22 May 2016

I hear "she has quite the potty mouth"

After a stop for sandwiches and a brief attempt at fishing, Brian, Tina, two foster kids, and I were heading across the Grande Ronde Valley, which is actually a plateau created by ancient volcanoes now blanketed by dull yellow grass. Still hours east of the Columbia River Gorge, we passed rubbly rock, often pink and orange, until reaching Highway 84.

Driving below towering basalt cliffs is where Brian spotted a half dozen big horn sheep watching over the highway. They were amazing in their National Geographic majesty because of their size and how their coloring blended into the wall of terrain. As taken as I was with the wildlife, I was also impressed by how Brian spotted them while driving 70 miles per hour.

At a rest stop, Brian told me the story about how he and a buddy bought some acres in remote Klamath County decades ago. The land, originally homesteaded by a gold prospector, turned into a series of caves where three generations of miners eked out a living. By 1990, Brian and his business partner hit a wall, which had nothing to do with gold nuggets and everything to do with water, the U.S. Forest Service, Corps of Engineers, and legal costs.

The way in which Brian told me his story about financial heartbreak spoke volumes. He was philosophical about it, conceding that it was part of his crazy past.

“Who knows what would’ve happened if I knew what I know now,” he said. “This was years before I met Tina. I’m sober now.”

Like me, faced with the realization that our thirties were in fact a long time ago, we were less concerned about knowing everything than we were about creating stability.

I enjoyed Brian’s stories during our one-on-one moments at rest stops. I got as much from what he said as what he left unsaid. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to have chance talks about the clash between the dreams of our youth and the sharp realities of adulthood. When I’m with long-time friends, I immediately regress to a 10-year-old. When you meet a peer for the first time, there’s a certain expectation to act your age. For a while, at least.  

Cliché or not, Brian and Tina were salt of the earth.

The couple explained the torment and depravity of the foster care system: the abuse and neglect, the filth and malnourishment. All of it made me think of dog rescues. Or life in the Third World. Their disclosures were matter of fact: when they brought Makalia home, they realized their new foster daughter didn’t know how to use a toilet.  

“You do what you can do,” Tina said. “It’s not easy.”

We were nearing the Columbia River Gorge at around two or three in the afternoon. The conversation looped back to marriage, dating, divorce, family, bachelorhood, and Karina.

“Most people experience a crazy girlfriend when they’re young,” Brian said. “I know I did. They’re great for sex, not so great for sanity.”

“Or marriage,” Tina added.

They laughed.  

I knew enough to know that a big part of the world’s population had been through the School of the Crazy Ex during their twenties.  

In the arc of life, I got what I asked for. Maybe it was destined. For me, a pendulum was sweeping toward a need for passion—as if to make up for lost time. I went from a 21-year-long marriage that took a natural, steady pace: Julia and I started young, took one step at a time; we raised a child and kept the domestic machine rolling along, until two decades were behind us. I wouldn’t take any of it back. As a marriage, we succeeded and failed together, and then ultimately ended peacefully at the same time our daughter Ellie was heading off to college.

I don’t think I’m unique. I felt loved and supported and believe I did my part in loving and supporting. But there I was: age 48 and divorced.

Who wouldn’t be looking for adventure and passion?

More than two years of thinking true love might be out there, it was so easy to believe anything was possible.

But before meeting Karina, I dated. I got on match.com and, of course, circulated at coffee shops and nights out with long-time friends. I was a born-again virgin, after all. I was ready for an adventure, full of energy, and feeling moderately certain I had something to offer the marketplace.  

Within two or three months of my divorce from Julia, I dated a nurse named Beth who lived an hour east of Portland. I referred to her as My Lady Friend for no other reason than it made friends laugh.

With Beth, I lucked out. I don’t know whether to cringe about this over-disclosure, but Beth brought me back to life. The first time we had sex was everything I could ever hope for.

Our paths crossed exactly at the right time and I can’t think of a better person for where I was and—for that matter—where she was. Beth was very good to me. Months after meeting, she invited me to fly with her to meet her family in North Carolina, where her two sisters and their husbands surprised their parents with accommodations at the legendary Pinehurst Golf Club. Like all big events that are loaded with possible meaning, the getaway’s aftermath altered our already somewhat-vague relationship status.

Like I said, Beth and my timing couldn't have been any better. I learned from it.

On her first visit to my condo which was inside a former grade school, she tactfully pointed out that if I’m going to keep dating, the family picture—with me, Ellie, and Julia—at the top of the stairs was bad form. The framed studio portrait was still on the wall when—one late Friday night—Julia showed up unannounced and let herself in. I was in the shower while Beth was lounging on the couch.     

As water washed over me, I heard “hello! Hello? Dan?”

I knew it was Julia. I reacted like anyone in my situation would: deciding between doing nothing or getting out of the shower. I delayed my decision. I let the hot water run while I listened for clues as to why in the world she would show up without warning.

The Rainbow Factory in my head figured things would work themselves out. I put the soap in its soap dish.  

“I’m in the shower.” I said it with questionable volume or conviction. “I have a guest.”

Come on, Julia, I thought. At least sense the horrible timing and turn around as suddenly as you arrived.

