The day David died, I was in the Urbana Free Library, in the How to Organise section. I was always searching for ways to corral my home. Paper and books were my biggest downfall, but clothes didn’t stay on hangers and dishes multiplied. A lot of things multiplied. Especially books about how to organise your house. I had decided to stop buying so many and to borrow them from the library instead. David once told me that my disorganisation was so severe it was almost magical. He had the ability to give a compliment within an insult, so that the compliment led but the insult hung around. It wasn’t unusual for something he had said to float back to me, even then, a decade after we broke up for the last time.
But 23 years after we first met, David’s voice, soft and distinctive, more East Coast than downstate Illinois, had finally faded from my daily considerations, so much so that when a book jumped off the library shelf and hit me on my head, I didn’t think of him when I saw the title: Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. It was mid-afternoon on Friday, 12 September 2008. I returned to the library the following Monday to check the book out.
It was David who introduced me to the Urbana Free Library on a visit to his parents, shortly after we started dating. ‘This is where I studied in high school,’ he said. ‘Not at the university?’ I asked. The University of Illinois, a few blocks down the street, has several wonderful libraries; the main reading room has long wooden tables and small lamps, like a library in a movie. Across the atrium, behind the circulation desk, there are stacks and stacks of books that move at the push of a button, compressing and expanding like an accordion. There is a little shrine to Elvis Presley, who once ordered a library card from there. Since David’s father, a philosophy professor, had an office next door, I assumed he would have worked there. ‘No, way more relaxed and down home at the public library,’ he said.
The university is in the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, 130 miles south of Chicago and 180 miles north of St Louis. It’s a research university that sprouted in the middle of corn and soybean fields, and still grows a corn crop on campus. The sky, like the sky in Tucson, Arizona, where David and I went to grad school, is vast. Champaign-Urbana is a town and gown town, filled with pizza places and Steak & Shakes and an actual academic cap and gown factory. The townies are not impressed by the academics. This might be why David said it was the safest place in the world for him after the publication of Infinite Jest, a book that brought him global attention. There is a Midwestern common sense that is sceptical of pretension. Champaign-Urbana was like a very comfortable couch you had a hard time getting up from. I hadn’t grown up there, but my parents had, and during my childhood we would make the trek downstate from Chicago to visit both sets of grandparents. I spent two weeks there each summer, fishing with my grandfather. ‘God’s country,’ he always said, amid sky and clouds and cornfields.
The same day the book fell on my head I was listening to my ten-year-old daughter, Zella, playing her cello upstairs. I said out loud: ‘David, we are finally done.’ I felt lighter, released from something. I thought I was acknowledging my happiness in the domestic life I had created, rather than the one I had imagined with him. The next evening, I found out David had hanged himself around the time I’d been listening to Zella play, and I thought: ‘You were wrong about being done.’
Ifirst met David in 1985, at a party for new MFA students at the University of Arizona. I was in my second year of the three-year course, which everybody referred to in hushed tones as ‘The Programme’, capitalisation required. It was a serious thing, trying to be a writer. My ex-boyfriend, Robert, had just won a national book contest. When I first saw David, he was kneeling next to Robert’s chair, looking up at him. I thought he looked like a little bird waiting to be fed. But David noticed me in a different way. My friend Heather said he kept asking about me. ‘He thinks you look like a young Liv Ullmann.’
I wasn’t interested in David. He was four years younger than me and seemed immature. Since I was studying poetry and he fiction, our paths didn’t cross in workshops, but we were in a literature class together, where the visiting professor, Richard Ellmann, had us read our own writing. I had a profound fear of public speaking, but when it was my turn, looking out over the classroom, I saw David and Heather’s faces smiling in encouragement. David in particular seemed like my own personal cheerleader.
I didn’t agree to go on a date with him until after my puppy, Bird, died of parvovirus only a month after I got him. In my college mailbox the next day there was a card with three women, all barefoot, two turned one way and the third facing in another direction, under a purple sky. In the note he said he could see in Bird’s eyes that she’d had a good month with me. He then went on to list various activities we could do including basket-shooting and said he had absolute availability. I decided I could consent to one date with someone who knew enough to write a condolence note for a dog.
