Cynthia Hogue has published seven collections of poetry, most recently, Or Consequence and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, interview-poems and photographs (with Rebecca Ross), both in 2010. She co-translated Fortino Sámano (the overflowing of the poem), by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy (Omnidawn 2012). Among her honors are an NEA in poetry, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the Witter Bynner Translation Residency Fellowship at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Hogue is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry in the English Department at ASU.© University of Arizona Poetry Center
In my late twenties, when I traveled to Iceland on a Fulbright, I felt like I was walking through a dark forest which I called a light-filled glade. I was numb but called it calm. The winter before, I'd been dumped abruptly by the aspiring artist I'd lived with for two years. He'd left me for my youngest sister. Carol married Tim the following fall, and everyone in the family was invited except me. Perhaps I was in shock but it felt like astonishment.
Iceland is a beautiful and strange country. There are no trees except very small ones that grow in the towns. Sheep roam the mountains quite wild until herding and culling time. They eat any saplings and much of the grass in the mountains; Icelandic soil is literally blowing away into the deep blue sea. The waters of the North Atlantic that surround Iceland shimmer blue in the distance and up close are a dark gray that reflects nothing. "Reykjvik" translates in English as "smoking bay." Mist rises from the waters of the harbor, from the hot springs that feed into the sea, the geothermal water of a volcanic island that everywhere smells of sulfur and of fish. Everyone who lives in Iceland lives along the coast. Inland Iceland is uninhabitable, arctic tundra, glaciers, volcanoes. And so, even the student dormitory that housed Icelandic and foreign students alike is set on a wide promontory from which one can see the North Sea sparkling, the view from my second story window.
One afternoon I sat in the lobby of the dorm, waiting to call my parents, with whom I had not spoken since leaving the country. I had been studying Icelandic for several months, during which time I had learned that every word after the subject has a declension, making saying anything after the first word of the sentence slow going for a foreigner. There was only one phone in the building. It was around 4 p.m. Darkness falls fast in autumn in the north. Lights were on. The carpet in the lobby was plush and bright orange, contrasting with the darkness outside, giving the room a sense of warmth without it actually being warm because it opened to the outside, chilling the lobby as students came and went. Someone was talking on the phone for a long time. I was content to wait to speak to my parents. I was thinking about how I would never say most of what I wanted to say.
There was a large group of Icelanders in the middle of the lobby and I watched them idly from my bench by the wall. They were loud and their movements seemed choreographed as they swirled around one man at the center who had a lively face. Jon, blonde, jutting jaw and high cheekbones. Except for one very red eye, he was Hollywood handsome, with a wild and witty intelligence. Humor lit up his eyes, erupted into his conversations, seemed to supercharge him. I was drawn to him, but I wasn't in Iceland to find love. I had come to forget it.
My mother had written to say that most of my sister's and Tim's wedding presents had been stolen when their van was burglarized on their way to California. Carol had always dreamed of going to Hollywood. Her dream was coming true, but like a hopeful starlet, she would arrive with nothing but dreams and an overnight bag. The only word I could think of after reading my mother's letter was "gloat." I was trying hard not to. The lilt and roll of Icelandic lapped in waves around me and I was soothed.
The man at the center was shorter by a head than any of the others. He looked up at them as they talked, and they hovered around him like moths. He winked constantly. The group broke up and then the man at the center strolled over and sat down next to me, winking and making short, tonal "beeps" that punctuated everything he said. I thought at first that he was nervous speaking to me, an American tall as the Rocky Mountains, he said. It wasn't exactly a compliment, but I grabbed the scrap, crust, morsel of kindness, for I was replenishing my emptied self esteem. In very formal English, he said, clearing his throat with each sentence, "My name is Jon and I am holding a party this evening in my room. I would be pleased if you could join us. Your friends from America are welcome to join us as well."
We were three Fulbrighters that year. In addition to me, there was Karen, who was studying Icelandic legal history and Bob, a medievalist who was studying Old Norse linguistics. I was going to translate contemporary Icelandic poetry once I learned Icelandic. Jon told me he brewed beer, which at the time was illegal in Iceland, and that he lived in the basement on a hall of engineering and political science students, although he himself was studying anthropology and biology. "All right," I said. "It's a date."
