Radio Days, Part Eight
The end of the road at the end of the island
And, yes, of course I tried to talk to Jeff about the situation. But the response was irrefutable: “I have two kids to send to college. I can’t turn down the work.” On top of which were the mysterious insults lobbed my way in those last few months: “You have a chaotic mind” and “You’re nothing but a narcissist.” If I had a chaotic mind, I wondered, how could I ever write a damn thing publishable in national magazines? With deadlines, no less. And narcissism? Well, I don’t know….if that meant wanting the world to revolve around me, it certainly wasn’t happening.
My take was that the qualities he was ascribing to me might have belonged to the ex-wife. My further take was that he had perhaps invented a dream woman in the earlier emails who now wasn’t living up to expectations. Because, when we meet someone who suggests even the roughest lineaments of what we require in a mate, we (or more particularly this particular woman) will tend to assume those are givens in the object of our desire. Basic stuff like intellect, sensitivity, sense of humor. All those I gleaned in the correspondence with Jeff, but what couldn’t be second-guessed were patience, loyalty, understanding, and an ability to compromise.
And there were minor annoyances. When I went off to Florida for ten days to visit my parents because my mother’s health was rapidly failing, I returned to find a cat box that hadn’t been dumped in more than a week and a sink piled high with dirty dishes, along with the familiar mess in the girls’ bedrooms.
“Honey,” wrote a friend in New York when I complained to her, “he doesn’t even sound like a very good roommate.”
The empty life on Vashon was fast starting to resemble the life I’d fled in San Francisco, with an absent partner who was too tired to do much of anything in his down time. I could, of course, have tried some of the strategies I adopted in the Bay Area, where a job had seemed maddeningly out of reach even after 12 years as a writer and editor: join a yoga class, join a book group, become a bird watcher, volunteer at a women’s shelter, mentor an unfortunate kid, or try the housewife’s ultimate gambit of last resort—drink yourself silly in the afternoons.
No, I simply wanted to leave. I felt too strong a sense of rejection—from Wendy, from Jeff, from his daughters—to tough it out any longer.
When my friend Annie came to visit en route to a women’s retreat in the San Juan Islands, I talked things over with her—she could see how ready I was to bail—and then called in the movers and started to pack up. I left the girls’ bedrooms intact (and to Jeff’s credit, he repaid me for the furniture and several months’ rent) and sent everything off to storage on the East Coast. I found a pair of cheerful lesbians to drive my Honda Civic cross-country. I don’t think I even left Jeff a bed, but this was a man used to “rusticating.” He would manage.
If there was any pleading on his end—“Please don’t do this!”—I have absolutely no recollection. Was I being a heartless bitch? Quite possibly.
The old beaux kicked in to the rescue. My ex arranged for first-class airfare for me and the cat, and Peter, who was away with his new inamorata, offered to lend me his apartment for a couple of nights before I rented a car and headed out to my parents’ empty summer house in Montauk.
When I left Vashon Island on the morning of July 4, 1998, a thin fine rain was falling, and the temperature was 44 degrees. Perfect weather for a farewell to Seattle.
The first night back in New York I awakened in a semi-stupor and went to look for the bathroom, not totally remembering where I was. The door I yanked open, nearly blind without glasses, led out to the seventh-floor hallway and abruptly slammed shut behind me. Locking me out under blaring lights, wearing nothing but a pair of bikini panties. At my feet was that morning’s Times in its familiar blue plastic wrapper. Well, I reasoned groggily, I could punch a few apertures in the plastic, enough to accommodate my arms and head and make a snug-fitting top. Or I could even fashion a makeshift poncho from the newspaper itself. I could take the elevator or stairs to the lobby, where the doorman might recognize me and would surely have keys. And then I remembered where Peter had once showed me his secret hiding place for an extra set, on a ledge behind a pipe in the stairwell. So I was spared the humiliation of re-entry to Gotham as the crazy ex-girlfriend.