He ended up being a surprise. He was wicked funny, for one thing. He was someone I could talk to for hours, and through the years, in different houses, in different states, we did just that. On the phone late at night, he’d say, ‘My ear is getting hot,’ and I knew what he meant because my ear too, pressed against the phone, would be slightly warm and red. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, just that it was never boring. My big fear in life, at that time, was being bored. Later I would learn that there are worse things to fear.
The day after David hanged himself, but before I knew about his death, I went to the bookcase in my bedroom and took out the copy of Infinite Jest, which I had read once right after it came out in 1996. This was the first time I had looked at it since then. David had sent it to me in a large box, the book wrapped in a black kitchen rug covered with wax drippings, as if someone had done a voodoo spell over it. It arrived the week after a marathon counselling session where the counsellor had said: ‘He just can’t do it. He just can’t give you what you want.’ I wanted David, but I also wanted some version of a picket fence and I wanted a child, and those things weren’t compatible.
That counselling session came nine years after we cancelled our wedding, after rings were bought and invitations sent. We had got engaged in graduate school, told our parents and then never mentioned it again. Neither of us really understood how other people just got married. Was everyone simply willing themselves into it as another step into adulthood? And then we began to fight; we didn’t so much cancel the engagement as let it fade away. David was offered a year’s teaching at Amherst College and I went back to Chicago after graduating from Arizona, not willing to follow him if we didn’t imagine our lives together. But I went to visit him, my first time East. It was autumn and it was lovely, this town where Emily Dickinson wrote so many poems, including one of my favourite lines: ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes.’ David was housesitting for a former professor in a New England house with built-in cabinets and many, many books and the number of the child abuse hotline in a kid’s handwriting on the fridge door. Maybe we could have a kid with a sense of humour. I started to imagine an adult life. But I also saw, one evening, David retire to the den and drink glass after glass of Scotch, not seeming to get drunk, but just going further and further away. I didn’t drink myself and didn’t really grasp what was too much, because all of it seemed a bit much to me and I had trained myself to accept other people’s drinking.
A couple of weeks later, David flew into Chicago and suggested we elope. I said, okay, we could get married, but I wanted an actual wedding. We talked to my parents, David called his, and they asked him to visit them. He went, returned the next day, and his parents sent flowers saying ‘Welcome to the family.’ We set a date after Thanksgiving, six weeks later. We got a marriage licence, the Aids test Illinois required and went to a jeweller’s shop on Wabash Avenue where we bought 18-carat gold rings. The salesperson kept trying to persuade us that 14-carat was better, more durable. ‘The 18-carat will dent and scuff and grow thinner over time,’ he said. ‘We want them to disintegrate naturally,’ David replied.
He flew back to Amherst to teach his class and then he disappeared. For two days I left messages and then I called his parents. They hadn’t heard from him. ‘Did he teach his class?’ his father asked. I didn’t know. His father called me later that night. They had reached David, who was very depressed. ‘I’m sorry, Gale,’ Jim Wallace, who had a very calming voice, said. ‘He convinced us too.’
When I finally heard from David he said: ‘I could have done it if we could have eloped. We could still do that.’ And I said no, if we couldn’t make six weeks we weren’t going to make a lifetime. And that was that. For months I wandered around, the world feeling muted and still, with the shame of a woman in a 19th-century novel who has been jilted at the altar.
Ayear later David made a serious suicide attempt that led him to try ECT. He was shaky afterwards. He called from his parents’ house and asked if he could visit. I told him he could come to my Chicago apartment for a couple of days, but that we would not be getting back together. Helping keep him alive seemed more important than my pride.
By this time he had become David Foster Wallace, having chosen to use his middle name when he started publishing – both as a tribute to his mother, whose maiden name was Foster, and because there was another writer called David Wallace. His first novel, The Broom of the System, had been published to minor acclaim. Many of the short stories he had worked on at graduate school had been published in prominent places and the collected version, Girl with Curious Hair, had been accepted for publication. He was 26. If he wanted to find a good teaching job, he could. I, on the other hand, was 30, working at Women & Children First bookstore, taking on freelance editing projects and teaching the occasional adjunct class, a runner-up sometimes in contests, on the waiting list for writing residencies.