"Date," he repeated. "It's a date." Then he shook my hand. His hands were broad, red-knuckled. He had the body of a trained dancer, lithe and muscled, with the hands of a farmer or fisherman. Worker's hands. I was a full head taller than he, just like his friends. I was the Rocky Mountains and Jon was from Elf Town. He winked regularly, as if he had a secret, and beeped periodically, as if he were battery-powered. The phone was at last free.
"I have to call America," I said.
"I will expect you this evening," he said, leaping to his feet and bounding off.
The "party" turned out to be just Jon and his two best friends, Eirik, who had a coppery beard and was already balding, and Anders, who looked like a young Captain Kangaroo with a bristling, shaving brush moustache and kind, hazel eyes. There was no place to sit in the room except on one of two mattresses on the floor, both covered in paisley blankets. The window was about a foot high. Though it was near the ceiling, the window was ground level. You could see people's feet passing by outside but not their bodies. A stereo set was against the other wall, and the desk, which was placed near the entrance to the room, faced the window.
At first, we Americans huddled awkwardly on one bed and the Icelanders on the other. Then we drank more of the home brew and moved around like musical chairs. After awhile, someone started dancing and we opened the door to the hall so we had more room. We had finished all the beer by the time one of Jon's speakers caught on fire because we'd forgotten the candles when we started dancing. Smoke billowed as Jon rushed into the room, bore the smoldering speaker to the shower, doused it thoroughly. Then he emerged trailing sooty water, looking like Hamlet in tights. He shook off and emitted a shout like a yawp, high and raw.
By the next week, we were dirty dancing at a downtown disco. I felt a bit silly being with someone so much younger and shorter, especially after one of the men on Jon's floor found a cartoon of a little man using a ladder in order to kiss a tall woman, and pasted it on Jon's door. But it was a lark, rebound. In contrast to Jon's dashing good looks, I resembled Max von Sydow, the dour Swedish star, with makeup—a bit jowly, with a high forehead, straw blonde hair. An odd couple we were, though for the moment, we joyously made love and miscommunicated, not understanding the other's language, not even understanding that we did not understand each other.
For a time, it didn't matter. I was moving on, I told myself, "putting the past behind me." I said this many times, as if I were trying to convince myself. I was Jon's first serious relationship. I didn't think about what that meant for anything long term, because I was living from day to day, not thinking, as much as possible, about anything serious.
Soon, though, something serious happened. That red eye I'd noticed the fall Jon and I met turned out that spring to be conjunctivitis, an early symptom of Reiter's Syndrome, a form of arthritis that has a little inflammation and a lot of pain in affected joints (the spine and hips, sometimes also the knees, ankles, and feet). It is a disease that takes health and strength like kindling, which it builds into a roaring fire of pain, impairing movement and circulation. Jon still had the energy reserves of a young man, but before the disease was diagnosed and its progress halted, he was hobbling like an old man. I didn't know for many years that Reiter's pain is excruciating, but I could see how crippling the disease was. Reiter's is treatable, but it is not curable. For the mainly young men who have the genetic tendency to contract it, its source is microbial, and its onset is usually near or at the beginning of sexual activity. It is triggered exactly like an STD. I did not catalyze Jon's illness—that was an Icelandic woman earlier in the month—but because I was his current sexual partner when he was diagnosed, I had to take the heavy doses of antibiotics he was prescribed, too, so that I would not reinfect him.
Jon was admitted to the hospital for tests—the doctors had no idea what he had contracted at first—and it was there I fell in love. The emotion was mixed up with lust, the drama of the tragic, which was very real, and the feeling that I was necessary to Jon, which was a fantasy. I rose to the occasion as if becoming Florence Nightingale had been a girlhood dream (instead of becoming Emily Dickinson). I visited Jon daily, and was poised to take care of him when he was released. I was moved by the courage he had shown when it seemed he would be crippled for life. Jon, who emitted blood-curdling screams when his finger was pricked for a blood test as if he'd been stabbed in the heart, was stoical about the agony he endured when the Reiter's was active. He never complained, never once spoke about how it felt to move when every step was like walking on knives. I guess such pain is indescribable, for he never tried to describe it, but for those who could read pain in a human face, his was an open book. To me, however, it was closed, unimaginable, and by the time I learned to read that book many years later, our story had ended.
