Thomas Wictor

A gateway of sorts

A gateway of sorts

In my author photo, I took the lenses out of my glasses. Compare the author photo to the photo in the triptych. Tim and I wanted my eyes visible for the author photo but obscured in the triptych.

Putting the lenses back into your glasses is almost impossible when you have horrible eyesight. To do it you need…another pair of glasses. Those tiny screws and the tiny screwdriver.

I rocked the aviator glasses, though, didn’t I? With my Marlboros and my porny ‘stache.


Twenty-seven years ago. That’s a Goodwill jacket. Cost me three dollars. Less than the pack of cigarettes I’m holding.

I still perfectly recall the sensations of smoking and getting absolutely hammered, the way I was in this photo. The funny thing is I have no urge to do either, despite their great efficacy as stress busters. What I wish I could do is take long road trips again. That’s about the only thing I miss from my old life.

Aside from the obvious.

Speaking of road trips, I just read my journal from the year 2000. I hadn’t looked at it in thirteen years. What follows are excerpts describing the trip I took to the East Coast, to meet “Abby,” the hippie-nymph who became a ghost.

In January of 1996, I developed a strangely specific urge to visit Saint Louis, Missouri. Out of nowhere, I thought, I should go to Saint Louis and stand under the Gateway Arch. I didn’t do anything about it for the next five years because it seemed pretty irresponsible to drive or fly off to Saint Louis when I didn’t even have a steady job. The desire was always there, though. It didn’t torment me or anything; it was more like a whim than an itch. But it never went away. With time it got more focused in that I started to imagine that something of value waited for me under the Arch.

Here I wrote about meeting Abby in San Francisco. It’s the same as what you can read on pages 150-152 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo, except for the following:

On the second day, I was going to see where my ex-girlfriend lived.

I’d completely forgotten that my plan was to go out and moon over Carmen’s house. I’m very glad I didn’t do something so childish and pointless. So thanks again, Abby. Back to the journal.

An endless series of disasters, obligations, and reversals kept me from going on my trip until November. When it looked as if I’d have the next six months free, I bought maps and warm clothes, made two dozen road tapes, accepted a parka and emergency supplies from my father, and packed up my computer, which although no longer evil and mocking still wasn’t a friend. I wish I loved writing; I wish beauty and wisdom flowed out of me like…like…like water flows out of a big…pipe.

But being on the road was fantastic. After almost seven years of nonstop writing, it was as if I’d been let out of prison. I was drunk with freedom and a sense of recklessness brought on by all the people who’d told me that I was crazy to drive across the country, I was crazy to go alone, I was crazy to do it at that time of year, and I was crazy to visit a woman—a girl!—twenty years younger than me.

I chose a relatively southern first leg: Interstate 40 through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, switching to the 44 in Oklahoma City. From there I’d angle up to Saint Louis, get on the 70, and cross Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I’d stay on the 70 into Pennsylvania, where it intersected the 79; the 79 would take me north to the 80, and then I’d head east into New York, get on the 87, and finish up in [redacted].

Following my friends’ and family’s advice, I planned on taking ten days, but once I was on the road, I got anxious to see my pal again. I lost interest in the journey and concentrated on the destination: Abby, my dancing painting guitar-strumming socialist rock-climbing camera-shy often-indignant vegetarian bud! And [redacted] too! What in the world would it be like? I’d never been to the East Coast, except for Florida and JFK International Airport in New York.

I spent my third night in Rolla, Missouri. On the morning of November 17, I drove through Saint Louis, ignoring the impulse to stop and stand under the Gateway Arch. That whole idea seemed silly now, just another of my delusions, and anyway, I was having a horrendous attack of culture shock. I estimated that I could make it to Columbus, Ohio, by ten or eleven that night, but as I crossed the Poplar Street Bridge into Illinois, I took a last look at the Arch and felt a stab of something very close to anguish, as if I were losing a good friend. It would’ve been really stupid to get so close and then leave without trying to find out why I’d been drawn to the Arch for five years. So I exited into an industrial park, turned around, and headed back over the bridge into Saint Louis.

I left my car in an adjacent parking structure and set off with my camera into Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It was extremely cold, the air crisp, clean, and tangy like cider. I was in a different world entirely, surrounded by red brick buildings with ads painted on the sides and flocks of blond, blue-eyed children herded along by blonde, blue-eyed teachers.

The Arch is the most bizarre human-made object I’ve ever encountered. It’s almost biomechanical, like an H. R. Giger image. And it’s jazz, a gorgeous, shining trumpet solo. Don’t ask me what that means; I’m just relating my impressions. I took pictures, hoping that they’d show how the rays of sunlight made it look like it was on fire. The visitors all touched it, but I didn’t want to because it didn’t seem appropriate. I was about to go inside when a realization hit me: After almost a decade of work, I’d managed to junk most of what I’d hated about myself. I’d thrown off most of the premises that had ruled my life, and I was finally making decisions based on free will instead of programming.

What immediately followed was self-acceptance. Just like that. For the first time ever, I accepted the good, the bad, and the ridiculous, all as parts of the same creature. A huge wad of anxiety and self-loathing simply evaporated, poof. It made me laugh. I stood there under the Arch, chortling because I was the happiest I’d been since I walked the bridges on my way to work in Norway.

Though the self-acceptance lasted, the happiness didn’t. The Arch was a gateway of sorts, but it would take another eleven years and the loss of everything before I achieved genuine happiness. I had a premonition during my visit to Abby. It’s something else forgotten. Should I have turned around and come home at that moment?

No. It all had to play out the way it did. Loss was the only answer for me. I wish it hadn’t been, but I was an almost impossible nut to crack. If you read my memoir, you’ll learn how my visit with Abby ended. And now, thirteen years later, I see that I already sensed what would happen.

I checked into a motel down the road from Abby’’s house and left a message on her machine the next afternoon. Too antsy to wait for her to call, I got in my car and drove toward her college. I knew she worked in an organic food store, but I didn’t know which one or where it was. It was all very strange; I was still flying on that post-Arch high, and I’d crossed the country so fast that I hadn’t been able to acclimate myself to the changes.

If Missouri had been a different world, [redacted] was a different dimension, a dimension of trees, fields, and hills, with tiny winding roads and tiny buildings. And churches. There were steepled churches everywhere, those austere, chilly, Puritan, Yankee houses of worship that look like square, white rocket ships. I kept expecting them to spew out mobs with buckled pilgrim hats and torches.

On the way to the college, I saw a big supermarket with a politically correct name. I pulled into the parking lot and drove past the front window, and there was Abby wrapping flowers at a counter. After I parked I went into the store, wondering what to do. My Arch-courage faltered for some reason. I was suddenly sure that I was on a fool’s errand, a clown’s errand, something that would crash and burn and leave me a shambles like so many of my enterprises have.

It’s no longer painful to remember how Abby made me the happiest I’d been in seven years and then three weeks later so sad that I tried to kill myself. My only regret is that Abby’s life is far worse than mine.

I’m sorry, Abby. Remember this song on the Suzanne Vega CD I gave you? It turns out that Suzanne and I were wrong. I did try to kill myself over you, but the world isn’t flat or dark. I haven’t lost half my sight. I did almost sail over the edge; I know that despite everything, you wouldn’t have wanted me to.

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