And I was crazy, crazy about this guy. Still. The brain could tell me this was not a good choice, but the locus of affection and desire said otherwise. As any number of philosophes from Blaise Pascal to Woody Allen have observed, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
So I drove out to Montauk with Sherman and basked in sea air and sunshine for a few days. And wrote to Jeff to wish him well and invite him to the beach for a long weekend. I could not let go, not just yet. To my surprise, he accepted, and a couple of weeks later came loping through the tiny airport in Islip, wearing the straw cowboy hat of our first meeting. At the sight of his lean, rangy shape, the heart went thumpah, thumpah, thumpah all over again.
We had another honeymoon of sorts in my parents’ ramshackle summer house, which was then falling apart from disuse and neglect. But we didn’t care if the windows stuck, the stove worked on only two burners, and the bathmats reeked of mildew. We spent blissful mornings at the beach, early evenings under the outdoor shower, and of course nights in my parents’ queen-size bed, not even pausing a moment to consider if this might be a bit disrespectful. What we didn’t do, if I recall correctly, is devote much time discussing the future.
Nonetheless when it came to pass that I wanted to look for a place closer to the city, I had in mind a three-bedroom house that would accommodate Jeff and the girls in a couple of years, once they were older and perhaps more civilized. I first looked online in Princeton, New Jersey, site of my alma mater, before quickly realizing I was priced out of that rental market. So I searched in Hightstown, about 10 miles away, and found a boxy suburban classic in a newish middle-class development, about an hour from the city on I-95. Swing sets in every yard, tidy manicured lawns, Subarus and Toyotas in every driveway. More than once I would wake up in the months ahead, wondering WTF am I doing here? A single woman fast speeding toward 50 who would rather be in New York any day of the week. I don’t even recall telling Jeff what plans I had for his future.
It all came crashing down after we spent one last weekend that fall in some hotel near Easton, PA, where he had a weeklong gig. Via email Jeff told me it’s been nice but….
Which was the only possible practical solution but doesn’t mean I wasn’t smarting and crying for weeks.
In the years following I would refer to the whole Jeff-Wendy-Portland-Seattle fiasco as The Year of Living Stupidly. But I’m not sure, even now, what I could have done differently, though it’s clear to me that I easily become entranced by men who give off even the faintest whiff of literacy and learning (as will become evident in rotten romances down the road) and I should perhaps slam on the brakes and devise a quiz that might filter out the potential disasters.
When I returned to the dating game in the winter of 1999, it was a markedly different enterprise because now there was the thrilling challenge of Match.com and other sites that launched while I wasn’t looking. Yet another brave new world….
There are a couple of codas to the whole Pacific Northwest adventure. A few months after I moved to Hightstown, Wendy sent an email asking me to sign off on the show’s name, “Anything Goes,” thus giving her exclusive rights to use of that moniker. Apparently whatever document we had both signed before the premiere of the show meant that I still had certain proprietary rights. I consulted a friend, the same who had called Jeff a lousy roommate, and she immediately responded: “Oh, no, you are not signing off without compensation. What did this show cost you in terms of work and anguish?” And I remembered that during the whole Year of Living Stupidly, I had turned down a couple of assignments for Architectural Digest and the chance to be the art critic for Long Island’s major paper, Newsday, which in retrospect might have been a pretty good gig. I asked for a modest $25,000. I never heard from Wendy again. Her Facebook page has her living in her hometown of Ferndale, CA, but her last post was in 2017. Her photos show a partner and grandchildren, though The Twins are not much in evidence; if they have not been surgically removed, they are modestly bundled under sweaters and shawls. She now looks a bit like some doddering landlady-type from Fawlty Towers.
While writing this memoir, I looked for Jeff too, in the obvious places—Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Not a trace. Then this morning I hit on the idea of googling obituaries in Seattle and found his, pulled together by a funeral home in Tacoma. He died, oddly enough, on my ex-husband’s birthday in 2018, at the age of 71. The daughters are mentioned, along with a “beloved stepson,” a relationship I can’t figure out unless he got married again after our split to a woman with children, and she goes unmentioned. There was nothing from his dear old friend Wendy on the memorial page, but one of his sisters posted this: “It is so hard to say goodbye and the heart hurts for a long time, but the memories become stronger and will never leave.” Amen. Especially if you go mucking around in the sticky tar pits of personal history. I still miss whatever was there, however brief its misguided white-hot intensity. No one has really compared with him since.
Top: Eric Fischl, untitled beach scene, 2009