Reader, I married him. The plan was to head out to Arizona, where we were both entering Ph.D. programs, Jon in anthropology and I in English. I was careful to include Carol in the wedding, and she arrived from California, where she had become an assignment editor for ABC News, emaciated, her long hair cropped and spiked with mousse, her beautiful skin tanned to vellum from too much sun, smoking, and drinking. She and Tim were divorcing.
Jon and I married in a simple ceremony held in my hometown church, which had downsized in the 1960s to a small chapel of plain, white walls, wine-red carpet, and high, small windows that made the light seem wintry and pale even in summer. The steeple alone had been saved when they tore down the old church, where the carillon still chimed the hours, as if the only change in one hundred years was to mechanize the bells.
At the end of the service, I accidentally winged Jon in the nose with my elbow. The minister had donned an ornately patterned robe with a sun bursting out from the pattern's cross. He opened his arms wide to signal our changed status. It was a closing but it looked like a welcome. We were to turn and walk down the aisle, but there had been no rehearsal—and nothing new, nothing blue—and I thought, Why the minister wants to hug us! Carol had gathered my long satin train so I wouldn't trip as I turned, but I did not turn, because I was trying to hug the minister and Jon in a group hug. I pulled Jon, who pulled back. My arm slipped over his head and I elbowed his nose as I hugged the minister alone and Jon screamed. The guests' first response to Jon and me being pronounced man and wife was to laugh.
The minister didn't laugh, though he gamely hugged me back. He was my would-be savior, making a sudden pitch the evening before the wedding, saying to me, quietly, so as not to be overheard, "It's not too late to call it off, you know." We were standing at the edge of the small, Adirondack lake where my family held the pre-wedding barbecue (for which we'd opted as preferable to a rehearsal dinner). Everyone had been swimming, sunning. Some of our friends had come from Iceland. All of our friends came from out of town, and were staying here and there with family friends who had volunteered guest beds. Telling them to go home? Telling them I had changed my mind?
The lake was a pastel blue and rose as dusk fell. A water skier zipped by because at this hour, the lake's surface was like glass and the skier must have felt as if she were flying. She leaned back and turned swiftly, almost parallel to the water, a wave arcing up beside her as she pushed the ski, bending her knee, loosing an arm to hail the couple standing on shore, talking. Pine and maple lined the narrow beach. Leaves rustled above me, verdant and lush.
The minister's candidness scared me. It wasn't something I was used to. Denial I knew only too well, although I would deny it. What the minister foresaw that propelled him to try to stop me from marrying Jon I can only surmise, as he didn't—couldn't—change our future. There is a picture from the reception of Jon with two of my friends. The beautiful ones, an Icelandic friend and Karen, now a lawyer in Florida. The photo is from later in the evening, after much champagne, and Jon's shirt is unbuttoned. His arms are around the two women, who are laughing. He is staring down the years at me, daring me to see him as anything other than playful. He looks inscrutably, seductively, straight into the camera, the alcohol having changed the person I knew sober. I came to know that other man well, but it was years before I admitted how I felt about him.
What are you talking about? I said to the minister, and moved away to find Jon and grab his hand as if he could save me from drowning.
I began to notice when Jon and I married, which was when we first lived together, that he was never still or quiet as long as he was awake. I was very familiar with his most visible tics—winking, "beeping" sounds, and throat clearing—and never thought twice about them. Living with Jon, I realized that there was a steady cacophony of sounds and forever the rustle of movement wherever he was. I gradually became familiar with more extraordinary behavioral patterns and abilities that accompanied the neurological disease with which Jon would be diagnosed ten years later, Tourette Syndrome. Before that, we didn't pathologize his symptoms. They were simply part of who he was to me. Some were no more than eccentric mannerisms, which I found endearing, while others attested to particularities of Jon's creative intelligence, his wittiness, which delighted me. All of them were also compulsive tics associated with Tourette Syndrome. The neurological drives of the disease are involuntary; the way and even the degree to which Touretters express them is individual.
