridge by dusk. When I got to the Smiling Dog I hammered away in the corner for a few hours and when I looked up I saw a man approaching customers.
He was a disheveled in his hand-me-down sweater and wrinkled khakis and rumpled white hair. He looked to be in his mid-sixties. He explained to the patrons of the Smiling Dog that his VW Bus was having trouble and could anyone give him a lift across the island? Not only did he look helpless, it’s an unspoken rule for previous VW owners, regardless of bus or bug, to help current VW owners with their mechanical woes. I obliged and closed up my work and offered him a ride. He looked puzzled. I suppose I didn’t seem like the most likely candidate but he was desperate and I was on my way to Deception Pass so I opened the passenger side door.
“Can you wait a second?” he said and ran to his van.
I imagined that this would be the part where he grabs an old, rusty hatchet from under the driver’s seat and later hacks me to death. That wouldn’t be so bad, I thought. Bloody yes, but what a means to an end! The hitchhiker got back in the car holding something in burlap. A hatchet no doubt.
“Where to?” I asked and he pointed down the road.
“I live in Useless Bay. Could we stop off at Mukilteo Coffee Company? It’s kind of off the beaten path but I promised I’d drop this off,” he said gesturing to the hatchet.
“What is it?” I asked.
He unwrapped the burlap to reveal a small, deep-green sparrow carved from jade. It was curled up and asleep in his palm.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, reaching to touch it without asking.
I held the bird in my hand and felt my life well up in my throat for a second and then returned the bird to him.
“Thanks, I made it,” he said.
He directed me down a winding road into the woods where a barn with the smell of burnt coffee was nestled amongst the trees. We went in and he bought me a cup and then went into the roasting room to give the sparrow to the owner. As we left it started drizzling and I steered toward Useless Bay and dropped him off at his cabin. He told me to keep in touch. I chuckled, knowing my fate and drove away.
I turned back up the road toward Deception Pass. The summer rain splattered against my windshield and the roads flushed with water. Cars slowed down and the wipers whacked back and forth. The weather and the hitchhiker delay meant that I would not make it to the bridge by sunset so I turned the car around and headed back to Anne’s. That night I dreamt of jumping from the bridge and floating through the air. I lost consciousness before I touched the ground and spent most of the night drifting.
On Friday I woke refreshed and ready to end my life. It was still drizzling outside. I’d have to wait till noon when the rain let up.
“Can you play with me Auntie?” Ruby asked hovering over the pullout couch.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” I said.
We put on light pullovers and rain boots and walked to the end of the block looking for the biggest puddles. After we tired of splashing around we walked back to the house. The drizzle was subsiding so we kicked around a soccer ball.
“This is boring,” Ruby said.
“Hey what if you have to do a cartwheel before you kick the ball back?”
“Okay,” I said.
The only rule of the game was to perform a cartwheel prior to kicking the ball. We had no goal and no point system, just the rhythm of cartwheeling hand over hand and shuffling the ball back and forth with our feet. The challenge of the new game put us into fits of giggles. We had been playing for some time when I looked up. A majestic female deer stood ten feet away watching us play. I had no idea how long she had been there observing us. She didn’t startle when she saw me see her. I motioned to Ruby and her eyes grew as big as the ball.
“Ohmygosh!” she mouthed.
“Play!” I mouthed back.
She cartwheeled and kicked and the deer didn’t move. She just stayed and watched the ball. This doe was the one sole witness to the first game ever of Cartwheel Soccer. We played a couple more rounds and instead of moving away the deer drew closer. It looked as if she wanted to play.
“Should I kick it to her?” Ruby whispered.
“Okay,” I said.
Ruby cartwheeled and kicked and the doe bolted into the forest.
The game was over and Ruby rushed up and hugged my waist. Her laugh sang out like a Townsend warbler and her ivy arms wrapped around and she clung to me like a gooseneck barnacle. And in that moment, I mattered. I mattered to the doe. I mattered to Ruby and I mattered to me. That was enough. And it finally stopped raining.
About the Author
April Fitzsimmons is a writer/actor and is roaming the streets of Los Angeles. She’s been known to attend Antioch, wear her two-week contacts for eight-weeks straight, rage against the war, break hearts, grow mint and basil, look at pictures of naked people, cut the labels off of mattresses, collect beach glass, eat too much sharp cheese and drink too much bourbon.
She currently writes a monthly column called “Woman of Mass Distraction” for The Mad As Hell Club (www.madashellclub.net) and Veterans Today (www.veteranstoday.com) and a couple of her articles have been published in the Los Angeles Weekly. Her book, Breaking and Entering, a how-to guide to working behind the scenes in the Film Business, was published in 1997 by Lone Eagle.
Should you see her, please report her to the authorities. She loves the attention.