We sat in the living room that weekend, both of us tired and quiet and sad, David still a bit foggy from the ECT. But when I said I was afraid I had a fear of success, he was as insightful and maddening as usual. ‘Sweetie,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry but fear of success is just fear of failure wrapped in a tight phobic circle.’ He slept on the couch; I was awake in the bed in the other room, thinking about his depression. I still hadn’t come to grips with how serious it was partly because he downplayed it and partly because most of the time he was funny and laughing and the life of my particular party. Before I met David I had thought of depression as a temporary state, not a disease. I had my own experience with it, but what David had was different.
That weekend in Chicago he helped me with a manuscript about trains I had mistakenly agreed to edit, and before he left he said that he was glad he could serve as an ‘editorial ambulance’, that I grounded him, that no matter what happened he would love me always. He was planning on going to Harvard to get a PhD; I wasn’t sure what I would do next. As it turned out, I moved back to Tucson, then back to Chicago and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I began teaching at Salem State College and got a research associateship in women’s studies at Harvard.
David was also in Boston. He had dropped out of his PhD, going first into McLean Hospital and then into rehab. I had never seen David what I thought of as drunk, but I had seen liquor bottles emptied; I never saw him high from pot, which he thought was his major problem, but I knew him to disappear for days at a time. He covered for any indulgences, always emerging with a piece of writing. He binged and hid it so well, at least from me, that I was surprised his addictions were as serious as he suddenly deemed them to be. In Boston, after his stint in the halfway house, he warned me away. ‘I’m doing you a favour,’ he said. ‘Things are not good.’ He was sharing an apartment at the end of the Red Line with a fellow halfway house graduate and was obsessed with a married woman, whom he soon followed to Syracuse. I took his warning to heart. We didn’t talk for a year.
In 1993, my temporary jobs ended and I moved to Champaign to help my grandfather after my grandmother died. One of the first things I did was go to the Illinois State Fair, which I have always loved. When I passed a funhouse, I thought I felt David’s presence, but he was in Syracuse and, even if he were in Illinois, there was no way he would be at the state fair. He hated crowds. But it turned out he was there, writing an essay for Harper’s called ‘Ticket to the Fair’, which would go on to be taught in every English department in which I worked.
He had taken a job at Illinois State, about fifty minutes away from Champaign, and a couple of weeks after the state fair we discovered that we were both back in Central Illinois. We started talking again, at first cautiously on the phone every few weeks and then, when he was visiting his parents in Urbana, in person.
I had a strange side job teaching roller-skating in high school gyms. Sometimes if I was in the western or northern part of the state, I would go to David’s rented house on Fell Street in Normal and tell him about my day; sometimes I stayed over, with him on the couch, determined to stay friends, without the ‘Sturm und Drang’, as he called it. I told him about the skating Amish girls who almost seemed like they were flying in their long skirts and bonnets. One day, when a boy who had no legs plopped himself out of his chair, put the skates on his hands and propelled himself around the floor, smiling widely, I went straight to David’s and waited for him to come home, because I knew that, as soon as I told him about it, he would feel it, the joy and heartbreak of the day.
There were traces of female presence in that house on Fell Street – fancy teas David would have never bought, for example – but for the most part it was a wreck of a bachelor pad: his dog, Jeeves, left pieces of his toys everywhere, there were tall filing cabinets in the dining room, copies of Harper’s, a series of books on the history of everyday life in different centuries. The walls of the downstairs bathroom were plastered with working pages from Infinite Jest.
He left that rental house for a ranch house he bought on the edge of town. He loved to say he had a ‘country kitchen’, a description the realtor had used. I don’t know what this meant exactly, but there was a little valance over the sink, which had a window that looked out over fields. When he described the house to me, I said: ‘That sounds like my aesthetic nightmare.’ He said, ‘Ow,’ and asked if I would like to see it before he bought it. It was an extremely bland, suburban ranch house that I ended up liking because he lived there.
