So, if I wanted to tell you a story about, say, Raysism, I wouldn’t have to work very hard on introductions. You and I have a basic shared notion of who this guy is and how he works, and I’d tell my story of Raysism such that it relied or reflected upon or defied or otherwise referenced this common character outline we and he have constructed. This picture of Raysism, accurate or not, fair or not, will inform virtually any story I tell – here’s the time Raysism cared a lot about his reputation or let me tell you about the time Raysism ran a long distance or even here’s Raysism’s favorite food. The story is interesting – to whatever degree it actually is interesting – because you think you know something about the subject.
This is why stories about such and such coworker you’ve never met being zany in that way he or she is usually zany are often excruciating.
And so I’ll forgive you if you totally ignore what follows, which is a story about such and such former coworker being zany and tragic in a specific way, and why it matters to me even all these years later. To save time, go ahead and type in “TL:DR” in the comment field below – you may need it later.
Before I launch into the story, I’ll make the following promise: for those of you who stick through to the end, you’ll find that I made a sincere effort to make this ultimately about those goals and visions you put out on your horizon, and how you tether to them the part of your sanity that is most imperiled by your stressful day-to-day life, and the danger of tethering too much of yourself to something too far over the rise. And also Beth, a genuinely incredible person I once knew.
* * *
I met Beth in late 2005 when my boss hired her to do a bullshit job at a now long-gone bullshit company and assigned me to train her. We made introductions at a circular table over which I passed to her page after page of new-hire paperwork. I thought she looked funny. She was tall and long, longer and lankier than most people, and her facial features and hair were long and very long, respectively, and she wore overalls and sneakers and her purse was denim and had little silhouetted figures break-dancing all over it. She looked exactly like she’d stepped out of a Soul Train audition in 1989 and into my office in 2005, and I had a hard time not being distracted by this. I wanted to tease her about her getup, but I am the sort of person who usually takes 18 weeks to muster up the courage to say anything beyond hello to really anyone but a dog. Anyway, her ensemble was wildly inappropriate for a first day on the job, which raised all kinds of questions about just what had convinced my boss to hire her in the first place.
It turned out she was dizzyingly quick-witted and intelligent, the kind of person who had thoughtful, nuanced, passionate opinions about things I could barely even pronounce. Authors I’d never heard of, places I’d never been, songs and bands and cars and laws and historical figures and flowers and languages and fucking everything. She was 6 years older and it turned out I knew absolutely nothing of the world, nothing. She and I worked closely together, and our daily conversations were an incredibly stressful fast-forward tap-dance routine, one long spectacular bluff on my part, with sweat running down my back and sides, a white-knuckled thrill ride. She seemed to vibrate with energy, and demonstrated at-times worrying levels of enthusiasm for really you name it – molecular gastronomy (what?), foreign films (uhhh . . ,), De La Soul (didn’t they do that one song?), European soccer (Ole, ole ole ole . . . right?) – and even the slightest hint that I had the remotest interest in any of these topics would set her abuzz. And I was some kind of addict, I absolutely could not resist. It was a bizarre, exhilarating routine, with her passionately rattling on and on at breakneck speed, gesticulating and exclaiming and faster and faster and working herself into a full-body frenzy, and me nodding and smiling and laughing and holding on for dear life. Eventually I became such a fiend that I started picking up soccer magazines just to memorize enough information to feed the fire.
Spanish soccer was her real passion, and it was around Spanish soccer that our friendship coagulated. She’d gone to college on a soccer scholarship, she paid extra for cable television channels that showed Real Madrid fixtures, she’d taught herself Spanish so she could follow the broadcasts, she even bought VHS tapes online of matches she’d missed and would avoid what little soccer news there is so she could watch the tapes when they arrived without having spoiled the ending. I found this endlessly fascinating. VHS tapes! For my part, I knew enough about the sport to watch the World Cup without being totally confused, but I was sufficiently curious to maintain a conversation. That was enough.
In the summer of 2006, Beth unexpectedly suggested she and I take a trip to Spain together to watch soccer matches. Sometime prior to that, I’d started to wonder whether my crazy friend Beth might actually be crazy.
* * *
I’m the sort of person who needs a vacation. Everything I do, everything, causes me stress. Having a conversation with my wife stresses me out. Work makes me absolutely nuts. Cleaning the house, walking my dogs, paying bills, a trip to the DMV – these things wear me down dramatically because I am incredibly, incredibly a loser. Right now, as I type this, I’m supposed to be working on paying the people who work for me. I haven’t been working on that, and when my wife gets home and asks me whether I’ve finished paying the people who work for us, even the question will make me feel exhausted and persecuted.
So, what I do is, I reward myself. A day of relatively productive work earns me a night of playing video games. A particularly busy 30 minutes of productivity earns me
ten fifteen thirty 45 minutes of reading Deadspin. A week of eating well and exercising earns me a Saturday of ungoverned gluttony. Six months of not ruining everything in my life? Vacation. It’s been this way for a decade or more. Twice a year I drop everything for a week and take some time off. And before this vacation is over, I have planned the next one.
