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May 20, 2024

Victory Highway (Part XVII)

By John Trindle

Mark ran the simulator company, if that can be called running it, as he had no business sense nor any resistance to appeals by folks who owed him money. At that point, his cat, which had been with him since he lived with his fiancee, died. Mark was struck down with severe abdominal pains, and confined to a hospital for eight days. The verdict: Crohn's, a life-long digestive disease, with many symptoms. He was so ashamed of his symptoms, which included growing a new asshole (well, the doctors called it a fistula) that he hid them from the doctors. That's why he was there eight days, he had to have a second surgery seven days in.

He was put on steroids, which made him stay awake 23 hours a day. That affected his mind, and he begin to make worse than usual business decisions. He stayed in his townhouse, logged into the computer, all day and all night. He ran a network from attic to living room, soley on the strength of his steroid high. As he lost sleep, he became more and more schizoid. He'd find himself at the computer, thinking he was writing code, to find it was utter gibberish typed in at the DOS command prompt. He was at the rock bottom of his existence, or so he thought. Then the business went under. Mark had been paying the salaries of two employees, and rent in the back office of an insurance agent, for months now, out of his own pocket. There were no profits. Advertising was impossible since they owed all the trade magazines. The smell of death was thick around the desks.

Finally, it was the end. Mark closed the business and declared personal bankruptcy. Sure, his credit was shot, but it was the only way to get the IRS off his backs. After all those years of not paying taxes, they had finally nailed him for 1992 and 1993, his two most profitable years. Unfortunately, one of the State tax returns fell through the cracks, and they garnished his wages. For a period of six weeks, Mark was earning $6.93 a week.

*That* was rock bottom. Luckily an angel in the form of Janice Munday, from Norwich, CT, appeared on-line. She sent him food, and cat toys, and encouraging e-mail in an effort to sustain him and feed him during the six weeks. She had a similar condition, IBD, and so was quite empathetic. She was also crazy as a loon, but Mark didn't mind a bit. He even at one point suspected he might be falling in love with her.

Mark drove, and drove, and drove. He passed St. Charles, and Columbia, and Boonville, where he was so lost in thought he didn't notice that the bridges had been washed out a few years before. He passes Sweet Springs.

Mark noted the sign for Independence, Missouri, and remembered that Independence was the westernmost point accessible by steamship from Saint Louis. Western settlers would depart from Independence in their "Prairie Schooners", wagons with canvas-covered tops, light colored for protection against the sun. This was the eastern terminus of the Oregon Trail, the Sante Fe Trail, and the California Trail. The Mormon Trail, which branched off the California Trail, started here too.

Those pioneers were changing their life completely, at great risk to themselves and their families. The did so because of hope, and faith. In many cases this hope and faith was unfounded, but enough survived to make it happen. The Wild West was Tamed.

He also remembered Independence was the home of Harry S. Truman, the president who brought Missouri as the "Show Me" state to the attention of the country. He was also the man who dropped the atom bomb, though he had no choice in the matter, it having been set up by the machinations of his predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Independence. That was a major theme in his relationship with Laura. She had a severe allergy to controlling people, and would rebel against any hint of control. She told him that, early on, "you'll never control me, you shouldn't try." Mark replied, "I'd sooner try to bottle the wind."

She never really had the control she sought, though. She was so hard-wired to rebel against any one else's input that her actions were involuntary. Someone of sufficient subtlety could manipulate her effortlessly by insisting on the opposite behavior. That person wasn't Mark, though.

It was incredibly frustrating to Mark. Their psychiatrist urged Mark to share his feelings, to express his anger in an appropriate manner. The confrontation would bring him and Laura closer together, into greater intimacy. However, Mark was afraid. He was afraid he'd lose the substantial amount of intimacy they did have, that he'd lose her forever, if he appeared as a controller to her. On the other hand, if he supported her self-destructive behavior, he'd be a party to it. The reverse psychology trick only worked up until the point it was detected, and Laura was a smart cookie. She'd realize she was being manipulated and the wrath would be two-fold. So Mark remained silent, even though he knew by his silence he might be seen as condoning Laura's path to self destruction.

Mark was a smart cookie too, and he knew intellectually that there was no way to save another person from themselves. It was hard enough to save yourself, from yourself, he began to realize. It tore him up to see her sink deeper and deeper into her depressive drunken haze. She kept assuring him that she was improving, but all he saw was an improvement in her self-delusion. If she really was improving, he had been particularly clueless earlier in their relationship, He hated feeling stupid, and would lash out in unreasoning anger at any hint that he had made a mistake. It was kind of a mess, and spoiled the good times on a regular basis. So, they both practiced denial. They got pretty good at it, too. There were plenty of times, though, when she'd start slurring her speech, and he knew. No amount of curiously strong mints or breath strips or Diet Coke(tm) could mask her deteriorated driving, her loss of vocabulary, her sudden self-assurance on every issue, or the fact that she couldn't stand without swaying. After years in a cold, emotionless relationship with Rhiannon, who was drunk almost all the time, these signs cut right to his heart. He knew that arguing with her about it would not help, certainly while she was still intoxicated. So, he would either isolate himself, away from her conversation, or he'd drink with her. After two or three beers, his ear would be dulled to the point where though he could still hear the slurring, it didn't jump right out at him. He could stand it, then, up to a point. It was especially tough for him during the times he was trying to cut down on his drinking, to get some rest, or the times he couldn't drink, such as when he was on Red Cross duty. Pool League Nights while on Red Cross were amazingly hard, since she would plow through three pitchers and be extremely extroverted. He remembered her chasing a tiny radio control car around the floor, bumping into tables and lurching, while the on-lookers laughed.

