All That Carry On…: Oktoberfest by Ellen O’Donnell

*Featured Artwork by Imelda Hinojosa

For twenty-two months, when Rob did not wake by my side, he texted me good morning. If he didn’t lay beside me at the end of the day, he texted goodnight. It was our habit to welcome each other to the day and mark its end together. After August 31, the good mornings and goodnights disappeared. In the push/pull of bipolar, as he muddled through the anhedonia, ambivalence, and anxiety, his contact became sporadic. The reaching out was often followed with a comment on weather, or perhaps a quote from Thoreau. Those good morning greetings, which once began my day with love, now meant little. They were rote and obligatory and really just crumbs that he expected me to treat like cake.

During those early panic attacks, I tried to push back the tears with conscious breathing, but they had their own plan. My heart thumped fast and rhythmically, as though separating itself from its surroundings. I burst up and threw the covers from me, desperate for air. Moving my legs to the side of the bed, I sat up straight and tried harder to regulate, futilely trying to apply the Lamaze breathing I had learned in pregnancy. Moonbeams were often the only light in the room and I could not catch my breath. Panting mixed with gurgling from the tears, which came in torrents. The more I fought the attack, the more it intensified, and the terror of choking on tears or not finding a breath was real.

I learned after the first few nights to just give in and allow the panic to overtake me. These episodes exhausted me, stole my sleep and mental stability. The darkness of those hours added to the panic; seconds passed like minutes, minutes like hours.

After Rob left, I couldn’t shake his magnified absence from my home. He had been with me for two years, and when the clock struck 6:30 p.m., a Pavlovian ache erupted with the realization that he would not walk through the door. Sleepless nights meant emotionally tender days, and no amount of support from friends could help me rationalize the loss. I lived to hear from him, but his contact was sparse. Part of the torment was the innate understanding that the torture of his depressed mind trumped my own grief.

On the days I couldn’t bear it, I would reach out to him by text. One day, rather than some belated, benign response, he texted back, I know, I’m struggling too. Let’s find time together.

This one text signaled that maybe he missed me, too. Nine words packed with more meaning than all the texts sent in a month. Relief came, and hope lifted me.

It felt strange to knock on Rob’s door, a door to which I had a key. It only reminded me of the dramatic shift in our relationship. He greeted me with an awkward embrace and we tentatively sat on his couch, circling around in conversation. Finally, he mentioned he was going to Oktoberfest the following Saturday, ninety minutes from where we lived. Then, with unexpected enthusiasm he asked, “Do you want to come?”

I was surprised at the suggestion. He said he wanted space, but was struggling with missing us. And me? Well, I was hungry for hope.

“I’d love to,” I responded, burying any suspicion that this might be a trap.

He seemed happy and more relaxed once our plans were in place. I spent just a little more time with him, acutely aware of not overwhelming him.

The plan made me lighter in leaving him. I kissed him on the cheek, as though a “date” with a man I had practically lived with was somehow a victory. The joy of our relationship was the playful, co-conspirator groove we enjoyed long before we ever fell in love. Yes, I thought, let’s start again at the beginning. A day of fun might be the perfect reminder of what we had lost.

I climbed into his boxy black Scion at 10 a.m. the following Saturday morning. He was chipper, no different than he might have been a year before, when we were off to Coney Island for the day. I kissed him hello. During that hour-and-thirty-minute car ride he was congenial: friendly but distant, not interested at all in conversation of any depth. He filled the drive time with random observation or awkward silence. Thirty minutes from the destination I leaned my head against the cold window and faced outward to hide the building tears. It was clear that our expectations were different. This day, which began with promise, now felt like a tightening noose. He might as well have brought a random friend or barely familiar neighbor as bring me.

Twenty minutes away, and I wanted to go home.

From the roll of his eyes to the music suddenly turned on the radio, it was obvious that he knew I was upset but would not engage. My heart began to race and the now the familiar feeling of panic overtook me. I rolled down the window for breath and stammered, “Please pull over, I need to get out of the car, now!”