He painted the room he worked in black, and then seemed surprised it was so dark in there. I brought over a couple of floor lamps from my grandfather’s house. The lamps had shades. Years later, I saw a picture of him sitting in a chair near one of these floor lamps, but the shade had gone – as though if you were going to throw light on something, it better be harsh.
A woman moved into that house briefly. He had a series of relationships, none of which lasted very long. If he told me he was seeing someone, I stayed away. I usually didn’t tell him if I was dating someone, but he always seemed to know and called more frequently. Once I started talking to him again, the other men always seemed boring.
David said to me once, tapping his front teeth with his second knuckle as he did when he was thinking, ‘The difference between you and me is you don’t drag other people into your fantasy life.’ But, after a year in Illinois, I was starting to place him at the centre of mine again. I’d drive between our two cities, see a farmhouse and think David and I could live there and write. When we started seeing each other romantically again, we would meet in diners in those little towns, or drive back and forth between our houses, getting up in the middle of the night to return to our respective dogs. Jonson, the puppy I had got after Bird died, was now an old dog.
David, who watched a lot of romcoms, knew how to play the romantic lead. He could dead-lift you for a kiss or sweep you off your feet Officer-and-a-Gentleman-style. He practised this. He knew it was a substitute for a deeper capacity to have a relationship. The first time we dated he took a quiz in Cosmopolitan about good and bad boyfriends. ‘I am the worst kind,’ he squealed. The kind with big romantic gestures, an undivided attention that can’t sustain itself, a bigger sense of self than of any coupledom. I didn’t need a quiz to know that.
And yet, I had some hope. This second time was my favourite time with him. We did Midwestern things: picked corn at my grandfather’s plot, bowled at a place between our houses. In the ‘family room’ off his country kitchen, on a beat-up brown suede couch, we watched movies like Valley of the Dolls and Jurassic Park, which David watched repeatedly because it soothed him somehow. It was better than the Blue Velvet and Brazil years, I thought. In grad school, David had insisted that people go to Blue Velvet with him over and over again. I could barely sit through it once.
Little by little, I started to bring him to family things again, like my nephew’s tenth birthday party, where we fought over the memory of a gas station attendant in Oklahoma, whom I remembered wheeling out of the station, without arms or legs, and lifting the gas pump with his mouth.
‘He had a disability of some sort,’ David said, ‘but I would have remembered that.’
‘Why would I make up something like that?’
‘Like old times,’ my father said.
I was 38 by this point and had started to think about adoption. David was more open to adoption than to having a biological child, not wanting to pass on his depressive gene, but he also worried that ‘once you have them, you have to give up self. Everything has to be about them.’
‘And that wouldn’t be a relief for you?’
‘Touché,’ he replied.
My sudden need to settle down or find a child on my own was what led us to the counsellor. By that time, we had known each other for eleven years and dated for only two; he had been sober for seven and we had spent one full year without speaking. She was the one who said: ‘He just can’t do this. He can’t give you what you want.’ And I said, ‘But we love each other,’ and she said: ‘That is clear.’ I said: ‘This sucks.’ She said: ‘Do you want to keep seeing me?’ He said: ‘I’m open.’ I said: ‘No.’ I believed her.
So that was it. Maybe the candle wax and rug were some sort of final ceremony. Although he had no set belief system, David was susceptible to the comforts of ritual. And we could both be superstitious. I could imagine a little blessing ceremony to solidify our goodbyes. The inscription in the book I had not looked in for twelve years read: ‘To Gale, With Much Love, David. W. 4/96’.
The day I pulled Infinite Jest off the shelf, I also mentioned David to my mother. ‘You haven’t mentioned him for years,’ she said, and then more warily: ‘I wonder how he is.’ ‘He’s fine,’ I said. ‘He lives in California. He’s married.’ The last time I’d heard from him was about a year earlier, a short note saying he was happy, which wasn’t a word he usually used.
