Monday, November 23, 2015

On Hating Eau Claire (and Elephants)

The railroad crossing on Starr Avenue in Eau Claire will always remind me of the night I came close to driving at full speed into a moving train.


It was the night of the day when I discovered that the person I loved and wanted to spend my life with, who the previous week had been helping me recover from a major surgery, had cheated on me. Had been messaging strangers online and on at least one occasion, fucked one. I thought the pain I felt would surely kill me; the train was just a way to expedite things. As I sat in my car, contemplating (how fast would I need to be going to ensure instant death? Should I unbuckle my seatbelt?) the point became moot – the train finished crossing and I was still breathing. The urge to annihilate myself temporarily abated. I continued on to my destination – the regional two-gate airport to pick up my best friend who had gotten on a plane to be with me after receiving my distressed phone call.

Every time I drive to the airport, I have to cross those tracks. It’s a strange sensation to be living through something, right in the thick of it, and still have a sense of how you will view it in hindsight. I still live in Eau Claire, but I already know I will look back on this period (two years and counting) as incredibly difficult. A time when I cried more days than I didn’t, struggled to get out of bed, and tried my best to downplay my misery for my few local friends who were, on the whole, happy and healthy. I can say without a doubt that this trauma has and will continue to transform me in ways I can’t yet articulate. I can only hope some of the changes are positive. Like, maybe I will get a good poem or two out of it. Or maybe if I find myself in a similar situation again, I’ll be better equipped to handle it and won’t consider death by train.

I wasn’t miserable when I first moved to Eau Claire. I had a stable teaching job with good benefits. For the first time, I had an office. I was able to afford a one-bedroom apartment as opposed to a cramped studio. And within three months of moving here, I fell in love. The kind of love that announces itself as major right away. Our feelings for each other were so intense that we even had an inside joke that involved elephants – we knew it would be silly to say “I love you” after only knowing each other a few weeks, but we acknowledged that it felt like an elephant in the room because the feelings were so clear, so palpable. So we sent each other pictures of elephants and signed e-mails “I elephant you.” One day I came home from work to find a necklace with an elephant charm hanging from my mailbox. After we started actually saying “I love you,” elephant ephemera continued to be a gift theme—I brought him back a stuffed elephant from Mexico, and he gave me a black-and-white scarf with an elephant print and earrings carved in the shape of elephants for my birthday.

Now when I see elephants, I want to punch something.

When our relationship abruptly ended, a strange transference occurred that has made living here very difficult: I find that my rage and hurt is now directed at Eau Claire itself, the setting of my most ill-fated love affair (to date, at least). The city feels somehow complicit, like an accessory or co-conspirator. It’s the scene of the crime and no matter what I do, the faint chalk outline of a body (my body) resurfaces, refuses to fade. Everywhere we went, and even places we didn’t go but might have, feels toxic, tainted, ominous. Needless to say, the campus where we both work is a minefield – I could run into him literally at any time. Whenever I see his car in the parking lot, I have to resist the urge to key it. 

I know this could have happened anywhere – but it happened here. Would I have found happiness in Eau Claire without meeting him? I’m not sure. It’s possible I still would have found much to dislike about the culture of an upper Midwestern college town. But we’ll never know -- unfortunately I'll always associate Eau Claire with this experience; it'll always be the place that broke my spirit to the point where I became almost unrecognizable to myself, where I flirted with oblivion. It holds the distinction of being both where I have been most happy and most miserable in my adult life. Obviously, I hope that I will achieve a new zenith of happiness (perhaps not tied to a romantic relationship. Hey, there's a novel idea!). When that happens, maybe I will be able to appreciate some of the good things I found here, the friends I made, the not-horrible moments. I hope so -- but I don't see that happening until I live elsewhere and can use physical distance to help me achieve emotional distance. From him, and from here. 

(Forgive the self-indulgence of this post. I know that in light of all the things going on geo-politically and domestically, it's rather silly to whine about a boy hurting my feelings. But this is a personal blog, and not The New York Times, so I hope an occasional post that looks solely inward is forgivable.)

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