Love and Fatigue in America: An Excerpt

 

Washington State, 1990-1991

How to Arrive

 

It could almost be Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, with the mountains over there, but it’s the Rockies not the Hindu Kush. From this height, the endless forests to the north could be—if I squint to confuse pines with palms—those of Liberia or Sierra Leone. Except there are no dotted village clearings. There are hardly any signs of humans at all, just the one brave, straight road and the occasional bald hilltop, in shock from clear-cut logging. Looks like forestry might be the main industry down there.

The plane is circling. I’ve done this often, flown into new places with a job to do. I’ve learned to sum things up before even setting foot. Actually, I think I’m good at this, arriving.

And that must be Spokane, the center around which we’re turning, the designated location of my new life. An isolated city. Judging from the way it spreads out along the valleys, land must be cheap. Not many cities look like this. They tend to be crammed, or tall, or both. The highest buildings in downtown Spokane are unconvincing, an urban idea borrowed from other places where it was more necessary. It’s small as cities go—say, one or two hundred thousand—but it’s by far the biggest place in our wide view. So, there it is, I’ve clocked it: a small isolated city serving a vast, sparsely populated hinterland.

As foreign cities go, this one should be easy. I smile at the window, recognizing something of my foolishness in this thought. Of course, they’ll think their city is the center of the world, everyone does. But after Beijing, Lagos—London, even—it’s just a town, and its simplicity will be relaxing. They even speak English. I’m hoping it will be easy, and its people easy to impress, since I’m anxious about this new job, teaching graduate students subjects I’ve never studied. The truth is I’ve always been nervous about teaching— the inescapable prominence of the teacher in the classroom— but I believe this fear ridiculous at my age, and squelch it. I’ve closed my copy of Jane Eyre, now the scene below has my attention. There’s no need to mark the place. Its pages are grizzled up to page 190 with the deep scorings I’ve made all the way from London.

Never mind the anxiety, we’re west of the city now and the land is dry, almost desert: few trees and not much potential for farming. “Badlands”—I think that’s the American term for it. There are few settlements but then you can tell there isn’t enough water to support more. Out of habit, I’ve been checking the rivers to estimate the possibilities for irrigation. Before I put Jane Eyre on the reading list, I really should have read it. I thought I had, but none of it seems familiar. But this is good, isn’t it, a new job, a new challenge, a whole new life at forty-three?

It’s what I’ve always done, setting myself up for new tests in new places and then trusting on adrenaline to see me through, using the fear of public failure to overcome a tendency to shy away from life into dream. So far it’s worked. The encyclopedia said Spokane is known as the capital of the Inland Empire. The dryness could be a rain shadow from the coastal mountains, which I can just make out from here.

Four weeks was the time usually allowed me by U.N. agencies for a new African or Asian country, to comprehend its people and its problems, propose a solution. Madness, of course, a new country every few months, and an understanding that was all effort and mind. I’ve been writing about the falseness of it, and it’s time to walk away from this in favor of integrity and this new life. Apparently, I’ll be part of the Department of Humanities at Inland University. It sounds lovely, the Humanities. I wonder who I will meet down there and whether someone will surprise me.

The beginning of this journey could not have been more promising: an invitation out of the blue, perfectly timed. A poet in Spokane called my London flat and asked if I might be interested in visiting for a year, teaching creative writing, literature and film at Inland University, where he worked. I had never taught any of these, nor had I heard of him, the university, or Spokane, yet the offer immediately seemed just right.

I thought it possible that he was mistaking me for someone else. I had not once encountered any stranger who had read my books.

It happened once before, an inexplicable offer out of the blue. Then I had been living in London too, at twenty-five, working in a pub, when a fat envelope containing a contract from the Nigerian government plopped onto my doormat without explanation. If I signed it I would be teaching agricultural economics at a Nigerian university I had not heard of. I signed, booked a plane, and it had made my life up to now: an expert on rural poverty and the author of novels set in West Africa. It had worked out well, I thought, the hand of fate.

