The word nadir is an Arabic word for the depth of something; it’s an all-time low. This word is often contrasted with the word “zenith”; famously, in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace referred to the cruise ship (its actual name Zenith) he was profiling as the “Nadir,” thereby using the ship’s name to signify the empty consumerism of American culture. Wallace captured this population’s vacuity so well because he had experienced depression for his entire adult life. You could say that he never really stepped off that vessel; he just took medications to help soothe his seasickness.
When October rolls around, I take a step aboard the Good Ship Nadir. The increasing chill worries me; I begin to be trapped inside by the rain and can’t bike as much; I lose my summer color and fitness; Halloween is fun, but the party-goers remind me of the traumatic Halloweens on Marquette’s campus and its long lines of idiotic undergraduates stumbling from one messy frat to another like drunken pilgrims. I hate to see Portland’s lushness fade out. I begin to get a little cranky, like a cat displaced from a warm sunny spot and tossed out into the frost.
But there was an autumn once that surprised me because it began in March of 2005, in New Zealand. The previous months I had gone quite far out on the Nadir. I hadn’t really dated anyone for the first two years of college and was beginning to realize that my base—laconic engineering majors—was becoming less and less appealing. The gorgeous artsy guys would have nothing to do with me and the nice hippie guys already had a harem of hot hippie chicks to choose from. So it was in the flip-up of New Zealand that I fell in love for the first time. Nevermind that this was with a girl who was also studying at the University of Wellington at the time.
She was my best friend for many years—her dark sense of humor, her straight hips that I admired, the light freckles dancing across her nose—and I loved her with all the broken warmth that Chan Marshall ached for her yellow-haired friend. This first love of mine, she instructed me on the proper way to select an avocado and how to use just enough seasoning in a veggie stir fry (as a practicing vegetarian, this trick mattered to me). She never really hunkered into chocolate as I did, but I knew where her stash was and how to take just enough when her back was turned so that she never noticed. These furtive bites were meager nips compared to the bars and bars of chocolate that had floated along with me on the Nadir through my first two years of college.
She was splitting a flat with a lanky Danish girl from the university and they lived on the top of a hill. They had a balcony overlooking Wellington’s bay and its circle of ridges. As the New Zealand Fall grew stormier, I liked to step out on the balcony at night and let the wind hit at my cheeks. She had experienced a hellish childhood and had emerged from incredibly intuitive. She could point a finger straight at something she did not like and then shrug off the devil’s advocate. “It’s just wrong,” she would emphasize and mean it.
She helped me to be happy and I began to like myself. She thought that I was beautiful—ripe pear though I was—and I began to think of the word beautiful as a synonym for Mary. Though I have taken subsequent voyages on the Nadir since 2007 (after she and I broke up, it was yet another call of “All a-BOARD!”) but always with more love for myself than I had before I met her. Maybe because of her, I learned how to love someone else, too. These friendships and lovers are open windows—each of those women and men looked at me through a different opening. The thing that made my first love different from all those other viewers was that I always understood that she liked what she saw inside.
I wanted to write about this now because last week was National Coming Out Week. I’ve told this coming-out story a few times before in fiction, but that’s it. Fiction seems like a more poetic package for storytelling. Who wouldn’t rather read of linear events and heightened lushness? Anyway, this was a love story more than a coming-out story.
What comes is better than what came before. So, pucker up and run to me.