It was another long, drunken march up Belmont. But not that Belmont in Chicago. This was a different Belmont on the other side of the country. This Belmont didn’t have a single punk rock clothing store or piercing parlor. This Belmont stretched eastward into a mountain, and well, I didn’t know what was past the mountain because I didn’t have a car to drive there.
It had taken me a year to be ready to leave my mother’s house in Pennsylvania. I had to learn to speak again. To eat and sleep and smile and shower. I had forgotten how to execute all of life’s most menial tasks. I empathized with the brain-damaged victims of horrendous car crashes and gory freak accidents. I remembered a video in junior high school about the evils of drugs and alcohol (or maybe it was reckless driving?) called It Happened In A Millisecond. That title seemed so poignant to me now.
The path to feeling somewhat human (or least behaving as if I felt that way) began with devouring stacks of long, dark Russian novels. Maybe my life seemed less grim by comparison. Soon I began to eat three meals on most days. I stopped wearing my husband’s clothing. I noticed that my hair was long overdue for a box of hair color. I called Patrick. And I finally unpacked the boxes of my Chicago belongings that had been stacked against all of four walls of my bedroom for months. Next I found a job “proudly serving Starbucks coffee” at a big box bookstore two towns over. It was where all of the local weirdos and art jerks liked to hang out. They told me their problems while I made their lattes. You’re the best listener, Evangeline. I enjoyed that brief glimpse into someone else’s life and worries. So I made some friends. But I still preferred to spend my time alone. I drove around the countryside for hours at night, mentally writing long letters to my dead husband.
I couldn’t live with my mom forever. It was already starting to feel suffocating. She was scandalized by the amount of money I spent on a pair of jeans. She couldn’t understand my need to listen to the same album over and over again. Why was I sleeping in so late? Why didn’t I ever have friends over? Had I met any boys that I might consider dating? Not even one?
More importantly, I still only felt half alive. I seemed functional on the surface, but my heart felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool. My sadness had been replaced by a grey disconnection from everything and everyone.
I had to leave. Come back to Chicago, Patrick suggested. No, no, I can’t do that. I had my eye set on the west coast. That part of the continent was so alive that the ground just moved under one’s feet. Real active volcanoes still threatened to erupt at any moment. There were fault lines and geysers and tsunamis. Huge change was always just around the corner. The air probably smelled like excitement. Meanwhile the eastern half of the country was stuck. It was dead and there would be no more change. We were living in a fossil. It wasn’t the place for recovery and rebirth.
I knew I wasn’t ready for the cars and starlets of California. Seattle seemed too expensive. So I decided that Portland, Oregon was my next stop. I picked up a second job waiting tables. I didn’t let myself buy anything for months. As my the balance of my bank account grew, I began to pack up my possessions. Nobody thought that this move was a good idea. You don’t know anyone there. But I knew that I was never going to come back to life without the jolt of a big change. And being half dead was boring.
So here I was, thousands of miles away, slowly walking my bike up the hill. I loved this city so much that I didn’t even mind the grey dampness that enveloped it for eight months of the year. The snowcapped mountains and enormous trees seemed magical to me. The scenery was unlike anything I had ever known. It was the perfect place to be reincarnated. I found a cheap quiet apartment. I landed a stupid retail job that required neither critical thinking nor emotional involvement. Baby steps, I had told myself. First stop being sad, then start worrying about grown up stuff like money and careers. Here I was only Evangeline. No one knew that I had ever been Angie or even that I had ever had blonde hair. They certainly wouldn’t have guessed that I was a widow. Most nights were spent at house parties or bars filled with beautiful young people. The days were filled with picnics in the park and long bicycle rides with gangs of friends. It was exactly what I needed.
On this night, I was hanging out with a new girl from work. I had decided to befriend her because she reminded me of Daria. The glasses, the hairstyle, and most importantly, the voice. She was telling me a long, complicated story about her on-again/off-again boyfriend. I periodically contributed a sympathetic interjection when it seemed necessary, but honestly, I was having difficulty concentrating. I was drunk. I was tired. My head was spinning with thoughts I didn’t want to have.