Now, for complicated reasons, I was again eager to leave London, and again there was an inexplicable, perfect offer. America was where I wanted to go. The poet cautiously revealed that my responsibilities might be arduous, and I cautiously revealed that my doctorate was in agricultural economics, not English literature, and that my last job assignment had been in Chinese Inner Mongolia, to do with livestock. I heard him falter, then assert that this might be OK, good even, that his students were too sheltered and would benefit from something new.

I was to call him back in two days, but before I put down the phone I already knew I would accept, and that when the year was up I would stay in America. I smiled at my luck, and went to find Spokane in the atlas.

It’s different again to the south: rolling hills of golden grain and black plowed earth. This is rich farmland. I can tell from the tidy farm buildings and farmhouses, and the little space they allow themselves, that it is a prosperous, modern agriculture where land  is valuable. They must be beyond the rain shadow here. That rich soil might have been left behind by retreating glaciers, or perhaps a prehistoric flood. Geology makes settlements, makes economics, makes culture, makes us what we are. It’s the big picture. The plane window picture.

My new life will not be like my old life. In this new life I’ll have one career not two. I’ll stay in one place, live with one woman. I’ll be undivided and whole. I’ll put the recent difficulties of London behind me quickly with the accelerated forgetting offered by  distance. I’ll make love work down there; it’s not too late. I’ll settle, be a settler. There will be no to-ing and fro-ing in love for fifteen years, as there had been with my Indian girlfriend. Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by feelings for her, which I push down and away, feeling the push back at me from this compression of history. But I can’t solve that old puzzle now. It’s another reason to move on. For her good as much as mine. Still, I suspect I am a fool; I’m just unclear what sort of fool.

I have an idea about love for after I’ve landed. Well, two ideas really, which on the face of things is one too many, but since I am flying and fleeing, I am large with possibility and above contradiction. My first and most exciting idea is the young woman from New York, who, suitably for a new life, is recently met and, appropriately for renewal, significantly younger. We will both be, I can argue, in our different ways, just starting out. She’s an artist, serious, talented, struggling, and as she asserts, cute, and as she also asserts, a dirty-blonde—an American term new to me which I’ve learned refers to hair color, not an intriguing moral laxity. She’s the daughter of Mennonite missionaries and is not lax. She has never lived with a man, but thinks she could use a home, and love. We don’t know each other well—but this seems right for a new life too. I can see the future: a lively, prosperous partnership, dedicated to great work and beloved children.

But I’ve also gained the impression from the novels of older Englishmen, David Lodge and others, that the actual teaching of writing in America generally takes second place to drunken parties and the liberation from our native reserve offered by sexually insistent students. So, that’s my second idea about love, in case the girlfriend from New York falls through. I shouldn’t let myself think of these other, unknown women, but since I am, it is true that I don’t actually know when she is arriving from New York, or for certain that she will, so technically I am perhaps still single. All the possible outcomes are good. I’m fit; I’m in motion; the past is history.

In the air, success seems inevitable. I’m descending on America. I’m full of untapped energy. My new, uncompleted novel already has a New York publisher, an advance, and a deadline. The BBC in London wants a screenplay from me. Things are moving. There’s this job. There’s the promising girlfriend.

Here’s Spokane coming around again. There’s nothing to stop its spread that I can see, except the urge of people to be close. It made sense to seed a city here, on a big river, a market center for the forests up into Canada and the farms down to Oregon. There seem to be two airports, one military and the one we’re heading for. And there’s one huge factory outside of town, its sign now visible at this height—Kaiser Aluminum, a smelter. Well, that’s probably here to exploit the snowmelt water flowing from the Rockies.

I close my eyes for a long moment, then open them. You know what? I don’t have to do this anymore. I can let the geology and the economics go. My interest now, as we go low, is in those mysterious rows of houses, the unknown people in them—perhaps new friends—not the region’s economic prospects. I no longer need to visit government officials while carrying a heavy briefcase, or listen for hours to the rural poor, or analyze social structure with a busy mind. My interest now is in those streets, their bars and cafes, my new colleagues, the students, the unknown ways I’ll be drawn by America into involvement and belonging. I only need to accept the invitation and relax. There’s the squeal of a small animal as we touch down.

 

 

 

There is This about Love

 

There is this about love: it is a puzzle.