He did, in his own time, and I ran from the car to the nearby woods and burst into tears. I was unbalanced, tripping on twigs and feeling my ankles give way on the wet, uneven ground. I found a birch tree to lean on and squatted at its base like a child believing they are concealed in a game of hide-and-seek. I randomly picked up acorns and stones and tossed them at nothing in anger. I waited in those woods for twenty minutes, eventually pacing, trying to calibrate, furious at him, but mostly at myself for agreeing to this sham, for ceding control.

When I recovered charge of myself, I went back to the car. He was calm, checking his phone, barely looking at me as I got in. I turned my body to him. He looked at me in vague confusion and said, almost passively, “What do you want from me?”

I leaned over, took his face in my hands, and kissed him. He returned the kiss with little hesitation and for five minutes we explored each other’s mouths, something we’d not done since August. It was something he had begun to withdraw from throughout the summer. Kisses, long, sensual, soft kisses, marked the first year and a half of our relationship. We loved to kiss: in the car, on the couch, in the grocery store, and passing each other in the kitchen. Kissing was among our best things.

I touched his hair, and while his body was immovable, his mouth was not. I felt the increased hunger in his kiss and ached with the thought that I might never feel that again. When we came up for air, I stared into his eyes. He smiled and said, with odd, disconnected enthusiasm, “You’re a great kisser!”

And that was it. He started the engine and drove the last ten miles to Bear Mountain. I sat back in my seat, confused by his words and their wildly inappropriate delivery, words which did not fit the gravity of the moment or resonate with our relationship.

That was what it was like to be with him now, unexpected responses to words or circumstances to which he had the perfect reply only months ago. He was now unpredictable, unrecognizable, a stranger still wearing the body and face I knew by heart. It was as though the piano keys on which I once played a seamless melody had suddenly been rearranged, and my well-practiced strokes now brought only cacophony.

***

It was a crystal-clear fall day on Bear Mountain, a rugged stretch of hills overlooking the Hudson River. The trees melded together in brilliant oranges, yellows, and deep reds, nestled among the majestic pines, stretching to touch the sky. His car climbed the summit, where tents were lined up and hundreds of happy festival-goers bottlenecked at the entrance. Rob and I both wore short-sleeved shirts, as temperatures were predicted to stay in the sixties. I was carrying a light sweater in preparation for the falling temperatures typical of New York on autumn afternoons.

In the early throes of our infatuation, I was charmed by Rob’s careless attitude toward fashion, and his wardrobe choices did not matter to me. He had a rebel confidence that was part of my attraction to him. He was immune to the judgement of others.

Whenever we went somewhere that meant crowds, he wore outrageously colored t-shirts: lime green, orange, neons of every shade. On this adventure, he chose a canary yellow tee with the rain jacket of a local university in hunter green and white, and Wrangler jeans. I teased him about his wardrobe choices in New York City one day when he sported a chartreuse green ¾ zip, polyester top.

He laughed and said, “If we get separated, you’ll be able to find me!”
I teased back, “No chance I could ever lose you!”

Little did I know. I wonder now how often he lost himself over the years.

On the walk into Oktoberfest, I lagged behind, unsure of why I was even there. He seemed anxious to get in. He looked to me to pay my own way when we got to the booth, and I hustled forward and dug out a twenty-dollar bill.

We walked the grounds together, getting a lay of the land with an eye out for his friends from work. The initial awkwardness dissipated when he reached for my hand as we worked our way through a crowded section. When he held my hand, I felt at home, protected and loved. That basic connection was second nature to me, another muscle memory I desperately missed.

The Oktoberfest tableau was classic: tent after tent hawking too-large steins of German beer, pretzels with mustard, bratwurst, sausage, potato salad, and strudels galore. The smell of sauerkraut and beer dominated the air, as did the black, red, and yellow colors of Germany. At the center was a white tent from which the sounds of the Oompah band wafted to the banks of the Hudson. Old Germans were dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, playing clarinet, accordion, and tuba. Festival-goers in various states of inebriation took their turn trying to polka. It was a day built for Rob and me when we were us.

Eventually we found Rob’s co-worker Keith and his longtime girlfriend, Stephanie. I had met Keith several times at Rob’s office, and the previous winter the four of us had gone to dinner and a hockey game. They were familiar, but not central friends. We weren’t quite old enough to be their parents, but we were too old to be their pals.

