Sometimes the walls just closed in. A hotel room can be a place of liberation, yes. When you’re seven-years old and your parents take you for the first overnight that you remember. You’re far from home, the sea is right on the other side of the bluff where your room is, and the waves crash as you fall asleep in warm family embraces each night. But not always. Not this time.
I was 18 and hotels were still alluring to me. I was still excited by the fact that I moved back again to the east coast. Born in the Midwest and living for a time in Pennsylvania and Delaware, I had moved to California when I was 10. And my parents’ divorce was a long time coming. The seeds of dissolution began when I was 12-years old, but they didn’t fully bloom until I was 17 and a senior in high school. When they split, I began to see the world in two shades and I was forever going back and forth between them. I didn’t know myself very well, because I was two different people. I was my mother’s son and I was my father’s son. I was shuffling constantly and the things I’d seen as permanent, my Midwest roots, my family background, my sense of direction-was simply gone. But what did I know? I was a kid.
I’d graduated from high school and the very next morning flew to Philadelphia where I was to begin again, attending the University of Maryland and living the life I believed I’d put on hold since I was 10 when we moved to Los Angeles. Dad lived there now, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River and I started summer of 1983 in an apartment with dad and my brother, Jerry. It didn’t last. Jerry moved back to California before too long and that left dad and me. I worked with Jerry at a furniture distributor in Camden and I worked at a Sam Goody record shop. I got fired from both jobs and needed to learn a thing or two. But those jobs were nothing-they were just the beginning.
The walls of that hotel room closed in during August when dad accepted a job in Massachusetts and he and I packed up-but not before I got sick. Not before I spent sleepless nights trying to reinvent myself as though the act of redemption was just a night’s sleep away. I was awake during the day, but dad went back to California and I was in Pittsburgh with grandma, then Baltimore with Aunt Virginia and Uncle Karl. Then, I was sick.
When it hit, I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t lethargy, really. It was exhaustion. It was chest pain, but only on the left, not the right. I began to favor my right side and my uncle noticed. “Something wrong with your left side, Mark,” he’d say over casserole dinners and full glasses of iced-tea.
“No. Well, I don’t think so anyway.” One evening, he was giving a bath to his grandson and I went outside to test myself. I ran down the street and breathed in the deep humid air, but I wore out. A fullness, a kind of weight added itself to my chest, on the left and I walked back to the house and through the door. “Something there, Uncle Karl. Can’t make it out. I don’t feel right.”
“You want to go to the doctor? Have him check you out official-like?” he asked in a tone that attempted to belie concern. As I look back, I’m pretty sure it was then he decided to call dad in California and tell him, though he didn’t say anything to me about that.
It was the next day, a trip out with my cousin, Craig. I just felt dizzy, like the world was without a compass, like balance wasn’t even a word anymore. I slumped over in the car seat. “You O.K.?” Craig asked, genuine concern flecked in his deep voice.
“I don’t feel right. Not good,” I said.
It was one of the first times I remember seeing a rich and honest compassionate side to Craig. “I’ve got you,” he said. “You’re going to be O.K.” He drove me back to the house.
The days have faded now and writing this is painful. But I have to because the walls of that hotel room close in on me still sometimes. In my mind, the walls were black and so was the hallway, and even the little café downstairs. I can’t believe that it was black-but it is to me now. It collapses on me and it’s a crucible. I don’t know how I’m going to get through it. I still don’t. I just know that I did.
Doctor visits, dad came home, train ride north to Philadelphia, more doctor visits: Mononucleosis, and a good case of it, too. Full of all of the richness that illness has to offer from strep throat as a sideshow to antibiotics to blood tests for liver enzymes. “Don’t drink alcohol,” the doctor said. “You don’t drink, do you Mark?”
“No. I don’t.”
Bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches in diners up I-95 from Philadelphia to Boston and a new home. But it wasn’t quite ready yet, the condominium. Dad and I lived at the Best Western in Waltham. It’s still there. I just saw it on the Internet-and that’s the first time I’ve looked. It’s not black, by the way. That was a revelation to me. It’s hotel colored—it’s beige, like all of them. And there’s the fifth floor and that’s where it happened. That’s where the walls closed in.
We fell quickly into a routine, dad and I. He was off to work each morning and I can only imagine now that he couldn’t wait to get out of that hotel room. When he arrived back each night, the highlight of my day had usually been to get down the elevator and have something to eat. Occasionally, I’d walk around the parking lot. I wasn’t bored. I was catastrophically limited. At 18, I had graduated high school with dreams and hopes, a world before me and a chance to prove myself. Within three months of walking across the stage to receive my diploma, I was 3000 miles from where I’d started, bereft of friends, unhealthy and exhausted to the point of madness and I was living in a hotel room with my father with no prospects, no vision and no hope.