I love readily and well
I listen
I adore
I am ready with practical solutions to life’s problems
I am there with sympathy
I am good in emergencies, and generous
I am playful
I like to talk
I do not shy away from difficulties
I like the quiet times of reading together in bed
I am good at being a couple in company
I am funny
I am aware of the need for equality in domestic labor
I am warm
I am sensual
I am fascinated by women’s bodies
I am patient at bringing them to orgasm
I am tender in the aftermath
I am easy with women, friendly
I look at new ones, wonder about them
I see in the one I have fresh imperfections
An unbecoming angle, a social tic
I am oppressed by calls on me
To give where I do not want to give
I move away
I blame myself for blaming
I love, but cannot stay
It is unbearable
I am gone
In absence, the panic falls from me
Leaving loneliness
I love most of all the imperfections then
For the humanity in them
I am incomplete with love unexpressed.
I negotiate, return, come to terms, see sense
I stay
Until the tension proves again that sense is not, after all
Of the essence.

There is this about love: I am good at it.

There is this about love: I am bad at it.

I have been, in love, the puzzle piece that completes the picture by
losing itself
Useless when separate
Without existence when joined.

 

 

 

Home I: Cabin in Spokane

 

Got away, got away with it.

I am sitting, this October evening, on the cabin’s rough-wood balcony, my feet up on the rail, watching the day fade over the Little Spokane River below me. Deer mooch in the yard, then leap the fence silently, on a whim. I smoke a rare cigarette and feel content.

They put me in a modern apartment at first, but I held out for this wood cabin outside of town—more American—waiting for cautious Wayne, the landlord, to come to terms with my lack of a credit record. I’d never heard of credit records.

It’s charming, this cabin, hand-built on a hillside, with a little bridge to an upstairs front door. Behind it, the land falls away steeply to the river so that the living room window and the balcony command a grand view. Tall pines shade it. There’s not a single home like this in England. If it were not so obvious, I’d buy cowboy boots to prop up on the rail. As it is, I’ve bought a pickup, which looks just right, I think, parked on the dirt track to the door. Got away.

The classes are going well; the students like me. I’m working hard and productively. And the artist from New York says she’ll join me here in a few weeks, bringing her art materials on the train.

Only two months out of London and my American life has fallen into place: the job, the cabin, the pickup, the girl. Got away with it.

 

 

 

The Fall

 

So, one day a man walks into a gym.

Tuesday, April 23, in fact.1991. An Englishman. The Sta-Fit gym.
Spokane, Washington, U.S.A. 8 p.m.

I’m doing all right in this new life, seven months into it. Well, there was that bout of flu two weeks ago, but I’m over that. That’s why I’m here tonight. To get back into shape.

And I haven’t let the illness slow me down, finishing the new book to deadline in the midst of fever, exploiting the intensity. I’ve sent it off and prepared my classes for the new quarter too. I have, I think, done OK.

It’s true that the girlfriend, the painter, the dirty blonde, has returned to New York, feeling out of place and neglected in Spokane. I did my best; it couldn’t be helped. It’s possible I’m heartbroken, but I haven’t had time to know for sure.

My gym clothes are on the drab side compared with the other two in the weight circuit room: black swim shorts and tennis shoes held over from London. I haven’t yet adopted the American custom of shopping for new costumes to match each new activity. The other two have. The male has one of those skinny weight-lifting vests over a T-shirt, and a broad weight lifter’s belt. The female’s wearing shiny purple Spandex, making her bottom sleek as a seal’s. We are the only three in the room, and no smile or greeting has been exchanged, creating that special gym tension of mutually denied awareness. We share the rock music.

I’m the oldest and the least fit. The other two are around thirty: she with a ponytail and attitude; he with a warrior stoniness. So, I’m doing my circuit, the leg raises, then the shoulder pulls. I’m surprised at how much the flu took out of me, that I’m having to notch the weights way down from where I was a month ago, but I stay cool and try not to let the others see I’m struggling. My muscles are lazy tonight, and I set about pushing them harder, as if they are not quite me. There was that thing I heard once, that you have to tear your muscles to build them.