Stephanie was the energy center of the two, and she ran over and hugged me as soon as they saw us. They were with Keith’s extended family: his mom, dad, sister and her husband, and an adorable toddler. Introductions were made and soon enough Stephanie veered me away for a quiet moment, “What’s going on?” she whispered, leaning her tall body into mine. “Keith told me you had broken up? I am so glad to see you. You’re back together?”

I replied “Your guess is as good as mine, Steph. I have no idea what we are anymore.
What did Keith tell you?”
“He came home, just shocked after Rob told him. But he said Rob had said nothing else, was just keeping to himself at work.”
She went on, “Rob did tell him you were coming today, but with no explanation. I don’t think they talk about stuff like that.”

As we walked back to the group, Stephanie grabbed my elbow. “If he doesn’t want to be with you, then he’s an idiot. I’m so glad you’re here.”

I then did what comes naturally to me: I chatted with Keith’s mom and dad and played with the little girl, who took my hand while I walked around with her for a bit. I caught a glimpse of Rob watching me in a way he had so many times in the past, his head tilted to the side and his eyes focused, a small, satisfied smile on his lips. It was a look that said he was proud to be with me.

Being with others made the day less strange. Before I knew it, the panic in the car ride receded and Rob became expansive and happy. He grabbed my hand and stole me away from the group, and we rode the ancient carousel and then set off on a short hike alone. He held my hand and I stayed quiet, afraid to upset our precarious place. After a time, we rejoined the group, until we heard the call of the polka band. As we had so many times in the past, we grabbed a spot on the dance floor and let loose.

Rob danced much the way he dressed, with little care of who was noticing, unencumbered by self-awareness. He lost himself in the deep brass of the tuba, circled round, caught my waist, and pulled me toward him. I had not seen him this happy in nearly nine months. We laughed and held each other close, surrounded by equally rhythmically challenged festival-goers, save an elderly German couple who we tried to mimic. They were ancient lovebirds and knew every step.

We danced for at least an hour, until the sun set and it was time to go. Rob kissed me on the lips and hugged me tight before we left the Oompah tent and strolled hand-in-hand toward the exit. We stopped for a short time at a ravine overlooking the Hudson, where we took a selfie, his arm around my shoulder and our heads touching.

On the ride home, we chatted about the day and his friends. As we reached CT I-84, just thirty minutes from home, melancholy grabbed me. I took a chance to turn the conversation toward us. “That was so much fun. I don’t understand why you want us to be apart.”

He touched my hand. “I can’t imagine wanting to do that with anyone but you.”
He released my hand and stared straight ahead, continuing, “Let’s just take this day for what it was.” 
The caveat pulled at me. I could feel self-protection rising in him, so I replied, “It was a great day. That’s the thing, it’s always great with us.”

The conversation was over for him and an uncomfortable silence filled the car. I sang softly,

What’ll I do, when you are far away and I am blue, what’ll I do?
What’ll I do, with just a photograph to tell my troubles to?

We said no more for the remainder of the ride until he pulled into my driveway, “Let’s each pick a day, once a weekend, that we spend together. Maybe that will be best for us for now.”

I rose to it as though it were a precious gift, “Ok,” I said, “I’d like that.”
He continued, “Today was mine, next weekend is yours. We’ll text this week, and you can let me know what you want to do.”

I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, acutely aware that he would not come inside with me as he had done so many nights during the last two years. When I hugged him, not wanting to let go, he reiterated, “It’s important to take today for what it was. It was wonderful!”

Later that night, he texted, Goodnight, sweet dreams.
I slept with no fear of panic for the first night in two months. He texted the following morning as he was driving to his sister’s in New Jersey, Good morning. It’s important that neither of us have a letdown today. I think that’s the secret.

It is hard to imagine now that I thought Oktoberfest was a positive turning point. Within a week it was all undone.

Contributors:

I have written throughout my life and finally found the time and courage to seek an agent and publisher. I have a blog, which focuses on the personal essay. I am currently working on a memoir which examines life in my early fifties dominated by divorce, elder care, children and unexpected love and heartbreak.

Imelda Hinojosa creates fantastical children's illustrations from her studio in Manhattan Beach, California. We love to pull from her universe for Memoir because it so amply conveys the subconscious emotions woven into the fabric of everyday life. You can find her work at www.artworkbyimelda.com.

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