Interview: Suzy Vitello’s Obession

Editor Matty Byloos, Interview, January 28th, 2016

"In those 2:00 a.m. can’t-sleep nights, I obsessively revise his death."

Gosselin-van-at-night
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NAILED MAGAZINE: Is there something or someone with whom you’ve been obsessed for a large part of your life? How come? What happened to generate the obsession?

SUZY VITELLO: He would have been fifty this year, my first husband. He’s been dead half his life. There should be a milestone for this occasion, but I’m not sure, exactly, what.

For our short life together we celebrated his birthday with eggs Benedict and mimosas upon waking. Talk about your high cholesterol food choices! Ah, but we were young. What did we know of mortality? We were in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along years. We had a series of menial minimum-wage jobs in food service. I moonlighted in a call center. Together, we delivered the Sunday paper, him flinging the Arizona Republic from the back of a copper-colored pickup at four in the morning, me, pregnant and disheveled at the wheel. I went into labor with our first baby, a boy, on Christmas Day. We thought we were The Shit. Blessed. Lucky.

In those 2:00 a.m. can’t-sleep nights, I obsessively revise his death. So many times I’ve asked myself, what would Frank have been like as a middle-aged man? Would we have stayed married? Would we have churned out more kids? When he died, we’d just moved back east to partake in the pre-crash banking boon. The hot summer afternoon that they pulled Frank’s lifeless body from a pile of crumpled Mustang, I was days from term. Our second child, a girl.

That baby, my amazing daughter – she’s as Portlandia as it gets. If he were still alive, would her father be harassing her about the tattoos on her arm and ankle? What would he think about her female partner and social activism?

And what would he have to say about his son’s career as a poker player? “Why, at your age,” he might lecture, “I was holding down four jobs in preparation for my second child.”

But, admittedly, what advice could Frank possibly give a twenty-five-year-old offspring? Other than, “Why, when I was your age, I was dead.”

And what of my circuitous path to Oregon? What might my late husband have thought of my marriage to a hippie, of the third child, of my divorce and remarriage to husband three? Certainly he, known even at twenty-five for his big heart and loyal nature, would have understood and accepted his wife’s whimsical quest for meaning after his death. Right?

Or maybe he’d have written me off long ago as a nutcase.

I had no idea, that morning, that I would never see Frank again. My nine-month-pregnant belly leading the way, I’d held out his Van Heusen button-down with the extra-long sleeves, freshly pressed. “Here,” I told him. “For good luck.”

He exchanged the slightly wrinkled shirt he’d been wearing for the crisp and still-warm-from-the-iron one. “Really?” he said, hopefully. “You think it’ll make a difference?”

I nodded. Maybe I even smiled. I did not kiss him goodbye. I did not say I love you. Only, “Good luck.”

And here’s what nobody knew.

Here’s the awful, shameful truth.

I had had a premonition the week before his death. Lying in bed one evening when he was late coming home, my body shook with a deep spasm. There’d been an accident; I was sure of it. Frank wasn’t late; he was dead. He was in a ditch, his car upside down. My visceral knowing of this was so concrete that I began to plan how I would have the baby without him. I was weeping warm tears, grief tears, trying to muffle the sound with a pillow as my toddler slept in the room across the hall.

And then his car pulled up in the gravel outside. Headlights beaming through our window. He wasn’t dead. I was an idiot. Why did I do this to myself? I smeared the silly tears off my cheeks and lumbered out to greet him.

A week later, when he was late coming home, I scolded my silly imagination. The hormones. Must be the hormones.

But then, instead of my husband, it was my father who came through the front door. His face, paper white. His shoulders hunched forward with invisible weight. We lived in a small town. He was a well-known doctor there, and when the police were given the task of notifying the next of kin, it was his house they went to, not mine. “He’s gone,” my father told me, his father-arms around me while I screamed and my 18-month-old boy looked on.

Since that time of dismissing my intuition, I have found myself apologizing to it often. In my unending begging for forgiveness, I have pondered what might have happened had I been more courageous. Supposing, for instance, I had confessed my premonition to my husband. Supposing, for instance, I had said, “Please, be careful. I had a vision of your death recently.”

Maybe the simple saying of that would have dominoed the moments and events leading up to Frank’s actual death just enough to derail it. Just the planting of the seed in a subconscious—maybe that would have led to the road not taken.

But that road, the one my husband died on, it included some miracles. My daughter, 18 years later, finding the man who’d caused the accident, and forgiving him. My adventurous second marriage. My third child, a boy I couldn’t imagine not having in my life. My amazing current husband and his kids. Blessings.

Blessings.

On Frank’s birthday I no longer toast the morning with a concoction of orange juice and champagne. Instead, there are only those occasional moments when I conjure up the boy, the young man, who will remain perpetually youthful, hopeful. Unsullied by plummeting economies and clogged arteries and the many sobering aspects of an aging self.

I remember my first husband’s laugh. The way his eyes crinkled when he was amused. He liked a good, stout ale. He’d approve, I think, that I’m now married to a guy who brews his own. Sometimes I imagine us all at the dining table: my dead husband, my alive one, my ex and my children and step-children. One big meld of family sitting amid steaming piles of disparate food: tofu, cutlets, sauerkraut, gluten-free vegan pizza.

One day, I suppose, we’ll all be relegated to the status of the remembered. A story told round a table. A faded picture or an urn of ash. It is the blessing and the curse of the living to luxuriate in revision. To be alive is to edit unendingly.

So be it.

Happy 50th birthday, Frankie. It’s been a long time. I can almost feel the blended Van Heusen cotton against my fingertips as I wished you good luck that time when you were only twenty-five.

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If you enjoyed this piece on obsession, then you might also like “#5: Janice Lee” which you can read here.

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writer suzy vitelloAs the long-time coordinator of a robust weekly writing workshop whose members include Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake and others, Suzy is committed to writing about love in all of its guises, styles and languages. Suzy’s novels include The Moment Before, and The Empress Chronicles, and about to be released, the second in the Empress Series, The Keepsake. Suzy is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House.

Header image courtesy of Theo Gosselin.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).