Two of the most common symptoms that Touretters share are echolalia and echopraxis (involuntary repetition of others' words and actions). In Jon's case, both of these symptoms manifested in masterful mimicry. He imitated everyone and everything that captured his attention, and his imitations were very funny. He could mimic the sounds of any language he had heard, whether he knew the language or not, but he was most fluent in Franglish. Because of Jon's dead-on imitation of Inspecteur Jacques Clousseau, for a time Jon's alter ego ("Do you have a rhume? A rhume. Ine Zimmer! Oon chambrah! A rhume, you fuhl!"), I named the dog we rescued from the pound "Kato," the sidekick in the Pink Panther films. Because of Jon's pleasure in mimicry, and his compulsion to echo others, I always knew that after we saw a film, Jon would mime some character in it, sometimes to death. When we came out of Quest for Fire I knew that the delightful Clousseau would be replaced for a time by Cave Man. Echoing the voice and miming the movements of others was a compulsion that Jon disguised as humor. In this way, both family and friends laughed with him instead of at him.
The compulsion most non-Touretters associate with the disease, coprolalia (involuntary obscenities or disinhibitions), was not one Jon manifested (in fact, most Touretters don't). But he had a restless reaction to people and things. He had to touch and smell them, which he did so discreetly that one hardly noticed at first. Jon had no choice about having compulsive tics, but had learned to weave all but the oldest ones (the winking and beeping) seamlessly into the patterns of his mannerisms. His urge to touch another person was most often relegated to the arm or back (though sometimes, dangerously, to the breasts). The urge became a kind of dance in conversation as he leaned near the person, backed away, then darted close again to touch an arm, the back—all seeming to be perfectly normal and affectionate gestures.
Living in his Tourettic body since its onset when he was seven, he knew intimately his body's uncontrollable and regular nerve-surges. He learned to hold back and then to release the pent-up energy, and to integrate its signs, the tics, into habitual moves that seemed like part of his personality. His winking was one of his most visible tics, but others—knocking his knees together and waving his arms—he incorporated gracefully into flowing moves as he talked and walked I later read that TS intertwines with the personality so imperceptibly that it comes to seem like the person himself, that one can't tell where the disease ends and the person begins. Jon blended himself in with the symptoms of TS and made them seem wry and nimble.
I came to know, once we married, that Jon had a more serious symptom, a marked obsessive-compulsiveness that often accompanies TS, but at first I called it, and it was also, perfectionism. Quite simply, he had to do things perfectly and in a certain, undeviating order, or he got very anxious. He had a practiced knack for making compulsive behavior seem part of life's rhythm, singing as he did dishes, ritualistically, not one drop of water outside the sink, each glass, each fork tine, washed and rewashed and checked and rechecked (a "test" I always failed). He was prolix, prone to wild sounds (like yawps) and startling insights, which caught people off guard because he saw through them, but so drolly that people were charmed. He had to know us, but no one could ever know him. He hid his secret, which had no name, so masterfully it never occurred to us that Jon—so open, so generous and funny—was himself a cipher. That I didn't realize I didn't know my husband was part of his brilliant adaptation to Tourette Syndrome.
In Tucson, we rented a small adobe with two palm trees for shade in the front yard and huge agave and cholla cactus at every window for security. Everything about it was varying shades of beige—outside and inside—even the painted, cement floors. Jon took to Arizona like an ice cube in hell. He struggled with the three huge changes that were upending his world. He had moved from the Arctic Circle to the Sonoran Desert in a little over a month, having previously been out of Iceland only once, on a high school trip to Croatia. He.was starting graduate school in a foreign language and country. And he had just married. Jon was taut as a violin string about to break.