When the bad news arrived it was through an innocuous email from someone I didn’t know very well, who said: ‘Sorry to hear about the death of Foster-Wallace.’ When I replied ‘What?’, she said she’d seen it on Facebook. I couldn’t bring myself to look. I called a friend and asked her to check and, when she reported it was true, I hung up the phone and walked to the kitchen and then I started to scream. Loudly. I was alone but the windows were open. The neighbours must have heard, but no one came to check on me. What if I was being murdered or trying not to be murdered? I reminded myself of a scene in a movie, where Liv Ullmann is in a room pacing and screaming. I remembered thinking when I was watching it that it was too dramatic. I wondered why if I could think all these things, I kept screaming.
Even my body went back in time. I lost ten pounds immediately, back to the weight I was when I met him, as if my molecules had arranged themselves to be the self I was when I was with him. All that week, people stopped me and told me how great I looked. ‘What is that cream you are using?’ one parent at my daughter’s school asked. ‘I want to get some.’ I didn’t tell her I was beautified by grief.
David recognised this younger me. One day, about three days after he died, walking down the street, I felt him so clearly walking next to me, shoulders hunched, head forward, that I reached out for his hand. ‘You must love this,’ I said to him, ‘being able to pop in and out wherever you want.’ I thought about one day when, trying to get to Sunday in the Park with George in Chicago, we came across throngs of people and David had a panic attack. ‘Close your eyes and hold my hand,’ I told him, as I led him through the crowd.
Sometimes, in those early after-death days, he appeared alive in my dreams, but very thin, and I was so relieved. ‘We thought you were dead,’ I said, and he didn’t say anything but took some of the spaghetti I offered him.
Before I received the copy of Infinite Jest, before the counsellor told us we would never work as a couple, David asked me if I would buy a copy when the book came out, but I didn’t have much money and the book was $30.
‘I can’t afford it,’ I said. ‘Just send me a copy when you get your copies.’
‘But I’m afraid no one will buy it,’ David said. ‘Little, Brown has put a lot into this book. If I give you the money, would you go to the store and buy a copy so at least one sells at that bookstore?’
I assured him he was being ridiculous. People were going to buy it. And if they didn’t, I said, Little, Brown would have got its money’s worth from the publicity alone. Every bookstore had been sent a postcard with clouds and blue sky. ‘I even got that postcard in the mail to my actual house,’ I said. ‘They are alerting people something big is coming.’
‘Yeah. You might be right. But could you buy a copy anyway?’
‘Send it to me.’
It became clear in the next month that people were going to buy it. After the launch party in New York, he called late one night. ‘I kind of wish you were here,’ he said. ‘I need someone who isn’t impressed with me.’
‘You’ve reached your girl.’
But that wasn’t completely true. I wasn’t impressed exactly, but I did feel messed with, as if he had developed a persona unknown to me. Fame is a strange thing, a creepy thing, but glittery, with an aura. I didn’t want it for myself, but rubbing up against it appealed to me in a way I didn’t trust.
I went to the last reading on the Infinite Jest book tour in Champaign with my father. David’s parents were there too. Everyone nodded politely, our cancelled wedding almost a decade past but all of us still awkward and formal. Nobody knew that David and I were seeing each other again – we kept this second go-round a secret, too embarrassed to fail again in public.
‘Want to get some nosh?’ David asked after the reading. He was partial to bland food, but liked the fried onion blossom at a restaurant in town. He told me how glad he was the tour was over. The week before, he said, a reporter from Rolling Stone had followed him around, almost lived with him. But he didn’t think the article would be printed. ‘That was probably all for nothing,’ he said. He had been sceptical about reporters since one of them had looked in his medicine cabinet. And he was conflicted about media attention, wanting both notoriety and anonymity. After David’s death the reporter, David Lipsky, used the tapes from the Rolling Stone interview as the basis for a memoir.
‘You know it’s lucky you still get to write without expectations? Right?’ he said. ‘That it still gets to be pure for you?’
I nodded. Very few people even read poetry. I don’t have an audience in front of me when I write. Except for him. I always wanted him to think something I’d written was good.
‘I threw everything I had into that book,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I could do that again.’