She would pick a fight with him on those nights. He would be primed, ready to explode himself, because he was suppressing his urge to tell her to go easy on the beer, hadn't she had enough, etc. He knew better than to say those things, but his internalized anger made his movements sharp and his speech clipped. She knew, and though he was formally polite, that wasn't enough. She'd rather fight with him than have him that way. And so she did.

Mark had been repressing his anger for so many years, for a variety of reasons, that he was often blindsided by what he saw as a sudden reversal. They'd get all the way through the evening, light conversation, she would be hugging all her friends, and they'd get ready to leave. He'd say something innocuous, but the tone of his voice would betray his mood. She'd light into him, they'd have a quick bout of words, and one of them would storm off.

Unlike many couples, at least the ones who pay attention (as Mark always did) to the opinions of others, Mark and Laura probably had more fights in public than in private. In private, at least, Mark wasn't driven by his worry about What People Thought. In private, too, Mark had most of her attention, where in the pool hall he was driven mad with jealousy of her friends.

When he was being his most objective, he wondered if her friends really did love her, or were using her for entertainment value only. They almost never saw her sober, for instance. They never saw her thoughtful or sad or quietly proud. They saw her funny, but not subtle. They saw her loving, but in that overblown sloppy way that drunks and MDMA users love the entire world, not tender and caring. In a very sad, small way Mark was her only close friend.

Rhonda was Laura's best friend in North Carolina. They shared a lot of jobs, and a lot of late nights out partying. They shared child rearing and the triumphs and tragedies of married life as well. When Laura's second husband died, Rhonda was right there, supporting her throughout. Their relationship had the gloss of the drinking buddies but also the solid core of the true love of friendship. Laura missed Rhonda, and it made Mark sad.

Mark really had never had that kind of friendship until he met Laura. That wasn't entirely true. He was really close to his childhood friend Harold, at least until the last half of high school. That's when the dating started, and Harold was better looking and much more confident with the ladies than Mark. Since that time, his friendships had been much more on the surface. His relationship with Eve was the closest, but by that point, deep in his college depression, he was manipulative and the prospect of using her for casual sex was always present in the back of his mind. She enjoyed sex, after all, and his fiancee hadn't ever seemed to. But Mark used her and didn't deal with her actual self. There was no intimacy there. Of course, it was years before Mark even knew that was possible, much less experienced it himself.

After Eve left, and Mark was just rattling around, he would be at parties or in the Green Leafe with his drinking buddies. A woman would start talking to him, listening to him, apparently taking him seriously. He loved that, but he never did connect the intellectual bonding he experienced with the sexual tension and emotional sharing of love. The woman would eventually realize this, place Mark firmly in the clueless casual friend who might be gay category, and move on. Mark's buds would then tease him mercilessly, saying things like "Wow, she was really going for you!" Mark's reply would always be something like, "Really? Why didn't you tell me??" They would laugh hysterically, then shake their heads in mock sadness as they realized he was serious. "You just know, man, you just know. Pay attention." Mark's reaction was to decide he really was a dummy regarding romance, and that he'd never find someone to love him. And, to drink more.

When Mark fell for someone, he fell all the way. He would write her notes, call her on the phone, and follow her around town. He was a very dependent person, and his desperation would come across to the women, as a palpable acrid scent of Loser. They would immediately start holding him at arm's length, pretending not to receive his messages, pretending to forget commitments. This drove Mark crazy, and he tried to grasp even harder at the brass ring. The object of his affections (and the word object is used advisedly) would trot out the good old standard "You're a Nice Guy, But I Don't Feel That Way About You. Let's Just be Friends." speech. Of course, Mark never had a female friend that he didn't want to f***, and so he just saw this as a blow-off. In most cases it was.

The only women who let him hang around, who would put up with this kind of craziness, were those who weren't quite right themselves. Ones who enjoyed controlling his behavior, or who thought they might like to be controlled. The Soulful Martyr, who wanted to be exploited to prove Men Were Scum. The Wicked Witch, who just wanted to see a man, any man, suffer.

Needless to say, Mark didn't get laid for a very long time. It's hard to treat your lover as a person, when you don't treat yourself that way. He was frustrated, and he was angry. But since he was angry at himself, he had no idea what to do.

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-10-06
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