Jon spoke and read English fluently, but he could not yet understand idiomatic English as spoken by Americans, whose r's sounded to him like so many stalling engines on cold January mornings in Reykjavik. "You Americans swallow your syllables," Jon said, "and you talk as if your mouth is full of hot potatoes." How could he understand such a language! Lectures were a torture as he tried to take notes while understanding no more than a few isolated words. Incomprehension is by its nature anxiety-producing for anyone. We do not know what we're missing, but we know that we're missing something, and therefore, we're left on the outside. We feel perennial outsiders until we at last begin, almost without noticing, to understand everything. This process is normal with culture shock—the "shock" caused by moving away from all we know and from that which most deeply defines us, language—but for Jon, it felt like he was whitewater rafting without paddle or lifejacket. I thought it understandable, even predictable that he would have to go through it, although I'd forgotten to predict it.
I put my arms around him. "It will come, dear," I said. "It's going to be all right." He brushed me away, finding my efforts to comfort him demeaning, as if I didn't take him seriously. I didn't, it's true, think it was as serious as he felt the situation was. After all, he had just started. But he repeated like a mantra, "You don't understand you don't understand you don't understand." He refused to believe that the disorientation he felt would subside as he got to know his way around. He had always felt—and been made to feel—different, the Tourettic symptoms having isolated him as a child. He could not imagine that what he was going through was a process shared by anyone moving to a new country. How could I know what it felt like to be an Icelander in southern Arizona because I had been an American in Iceland? It wasn't the same at all!
Later I learned that as a Touretter, he experienced the transition from home to new country more intensely than I had as a non-Touretter. Tourette Syndrome intensifies everything, whether good or bad, like a quartz crystal. Joy could send him like a rocket to the moon, whereas problems that frustrated him could send him to the end of time. He lived in a world of absolutes with nothing between. Nothing was going right and I couldn't help or reassure him. If he didn't do x, y, and z to the exact letter (taping and transcribing every word of every lecture, for example), he would fail, lose everything, and have to return home, and that would be that. The end of his career, and "Yes, darling," he said, as if it were a foregone conclusion, "the end of our marriage!" We had been married three months. It was the second month of his doctoral program. It was all already over.
At first, I made the mistake of laughing at the melodrama. Then I stopped laughing. At last, I shook my head sadly, saying many times over the years ahead of us, "Life is so hard for you, Jon."
To explain his intensity to myself, I used to think he took everything deeply to heart. I loved the intense curiosity and what I called at that time the "presence" with which he approached the world. Touching and smelling and watching and seeing were ways he knew his way around. But these dire scenarios, so fully an interior reality, had an imaginary relation to the concrete world. They seemed not to have any rational connection to the real situation—for example, that he was only a beginning graduate student writing his first papers in English. No one would expect perfection. A "B" was not a failing grade. But whatever the work, it was insurmountable, and the consequences for falling short grim: failure, loss, and shame, especially public shame. I couldn't ease the situation for him, or change his mind.
I would have done better by him in those years simply to listen rather than try to reason him logically out of his feelings. Trying to fix the problem for him by translating, editing, and for a few years, fully rewriting his papers did little to ease his anxieties (although I learned a good deal about anthropology in the process). I learned this hard truth only after years of trying and failing to help him. Panic isn't rational; its very nature is irrational. It seems so obvious to anyone on the outside observing, but while so deeply engaged in the dynamics of the situation, I didn't manage such clarity of mind. Feelings have their own logic that logic doesn't understand.
By October, Jon decided his problem was that there was too much sunlight in Arizona for him to concentrate, because his body was programmed to study during the long winter darkness in Iceland. He began to "burrow," pulling all the shades then covering the windows with blankets. I biked home after classes to find the heat blasting, the living room filled with Jon's cigar smoke, like a smoky fire in a cave, with the one lamp on at the far end of the sofa where he sat between springs, listening to his tape of the week's lectures. I called him Cave Man after he caught the oil on fire making popcorn. From the living room I saw an orange glow and dancing shadows of huge flames cast on the kitchen wall as if on the wall of Plato's cave. The real. It looked so cozy that I felt warm and fuzzy for a few seconds. Then Jon popped out of the kitchen to say, "Everything's under control, darling" (which meant in what I came to call "Jon-speak" that nothing was under control). Then, ZAP, awake: there should not be flames in the kitchen. I leaped up to help douse the fire.