When I finally got out of bed the day after I found out about David’s suicide, I wrote a note to his parents telling them how profoundly sorry I was and that I had loved him. Then I walked with the note to the house he grew up in. I walked past the high school he’d attended and noticed the grotesques looking down. I remembered that once when we were in Oak Park, Illinois, I pointed out some gargoyles that I had passed daily on my way to the library without knowing they were there until one day I looked up. David gasped.
‘They are frightening, aren’t they?’ I said.
‘You warned me,’ he said. ‘I was thinking of you being surprised by them.’
He knew he was going to be there one day and the next, not. The rest of us didn’t.
At the Wallace house the curtains in the big front picture window were closed. I crossed the lawn and put the note in their mailbox. I didn’t know what to do next with my heaviness. I didn’t feel entitled to my grief. I was so far in the past of his life.
Finally, almost two months after David’s death, I went to a memorial service at Illinois State University. I sat at the back on the floor. A former student praised him as a teacher, but said there were things he did that no teacher should ever do, leaving us to fill in the blanks. I was just relieved that someone had brought up a flaw, because in the days and weeks after David’s death, a posthumous persona was emerging, that of a wise saint, a genius of boundless kindness. His parents were there, and after the service his mother ran over to hug me. I had written them a longer letter about the Arizona years, and said that the first time I visited their home I was surprised to find David had the same wallpaper of velvet and aluminium shiny tigers and lions on his teenage bedroom wall that I had on mine, an echo of a room, his with one brown cork wall and three wallpapered walls and mine with three black walls and one wallpapered wall. ‘I can’t believe your mother approved that,’ one of my friends had said.
‘Would you like a piece of that wallpaper?’ Sally Wallace asked.
When David took a job at Pomona College in California in 2002, he called to tell me. We hadn’t been talking much. He seemed annoyed to have to interact with anyone, including me. He’d been working on a book, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and it had messed with him. He was cynical and almost cruel, and I thought a big change would be helpful to him. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘You’ve probably outgrown ISU.’ I really like Bloomington-Normal, but it seemed like a town whose secrets everyone knew.
He softened a bit. ‘You’ll probably end up in California, too,’ he said. ‘We always live close to one another.’
‘I’m never moving to California,’ I told him.
We had very little contact after he moved. A phone call when a mutual friend died and then the note telling me about his marriage, wishing me well and saying he was happy.
Even before David died, I avoided telling people I knew him. If they knew who he was, they wanted to know details about him. I became a secondary character, as women often are. I had explained to him that there is a particular type of loneliness that comes of people not being interested in you or your work unless they want to sleep with you, or are interested in the person you are sleeping with. David is possibly the only man I ever got to understand that, partly because he was a curator of types of loneliness.
‘It’s hard for you, I see,’ he said, ‘but it isn’t so easy being a man either, there are so many rules. Plus, you get to wear a skirt.’ He was always aggrieved that men couldn’t wear skirts.
‘So wear a skirt.’ He wore other clothes of mine that looked ridiculous on him.
‘It breaks the rules.’
After David’s death, I didn’t know how to talk about parts of my life without the ghost of him being the most important part of what I had to say. It’s not unusual for a woman to be seen as adjacent to a man. But I hadn’t been used to placing my invisibleness next to someone invisible.
In the early days after David’s death, I was surprised by how fluently some of his close friends could speak of him, and dismayed at some people who wanted to appear closer than they really were. Most of the friends I knew fell into a deep protective silence and that’s where I was in 2010 when I heard from D.T. Max, who was working on David’s biography. I was aware that some of the people talking to Max had an agenda. We all do, I guess, when asked to insert ourselves into the story of someone else. But David’s best friend, Mark, thought I should talk to Max, and David’s parents said they were co-operating, so I met Max at a Thai restaurant in Urbana, where days before I had run into a former roommate of David’s and told her there was a biographer on the hunt. ‘That is whack,’ she said. ‘Don’t give him my name.’ There were others who wouldn’t be found because they didn’t want to be found – AA people, who within the dictum of the twelve steps would stay silent – or whose professions required confidentiality, and friends who wanted to keep grief private.