“I have a guest,” I said louder.  

Maybe Julia was introducing herself to Beth.

What was the worst that could happen?

By the time I turned off the water and got out of the bathroom covered with a towel, Julia was standing right where I imagined her: next to the kitchen table.  

“Hi,” she said. “Sorry. I thought maybe something was wrong so I rushed over.” She lived 15 minutes away. 

Something might be wrong?

“It was like I had a premonition.” Julia knew I had been dating a woman named Beth because I had told her so. 

“I’m fine and you know better than to just show up like this.”

“Ok, sorry. You’re right. Bye.”

She walked down the stairs, yelling “nice to meet you, Beth!”

As I heard the door close, I walked to the couch. No Beth.

Beth had disappeared to the only place she could hide: up the ladder and onto the loft, a space big enough to hold only a bed, dresser, and nightstand.  

“Is she gone?” Beth said, hidden under the covers. “What just happened?” She was shaking. “My God. It seemed like she stood over me for like 10 minutes.”

I felt horrible for her. I apologized. I was in disbelief. It’s one thing to walk into the house unannounced. It’s another to try to confront someone who’s mostly naked in a bed.  

That was a weird night.

Karina and I would meet about five months later.

In Hallmark terms, we didn’t meet cute. We didn’t meet at a blood bank or a coffee shop. I found her on OKCupid. Before I knew her name, she was Hazel_beam. All I had was a handful of photos and short profile that wasn’t over-worked. She sounded uncomplicated, humble, and smart.

Even before I noticed our 98.7% compatibility score, I placed her in my grocery cart.

If I learned anything from my past forays with online dating, you have to think things through to make the right overture.  One wrong move could deny you the chance to even meet.

OKCupid was still new at the time. Its design and functionality had the advantage of starting something new. It was so simple to use, it seemed as if it modeled itself after the anti-match.com. OKCupid was alternative by default. Where match.com was Olive Garden, OKCupid was raising chickens in the yard. Polyamory had its own checkbox. Its compatibility percentiles were based on a seemingly infinite number of questions about priorities, interests, politics, religion, sex, money, and lifestyle.

Ignatius was taken, so I was Ignatius.pdx—named after fictional misanthrope Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces. There is also the first-century bishop-turned-saint namesake, which could serve as a possible dog whistle for Catholics. 

Hazel_beam’s profile mentioned she had a Vespa and was atheist. But she also wrote something about spitting out a body-of-Christ wafer at her first communion. If I had a soft spot for atheists, make them scarred Catholics who rode around on scooters.  

I picked her up at her house. She had a friend peering out the front window as Karina got in. I took her to a moderately divey bar a friend owned. If there were two direct routes from her house to the Morrison Bar, she noticed how I took neither one and ribbed me for it.  

Karina laughed at my jokes. Her teases were endearing. I loved her thick curly hair. She spoke freely about sex and her needs. And I trusted her. It’s pretty simple. Our romance—like so many, I suppose—was about timing.

Speaking of timing, Brian pulled off the highway in Hood River for gas. We had been on the road for about four hours since Joseph. This was my chance to pay my way, so I was quick to get out to let the gas attendant know the total was coming from me. That’s when I turned on my phone to check for messages.

“where are you?”
“ass fuck”
“got a duii”
“your fault. charges worse b/c of bottle under seat”

Oh, no. I didn't expect this.

I suspected this was a case of Karina losing it after being pulled over for speeding. Based on my three-year history with her at the wheel, her lead foot came first, then the poor manners. I’ll never know if she was weaving, but I would think a certain amount of belligerence and lost composure could warrant a sobriety test. What could’ve been a peaceful drive home for Karina turned into a meltdown. And for the record, the Steinshine under the seat was in a brown paper bag—an unopened gift for the boys at work. I’m no lawyer, but I couldn’t see how that could have anything to do with adding to the arrest.

My only text reply: “need me to call your mom for anything?”

It wasn’t until we pulled out of the gas station that I saw Karina’s reply: “no”

Then the phone rang just as we were about to pull onto I-84. I told Tina and Brian that it was the call I’ve been expecting. I could tell they were just as eager about what Karina had to say as I was.

I answered my phone assuming nothing: “Hello.”

“Is this Mr. O’Brien?” The person on the other end wasn’t Karina.

“Yes, it is,” I said.  

“This is Officer Karen McCoy with OSP. I have Mrs. Karina O’Brien here with me. She has quite the potty mouth—”

That’s really what she said. And It was all I needed to steamroll the officer with an economy of my status: “Keep in mind that Karina O’Brien is my ex-wife,” I began. “She refused to give me a ride while camping outside Joseph. And I was able to get a ride—I’m in Hood River, an hour from home so I’m not sure what sort of information I can help you with.”  

“Oh, thank you. That’s all I need.”

Twenty minutes later, another text from Karina: “Can you call Vlasta? I’m in jail.”

15 May 2016

So far, so good, but I was still six hours from home

The town dentist dropped me off at the only gas station in town. So far, so good, but I was still a six-hour drive home. 