I move on to the next station on the circuit, the simple step. Up down, up down, to get the heartbeat and the breathing going, a sort of respite between the hard stuff. But I’m finding it a strain. My heart is not playing the game. I give effort another kick, then I’m dizzy. I stand back, shaking my head to clear it. I shake my whole body as if to clear that too, shaking out tension, like an athlete. It’s acceptable gym behavior. The trouble is, my eyesight is breaking up and a wave of wooziness is passing through me. The scene, the chromed machines, the teal walls with pink trim—the decade’s favored colors for airports, hospitals and gyms—has gone kaleidoscopic, shot through with shifting jags of light. The shaking isn’t helping.

I hang my head, imitating thought, and make my way slowly to where the wall last was, and find it. I slide down to the floor and adopt a rueful gym-appropriate grimace, giving a keen glance toward the others, as if I could actually see them. A dizzy spell. Well, it was stupid to overdo it the first time out after flu. I know that now. I’ll wait it out, like a planned interlude between—what do the gym people call them?—yes, reps.

It’s funny how the sitting down doesn’t end the going down—like gravity does not know where to stop, and its giant hand persists in pushing on my shoulders, insisting I go right through the floor, or failing that, to be flattened on it like paint. I cannot let this happen. It would look bad. It might attract attention. I concentrate on the countervailing force offered by friction, back pressed against the wall, feet pulled up and flat on the carpet. I stare out with unseeing eyes—they are busy playing their own games of light and dark—a hint of a smile on my lips. Not ridiculous, I hope.

The pressing weight is enormous, too much for my muscles, which have themselves turned into dead weight. After receiving an urgent petition from the neck, I let my head drop. My heart has gone deep. It’s beating down there, but very slowly. There’s nothing to do but wait, I tell myself.

I have, after all, been dizzy before. There was that time in the parched bush of northern Nigeria. It was malaria and dehydration then, and three days unconscious as far as I could find out later. People I never met carried me to a bush clinic with no doctor. Others brought me food—rice, plantain, chicken—when I came to. I recovered, gained strength, carried on working. This is nothing like that. Here I’m surrounded by teal, pink, and shining chrome. I’m in Spokane, America, a country with many doctors. The other two are still clanking their machines. That’s good.

It’s quiet. I must be alone now. When did this happen? It is, perhaps, closing time. I want to be at home, flat on my bed. I do not want to be discovered here by the vain, pretty girl at the desk—compact as a battery in her official black shorts—who did not say hello. She’d just be annoyed at the trouble.

For no obvious reason my sight is coming back, the picture recomposing itself. There it is, an empty gym with just a few bolts of white light shooting through it. OK, this is it. I brace against the wall, push up with my arms, push back with my feet. I’m rising. I’m pushing at gravity and it’s pushing back. Tough battle. But now I’m up. Still leaning, but up. Shaking a bit. Prudently, I keep my head down—why fight more than you have to? It’s pretty high up here. It’s a good distance down to the carpet. The carpet wants me.

Who knew standing was such a trick? The madness of it! Those feet; I’ll never be able to balance on them. The body, by nature, wants to topple this way and that. It’s not stable, so you have all these pulleys and pivots to check and balance it. I haven’t realized until now what a complicated job it is. My muscles used to carry the burden. Now they are the burden. But, here goes. I’m moving. Pretty comic, I know, the way I’m swinging my legs instead of lifting them. And so slow. I only need to make it to my pickup parked outside the door. Only a mile to drive to bed.

As I slowly move past the girl at the reception desk, who is making a point of not looking at me, I try for normality. I’m even saying something. There’s a ghastly sound that must be me. The girl is looking now, following my unnatural progress toward the door. What is that expression on her face? It’s not exactly surprise . . . it’s more like horror.

To myself, I say: a good night’s rest and you’ll be right tomorrow.

 

 

 

Doctor I: Grumpy

 

The morning after I collapsed at the gym I am not, after all, better. Two weeks later I am still not better, and it’s time to see a doctor.

