You’re probably surprised to hear from me after all this time. But we’ve had our cooling off period and I think it’s time we came to some kind of closure on our relationship. So I’d like to talk about what went wrong.
It’s not that I want to bring up painful memories. Remember, there were good times, too, especially early on—and we should hold onto those. But I really believe we need to forgive each other and let go of our remorse. You should know I still think of you fondly. But it’s time we both moved on.
I can just imagine your response: Big, powerful city like you. Popular, independent, financially secure when so many others are not. You’re thinking you’ve already moved on and our breakup was less than a tiny blip on your 142-square-mile, high-fidelity screen. Negligible. You don’t even miss me. But don’t you see? That’s part of the problem: your hubris. It’s partly why we broke up.
Sorry, sorry. I promised I wasn’t going to go there. Because what I really want to say—the whole reason I started writing this letter—is that I’m sorry. I bear a lot of responsibility for what happened, though back when things ended I assigned you most of the blame.
Honestly, I think part of the problem was that I fell too hard right from the beginning. I mean, come on! Seattle in July, when you’re brilliant and sunny and greener than any city has the right to be? Exotic blooming plants growing out of sidewalk cracks. Little canopied markets all over the street. I was working on my manuscript, remember? And you provided the most amazing morning coffee, like every half-block or so. I was never so productive in my life!
I’m not ashamed to say it: I was in LOVE by day three. There was no other city for me, ever. I honestly believed you were the one I’d been looking for all my life.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t been happy with the other places I’d lived. I’d enjoyed them all. Minneapolis, Baltimore, Iowa City, Providence. In fact, you reminded me a little of Providence…all that sparkling water and great ethnic food.
John had the job of a lifetime, in one of those billion-dollar high-tech companies you draw with your no-state-income-tax policies. They’d even paid for us to move! All we had to do was stick out two years, which seemed like a cinch. We didn’t even discuss what would happen if it didn’t work out and we had to pay back all that money. It felt like we’d found our home.
Remember our dates that first month? Pike Place Market. The Thai restaurant in Ballard. That tiny little cafe on Phinney Ridge where they made their own cherry-chunk-chocolate ice cream.
But let’s talk about the proverbial elephant in the room: I came with baggage, right? I wasn’t some untouched 25-year-old who could go to work in a little pastry shop on Capitol Hill. I was 42 and had just come through a hellish year with my older son. I was wrung out and a little hopeless. I expected you to be so wonderful I’d forget all of that—which was, I’ll admit, asking too much. Plus, we had that pesky mortgage back in Minnesota, and three renters who turned out to be big problems. The one who stole all our silverware and towels….the one who used $300 in hot water one month…the one who threw epic, plaster-cracking parties (and happened to be our other son).
Still, I think we could have made it through all that. It wasn’t until the school thing came up that I realized how different our thinking was. And I did exactly the wrong thing. I know what you’re going to say. “So like a woman….” Yes, I tried to change you. And instead of bending, you dug in your heels. We came to a stand-off. Which is so sad, because I hear you’ve mellowed since I left.
Really, it was just a timing thing. That was the last year you took your hardline position on incoming students. It was the only time in history—so far as I can figure—that you would have assigned my 15-year-old daughter to a broken-down, 58% graduation rate high school an hour and 20 minutes south of the house we’d rented and told her she had to get there by city bus.
God knows, I wasn’t the only woman whose heart you broke. There was the one ahead of us in the line at the school district office, the one who sobbed and pleaded for you to reconsider her application for a neighborhood school. But you were proud that year. You didn’t grant her request and you didn’t grant mine.
I don’t know what the right response to all this was. All I know is: I chose the wrong one. I thumbed my nose at you, Seattle. I cancelled the rental agreement we had in the city and moved my family to an island, where my daughter could attend an award-winning high school she told me looked like the one in High School Musical.
Me? I got my way. Then I went slowly insane.
Turns out that I—a nomad who feels trapped in the midst of 2 million people if I stay in one place too long—was precisely the wrong type for island living. That’s where everything in our relationship went from romance to strain.
Islands are QUIET. Deathly quiet, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds. People move there, I discovered, because they actually like the quiet. In fact, they don’t like it when you disrupt their quiet. Don’t talk to them on the streets or strike up conversations in the grocery store. Don’t ask them to have coffee with you. And, for Christ’s sake, don’t mention that you’re from out of town; too many out-of-towners have already moved in and made noise and mucked-up their bliss.
It was right around the time I was learning all this that the rain set in…
And yes, yes, you’d warned me. Everyone had warned me. “The rain’s gonna get to you,” they’d say. But I was smug and dismissive; I’d shrug them off and make comments about surviving Minnesota winters. Rain, ha! I was tougher than that.
Imagine me when the so-called rains began in October and instead of the gentle drumming of drops that I’d been expecting it was an eerie and omnipresent mist! You’d been completely upfront about this, broadcasting your weaknesses, spelling them out. But I hadn’t listened. And now, here I was on a tiny, dark, silent island walking through gray condensation that writhed around me like a snake.
I was home writing all morning and that was good and I’d be fine until noon. But once I was done, laptop closed, litte house echoing around me, I’d start to go nuts. Sometimes I’d go to a yoga class at the bright, little gym where I took refuge (that probably saved my life). Other days I’d ferry in to see you, which was no small task.