While the sole gas station person tended to customers, I used my phone to search airplane + Joseph Oregon + pilot and got the answering machine for a local flight school.

I left a message and hoped for the best.

With a lull at the pump, I approached the gas station man I hoped was named Steve. 

“Are you Steve?”   

“Yeah,” he said. “How you doing?”

“Well. I’m sort of stranded. I need to get to Portland.”

I let it hang there. Steve just smiled and looked at the ground. “Stranded, huh?”

“My ex-wife told me to take a hike so here I am.”

He looked at me with a laugh. “Your ex. That’s a good one.”

“We were camping and . . .” I nodded.

He laughed some more, a kid’s giggle this time. “You hear a lot of weird stuff out here, but that’s good.”

“I got a lift from the local dentist. He mentioned Chet, a pilot.”

“Hmm. I don’t know. You can try.” His face looked full of doubt.

“I left a message on his answering machine.”

“It’s Sunday, and the bus don’t run on Sundays, so that’s a no-go. We’ll figure something out. People passing through here all the time.”

A car pulled in and shut off its engine, Steve excused himself. When he returned, we talked some more. I learned that he went to Wilson High in Portland and bought the gas station in the early ‘80s; he’s lived in Joseph ever since. He told me he loved people’s stories and how everyone in Joseph looked out for one another.   

“We’ll find you a ride. You just stay put.”

There I was, shuffling against the cement block wall of the gas station, keeping warm whenever the sun would break through the clouds. I was feeling grateful—I was surrounded by civilization, far away from invisible wolves. 

I wavered between worst-case scenarios (spending the night right where I was) and building a rainbow factory in my head (for a great outcome involving a shower and 60 Minutes). That’s when I heard Steve ask someone inside a faded red RV where they were headed. The question seemed as normal as can be.

Steve was getting right to it.

“St. Helens?” Steve repeated it loud enough for me to hear. It’s impossible not to pass through Portland on your way to St. Helens, and Steve knew it. He was also doing a great job of rebroadcasting everything the driver said. 

“Heading back today?” Steve asked the driver, who I still couldn’t see. 

“. . .  well, I have a guy here who needs a ride to Portland.”

No one could’ve teed it up better. My new best friend turned to me, pointing with his eyes as if to say, you’re up. His hand gesture was usher-like. Right this way.

You only have one chance at a first impression, and here goes mine.  

“Hi,” I said, pretending I had a great sleep.

He was exactly what I pictured: a beard with a trucker hat. I liked him right away.

He was either about to take pity on me or find my story suspicious and absurd.

“Well,” I began. “I’m sort of stranded.” Pause, take a breath. “My ex-wife—I was camping with my ex-wife, weird, I know—she told me to take a hike this morning.”

I suddenly felt self-conscious. I was dressed less for camping and more for the Costco cheese aisle.

That’s when I met Brian and Tina and their two foster kids. They got me out of Joseph.

08 May 2016

Loud, hopeful warnings about wolves

When I walked up the hill to reach the main road, I was thinking the morning was young enough for possibilities. I had about 10 hours to work with—to make it back in time for a shower and a sensible bedtime. I’d only been with my employer for a couple months; an unexpected Monday absence didn't seem like an option. 

Karina was still yelling from the campsite: something about being careful about the wolves, which was the last thing I feared. My only concern was whether any cars were going my way, and how to make my story not sound too weird.

I wanted to figure out a better out a better way to say, “my ex-wife told me to take a hike.”  

But there I was, walking on a very quiet road. Me and my middle-aged self with Chuck Taylor high-tops on my feet, in the middle of nowhere.

The first car appeared after about 20 minutes of walking: a Chrysler Sebring parked on a wide shoulder with a sweeping view. A retirement-age couple was facing away from me, one aiming a camera at a sweeping view of rolling desolation. I strolled toward them as if it were an ordinary Sunday. 

“Hi,” I said.

They barely acknowledged me, making me feel like an intruder. It was awkward. I was out of practice.   

“By any chance, are you headed into LaGrande . . . or Joseph or Pendleton or Baker or any of those?” I didn’t sound very decisive.

They looked at each other and then at their car. Not quite panic, but I could tell there was no way in hell these two were going to welcome me to any part of their road trip.

“It’s our last day in Oregon,” the man said, an acceptable “do not disturb” reply. It told me that he and his companion didn’t come out all this way for anyone irresponsible enough to not have a ride out the wilderness.  

“Where you from?” I asked, smiling of course.

“Georgia.” He didn't smile. 

“Oh wow. A long way from home!”

The guy nodded.

“Go Bulldogs,” I said.

The woman was already inside the car.

For someone from so far away to reach such a remote and moderately interesting location was impressive, especially knowing it took me 51 years to be on the same road. On the other hand, he could've saved a lot of time and gas for a much better view. I remember thinking he got a bad tip or he just likes to drive.

I kept walking along the quiet road.  

All I could think about were scenarios to get home: hitch a ride of course, get into town to take a bus to another town, or find a pilot willing to fly me without any notice.

It couldn’t have been much more than 15 minutes when I heard something motoring behind me; I turned to hold out a thumb.  

An old pickup truck passed, slowed and stopped.

