Her name was Nancy. She was beautiful. Light auburn hair, slim build, hazel eyes and a smile, oh that smile. She was new to Knoxville Catholic High School, somewhere from the north. Her family had moved to Tennessee that summer, so she didn’t have our accent. She came to us in her senior year. All the straight boys took notice of her; all the girls did too, measured her up, checked her out for cracks in that prettiness, whether or not her body was able to thwart the sexless Catholic uniform that all the girls wore. But soon, Nancy’s kindness, which really was what made her so lovely, won everyone over.
I was. . .let’s get right down to it, I was a dork. Huge 70’s glasses with transparent plastic frames, with lenses so thick, you could use the sun to burn ants with them. I was chubby. I had friends, but certainly didn’t walk in the higher echelon of popular students. I was a junior. None of it made sense; she and I were from different galaxies. But one day I was at my locker, pulling out books for the next class. I slammed the door closed, turned around and there Nancy stood, smiling at me.
We had spoken in the past, usually with other students around. I don’t remember saying anything witty or profound to earn her attention. I was confused. But, quite pleased.
We hung out, ate together in the cafeteria, found each other between classes. Hers was my first kiss and even today, at fifty-five, these lips remember it. She knew better than I; of course she did, she was an older woman! We found places: under the stairwell that headed down to Sister Joel’s pedagogically fascist religion class, on the far side of the football field, under the bleachers and Oh!—the stage. They had built a set for the school play, a mansion for Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. We slipped behind the façade. It was all kisses and petting, nothing groundbreaking in the least, though I do recall at one point, having to snatch a two-by-four support beam to keep steady.
I was in love, deeply in love, and as far as I could see, she was too. We were inseparable, which got us on the principal’s surveillance watch. Father Bannon started hunting us down, as he did all the couples who found all the shadowed corners of the school.
The illness was just coming on, though I didn’t know it at the time. It certainly didn’t feel like an illness, but rather, a type of glory. It started gradually; I didn’t need as much sleep as before. I stayed up late, to two, sometimes three o’clock, got up at six, energetic and ready to get to Nancy school. One night I didn’t sleep at all, but worked on an English research paper to sunrise, one that should have taken a week to complete.
The insomnia was not a problem, in fact, I had more energy than ever before, and chalked it up to our love life. I was happy; no, I was ecstatic, all day long, for days at a stretch. Seventeen and fully alive—more than alive. It was such a change from the dreary dips into profound sadness that I’d been feeling since sixth grade.
But there was a razor edge to this euphoria. I was telling a story once in the cafeteria to a group of friends, about a hunting trip my father had taken me on. The story excited me, what it felt like to kill my first rabbit. I didn’t notice how loud I’d gotten. My best friend Ben touched my elbow and gently said, “Calm down buddy,” and smiled. I turned on him like a viper. Just my eyes; I wanted to pierce his skin with my sight. He must have seen the anger, one that, years later, I learned had crossed over the faces of my kin from the previous four generations. Not anger, but fury.
It didn’t take long for the rage to drop me into the old pit of melancholy. I still didn’t need much sleep, but now the sense of brilliance that I had known after midnight, while birthing term papers that got the A’s, shattered. I was in the hole again, but it was deeper, as though someone had dug it out while I was dancing on clouds.
Nancy didn’t know what to do with me, the way I moped from class to class. Then the rapture returned, lifted me out of the pit, and kept lifting, pulling me back up into the world, my toes dragging the floor until the mania snatched me up and again, I walked near the sun. I proclaimed my love for Nancy in the hallways, with a Walt Whitman-style barbaric yawp. She grabbed my shoulder and shushed me in that soft voice of hers.
My head was about to explode with a raw sense of being connected to everything. Wind became essential. Tommy Davenport gave Nancy and me a ride to the homecoming football game. He was driving his Ford pickup down Interstate Forty, and had Queen cranked up high on his cassette player. We were in great spirits, all three of us belting out the Bohemian Rhapsody. The music expanded inside the truck cabin, too much. I opened the window to the cold October night to let Queen out and relieve the pressure building in my skull. It wasn’t enough. I climbed out of the window. Tommy was going sixty—God that air on my face! I had one leg out, my shoe atop the rear view mirror, and made my way to the front of the truck. I wanted to be Tommy’s blood-and-bone hood ornament. Tommy yelped, “McPeek! Get your motherfucking ass back in here!” Nancy grabbed me by the waist, pulled, pulled, until I said to myself party poopers and crawled back in. That look on Nancy’s face: a certain awe laced with a fear that I had never seen before, on anyone; confusion; a tremor; and regret that, in memory, now is so clear: What have I gotten myself into?
The funk that followed lasted a long while, though that was no surprise. For as long as I could remember, winter had always been a weary season. Nancy was worried; I suppose she got more worried as I began to talk, in vague language, about certain Dickens-like moments of childhood. I spoke, not knowing what to say or how to say it. My words were searching for a place to land, on an unshaken ground, where it could make sense of things.
Nancy gave me the journal and wrote the above note in it. I went home and wrote whatever came to mind. The racing thoughts slowed enough for me to record them. I lifted up from the dream that I was writing, a real dream of my own life, now on paper. I calmed.
A week later Nancy broke up with me. I fell apart in the boy’s bathroom. I don’t remember the days afterwards, but eventually I pulled out of it. Nancy went off and married soon after high school. She married well; Samuel was also a senior who was kind and affable and even-keeled. They had a number of children; I imagine them happy. Stable. I hope for that.
Mark, I pray that someday you will no longer need this. She wrote that nearly forty years ago. I now count forty-three journals on my bookshelf, from 1978 to yesterday evening.
I have always needed them, Nancy. They are the documents of my existence, just over ten thousand pages that are, overall, easy to read, though, looking through them, I can see by the handwriting when the illness has come on, when the pen couldn’t keep the ink within the lines. I have recorded events all the way from age five to these days, when I sometimes still must consider my fifth year of life, the year a certain horror had slipped into our home and, in the process, threatened to devastate us all. I have recorded how that near-family destruction snatched the genetic illness of the Villatoros and shot a poison into it, forcing the manic-depression to metastasize into something that, even today, threatens to shred my mind. But it doesn’t, Nancy, not since the day you gave me that journal, and I began to write.