I will never learn.
As I predicted, malaise caught up with me this week. Instead of doing things that I know will prevent malaise, I wandered the house, sleepless and listless, unable to pick up one project and stick to it. I let myself sink. Taking stock of this week, it was not unproductive, but it was productive in all the wrong ways: I’m gathering all the details of my trip but not actually writing about it. I’m researching how to fix the Pilot’s garden but not actually planting anything. I’m watching a lot of Food Network but not actually cooking anything. I’m organizing my books but not actually reading them.
But that is the problem with malaise: I know how to avoid it, I know how to make it go away, but knowing and doing are two very different things. And I hate that cringing realization that I am only making matters worse, that I will feel better if I only do X, Y, or Z. But I can’t work up the energy or the motivation to do X, Y, or Z because, really, if I’m honest, I don’t want to feel better. Feeling better means going back to work, means facing whatever I’m not facing. It means feeling.
The problem began Sunday night, when I started an essay about my last weeks on the East Coast. Those last weeks were predictably difficult, marked with an impossible amount of work, a visit to the emergency room, many emotional goodbyes, and an unfortunate lack of air-conditioning during a particularly rotten heat wave. Page after crinkly page on my yellow legal pad outlines and details those frenzied days; I am amazed at how much I got done in such a short time. I was looking for the connective tissue, the theme to thread through the essay, but the only answer that came back was: I’m exhausted.
And when I relived those emotional goodbyes, I locked up further. With email and IM and Facebook and everything but the phone because I have AT&T and AT&T hates me, I am as connected to everyone as I was before I left, when they were all right at hand. But this week, I feel every mile between me and my friends and family.
And as much as I hate to admit this, I kind of miss my job.
I worked at the Puzzle Factory for eleven and a half years; I started there six months after I got married. When I married, I believed it was for life, but I took the job as a puzzle editor thinking I’d be there a year or two. I thought it would be a fun way to earn a paycheck until I was a World Famous Novelist. And it was a fun way to earn a paycheck – the Puzzle Factory is a wonderful and a frustrating place to work. The people are smart and strange and funny and warm; I count many of my former coworkers as my dearest friends.
I don’t want to romanticize my time there, to focus only on who or what was wonderful, but to be fair, much of my frustration with the place stemmed from how easy it was to stay there, from how easily a year or two turns into twelve into twenty. I can, and will, go on and on about all the things wrong with the Puzzle Factory, but even I have to admit that the list of things that are right with the place is the longer list. But when my marriage was over, it stopped being easy to stay there.
What I miss is the familiar routine of the job, the way every day taught me new words, gave me a new game to win, made me feel smart and secure. Every day, I took something broken – a crossword grid, a computer program, a magazine layout – and I fixed it. In fact, I would fix the hell out of it — I was really goddamn good at my job. And now, I am pining for those daily, easy victories because writing is really fucking hard.
Not that I want to go back, or anything. I’m just saying.
I gave my notice at the Puzzle Factory as soon as I was sure of my decision, which meant that my manager and I had a little over two months to reassign or complete my tasks and projects. I had always known I was doing too much for what I was paid at the Puzzle Factory, but it still came as a bit of shock when my responsibilities were distributed among seven other people. As gratifying as that was, it meant I had to train most of those people before I left, plus meet my own deadlines and organize things to hand off neatly. This, in addition to two freelance projects and packing for a move across the country.
Absolutely no one was surprised when I got sick. I’ll spare you the details, or, rather, spare myself the embarrassment of the details, and just say that because I ran myself ragged and didn’t eat or sleep properly, I developed an infection that landed me in the emergency room.
Unfortunately, the fever spike that won me nine hours in the ER happened during a long weekend with the Little Brother and Little Sister-In-Law. It was his birthday, and my last chance to see them before I headed West, and if it had been anyone else, I would have stayed home like a smart person. But I’m a stubborn person, not a smart person, and so I drove from New Haven to Takoma Park with a fever of 103 and had lunch with friends on the way. The drive took almost eight hours and a lot of Tylenol, but Ocho and I made it in one piece. (I wasn’t contagious, John and Stacy, I promise.)
The Little Brother and I were playing with the Peanut at the Silver Spring fountain when I started to feel really Not Right. I had a fever, and it was a hot, humid day, but I had the chills. The Little Brother whisked me to Washington Adventist, and if I didn’t tell him then, I’m telling him now: maybe it’s being a father that did it, but the Little Brother has turned into someone you want around when there’s any kind of crisis. He had Peanut wrapped in a towel before she could protest about having to leave the water, and had me at the ER before I could protest that I was just fine, really.
The Little Brother and the Peanut were allowed to come sit with me in the ER and keep me company between tests. The Peanut sat on the bed with me and drew pictures, and by pictures, I mean great swirls of ink all over the paper and the sheets and my leg and her shirt, because she just turned three. Her eyes were big with questions. We read to her, and when she got bored with her books, we made up stories about the other patients. Every time a nurse wheeled a gurney past us, she asked, “When the man come push Patti truck?” When they finally did come push Patti truck, though, the Little Brother had already taken the Peanut home, and the LSIL was with me.
The Little Brother spent his birthday in the emergency room holding my hand and making me laugh. And after a long day of work, the LSIL, who is pregnant, came and held my hand until I was released. I am so grateful, and so lucky, to have such a family, but remembering all this only made me feel sorry for myself, not grateful: who will hold my hand now, when I get sick?
During that visit, I slept in the Peanut’s room, which used to be the guest room but was repurposed because she’s about to get her own Little Brother. She’s very proud of her Big Girl Bed, but every morning, she woke up and climbed into bed with me. We have the same Snuffy bear, and after a “Here’s your Snuffy and here’s my Snuffy, no wait, I want your Snuffy” conversation, she would snuggle into me and fall back to sleep. Each night now, I curl around my Snuffy bear in my empty bed, and I miss her so much I can feel it in the tender back of my knees.
When I arrived in California, there was a letter from the Librarian waiting for me. It is a perfect poem of a letter, just like the love letters he used to write to me before we were married, when I was in Dublin and he was in Connecticut. Our goodbye was the most painful, the most difficult of all of them, and it is this, this burden of memory and longing, that I have been not facing.
And it is this that I will never learn, the connective tissue I was hunting for: Like the three-year-old Peanut, I have two settings. I grab a thing away and clutch it tight to me, and shout, “I do it!” When I am determined to do something on my own, even the light touch of fingertips on the small of my back is too much pressure. I will shake you off. But before long I will realize I just can’t do it, or it will start to feel like I can’t do it, and I will stand close to you, big-eyed and small-voiced, and tug on your hand, saying, “You help.”