I hustled to open the door as the driver tossed a rifle behind the seat. He was everything you’d want in a pickup truck commercial: a mix of Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood. I knew right away I was in good hands. This man had local all over his face. He knew these roads. 

“Thanks,” I said. “I just need a ride to the closest town.”

“Joseph.” Joseph wasn’t his name; he was explaining that the town of Joseph was my only option.

“Great. Thanks!”

He nodded, a Marlboro Man nod.

“I was camping with my ex-wife,” I said, as if he was asking. “She said she couldn’t spend another second with me.” I watched for a reaction. There wasn’t one. “She told me she wasn’t going to drive me home.”

I had no idea if my story made any sense. 

“I need to figure out a way to get to Portland.”

“I can’t remember if they run buses to LaGrande any more.”

“Even if I could fly home from Pendleton.”

“There’s a pilot in town. His name is Chet. I’ll drop you off at the gas station. Steve will know. You’ll be able to figure things out there.”

“Were you out hunting?” I asked, but making sure to remember Steve and Chet's names.

He shook his head. “Getting some firewood.”

I never considered having a rifle with me while chopping wood.

“What do you do in Portland?”

“I’m in the ad agency business.”

He nodded.

“So you live in Joseph?”

“I do. I’ve been here all of my life. My grandparents homesteaded.”

“Are you a rancher?”

“A dentist.”

I was getting a ride from the town dentist. One bad ass dentist. 

“Bet you’ve seen and heard it all out here,” I said.

He nodded. “See that car right there?” We passed a newish white sedan pulled into what might've been the mouth of a logging road. 


“It’s been there for three days. Probably a suicide.”


He talked about the local economy. Income disparity. Poor access to dental care—and medical treatment, in general.

I nodded with understanding.

He questioned how sustainable the area would be if Joseph continued to evolve into a boutique town.  He described how much the area has changed. 

I told him about my afternoon in Joseph the day before. I said I noticed only one gas station, yet there was a distillery between a chocolate store and brewpub.

He laughed.

“We bought some rye whisky and some un-aged stuff—moonshine they called Steinshine. That was probably the beginning of my drama. Things unraveled after that.”

He smiled at that.

“Actually, my first mistake was deciding to go camping.”

I shared with him how Karina was first-generation American-Polish. She grew up in Midtown Manhattan. And then he told me how his daughter married a man from Argentina, which didn’t end well.

“All that macho stuff meant different ideas of what’s acceptable. I had to get in the middle of this guy and my daughter, tell him to back off. ‘We don’t do that here,’ I said. Things got bad." 

I was humbled by his story—that he shared it. It was as if he understood there was more to my story.

We were getting close to town, no longer in the hills and trees. The road turned straighter and the surroundings were more pasture and open meadow-like. Snow lined the tips of the Wallowa Mountains in the distance.

“I’m going to drop you off at the gas station. If you can’t get hold of Chet, talk to Steve at the gas station. He’ll know your options.”

“Thanks a lot. I really appreciate this.”

We shook hands. 

The morning sun took a break behind a big cloud. It was already 10:45.

“No problem.”

And that was the last I heard from him.

And that is how I ended up at the only gas station in Joseph, population 1,000, twice within 20 hours. It all looked different because I had no idea how I would make it home. I might as well have been in Georgia. 

01 May 2016

Sure, why shouldn't we go camping?

To Multnomah County and the state of Oregon, Karina and I were divorced in June 2014. After a summer of silence and plenty of time to let bygones be bygones, I got an email from her in October. In a three-hour span, we treated email like text messaging.

Karina: “Hi.”

Me: “Hi. Hope all is well.”

She wrote that she had a new favorite place on Earth.

Karina: “Want to go camping?”

Me: “Think that’s a good idea?” 

Karina: “What do we have to lose?”

I had to look up Wallowa Mountains to figure out if I’d been there before. I hadn’t.

The choice was simple: do I go camping with someone who caused so much drama in my life? Sure.

I romanticized the possibilities. We would laugh and laugh. If that couldn’t happen, at least it was a chance to figure out if we could be friends. We could catch up.

Karina seemed genuinely excited to show me her new favorite place, which was in the deep northeastern-most corner of Oregon, near where the Alps of Oregon rose above Hells Canyon and the Snake River. Plenty of sweeping vistas, high altitude, and long stretches to run out of gas, get stranded, and freeze your ass off.

That was the plan.

Because the general area of the campsite was a six-hour car ride from Portland, we decided to stay the night in a hotel in the town of Pendleton so we could drive into the mountains without any hurry. To describe our night in the hotel room as “pleasant” would be an exaggeration. The only thing that salvaged the morning in Pendleton was a mutual priority to check out of the hotel and get on the road to Baker City and then into the wilds outside of Joseph.

The drive toward the mystery-to-me campground seemed to go on forever, but that was probably because we didn’t talk much. I eventually grew tired of getting shot down as mister optimist so I finally figured it was best to stare out the window and think about how the terrain was uninhabitable for all sorts of reasons.

The road twisted and turned—hairpin curves, views from cliffs, lots of trees and then fields, and tiny towns with stories that would probably never get told.