We arranged a study for him in a dark corner of the house: the solidly walled back porch. Instead of insulation, it was lined with empty shelves, which Jon could use for book shelves at one end, between which we fit his desk. There was no light except from the back door at the opposite end from Jon's desk, so the porch was dark enough for him. With a space heater at his feet, he listened to his taped lectures, transcribing them until he knew them by heart. He was right off the kitchen, where he bustled in and out ten times an hour for coffee, water, a bite of chocolate, another cigar. I got used to seeing him fly around the house while he worked, flitting into my study with a sudden thought about something he'd seen or heard or read. And did I want coffee, did I need anything from the store, he would just pop out, was I hungry yet?
In November, he developed a red eye, which meant the Reiter's was coming back. The redness of his eye was not the easily remedied conjunctivitis of the Reiter's onset a few years earlier. Instead, it was a rarer and more serious inflammation of the iris that can scar the eye and even cause blindness. This iritis needed immediate attention. A combination of our Icelandic and student health insurances covered the expenses of the ophthalmologist who diagnosed it and prescribed an expedient course of treatment. He also wanted to study this rare condition, as he'd only ever read about it. He asked Jon's permission to photograph the affected eye before and during the treatment for an article the doctor wanted to write on Jon. Jon joked later that he hoped his eyeball enjoyed its fifteen minutes of fame more than he had.
In an essay analyzing the experience of disease, Jon described having a chronic illness as being liminal, neither an insider nor an outsider (a variation on culture shock, as it happens). "Liminal": the anthropological term given the transitional stage in rites of passage between the old identity and the new (from limen, the Latin for "threshold"). The chronically ill, he wrote, neither have their old health, nor can they accede to a new identity as cured (since they have incurable diseases). On a threshold, they never step over it, but are "cast into apermanent liminal state."
The ophthalmologist put Jon on a high oral dosage of prednisone (60 mg.), a corticosteroid very useful in quickly controlling inflammation, which it did. But there are significant side effects with the use of this drug over time. We knew about the most visible, that Jon would retain salt and fluid while at the same time developing a huge appetite, with accompanying weight gain. He who had always been slender got a large belly and the rounded cheeks of a squirrel with a mouthful of acorns. Already a restless sleeper, he slept as if rushing through the night to the next day. He startled easily, even in sleep, as I discovered unpleasantly. If I touched him during the night, I'd get a Tourettic jab—sometimes in the stomach, once in the nose. I called it his "Touretter's revenge" for my winging him at our wedding. He elbowed me so hard I didn't dare lie by his side for years without a pillow between us for protection.
Because the drug replaces the body's own production of steroids, a patient must be weaned off prednisone slowly, so that the adrenal glands kick back into function, or the body could go into serious shock. Jon's dosage was gradually lowered over four months—luckily not long enough for the drug to affect his body organs (which it destroys over time) or bones (from which it leaches calcium). This weaning was explained to Jon, but not how long it might take his body to restabilize physiologically after steroid addiction. Nor was he told the drug potentially causes personality changes, or mood swings from hallucinatory euphoria to depression. In cases where there's an already existing emotional instability, the drug can "aggravate psychotic tendencies," as one medical source I read noted. Jon's culture shock had thrown him out of whack, intensifying his body's already "high-alert" Tourette mode. We should have fastened our seatbelts. It was going to be a bumpy ride.
We began to call what Jon experienced on prednisone "trips," for we had no medical terminology like "the psychic derangement of euphoria" at the time to describe his going off periodically into la-la land. This side effect was particularly marked on the highest dosage, and persisted intermittently as it was lowered. Even years later, Jon had reoccurrences of such "tripping," as if there were residual traces of the drug in his system or as if there were a Tourettic "body-memory" that would get triggered by some neurological stimulation. When he first experienced this side effect, we were in the northern mountains of Arizona, driving through a snowy pass with one of our best men, Chris, and his girlfriend. They were visiting for the weekend and we had decided a drive through the forests of northern Arizona to show them the state's natural beauty was in order. No one had thought to check the forecast.
