A few years ago I was in the death throes of a relationship with this girl I work with. She was one of those people where at three drinks into the night she's great company but at somewhere after five drinks in it's the scene in Futurama where the M*A*S*H robot standing in for Hawkeye Pierce has a switch that toggles him between irreverent and maudlin, only with her the choice is between "so happy to be here" and "toxic bitterness." We had figured out we weren't happy together any more, but hadn't gotten around to breaking up. Instead, whatever time together we weren't spending in bed or at work, we usually spent drinking and arguing.
The day after Christmas that year was the start of a heavy blizzard, enough that we had a couple of snow days at work. This left her stuck home with her mom. After more than a few hours awake in the same house they would invariably start fighting like cats and dogs, so when I invited her to come spend the day with me, she was glad to say yes with a condition: I had to pick her up. My car handled a lot better than hers in heavy snow and she had already been drinking and baking cookies for most of the morning.
She lived in South Minneapolis, I was in the last weeks of a lease on an apartment on the near edge of Eden Prairie before moving to St. Louis Park. The round trip was only ten miles each way but getting in and out ahead of the plows meant the whole trip took at least a couple of hours. When we finally got to my place, we ate cookies, watched Sports Night DVDs, and drank together. Eventually we went out to dinner at Old Chicago in Eden Prairie. The snow had died down but the roads weren't very clear, so what would normally have taken us ten minutes instead took thirty.
We ate, drank, and argued. She was drinking Bud Light longnecks, I kept ordering Long Island Iced Teas and only getting about halfway through them because the Long Islands were making her nostalgic for college life and so she kept stealing them for long sips. Eventually she was about six or seven drinks into the evening, where I had finished maybe two or three over the course of a few hours. She was also about half my weight; I could sense that the worm of her mood was about to turn, because her happy college nostalgia had started to run toward frustration that she was the only girl from the old gang without a husband and a kid. Not that she and I wanted one together. Our waiter was also starting to give us the fish eye, so I asked if she thought it would be a good idea to call it quits for the evening. She snapped, almost instantly.
Fuck you! You're not my dad!
If you want to go, just go.
No! I'm sorry I'm not a fun girl to be around. You should just leave me here.
I wouldn't want to be a burden.
Go hang around with one of your fun friends, since you're the warm little center of the universe.
Better yet, go date one of them instead.
This kind of invective was familiar and generally once it started I usually felt like the best idea was to let her punch herself out, and then call it a night. Usually it didn't mean much the morning after. This time, though, the conversation moved to the idea that she couldn't stand the idea of a car ride home with me and that instead I should leave her at the bar to keep drinking until she decided to settle up on her own and walk home. In the aftermath of a Minnesota blizzard. Twelve or thirteen miles, through the western half of Edina, Minnesota--an old-money part of the suburb that's known to be fairly unfriendly for foot traffic. Lots of twisty, unlit roads and no sidewalks. Did I mention the snow?
The ghosts of my dead role models were all shouting at me that I shouldn't let her do this. I had taken her out of her safe home onto dangerous roads and gotten her drunk. If she were to leave on foot and somehow hurt herself, it would be my fault. I had an obligation to either see her home safely, or into the hands of a responsible third party. She said to me that 13 miles was only half a marathon. She was an experienced marathon runner. She had warm clothes, and besides, she was planning to walk instead of run, so it would be easy. It had stopped snowing hours ago. No, she wouldn't take a taxi. It would be a waste of money, that's why. We went on this way for a while, her focused on the distance, me focused on the conditions. She finally stormed out of the restaurant to start the walk.
I settled the check as quickly as possible and followed her into the parking lot. She was nowhere to be seen. I knew which direction was home, and didn't see her on any of those roads. After thinking for a few moments, I went into the bowling alley nearby. She was sitting at the bar pounding down another tall beer.
(A quick digression: I've hung out in bars a lot over the years, and it's surprising how often a drunk who has just been cut off at one bar will immediately walk next door and order another drink. I think being able to get successfully served at the next bar is a point of pride issue for some of them. Not enough of these situations end with a phone call to a cab or the police. Ignition interlocks are a very good thing.)
I sat down next to her while she finished her beer, and as she finished it she told me in an angry drunken hiss that she hated me and wasn't going to speak to me again after that night. She finished her beer, paid for it, and stormed out of the bowling alley. Then she started climbing through snowbanks to get from parking lot to parking lot, gradually making her way back toward the edge of Eden Prairie.
Getting home from there meant crossing over or under five different freeways, in a couple of cases using overpass shoulder sidewalks that would have been plowed under hours before. Since this whole event happened, I've actually had a couple of nightmares in which I tried to figure out better on-foot routes back into the Minneapolis sidewalk system from that Eden Prairie pizza joint. There just aren't really any good options, especially not in the snow. The particular bad compromise she settled on got her as far as Redstone, another restaurant about half a mile in the right direction. As she picked through the snow, I followed her in my car, hazard lights on, windows rolled down, trying to talk to her.