For campsite decisions, I deferred to Karina. She was the subject matter expert. The experienced one. She initiated this adventure so it was easy for me to agree and even commiserate with all the indecision that comes with choices.

Off the main road and into a series of cut backs, we found a gravel road with a cinder-block bunker. It was a campsite with rudimentary features, such as a small bathroom-like facility. We made a loop, settled on a patch of 200 square feet of level space shrouded by trees. It was on the edge of a creek I would call a babbling brook enough times to see Karina roll her eyes. We had the whole site to ourselves. 

“Sure!” I said. “Looks great.” 

If being in the car wasn’t all that much fun, being outside showed great promise. At least we had camp chores to tend to.  

Our conversation could be described as Karina telling me what to do and me saying “ok, sounds good.”

We were civil. We didn’t bicker. I listened. It was like being at work. If I was failing to get it right, she let me know.

I sensed she was working hard at being patient with me, so I was feeling grateful.

The tent got setup without incident.

But there we were in the general vicinity of the Wallowa Mountains, 40 miles from the closest town called Joseph, population 1,000.

I learned the distance to Joseph because once we were set up, we drove to Joseph for a tour of the five-block town, a visit to a distillery, and dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

I felt like we’d turned the corner. It was nice. Dinner was good. We managed a few laughs. I liked Joseph.

Then we drove back. We greeted our tent just where we left it.

I started the campfire fire and Karina set up a mini bar at the picnic table with a pentacle carved into it.

The best way to rehash our evening is to put myself in the third person, so here’s the play-by-play: Karina took sips of her gin tonic with lime. Dan stayed hydrated with water and snacked on jerky. Karina started talking about the last time she camped so close to the Wallowas, which involved a man named Dave only a few months before. Dan asked general questions about weather conditions and wildlife. Karina told Dan that I can’t drop beef jerky crumbs because even the slightest scent will attract wolves, bears and mountain lions. Dan looked down at his jacket for crumbs. It was getting dark. Karina said she was serious. Dan said he’s trying hard not to drop beef jerky crumbs. Karina said he needed to be careful because she meant it. Dan said “ok” and laughed, but shouldn’t have. Karina said to Dan he never takes her seriously. Dan said, of course he took her seriously. Karina said she never felt supported by Dan and never gave her the benefit of the doubt. Dan listened. Karina recapped how Dan abandoned the marriage, gave up and left, which is why Dan was a phony and a fraud. Dan said he loved Karina with all of his heart, in past tense. Karina said he had a horrible way of showing it. Dan said sorry. Karina said Dan messed up every holiday and ruined every Christmas. Dan said he was sorry and that he knows he screwed up. Karina said Dan’s own parents are (or were) hypocrites. Dan thought this was absurd and that he saw no good reason to bring his parents into the conversation. Dan’s dad was now dead. He’d been dead for nearly three months.  

We did a lot of back and forth, but it was mostly one sided. After a while, I could only stare into the fire. I wished I were at home in my warm bed.

“Are you going to talk to me?” Karina said.

“I don’t know what more I can say.”

“Think of something.”

“I’m sorry about all of this.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I’m sorry.”

There was a long enough pause to hope the popping of the fire would lull us and enchant us with its warmth. Then it started to rain. Maybe the rain would work as a distraction.

“Hi, I’m Dan,” Karina said. “I’m retarded.”

“Are you 12?” I said.

This didn’t go over very well.

She’d had too much alcohol. I had to figure out how to get into the tent and into my sleeping bag, which seemed very cold, wet, and complicated. 

Karina was now talking about karma and how I had a debt to be paid. She hoped I’d get eaten by wolves.

“Should we go to bed?” I said, now listening to the rain as drops pelted my scalp and forehead.

“Talk to me,” she said.

“What in the world can I possibly say? There’s nothing I can say right now that would solve anything. You know that. You know I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of the pain I caused.”

More silence unless you count the fire hissing at the raindrops. I didn’t have a hood.

“You’re hopeless,” Karina said. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself. And I’ve never known a more selfish family.”

“I know, I know. You’ve told me this.”

“Talk to me!” This time she yelled it.  

“I told you I’m sorry,” I said. “I totally failed you. What more can I say?”

We somehow got out of the rain and into our separate sleeping bags. Karina was completely sad and distraught. I tried to comfort her but she pulled away from me with tears and anger.

Because of the way tents are so confined, the rain was loud and every exaggerated movement inside was amplified.

“Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay. Do I seem okay?”

“I’m sorry, Karina. I really am.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“I know. I wish I knew what to say.”

I rolled over onto my good ear, which meant there would be no way for me to tell if she had anything more to say. That’s when I must’ve fallen asleep.

I awoke at dawn to a full bladder. The tent was crusted in ice but the sun was working its way through the trees. I enjoyed getting the morning fire going.

There really is something about the peace and quiet of the great outdoors.  

Karina eventually made it out of the tent. She didn’t look well. Her eyes were red, circled in swollen brown shadows.

“Good morning,” I said. “I heated up some water. Want some coffee?”

She didn’t say anything. 

“You doing ok?” I asked.

“No. I’m not okay,” she said.

I watched her.