The doctor I have in mind is the one closest to my cabin. I’ve passed his roadside sign each time I’ve driven into town. It’s one of those glass cabinet signs that are most commonly found outside Spokane’s startlingly numerous churches, which include the converted supermarket near my home, now a big box of Baptists. Rather than little bits of scripture, aphorism, or threat, the doctor’s sign simply bears his name and, Family Practice.

The waiting room is empty and the reading matter on its tables undisturbed. The receptionist concedes that the doctor can see me now.

He’s in a white coat, standing behind his desk, occupied with moving sample medicines from his drawer to shelves, or vice versa, in any case not acknowledging my presence, fiddling while I burn. When he does turn, the furious glare on his gray, quilted face indicates that I’ve importuned him in the course of more important business. Unable to stand, I surrender to a chair and see him flinch at this new affront.

“Symptoms?” he asks, at last, and I articulate as best I can the experience of the last two weeks: the dizziness, the refusal of my brain to perform or my muscles to respond, the swollen glands, the diarrhea, sore throat, sleeplessness, aching head, everything crazy and awry. Viewed from behind his glinting glasses, my claims are clearly preposterous.

Perhaps this grumpy man has problems of his own, a deep-seated, blameless incapacity for social interaction, a family tragedy, a minor autism, an absent gene for charm and conversation. He says nothing in response to my weak attempts at articulating the shifting elements of my complaint, except, “Take these to reception,” handing me some papers on which he has summarily scribbled. I try to read them, but he folds them away from me, repeating, “To reception.”

I take the receptionist to be his wife, a thin elderly woman tight with misery and apparently sworn to secrecy. I glimpse, though, what he’s written: “Flu symptoms.”

She hands me back my health insurance card and credit card and, with them, a receipt, an order form in triplicate for a lab—“They’ll take your blood”—and a sheaf of forms for me to complete right away, now, in the empty waiting room, before I leave.

This is all strange to me. In England, served by the National Health Service, I grew up with hands-in-your-pockets health care. I walked into doctors’ surgeries without papers and walked out without papers, doing nothing with papers in between. No money changed hands. The doctor had my records or could get them, organized my further tests and consultations, and was not concerned by my income or his. Papers were the doctor’s business; the patient’s business was to be sick.

Grumpy, I learn, has recently arrived from Canada. My guess is that he left because of a scandal involving malpractice, sexual impropriety or, at the very least, an apoplectic distaste for socialized medicine. He’s old and his practice is unpopular. There’s a mad defensiveness about him. If money was his motive for coming, things look bad.

On my follow-up visit, he announces: “You have chronic fatigue syndrome.”
I’ve never heard of this, and wait.
“It’s called ME disease in Canada. No doubt in England too.”
I’ve not heard of that either, and wait.
“Myalgic encephalomyelitis,” he says.
I wait again but nothing more is forthcoming. “Is it,” I ask,
“serious?”
“You don’t die.”
“Ah.”

Grumpy is becoming agitated by this idle chitchat, growing pinkly furious, to evade which he addresses the lab results. “Your Epstein-Barr antibodies are elevated. Exceptionally elevated. Chronic fatigue syndrome is the result of the Epstein-Barr virus.”

I feel there should be more. I ask my addled and reluctant brain to think about what more might be, and at last it comes up with something: “How long does it last?”
“Years. Maybe forever.”
“Forever?”
With a pained hint of compassion, he concedes, “Some people seem to recover.” Then, in retreat from this, “Some get worse.”

I sit in blank and immobile silence, a state I rather like for its own sake. There is something else I should ask, I’m sure, but my brain comes up with nothing. Ah, yes, “What’s the treatment?”
“There’s no treatment.” A pause. “Rest. Eat sensibly.”

And here are the papers, again pushed across the desk in dismissal. I am still trying to think, and since standing and thinking are separately difficult but simultaneously impossible, I stay sitting. And since I have not moved to leave, he does, abruptly opening the door behind his desk and bolting through it.

There is something wrong here, something unsatisfactory. In retrospect, it must be that I have just been assigned a lifetime of comprehensively disabling illness without hope or treatment, but at the time I can’t quite identify the problem.
“How did I catch it?” I manage, to his departing back.
“Nobody knows,” he throws back over his shoulder, as the door closes.
He’s gone.