Getting to you, Seattle, meant walking a mile from my house to the port in the misty rain. Then riding that excruciatingly slow-moving boat for 45 minutes and arriving at the pier with no car (in the rain). Originally, I thought I’d find writers. And there was a magnificent bookstore—one of those legendary independent monoliths we writers love—just 8 blocks from the ferry landing. I went there, excited to be among my people. I introduced myself to the book buyer and asked about writing groups or other such supportive entities. You do have a host of fabulous authors whom I was dying to meet.
Maybe I looked like a pretender, all wet and bedraggled and way too eager. That’s all I can think. Because the sweet hipster book buyer, nubile and makeup-free with her long, shiny hair, asked my name, looked me up in her catalog and said flatly, “Yeah, we ordered a couple copies of your first novel but neither of them sold, so we sent them back.” Then she stared silently until I walked away.
I left feeling embarrassed and guilty about something I couldn’t name. Which was, of course, my own insecurity…Here I was, writing novel number two in my lonely island office, feeling like a pretender, the way neurotic writers do. Usually, we band together and joust each other out of such self-deprecating nonsense, but try as I might to set up a date, there was no one who wanted to play.
I emailed every writer I knew through some distant connection; there were maybe a dozen. And every single one emailed back with his or her regrets. They were too busy to meet, working on a new book, traveling too much. Their writing group was full, but thank you for asking. They all wished me luck.
Now, here’s what I’ve since figured out, Seattle. You’re a destination, a mecca for people like me. And your writers have to grow a thick hide, deflecting the dozens or maybe hundreds of artists and writers who fly in and expect to be taken into the fold.
But back then, I was just angry. And unhappy. And small. This was a familiar feeling, though it took me a long time to dig out my memories of when it had last occurred. And then it came to me: High school! When I was living in my parents’ quiet island of a suburb, the nerdy girl with no friends.
Is it any wonder I got moody? Volatile? By February, Seattle, I was downright out of my mind.
And so I went to one of your fine doctors. You do have great medical care, and I don’t fault my practitioner one bit. She diagnosed me with severe depression, seasonal affective disorder and various other causes. Then she gave me a bunch of pills, plus a light to shine on my face.
What’s the old adage? When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. See! She did exactly the right thing: I was new to the area, lonely, trapped in the endless dark rain. Antidepressants were the recommended course of action. SAD was the horse, if you will. How was she to know I had a zebra tucked away inside?
Week after week, things got worse. I was still depressed—downright suicidal, if you want to know the truth—plus those pills left a metallic taste in my mouth. And I had a sharp, shooting pain in my side that came and went. Psychosomatic, I told myself. Just my body’s quirky way of rebelling against being damp all the time.
But here’s the part that kills me, Seattle. This is just when you seemed to realize how unhappy I’d become and you made a real effort. God, when I think back, I’m so grateful. You so obviously tried, throwing a stream of amazing people my way.
First there was Nancy Pearl, the most famous librarian in America but also a wonderful lady who stopped everything she was doing for about a week to introduce me around. Through her I met Robin Oliveira, a gorgeous and gracious writer whose My Name is Mary Sutter was just beginning to ascend. And Susan Fort, a veteran of the famous Seattle Central Library but also a warm, wise woman who acted like my long-lost aunt.
Then there was Judy Lightfoot, the poet and journalist who ran a tiny nonprofit to serve the mentally ill. Jill Macgregor, whose Queen Anne dinner parties I adored. Mark Matassa, the mayor’s chief communicator. David Paul, author of Souls In The Hands of a Tender God. And Nicoletta Machiavelli, descendant of the writer Niccolo and former spaghetti western star.
For about a month, Seattle, I really believed we could save our relationship. I had places to go and truly great friends I liked. That damn island still felt like a prison, but I think we could have come to some arrangement. One night in your place, one night in mine…
Then something happened. (This is the part I never told you.) I was back in Minnesota in April, checking on the house and son #2 who’d developed a bit of a drug habit while we’d been gone. And suddenly, despite a dry and sunny day, that pain in my side got worse. It happened that my old doctor had an opening the next morning, so I went in and lay down on her table and she did some things with a big, white wand. Then she said, “When did you last eat?” and “Did you drive yourself here?” and “You’re going into surgery now.”
And that was that.
I went to the hospital and John was called. They put me under while he was taking a ferry, a bus and a train to the airport. He paid an outrageous sum I still can’t think about to walk onto a waiting plane. And around the time some surgeon was removing the sinister thing that had been growing inside me—no doubt throwing all my hormones and various juices wildly out of whack—he was halfway to Minneapolis. I was out of anesthesia and sitting mostly upright when he arrived, looking crazed and worried and really tired.
The next day, we decided to break up with you. It wasn’t just one thing, of course. It never is. It was the school situation: the fact that we were stuck out on that island if we wanted to keep our daughter in advanced classes. It was our worry over our son’s drug use (which continues to this day). It was my weird health condition (which turned out to be benign). It was, let’s face it, the rain.
John called the St. Paul company that had been courting him and by afternoon he had a new job. I know, it was fast. But better to cut ties quickly rather than limp along, don’t you think? I was so sorry about all those new friends, the ones you’d gathered and presented to me at the eleventh hour, like bunches of bright roses. It was a wonderful gesture. It just came a little bit too late.
I hope, in time, you can forgive me, Seattle. Perhaps we can meet again some day. I’m a different person now: not so insecure or desperate or sickly. I promise. I’ll do better next time.