“I’m not okay,” she said again, louder. “Thanks for ruining my weekend.”

“Sorry,” I said. “But look! It’s a new day.” I looked skyward. “No reason to be a grump-a-lump. Let’s have a fresh start.”

She glared at me. Her eyes were daggers.

And then things started right where we left off.

“Why, Dan?” she screamed. “Why, why why?”

I listened mostly because I still had no idea what I could say to absolve my wrongs and bring peace. It didn’t help that I found her grievances to be vague, isolated, and all over the place. The drama wasn’t because I was incapable of heartfelt remorse and accountability. I’m quick to admit fault, take blame, and move on. Spite’s not my thing either, so when things turned vengeful, I felt one big disconnect.   

“I think it’s simply because you have no respect for me. That’s all it is. Zero respect. I hate your parents. You’ve made me feel that way. You weren’t there for me, yet I was there for you.” She was shouting this at me.  

I suspected she was still a little bit lit up from the gin because she started talking about how ungrateful I was for all those times she listened to my mom’s repetition. Her rant turned into something about how she always showed kindness to her.

“I loved that about you,” I said, which was the truth.

“But to you, that meant nothing,” she said, which not true at all.

“If I didn’t thank you then, I’m thanking you now,” I said.

“Thanks for taking me for granted.”

I said nothing.

“As always, you’ve checked out and have nothing to say.”

“You were good to my parents. I’ve never said otherwise, and I sure never meant to imply anything different.”

“I drove back to the house when we were at the hospital to get your dad’s goddam teeth and glasses. And then we spent the whole weekend with them. But your life seemed to only revolve around you and your parents. And not only did you fail your wife—me!—but you made it clear I wasn’t important. I have every reason to be pissed.”

I nodded. A big late-model pickup truck pulled onto the top of the gravel road, at least a football field away. He parked near the restroom and water spigot.

“Your family is mean and unwelcoming, but you’ll never see what I’m talking about. Sorry you’re too stupid to understand.”

“It sucks, I know.”

“I hate you. I can’t stand you and I don’t know how you’re getting home. You’re not getting a ride from me.”

She was fishing for a reaction, I figured.

“Good luck. I’m not kidding.”

“Karina,” I said, poking at the fire. I figured she was still letting off steam.

“I’m serious. Fuck you. I hope I never see you again.”

That’s when I double-checked my pockets to make sure I had my necessities: house keys, phone, Chapstick.

I headed toward the bathroom and pickup truck, and Karina started again, but louder this time.

The man in the pickup was a hunter. I could tell because his jacket was all camo.

“Good morning,” I said as his window slid open. We were about the same age, but he probably outweighed me by 75 pounds. “We’re having a little domestic,” I said. “Any chance you’re heading into LaGrande or whatever the closest town is?”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. She just told me I might not have a ride home, so I need to start looking at my options.”

“I’m just getting starting, about to do some hunting.”

“For sure. I’ll figure it out.” I shook my head as if to say there was no reason to worry.

“I can circle back here in two or three hours.”

“That’d be great! I appreciate it.”

“Joseph is going to be your best bet. Everything else is a long way off.”

“Ok, thanks.”

“You bet.” He smiled. “Good luck.”

I walked back down the hill to get my book out of the car, but the doors were locked.

“I want to get my book,” I said, looking toward Karina. “Can you unlock the car?”

“No,” Karina said.

“Come on. I’m going to read so I can stay out of your way.”

She laughed. “If I were you, I would start thinking about how you’re getting home.”

“This guy is going to give me a lift after he takes out some bears.”

“You’re so clueless. I hate you.”

“He said he would come back this way after he goes hunting. I can read while I’m waiting.”

She ignored me.

“Come on. This is absurd.”

“There is no way in the world he’s giving you a ride. Ha. You are so out of your element.”

“Let me just get my book. Come on. This is silly. Let’s do this.”

“I hope you get eaten by a mountain lion.”

“Yeah, well.” I stood on top of a rock near the car.

“I don’t want to look at you any more. You realize you’re not getting a ride home from me, right?”

“This is stupid.”

She made one of those snarky laughs. 

You’re on your own. Leave.

That’s when I walked up the hill to meet the main road. I looked back as she yelled at me. Both of her hands were held up with her middle finger, something I haven’t really seen from anyone unless it was for endearment. I was already focused on getting home—hoping I’d see enough of passers-by to hitch a ride. And be home in time for 60 Minutes. 

24 April 2016

We were done this time for sure probably hopefully

With the holidays behind us and March approaching, Dad took a fall between the garage and driveway. A couple of neighbors on their afternoon stroll saw him bloodied and leaning on the side of the garage, unable to get to his feet. I rushed home, pulled up just as the ambulance was about to leave for the hospital. While doing my best to distract Mom out of a frantic stupor, I could see where someone had hosed away the blood. The incident would lead to a four-day stay at the hospital.

This is relevant because Karina would bring it up during our final camping trip six months later. While still in the E.R., she offered to retrieve my dad's glasses and a few other things. I was grateful.