“…And you know, once you have the imprint of someone on your body, you can’t stop thinking about them. Unless you get someone else to rub away that imprint right away. But then you’ll just be thinking about that new person all the time.”
I stopped. Wow, you just summed it up perfectly. I didn’t add that I had been sleeping with a dead man for the past year and a half. More literally at first, of course. He had been beamed down to my teenage bedroom during the many lonely nights of that year in Pennsylvania. But when I arrived in Portland, sleeping with someone new was my first priority. I knew that it would be a huge leap toward being alive again. This goal was easily achieved, but the results were underwhelming. Thirty seconds into the act, I found myself closing my eyes and replacing this poor victim with my dead husband. Opening my eyes ten minutes later and seeing only a dude I had met at a graduation party filled me with such disappointment that the word “disappointment” couldn’t even come close to capturing how terrible I felt. I tried again. And again. A guy from the coffee shop. A coworker. A friend of friend’s friend. Guys in bands. Aspiring (and mediocre) poets. An alleged street artist. Bartenders, waiters, and one librarian. Each time, I found myself lying naked in bed afterwards, waiting for the guy to fall asleep so I could creep out of his apartment. There were a lot of strange, lonely bike rides around SE Portland in the wee hours, wondering if this was the rest of my life. I would have cried about the hopelessness of it all, but somewhere along the line, I had lost the ability to do even that.
This imprint extended far below the layers of my skin, through muscles, bones, and organs, into some part of myself that had no name and could never be captured in an x-ray.
The bus ride from the Blue Line to the neighborhoods near the lake was still agonizingly long. I realized I had never taken this trip alone. It was strangely sad without conversation. If Patrick were truly excited about my visit, he would have met me at the airport. No, that was absurd and I couldn’t let myself think that way. I couldn’t expect anyone to spend three hours round trip on public transportation just because they were concerned about my feeling lonely.
Now he lived on the same block as a cemetery. As I stepped off of the bus, the sound of my heart was threatening to drown out the traffic around me. Wait, do I feel nervous? I had forgotten that combination of a fizzy stomach and clammy palms. I sat down next to a tombstone to pull myself together. I didn’t know just what this trip was going to be. We hadn’t seen one another in years. Surely we had both changed a lot. But we had been talking on the phone every week since I had been living with my mom in purgatory. I wondered if we were friends or more than friends or something else entirely that would just crush my ego. Was he planning on seducing me? I promised myself that I wouldn’t sleep with him. He didn’t deserve to see the disappointment in my face. I promised myself that I would be good. .
Time teleported me to his stoop, through his door, and into his arms. We hugged for so long that I began to giggle awkwardly. He squeezed me harder. Now I was in hysterics. We pulled apart to assess one another.
Your hair is so long.
You’re still really tall.
Are you wearing a cape?
Weren’t you wearing that shirt the last time I saw you?
I hope you’re not vegan any more.
So what were we going to do while I was there? I guess you probably want to go down to Wicker Park to do some hipster shit, he offered.
No, I can’t. I can’t do that.
He shook his head. Don’t you mean “won’t?” You “won’t” do that.
Months and months and months ago my brain had decided to adopt several ideas as true and real facts. Belief in these fictional truths allowed me to stop crying and rejoin the living as much as I had so far. The first was that my husband really did visit me in dreams. They were no longer mere dreams but actual encounters. Frequently he gave me some sort of encouraging pep talk along the lines of I promise you will be happy again. Other times he was confused by my tears of joy. Oh you crazy girl. I just saw you this morning! I haven’t gone anywhere.
The other fiction-cum-fact that I believed was that Wicker Park was long gone. The day I left, it simply ceased existing. This seemed plausible because I had never heard from any of my friends since my husband’s funeral. Perhaps they had all slipped into a black hole. I didn’t care. I just knew that I could never see our old apartment building. Or places we had gone for breakfast. Alleys where we had kissed and said I love you. Seeing that world without him would push me over some terrifying edge. Because then all of this would be inarguably real.
No, I really mean I can’t when I say I can’t.
I watched my face crumple in his eyes. Oh, Angie. Whatever you want. Anything you want.
I stood up straighter. First off, don’t call me Angie. I fucking hate that. I’ve been Evangeline for a long time now.