When Jon first started "tripping"—flipping into what a mystic might call "ecstatic union with God" and Jon called "feeling funny"—he started speaking about the world as if it were a parallel universe that he could see but didn't inhabit anymore. He was in a happy "bubble" feeling "funny." The driving was tricky down through the mountains, for snow was filling the road and as we turned and twisted through the pass, we crawled past sheer cliff drops that I could not clearly see. Snow was whiting out everything and to drive us through safely required all my attention at the wheel. Jon himself wasn't scared by these sensations (they were, after all, euphoric), but they were terrifying to me. He couldn't describe what was happening to him physiologically, for he wasn't in the world with us anymore. It was as if he were floating around in another element, not responsible for his actions or welfare. Chris was in the backseat with Jon, and held his hand while Jon spoke of his vision—in purple prose—as colorful as the snow was white. Jon's eyes glittered and he half-smiled. Chris put his arms around him for he was sweating and his pulse raced. "You ok, buddy? What's going on?" I focused, like a laser, on driving us to safety at the lower altitudes, where the snow turned to rain.
Another reaction Jon had to the drug was a tendency to over-associate intellectually. Prednisone seemed to me to exaggerate personal tendencies. Already intellectual, he became hyper-intellectual; already talkative, he became verbose. His brainstorming was fascinating, highly accelerating his already intensified trains of thought. Mental fireworks! But he went on so long and could not abide inattention from me. It seemed to insult his (also exaggerated) pride.
Reading anthropological theory, he leaped from idea to idea as he once had from stone to stone along a stream in northern Iceland on a camping trip. For a course in linguistic anthropology, he analyzed modes of social deference: use of the modern equivalent of the intimate or singular "thou" (which, though obsolete in English usage, is still demonstrated by tone and gesture, he argued) and the formal "you." I was his guinea pig. He dissected my social relations, analyzing how often I deferred to others, how I demonstrated deference (which I might have called insecurity, not that he asked me) both verbally (I, too, echoed people but for social rather than neurological reasons) and nonverbally (I dipped my head toward them, leaning in and slouching). I was pinned wriggling on the glass slide in the laboratory of Jon's mind.
Jon soon developed another "psychic derangement," which was more disturbing than the others, a sort of monomaniacal thinking. He claimed suddenly one evening, standing in the kitchen with his hand on a chair, his other arm gesturing as if to a crowd of listeners, that Iceland was the best country in the world and he the most brilliant Icelander. Ergo: he was the genius mundi. Who was this person? In Iceland he had been ebullient, funny, generous to a fault. At home. I felt as if I had married the charming Dr. Jekyll only to be discovering that he was the mad Mr. Hyde. We were to go to a friend's wedding in San Francisco over the break, but I called the couple in tears to say that Jon was so ill he couldn't attend. Or be left alone. I can't come, I cried. My friend, happy, getting married, to whom the minister surely did not suggest calling off her wedding, laughed. "Ok," she said, hearing the ring of melodrama. "Bye," she rang off.
We went to Carol's in Los Angeles for our first Christmas together. It was her first Christmas alone following her divorce that fall. We were to go to The Messiah, the expensive tickets to be our Christmas present. Perhaps I went to help her—she was very forlorn on the phone—or perhaps, I went for moral support myself. What was I thinking? Carol was much too depressed for anything like the holidays. She had forgotten to order the tickets for The Messiah—didn't even remember promising them—and refused to leave the house except for work. We discovered when we arrived that we couldn't get her to do much besides rage about Tim. Day after day. I found myself in the odd position of defending the man who left me for my sister. "Oh, that's a bit harsh," I murmured after one withering condemnation, and, many times over, "Well, you knew he was an artist who waited tables for a living when you married him." It was to be expected, I sighed, that my sister's divorce would unhinge her, though I hadn't expected it. Instead of food for the holidays, she'd bought a case of Piper Sonoma, which took up most of her fridge. She put a palm branch in one corner of the living room, strung some lights on it, hung two ornaments: a California Christmas tree.