On the last day of Dad's hospital stay, Karina shared her frustration with the time commitment and the increasing amount of care my parents needed. I listened. My inside voice was telling me there wasn’t much to say and even less I could promise: I was committed to seeing how I could contribute to my mom and dad's welfare. To me, it wasn’t complicated. To Karina’s pointand the whole family'sI needed to ramp up my effort to line up more relief.   

Karina not only felt I was getting in over my head, but she believed my role interfered with our relationship. I understood, but I also failed to see how her frustration needed to be so cut and dry. 

I was obligated to be a supportive husband, but I also felt these were special circumstances. First of all, we were sort of separated. Second, if the role were reversed, I wouldn't question whatever Karina needed to do for her mother and stepfather. Actually, I would support her in (and give her a wide berth for) whatever she valued so highly. 

It dawned on me—not for the first time—that I wasn’t being asked to compromise. I was being asked to concede. So when my sister Mary—in town for two days—set up a somewhat-emergency meeting with a hospice nurse and Karina felt she wasn't given enough advance notice, things spiraled.

“You promised this was our weekend,” she said, very rant-like. I knew what agitation sounded like, and this was it. 

In one corner was me, realizing a family meeting with a hospice nurse was actually going to happen. It would require a couple hours, at most. In the other corner was Karina who wanted the whole weekend spent as a pair doing something that wasn’t yet defined. To my knowledge, we had tentatively planned on visiting a shoe store on Hawthorne Boulevard.

I tried to explain how important it was for me to hear what the hospice nurse had to day, and that we could restart our day afterward. Karina’s argument was about principle: a promise. If I can't keep a promise, she wasn’t important and I was steamrolling her feelings.

Obviously, I left to hear what the hospice business was all about. On my way over to my parents' house, I had a 20-minute drive to let my frustration sink in. It’s the same old dynamic I’d been experiencing for more than two years. It was why I had left her four months before: Her capacity for processing disappointment was limited. She felt wronged too often. She hung onto anger, and it never seemed to line up with what I view as a passing or temporary garden-variety problem.

I pulled into the driveway and texted, “I’m done, Karina. This is absurd.”

I walked into my parents' house just in time. My daughter Ellie and one of my brothers Chris and my sisters were sitting on the couch, my dad in his easy chair. I left my phone in the other room, imagining it vibrating with calls and texts. I also feared my parents’ house phone might ring, so I unplugged it.

The meeting went fine, but Ellie knew I was stressed.

My silence with Karina continued into the week.

Working for a large company at the time and knowing not to answer my desk phone, I would get paged over the campus intercom until I walked to H.R. to explain my dysfunctional domestic situation.   

Karina’s texts went from wrath (e.g., “fuck you,” “hope you die,” “fuck your parents,” “can’t believe I ever married you cuz you’re the biggest asshole I’ve ever known”) to conciliatory (e.g., “please stop ignoring me, I know I screwed up,” “I’m truly sorry,” “let me apologize the right way,” “I will live wherever you want to live”) to depressing (e.g., “I can't live without you,” “I don't want to live anymore”) with a sprinkling of passive-aggression (e.g., “thanks for ruining my life,” “thanks for fucking me over,” “good job, I'm hiring an attorney”) and creative (e.g., “karma will get you and your small dick”).

I put my attention on Mom and Dad and was glad to have somewhere important to focus my energy.

It took a good seven days for things to cool off.

A weird aside was returning a call from Karina’s mom after day three: she told told me if Karina kills herself, it would be my fault. Such an absurd thing for anyone to say, but I knew she was frustrated. I've always liked Karina's mother.   

I remained committed to not upsetting Karina—and making the legal petition for dissolution of marriage as easy and drama-free as possible. The fewer steps Karina needed to follow-up on, the better. But as the weeks turned into months, her excuses mounted: her inability to print documents sent by email, her request that I mail the paperwork, and then her decision to not sign anything.

Her emails tended to be business-like: “I’ve been busy. Plus, communicating with you is so unpleasant, that is why this is taking so long. Because I hate dealing with you, in any way."

Two months after the family meeting with the hospice nurse, I find out on a phone bill that "being busy" most likely meant she had a new man in her life. Right after helping Dad with breakfast, I clicked through my phone’s family plan and noticed something that would’ve been impossible not to notice: a repeating phone number appearing way too much. The number was being called and texted—to and from Karina’s number—at all hours. One call from Karina lasted 93 minutes, after 2 a.m.

Pictures sent by text after midnight can never be a good thing. 

I barely feel comfortable looking at people’s Facebook pages without verbal consent, so it’s not as if I was looking for something that wasn’t bonking me on the forehead. 

In conclusion, I speculated that Karina and her texting buddy were spending time together when they weren’t trading text messages and phone calls.

I told Karina it was time to get closure now that there is someone new in her life. My actual text message:  Good morning. Don’t mean to be unpleasant but this delay on the divorce petition is unnecessarily dragging on. Let’s clean this up. You have another person in your life while you have my belongs and I’m paying the equivalent of $700/mo for health care, utilities, phone, cable, auto insurance. Call me when you get a chance.

She texted something short, “Who said I have someone else in my life?” 