You've probably seen scenes in movies which play like that: Exasperated man behind the wheel, inching his car along next to a woman storming angrily along the shoulder. "Honey, get in the car. Are you going to walk the whole way home? Honey, get in the car. Honey, get in the car." It's a long-standing stereotype. The woman keeps walking, after a minute or two either she has made her point or the guy has broken into an impassioned monologue that will melt her stubborn heart. Sometimes it's an admirable demonstration of independence, sometimes it's a temper tantrum. Either way, she eventually gets back into the car and the scene ends.
Back in real life, that's not how it worked this time around. To get from the Prairie Pub Lanes to Redstone takes about half an hour for a drunk woman picking her way through snowbanks and partially-plowed parking lots. Half an hour of trudging, walking, laughing and muttering to herself, cursing at me, and falling face down in snowbanks. By the time she had gotten as far as Redstone I didn't know whether I needed to be angry or terrified, but I was sure I needed to be doing more to make it stop.
I pulled the car into the parking lot and blocked her way. She went around me and fell down into a particularly deep snow-bank. I tried to bring her bodily to the passenger side of my car and she kept pulling away, going limp, kicking the car door closed, professing her undying hatred of me. She wouldn't budge. She ignored my pleas. She ignored my shouts, too, but those got the attention of valets on the far side of the parking lot.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that these drunken situations should end with a phone call to a cab or the cops? Well, a big angry guy trying to drag a much smaller woman into his car doesn't look much like a romantic comedy to anyone. I realized all at once that somehow I had become that guy, and that I was very close to ending my night in jail or the back of a squad car. I backed off, with an idea that instead I would just let her make the walk, following behind her in my car to make sure that she didn't pass out in a snowbank and freeze to death.
She didn't make it easy for me. She started cutting across parking lots, running across roads, and generally making sure that I would have to make lots of left turns at controlled intersections. Following her meant running red lights at slow speeds, and often once I had done that she would double back, forcing me to change direction. I kept at it as best I could without breaking too many traffic laws, but I finally lost track of her when she ran into a system of walking paths around Lake Smetana, not quite a mile away from Redstone.
Now at least I was sure where she was going: over open ice and along those trails, she could get straight to our office building and my route by car would take her well out of my line of sight. She told me later that her plan had been to hide under a desk somewhere in our office building, sleep it off, and make the rest of the walk back in daylight, hopefully with me spending the rest of the night looking for her. She covered most of that ground at a dead run, trying to get out onto the far side of the trail system before I could catch up with her. Since I went to where she was going instead of trying to chase her, she wasn't even close. I parked up where I knew she would emerge from the trail system, switched off my lights, worried, and waited. The route she was taking was especially treacherous on a snowy night, and if she fell and got knocked out sprinting those icy trails it was possible nobody would find her until the morning.
By the time I caught up with her on the far end of those trails, she had covered almost three miles on foot. I stopped her in a parking lot less than a block from her planned hiding place. Her plan was ruined, she was winded from her run, and about to have to move into much less familiar ground. It took a few minutes to talk her into the car.
The drive back to her place was fairly quiet but before we got going on the highways I decided to lock the car doors. This ended up being a good idea, as she tried more than once to yank the handle of her door and throw herself out along the side of the road at 40-50 miles per hour. Fortunately she was drunk enough that she could not operate the lock on the door, and got the idea that I had engaged a child safety lock--which the front passenger door didn't have. For her own safety, I did not attempt to disabuse her of that notion.
Once we were on the surface streets near her house, she found a new trick: turning off the car's ignition while it was moving, causing a stall in the middle of icy roads. She pulled this off three or four times before I got her home, at which point I told her that I didn't care if we ever spoke again, because I had gotten her home safely and that this is all I'd been trying to do for the last several hours. One more "fuck you, I hate you!" repetition and a slammed car door, and I was back on the road.
I still remember the drive home very clearly. There's something about clear winter nights in Minnesota after a blizzard that I'll always love. Still air, empty roads, a bright blue light reflecting off the snow makes the whole world seem to shine, but shine quietly. As a child I would go outside in that kind of air and daydream around the idea that I was the only person alive anywhere in the world. Like Dessa once said: I didn't know the word for melancholy yet.
As I drove back in that perfect stillness, I did know the word for melancholy, but it wasn't what I was feeling. I wasn't feeling much of anything at all, other than a little weary from the ordeal. Empty, really. Around the time I pulled into my apartment driveway, I realized that I was feeling the absence of something I'd been carrying around with me like a dull, wet ache in my chest: love and the sense of impending doom. The other shoe had finally dropped, and in that moment on those cold, gleaming roads, I inspected my feelings and was almost surprised to notice that I didn't love her any more. I went upstairs and crawled into bed, sad but with a clear sense of purpose: Never again. The phone rang about half an hour later.