Jon discovered "The Three Stooges" (I wondered which one he'd imitate) and the rerun of It's a Wonderful Life, which he found at almost any hour on one channel or another. He watched this cheery, Depression-era film until he had the dialogue memorized, laughed loudly at "The Three Stooges," called Iceland twice, and withdrew into a euphoric "bubble" where only slapstick reached him. I hoped it was therapeutic. I was outside the tent, listening to Carol mourn the marriage that had broken my heart. I had realized in the years since that event that they had to tell me sooner or later. No way around the messiness of the truth. But there was also no way around the wound that learning the truth in that particular way inflicted, or the fact that, in marrying Jon, I reactively married someone more wounded than I. Not that I ever put it that way. And Jon, ill and struggling, knew what he was dealing with long before he had the medical term for it, for it was the reality to which he'd been adapting all his life.
I sat listening to my sister and watching my husband watch "The Three Stooges." I drank her champagne and she spoke of her pain. Jon switched to It's a Wonderful Life. In this way, bobbing and weaving, we stumbled through our first Christmas together.
Because it took her mind off her divorce, Carol had volunteered to work the news desk on Christmas Eve. "I won't be back in time for dinner," she'd said as she left for the office. "Go ahead and eat without me." What? I wondered. Nothing in the fridge but champagne. She recommended a Mexican restaurant, which turned out to be a festive, colorfully-lit café. It was warm, empty. I said Buenos Dios to the tiny Mayan waiter, whose eyes widened slightly as he seated us blonde giants in a red, half-moon booth along the back wall. For dinner, we ate guacamole, chile rellenos, cheese and chorizo enchiladas, soft pork tacos, frijoles, and flan. The food was comforting, and for the moment, we were comforted. We smiled and smiled at the waiter, who did not smile back. When we left, he said carefully, as if he had been practicing in the kitchen, Meddy Chreest Mass, and locked the door behind us, his only customers on Christmas Eve.
As we drove back to Carol's apartment, Jon rose in his seat, leaned halfway out the window, and yelled at the top of his voice, rounding his r's like Jimmy Stewart himself, "Murray Christmas, every-buddy, Murray Christmas!" Then he tooted quickly, "hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo"! So it would be Curly for the next several months.
It was snowing softly, big flakes drifting over the bungalows of Los Angeles, settling on the streetlamps with their wreaths of pine branches and holly, their shiny red ribbons, on the sleek, new sedans parked in long, curving driveways, and in the empty roads. There were no other sounds as Jon's voice carried everywhere, cracking the silence in two, breaking it open like an egg with a message of joy to the world in spite of everything. Everything.
Though, of course, there could not have been snow in Los Angeles.
When we returned to Tucson, there was a letter from the INS: Jon was to be deported because he was on the wrong visa. He entered the States on a student visa, but because we married, he needed to have applied in Iceland for a permanent residency visa instead of a student visa. Neither of us had thought to look into immigration laws. It could take two weeks or six months. He had to leave the country immediately.
He was still prone to "tripping," and the severe disorientation that accompanied the euphoria. Before he left, I wrote a note for him that said: I am not crazy. I am on a powerful drug for an illness. If I ask you for help, please help me. "Jon, if you start to trip," I shouted as if he were deaf, "give this note to one of the stewards on the plane. See, here's the note." I waved it at him as I attached it with a pin to the zipper on his jacket. He never needed the note. He sat in the plane to New York. And then he boarded Icelandair, where he sat in the plane to Iceland, arriving there where he spoke the language and knew immediately what to do and who he was again.
I stood in the terminal, watching the plane taxi down the runway, with feelings of sadness mingled with something more homely and fearsome. I'd be alone in the suddenly quiet house. I was relieved. I had always been scared of being alone, but I was more scared, at that moment, of the other sides of Jon I had come to know in our first six months of marriage. I don't want to simplify a complex and amazing person, my first husband, or minimize his brilliance and courage and powers of adaptation, or the deep joy as well as sorrow he brought into my life. I did not yet realize that rare beauty turning to dust before my eyes would be the paradoxical condition of my marriage.
But it was with the first glimmerings of intuition, which I was calling "sadness," "relief," and "fear," that I watched the plane take off, carrying (as it would at the end of our marriage many years later) the genius of the western world back home.
I wish to thank Martha McPhee, Elaine Hogue, Chris Stegel, Chris Burawa, Beth Alvarado, Paul Morris, Lee Gutkind, and Dinty Moore, whose generous feedback was in all ways timely and deeply appreciated.