The delay with the filing dragged on some more. Ultimately, the lawyer—a matter-of-fact Jewish guy I named Saul—and his supporting cast of legal eagles recommended having Karina served.

We were legally divorced a little more than two months later, in June.

My dad passed away in late July.

I never heard from Karina until an email appeared in my Yahoo inbox in October. She suggested that we go camping.

17 April 2016

I learned to keep my wallet on me even at home

One day I was with Karina. The next, I wasn’t. I met with a lawyer right after moving in with my eighty-something-year-old parents.

*  *  *

Karina and I had great chemistry. Yes, I promised to be with her forever and grow old united. Yes, I loved her bold personality and sharp mind and sardonic take on things. We had fun together, but her knack for hostility was a challenge. Things could escalate to me being grabbed, pulled, pinched, clawed, and certainly yelled at.

Whenever things reached a point where there was no way to defuse a volatile Karina, I would escape. I had to. She was skilled at getting in my way. And as soon as I realized she wanted me to grab her, I quickly learned to box her out—the way you get into position on a basketball court. I’m a terrible rebounder, but when the guy you’re backing into is a 5'3" woman, I was pretty good.

During one squabble—over my ability to communicate or my relationship with my daughter Ellie because our issues always circled back to those two topics—she pulled out a butcher knife only to—I'm speculatingget a reaction.  

I learned to keep my wallet on me even while at home. If I didn’t have my car keys in my pocket (and couldn't get to them before getting out the door), I’d walk all night, pretending I was a Green Beret. Worry got me nowhere. If the texts that followed me outside were full of spite, I’d ignore them, hoping her anger would wind down. 

I could rationalize sleeping in a storage closet in the commons where old paint, moss control and a sawhorse were stored, or walk to a hotel. At first, pride got in the way of calling a friend, but I would eventually contact two different people in separate circles. After the third time of wandering in the dark, I spoke up, explaining a possible need for a safe house. My friends didn't see the humor in it.  

All of this drama was so foreign and bizarre to me, I assumed it would pass: Karina would wake up one day because she was smart. She knew German, Polish, Czech and some French, after all. She was capable of many things. We’ll make this work. Things would get better. She'll change.

When I sought the perspective of one of Karina’s closest friends, the friend told me—as a matter of fact—"Karina has never be able to be in a healthy relationship with anyone." Good to know, but we were already married.  

It was impossible to give Karina as much reassurance as she needed. At first, it was just an endearing quirk. Aren't we all a little neurotic?   

There were also her occasional anxiety attacksall new to me. Then I wondered if there were deeper things, such as overcoming serious and debilitating shyness as a young adult. I also considered the emotional shrapnel caused by an angry father—a hard-drinking Polish immigrant who died when Karina was 22. One of her demons, she confided, was that she was glad when he died.

Still, I thought love conquers all. Time heals. We’ll figure it out. With true love and support, anything is possible. 

Karina was really good at transforming a nice morning walk into something entirely different. 

If I’d say “Oh no, that’s awful,” she always seemed to think I was saying something along the lines of "so, what’s the problem? What should we do for dinner?” 

When she would say I diminished her feelings, I took it to heart. I might’ve even over-compensated until a counselor suggested that would get me and us nowhere. The counselor pointed out there’s a difference between diminishing feelings and enabling people who spend time worrying about things beyond their control. On the other hand, who am I to judge? Ultimately, I learned not to be an arbiter of what’s gripe-worthy. Feelings are feelings.
Karina and I took part in a series of intensive two-on-two talk therapy sessions with a pair of lesbian doctoral candidates. They applied a Japanese approach to bringing couples together with—what I assumed—was a good-cop/bad-cop strategy, which in hindsight was more like soft talker/loud talker. The soft talker was from Denmark or Norway, so our counseling duo was one part English-as-a-second-language therapist and one part Vermont drill sergeant. What did I learn? To breathe. To be more direct and slow down with expressing and hearing feelings and connecting with the feelings behind the feelings, and also to be clear with what I needed. And be mindful and present.

I was all in, but five sessions and five hundred dollars later, I was getting skeptical because of the results. There weren’t any.

Total appeasement—concession after concession to demonstrate my unconditional support—wasn’t sustainable. Banging my head against the wall wasn’t healthy. Even the pretending among friends and family that everything was great took its toll.

Time after time, I'd feel it deep down: my marriage (and everything, actually) was headed over a cliff.  

As soon as I admitted to a cousin that I was no longer afraid of failure (that is, a second divorce), I started to realize I could take my life back.

Karina’s reaction to my departure fluctuated between resentment and anger and sadness and remorse. After some delicate conversations and makeup sex over the holidays, we agreed that any future divorce talk wouldn’t involve a lawyer.

“We’ll do it ourselves,” we agreed. We even shook on it.  

With me living at my parents’ house, we would put some thought into planning time together. Seeing Karina served as a welcome respite from dutiful caregiving. When I was with Karina, I wasn’t cooking, cleaning, bandaging, or wiping. On the other hand, I had reservations for obvious reasons, but the misgivings fell away to taking a day at a time and—why not?second chances after second chances. 

We even started talking about selling her house to start fresh. 

It was a good idea, but we never got that far.