A trip to Spain is a vacation only according to certain technicalities. Compared to, say, a week at Ocean City or Disney World or eating seafood in Maine, a trip to Spain is roughly a BIG LIFE EXPERIENCE. This thought would have been enormously stressful for my pathetic emotional wellbeing if I’d ever thought for a second that the trip to Spain would really happen. In 2006, this was fantasy. Of course I said yes – if she’d asked me to accompany her to Pluto to meet Ignatz the Galactic Flute Mechanic in his castle of dry ice, I would have said yes with exactly the same intent. This was never going to happen. In spring of 2007, I was going to drop everything and go to the beach, and in the fall of 2007 I was going to drop everything and go someplace else, and nowhere in there was I going to go to Spain with Beth. Going to Spain was just an excuse for us to talk in great detail about Spain and Spanish soccer and travel.
It was easy to assume this was fantasy, because I’d begun to expect that much of Beth’s experience of Spanish soccer took place primarily inside her imagination. Beth, in addition to the bullshit job she and I worked together, had a somewhat more respectable day job in the legal department of a massive telecommunications company, and I’d come to accept that business travel for that job also involved fantasy travel in Beth’s mind. There was the time she’d been recruited utterly at random for a paid writing job with ESPN’s soccer website (she’d turned it down). There was another time when she’d been sent to Utah and just happened to have a chance to watch an international friendly between an MLS team and Real Madrid from pitch-side seats in her downtime. And, most extraordinarily, there was the time she’d stumbled across the entire Real Madrid soccer team as they practiced in a public area somewhere in the United States, where flirtations had been exchanged along with contact information. This was sort of hard to believe. She had tiptoed into this kind of exchange, letting me in on her fantasy life little by little, but the moments became more and more outrageous as I declined to convey my skepticism. Emails back and forth with famous athletes. Hot and heavy elevator rides in faraway cities. Practice sessions on the pitch. Strange and wonderful and fully engrossing and impossible to believe, even for a second.
But as I was learning uncomfortable details of Beth’s unique fantasy life, I was also learning troubling details about her very real personal life. She lived with her parents, she was massively in debt, she’d had a series of ill-advised and tortured and disastrously poisonous relationships with bad men, she had hostile relationships with siblings, she suffered from extreme physical symptoms of stress and anxiety and adrenal fatigue. Beth, for all her intense, vibrating energy, was a complete wreck, and these fantasy sequences, this adorably sincere relationship with her favorite soccer team, this was a kind of emergency escape for her, and there was absolutely no way I was going to discourage the idea. It wouldn’t have seemed fair – her life was such a mess, she was so miserable, if she needed to live inside her imagination sometimes, if those moments and events sometimes spilled out into our discourse, that was certainly something I could forgive. I never thought of it as lies – this was Beth’s imagination working its way into the real world. But it happened all the time. Weekly, sometimes daily.
So, we daydreamed about a trip to Spain. These sessions usually took a particular form: Beth would come to me with an idea for a part of the trip, some totally extravagant expenditure for which she wanted my approval, I would grin and nod and laugh as she extolled its significance and all its many virtues, then I would say yes. Almost a thousand dollars a night for a private floor in a ritzy Madrid hotel, the very hotel used by the Real Madrid team during home games? Sure! First class train tickets to Valencia for a local festival? Why not? Front row tickets to a Real Madrid match and a Spanish National Team match at the Bernabéu? Absolutely.
It was roughly 6 weeks before the date she’d chosen in March 2007 when she told me I would need to pay my portion of the airfare sometime in the next 72 hours. I had no money. I had no passport. I had no idea what I had agreed to. I had not mentioned it to my wife. I had not intended to ever go to Spain with Beth. Apparently this particular daydream had not been a fantasy after all.
* * *
As you may have guessed, we did go to Spain in 2007. For ten spectacular days, and my wife came along and one of Beth’s coworkers, too, at the last minute. And it was a crazy, balls-to-the-wall BIG LIFE EXPERIENCE adventure that I spent the next few years paying off. We ate all manner of things and visited historic places and butchered a romantic language and soccer soccer SOCCER! We did, in fact, stay in the same hotel as Real Madrid’s players, on a private floor above their rooms, riding elevators up and down with them for two days. We watched from front row seats as Robinho slotted in the decisive goal against an overmatched Mallorca side and ran to within fifteen feet of us to do his completely silly celebratory dance. We watched La Roja take down Norway in an international fixture days later, amid the craziest, most raucous crowd I have ever seen. We bought scarves. Spain, it turns out, is a wonderful place, completely worthy of all of Beth’s mythologizing. I had the best time and came back home a new man, full of big plans for the future.
Beth had a nervous breakdown on the flight home and spent the next 4 months in a psychiatric facility.