Two queen beds, a bathroom, a chest of drawers, a television, a table and chairs and a night stand. Sometimes, the exuberant thought of taking a shower was a day’s highlight. I traced my steps from one place to the other: 15 from my bed to the bathroom, 157 from my bed to the elevator and another 34 across the lobby to the café. One evening, dad came back from work and we went out to dinner and afterward, he had to get some things at a grocery store. Star market-I remember it well. They had installed those fancy new scanning lasers to ring up merchandise. And I felt healthy enough to walk that evening.
On another evening though, dad brought back a typewriter. I’d been using a yellow legal pad and scratching out some poetry and prose-all of it bad, none of it memorable. But as the days went on, I began to pick up where I’d left off back in Philadelphia. There, I sat in front of another typewriter tapping out short stories. I remember one of them about putting nuclear weapons on Space Shuttles and launching them out into space where they were away from harm. My imagination kept churning out stories about the things I loved-travel, aircraft and aviation, military life, yes. But I was also writing about saving people, saving things from exploding. In a number of the stories I wrote, things were in danger of burning up and exploding-and the story was about how to keep it from happening.
I’d wanted to be a pilot and it was a dream I carried with me through most of high school. I didn’t realize it in those early years, but I was far too lazy to accomplish that dream. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when a counselor sat me down to go over my SAT scores. I did very well in English and History. Math and Science, however, were not my strong suits. The counselor actually spent time with me because he knew what I was dreaming about. “I’m not saying you can’t fly for the Air Force or the Navy, Mark. I’m just saying that if you want to do that, you’re going to have to work a lot harder in these subjects. You’re going to have to get good grades in geometry and algebra and it wouldn’t hurt to take a physics class.”
I’d like to tell you that this was impossible. I’d like to tell you that there was simply no way that I could do such things-but it wouldn’t be true. I chose not to, perhaps not consciously and perhaps not with any resolve, but I chose not to work hard at those things and to this day, at times, I have tinges of regret about it. But only to a point.
When dad brought that typewriter back to the hotel room, I opened up the black plastic case and plugged it in. There were no laptops in 1983, not the kind on which I’m writing this right now, and an electric typewriter was cutting edge. I remember the next morning that I threw open the curtains and rolled clean white paper into the carriage and started tapping.
The maid came in before noon to clean, but I couldn’t be bothered. Unvexed, I sat and typed. I wrote about a Navy ship anchored at San Diego. It was strange—since I moved to California, I thought mostly of moving away from it. I wanted to live back east or in the Midwest. I was ready to go at a moment’s notice. Now, beaten down by what I felt was circumstance and poor health, whenever I wrote something, it was always about the west coast and I was at it again, saving things that were burning up and ready to explode. The ship in San Diego was on fire and the story was about the attempt to put out the fire before it reached the explosive payload it was carrying and before it sank. I remember pouring over in detail each and every moment and I remember patterning characters from Naval officers to San Diego firefighters. I gave them lives and names and I wielded them about. I even killed a few off in explosions on the ship. I was master of it all, I felt powerful for the first time in quite a while.
And the walls stopped closing in. In fact, they expanded.
I looked forward every day to sitting at that typewriter. It occupied the rest of my time at the hotel and when we finally moved into the condo, I continued to write. I slipped backward quite a few times after we moved. It wasn’t an easy transition and though I was grateful for the wide-open space that the condo complex offered, I was still very much alone and still very much sick. Dad worked hard to help me as best he could-but he was perplexed by a teenaged son who had gone from hopeful to hopeless in less than three months. It drove him crazy. He eventually called his mom and flew her out to Boston. She stayed with me for two weeks and took care of me. If ever I get very down about this period of my own ineffective use of time, I remember my grandma and my Aunt Virginia and Uncle Karl. They didn’t fuss about it, they simply cared for me and did so in a way that allowed me to believe that I might actually be worth caring for. That, and the beige electric typewriter in the black plastic case, saved my life.
It was the beginning and, like most redemptions, it was a planted seed. I went home to California, at first just to recuperate and thought I’d work my way back to the east coast. But, I never did. I started college after a working stint that proved one more drought in that desert time, and I fell in love—at first with History and English and two professors at a junior college who taught me to trust those words, their words and eventually my own—and then with a woman who would later become my wife.
I began to write consistently on typewriters and then, on keyboards. To this day, typing away on a keyboard is therapy for me. I’m a connoisseur of them. Mostly, I like the ones I can feel and that make a clicking sound when I hit each key. I just bought one the other day, a Bluetooth model that cost me less than $12 so I could type regularly on my ipad. When I sat to it the other night and wrote a story I was assigned by an editor, I was transported again to the sound and click, the feel and the moment of putting words on the page—or now, on the screen.
That’s what writing does for me now. It pushes away walls that close in and opens up windows and vistas to things I’d never thought of before. I rarely, if ever, write with pen and pencil and it’s not because I’m a modern or because I believe in the power of technology. It’s because the rhythmic sound of tapping out the words form steel cables that bind me to who I was and then who I became—and I’m reminded that rebirth and redemption are possible with simple motions. As long as those motions are forward and as long as they keep pushing down walls.