It was her, downstairs. She proudly declared to me, there in the vestibule, that she was so drunk that she'd had to cover one eye as she drove so that she could see the road through her double vision. Here I am, she said. Are you going to buzz me up? I pressed 7, hung up the phone, and swore quietly to myself.
She came inside, and she talked more about how difficult her drive had been. I told her that I was tired and needed to sleep, and that I wasn't going to tell her to drive home drunk but that I wasn't going to stay up to talk with her either. She followed me to bed, and it was actually one of the only times we ever slept through the night together in my bed. There was some irony to that; it was one thing I had wanted more than most anything else out of our failing relationship, even until a day or two before. That night, I didn't give it a second thought. We didn't speak or touch. I got out of bed before she did, and she left as soon as she awoke.
We didn't talk again for days, but we both knew that talking again was inevitable: We still had to work together, and we still had something very complex and unsaid left between us. We put off the call until the Sunday before we had to be back in the office.
The conversation was quick in that we agreed that what had happened that night could never happen again. The conversation was lumpy in that her version of it had her furious with me for forcing her to do something against her will. She called it a violation, and insisted that if we were to ever drive somewhere together again and she decided to walk home, the only acceptable thing for me to do would be to let her do it without arguing the point. My counter was that this wasn't something I could hear for the first time from a drunk person and accept on its face, and that, besides, the thing she had done was incredibly reckless and dangerous. My heart wasn't really in the argument, though. We broke up for good a few days later.
The story didn't end there, though. We still had to work together, and I was still one of her biggest sources of support in her life outside of work. For my part, falling out of love with her didn't completely stick; I still had a good deal of emotional back-and-forth ahead of me. The argument about whether or not I had done the right thing cropped up again and again over the months that followed, and I gradually started to move more toward her side of the argument. Not entirely, because what she did was plain nuts, but part of the way: What on earth had given me the idea that it was ever okay to force a woman into my car? She was enamored with the "you should have let me walk home" argument, but I never really came around to that. Instead my thoughts kept returning to the thing about cops and cab drivers and drunks looking to make a point. If it had been anyone but "my girl," I would have seen what she was doing, made one of those two phone calls, and then packed it in. I didn't do that because I felt entitled to the romantic comedy narrative and got panicked and belligerent when I didn't get it. Eventually I came around to the position that, since she had talked with me sober about her future wishes, the next time something like that happened I would respect those wishes and let her walk home. She wanted an apology more than she wanted a promise of future good behavior, but we reached an uneasy truce on the point.
Perhaps a year later, we ended up at the Eden Prairie Green Mill after work one day in December, a half a mile or so down the road from the infamous Old Chicago; she left her car at work and I drove us both to the bar. We started at the afternoon happy hour. Drinking and arguing the whole time, we soldiered our way straight through until their last call a little after midnight. Last call in Minnesota had just changed from 1:00 A.M. to 2:00 A.M. a short while earlier and Eden Prairie bars hadn't caught up to the new hours yet. Early last call was common on slow nights so that the staff could get home early once in a while. I heard the last call happen and moved to pay the check; she missed the call. Instead, she assumed that I was sick of fighting and had unilaterally decided that we were both done drinking and that I was ready to take her back to her car.
The worm turned, exactly the same as it had the last time. She dug her heels in, and told me to leave her there. I asked if she was sure, and she said that she was. I asked her if she had money for a cab, and she told me that she didn't need it because she was going to be walking back to her car. I told her that it was pretty cold and that she should worry about frostbite, and she showed me how she would tie her hair under her chin to warm her ears and stick her hands in the pockets of her winter jacket. I paid my check, stood up, told her that I would have preferred to take her back to her car but that since I was leaving her somewhere warm and safe, I would respect her wishes. I walked out of the restaurant, got in my car, and left. When I first grabbed the steering wheel, my hands barely shook at all.
The drive home took me about twenty minutes, which I spent divided between feeling disgusted with myself for having gotten into the same situation a second time, and being proud of myself for having handled it the way I said I would. My phone rang around the same time I pulled up into my driveway, and it was her.
I answered the phone in my customary fashion: "This is Mark." Her reply was not cordial or conversational, but it was certainly immediate. It was primal, apoplectic, screamed at the top of her lungs into a phone held by aching fingers and nearly frozen to the side of her face as she trudged across the open ice of Lake Smetana for the second time. It was followed up with threats and curses and a whole lot of being angry with me because it was easier than feeling sorry for herself. It was this:
YOU LEFT ME AT THE BAR!
I keep telling myself that one of these days I should get a tattoo that reads "I'm not sorry
." It's shorter than I just don't know how to be the asshole you want me to be.