I had no way of knowing this at the time. We took separate flights home: Beth’s coworker caused the two of them to miss our scheduled flight and we arrived at Dulles Airport almost 18 hours before they did. It took me a blissed-out week of walking on air before I thought to call Beth for a recap, and it was another week of Beth not showing up at work before I started to really worry. It was the end of summer before word somehow got to her that we’d been trying to track her down, and I got a surprising phone call from a heavily medicated Beth. We talked – she talked – for more than an hour without ever mentioning our magical trip. What had happened? Of all the crazy, imaginary ways she’d experienced Spain and soccer and her idols, was the one time it had happened in reality also the one she wouldn’t talk about? We made tentative plans to talk again soon.
* * *
It was more than two years before I heard from Beth again. In 2009, my wife and I decided we were ready to return to Spain. It was a clear, beautiful morning in late September, and we were driving to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. When the decision was made, my wife (ever the optimist) pulled out her cell phone and dialed Beth’s number. We’d been doing this from time to time, maybe once every month or so since 2007, leaving messages on Beth’s phone for whoever might be listening. Someone was paying the bill, we reasoned, and someone was checking the voicemail, and so someone was listening.
This time, Beth answered.
It turned out Beth had not been living in Valencia or Madrid or Seville. Had not been teaching English or writing about soccer or dating Sergio Ramos. Had not been waiting tables in a tourist dive in Barcelona. Had not been thriving in any way. I’d let myself idly hope for all of these things, but secretly I’d let the likelihood that Beth had cut her wrists or hanged herself or overdosed on prescription meds define my expectations. She had, of course, not done any of those things, she’d simply gone completely mad and been institutionalized, again, this time for almost 18 months. Now she was again living with her parents, this time in North Carolina, and was even more heavily medicated. My vibrant, radiating friend was completely collapsing.
Three weeks later, we sat across a small table from Beth at a kick-ass Thai place in Arlington, Virginia, not far from her former day job. Beth was witty and thoughtful but greatly diminished. The medication had perhaps taken the edge off, had made her experience of the world less frantic and somewhat less frightening, but of course it had also taken some of her spark, and I missed it almost immediately. Dinner was awkward – Beth was courageous and willing to cover a lot of uncomfortable ground, but the terrain was uncertain under my feet and I ventured too carefully, I think. We waived goodbye on the sidewalk and walked in opposite directions, and that was the last time I saw or heard from Beth. We still call her and email her from time to time – someone is still paying the bills and checking the voicemails, but it’s been more than three years now. I’ve taught myself to love Spanish soccer, Danish soccer, German soccer, Premiership soccer, even MLS. I’ve been back to Spain, to France, I’ve started to feel like a European travel pro. Sometimes, in my random unanswered emails, I’ll throw out completely stupid theories or observations or questions about Cristiano Ronaldo or Iker Casillas or Barcelona (the enemy), to goad her into replying. I get away with telling myself it’s enough to know she isn’t dead this time. Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk to me. Maybe Beth means more to me than I did to her. Probably.
And then I’m forced to confront something uncomfortable: I would not have changed Beth, not at all, not in any way. It was her crazy, over-the-top energy that made her so incredible, it was her obsession with this particular place and particular sport and particular team that put me on an international flight and brought me across the ocean, that sparked in me a genuine curiosity for new things and new sports and new food and travel, especially travel. It was her fascinating mania that made her unforgettable, genuinely unforgettable. And that just feels like a hell of a sacrifice, doesn’t it? Like I would doom my friend to this bizarre life of stress and depression and hives and panic attacks and nervous breakdowns and institutionalization, actual institutionalization, because I liked her better that way? I feel like a bad guy.
* * *
All the time I tell my friends and family, take some time off. Put an X on the calendar and keep your eyes on it. I’m like the fucking guru of vacations. Just last week, I was ranting about the psychological and restorative value of having a goal and working towards it and rewarding yourself on the other side, like it was the fucking answer to everything. And all the while, in the back of my mind, there’s this dim reminder, the caveat, the fine print: escape is not a reality for everyone. And a person can pin too much of their salvation on an ideal, and no vacation, no trip, no team, no one person, no one thing is ever going to hold your shit together all the time. Unlike all the normal people out there, I have to remind myself of this, because life gets tough, and I don’t necessarily get tougher with it. I think I need a lighthouse out on the horizon to keep me pointed in the right direction, but, well, life gets tough. The water gets choppy. We need to be able to exist now, for now, for ourselves and the people around us. And it sure seems like I learned that at the expense of my good friend, and I just don’t know how to feel about that. I needed Beth just the way she was, and that version of Beth burned all the way out and fell apart.
Okay, this has gone on long enough. Of all the outrageous, abstract guilt and internal bullshit in the world, right? I’ll send Beth an email tonight, and I’m sure she won’t respond. Maybe she’s serving foie gras at a bar in San Sebastian. Maybe she’s rolling around in bed with Fernando Torres. Maybe she’s growing citrus outside Madrid. I prefer, of course, to imagine those possibilities. Beth pinned so much of herself on those images, those fantasies – this was her escape, where she went when she wasn’t experiencing the misery of her day-to-day life, and I am happy to keep her there. That’s where she is, the person I knew. One way or another, that’s where she is.