When I read the biography, there were some things I was glad I hadn’t known, but there were only two things that surprised me. One was that he had voted for Reagan. He would never have told me that; I was pretty clear about my view of Reagan. His early explanation of his political views was that if we had a viable socialist party, he’d have joined it, but that he had to settle for being a Democrat. Our last fight was about him voting for Nader over Gore in 2000.
‘I’ve decided to vote my heart,’ he said.
‘Well, I’ve decided to vote as a grown-up,’ I said.
The second thing that didn’t fit into anything I knew about David was a story about him trying to buy a gun to kill the husband of Mary Karr, a poet he was infatuated with. It’s a dramatic tale and one David apparently recounted to several people. I can imagine him creating a narrative that showed how obsessed he was with this poet and also gave him a tough guy persona around the tough guys at the halfway house where he was living, but the David I knew hated guns and knew they were unsafe for him to have around, knew he was more likely to turn one against himself than anyone else. When I was with David I got adept at parsing the real versus the imagined. But then I was able to get confirmation from him about something I thought was made up. Now I am not. So now I don’t know.
Itaught David’s work only once. I’d put together a group of very short fictions to teach and included a short story of his called ‘Everything Is Green’, because I loved it. He couldn’t often be minimalist, but those were my favourite pieces. Anyway, I thought it was a sweet and painful love story, but a student stood up and said: ‘This author is a misogynist.’ I was so shocked I don’t remember much else of what she said. I might have murmured something about the reader’s interpretation; whatever I said was unsatisfactory. It was clear early on that David’s writing had the ability to disturb; some of his professors seemed to get angry at it. One of his stories, ‘Girl with Curious Hair’, caused me to say I wasn’t sure I wanted to date someone who could write that. I’m still afraid to read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
A friend of David’s sent me a link to an article by Mary Holland called ‘The Last Essay I Need to Write on David Foster Wallace’ and captioned ‘Closing the “Open Question” of Wallace’s Misogyny’, asking if I could respond to it. The article considers whether we should still read or teach Wallace in light of Karr’s accusations, which include stalking and physical violence. Holland also refers to other reports of Wallace’s unsavoury behaviour from men and women, some of whom she seems to consider apologists.
I cannot question another woman’s account. In fact, some repeated stories have caused me to question my own memories, to wonder if I minimised things. But like the earlier saintly version of him, this misogynistic portrayal doesn’t fit with what I knew of David. My own relationship with him did not include physical violence, but there was no way to be close to him and not be hurt by him, whether you were male or female. He was not a good boyfriend or partner. But he was one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Once, talking to some friends who were complaining about not being able to talk to their boyfriends the way they talked to their female friends, I said, ‘I can talk to my boyfriend that way,’ and they didn’t believe me.
The week after David died, my parents received a letter from a non-profit with their address on it, but the names of Jim and Sally Wallace, David’s parents. It took me a while to realise that Walden and Wallace were probably next to each other in the database. I had a similar experience when my first poetry book was published. I was curious to see my thesis again, since it formed the skeleton of the published book. I had lost my copy but knew there was one on the bookshelves behind the desk where the creative writing secretary sat in the English Department at Arizona. But when she searched the black binders of thesis manuscripts from the past decade, she didn’t find mine. We were both perplexed. Finally, she pulled some other books off the shelf to see if it had fallen down a crack. As she was putting the binders back, she laughed. My slim manuscript, ‘Come in off the Streets’, had been shoved into David’s much larger short-story collection Girl with Curious Hair. It could be a metaphor I guess, but I never compared us in that way.
Almost a month after David’s death, I came across a card with a picture of a tree on it with a very sappy poem that began ‘Long ago I said that you would forever be a part of me …’ It proceeded in its painful way, circling around to a refrain, ‘You will forever be a part of me.’ I didn’t remember seeing the card before. It wasn’t signed and I was perplexed, but it folded out into a sort of secret compartment where David had written that he knew it was a bad poem, but that it had struck a chord with him anyway. The inner card was signed and dated 10/8 without a year. That was the date I found it, in the year 2008. I like to think it waited for me.
David rarely appears in my dreams anymore and when he does he is at a distance. Walking along in a crowd, or in an audience. We always recognise each other. Sometimes he waves.
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