My heart has been stolen twice.
The second and most felonious theft occurred in the first four months of 2011. I have a picture of the culprit hanging above my desk right now in the Buckman neighborhood of Southeast Portland. The image was taken several years after I last saw her, and seeing it still startles me like flake salt on a chocolate chip cookie – a fleeting indulgence laced with thirst and depth and wonder. She wears this inscrutable, dimply grin and looks downward away from the camera, a lose flop of hair shading half of her face. It’s disarming, almost coquettish, how her wryness deepens just how beautiful she was.
This wasn’t a picture I took, it was one that appeared along with her obituary in the Toledo Blade, and the day I saw it cleaved my life in two. It’s been long enough since this past February to put it in context – that aftermath of my losing her, coupled with the callous, raw, savagery of this senseless murder, pushed me toward what I recognize now as a nervous breakdown.
I STILL reach a point every night where I have to be safely at home -ten PM or so – because, if I’m not, the energy runs out, and I’ll have to just sit and emotionally disintegrate. That’s what I like about Ladd’s addition, a L’enfant Circle a quarter-mile south of my new digs. Hawthorne to the North, Division to the South, 12th-to-20th in between, 16th bisects it… a zillion quiet benches to sit and stargaze and, well, Atheist pray: Did you even remember me? I’ve been Ganz Verloren without you, little spy, and my heart’s been in a box since you left. What were you thinking about those terrifying days and hours before your life ended? Why didn’t you call me when you moved back to Cincinnati? I’m sorry I never said I loved you 2011, when I so much did. And, even here, in paradise, I’m not at peace with losing you just yet.
Not until the novel gets written. Until then I flail. I dither. I think about her at the wine store and say “oakey” to myself in my best approximation of her voice. I’ll see the book she noticed on my re-assembled bookshelves and the clock that my ex-fiancee’s mother gave me, which she noticed and gave me the elephants-always-have-trunks-up lecture. One of my best friends lost her Dad when she was young, and amid all the giggling in Baltimore this year, we admitted that it never really gets easier. And then you reach a point as an adult where people start leaving who are younger.
And that’s why, in this novel I’m on a deadline to finish, I had to change Colleen’s last name to Wheeler.
Wheeler was the first thief. At least with her, there’s a happier ending. And as my time in Cincinnati wound down, I took a weekend to distract myself and think about her.
Our first conversation, in early 2002, was a pretty standard social work intake. She had returned to Kentucky, oddly enough, from a commune in Oregon, to unmire herself from a physically abusive relationship and a felony conviction. She had a toddler, no job prospects, not much of a support system, and was all-but-homeless save for the grace of her friend. This state, ya know, hasn’t ALWAYS been so enlightened about certain plant.
“It might have been easier to stay with that dog,” she tells me, letting a slight Appalachian accent tilt her “augh” around, just like her word “mail” was closer to “mel.” I’m all about the dialect markers.
“But they say everybody’s got a sin. I guess mine is pride.”
I closed my eyes and grinned from ear to ear. She was awesome.
To this day, I commemorate that Seven Sins statement every year, on the day after Thanksgiving. I itemize them on a page, and make sure I violate as many of them as possible. My ultimate “What’s in the box??!??”
So much of my world is shaped by that job I had when I met Wheeler, and getting to live in Newport Kentucky, chief among them. You’ve seen “Rain Man,” right? the little restaurant where Dustin Hoffman drops the straws? That was Pompilio’s, the classic Mom and Pop red-checker red sauce place… right across the street. Not to mention the ice cream shop, pictured below.
I wasn’t just my WORLD that Wheeler – and that job – helped me build, my whole value system centered, more or less, on what I learned there… about focusing on the independence of those you want to help- letting them make a decision as to how and what they need – and encouraging them to break free of you, rather than depending on what you offer. Not to mention the practical training, the ice cream in a bag activity, different learning styles/different personalities, the assumptions about middle-class life that don’t really apply to those in poverty… stuff like that.
Other cool thing about Wheeler, and her ultimate lesson. She told me, straight up, you never EVER work for someone who is stupider than you. Through the tenderest of mercies, I had cool bosses at Emery, but there were a few dolts who stumbled into the non-profit once “revenue stream” and “outcomes” and “Metrics” became the buzzwords and not, you know, “public service.” I loved my work, but eventually loathed my job, if that makes sense. I would have stagnated in Newport had I not said “screw it,” and took a huge risk.
You WILL, of course, note that my absurd pre-occupation with personal boundaries derives from here, too, and how I’ve always been able to clearly distinguish myself from my father, who insisted on hovering rather than letting people come to me.
This preoccupation: letting people go freely once you’ve earned their trust – is basically why I never contacted Colleen after 2011, I never followed her on Twitter, never emailed her, never sent a letter (I knew where she worked) – and besides, my own life started to perk upward – Bethany happened, meeting all my friends completely rocking my world with all of her swagger and our shared love of Vietnamese Food. Then Alana, the kindest and most decent woman ever kind enough to call me a “boyfriend.” Then the other other Sara, the magazine thing, and sooner or later, she passed mostly out of my mind…
Much like Wheeler did.
Until about 2014, when I found myself out to a restaurant dinner at a ridiculous restaurant in Covington. My guest, also a social work veteran and a mutual friend of my magazine editor, agreed to drive my sorry carless butt home, and we passed by Wheeler’s old house back across the Licking river, in Bellevue.
Out of the blue, I told York about Wheeler, and, in a completely Cincinnati moment where everyone went to the same catholic high school, she knew Wheeler because Wheeler’s roommate at the time was still York’s friend, still a serious advertising bigshot in Porkopolis. It led to a conversation.
This all morphed into a series of unnerving dreams. Now, I’m not the person who thinks dreams are significant, save to illustrate fragments of what jumps around in one’s head all day – the usual loneliness, longing to be close to someone – stuff I always seem to lack, and over the course of that year, I think I dreamt about Wheeler more than 20 times. Innocuous ones, a strange hideout here, a dinner there… It made me remember that combination of blue eyes and black hair, which yeah, I’m a sucker for.
While she was at the Brighton Center, Wheeler needed my help writing a letter to her judge in Oregon, asking him to expunge her criminal conviction, for which she served about nine months (Because, as we know, Snitches Get Stitches) She then vanished back into her native eastern Kentucky. Ashland, specifically, where she’s still a nurse. Her daughter, a toddler at the time I knew her, is now getting ready for college. Man.
On a whim, this past summer, I drove that way, along US 52, (“The Ohio River Scenic Byway,” which I’d never done. Made it all the way to Huntington, in fact.
Not if, but WHEN thing gets published, I’ve settled on a tentative epigraph. Woody Guthrie wrote a song in the early 50s, the lyrics to which still haunt me. He crushed hard on Ingrid Bergman, and sung about the Movie “Stromboli,” and he sings, “This old mountain, it’s been waiting all its life for you to work it – to put your hands upon its hard rock…” And so much of my world centers around my trying to get this story told.
The things you do when we our hearts are held captive.