"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My marriage ended like a watermelon dropped a hundred stories to unyielding pavement below. The day I left, I was pregnant. It occurred to me that I must escape. I must not have this child. I was already a mother to another child, from another union. I did not believe that this man had what it takes to be a father. I did not have it in me to be the single mother of two.
Despite the brevity of the union (less than a year), I had been confused
almost the entire time and frightened for months. It was confusion I did not
anticipate, though I should have, because I married a stranger I met on the
Internet. I’d let him woo me, allowed myself to fall for an online character I
so much wished to be real. But certain things did not jibe.
He claimed he was a recovered alcoholic who had mastered moderation. Yet I watched him devour entire bottles of wine. He popped pills, too. Yes, prescribed, but also addictive. He swore he wasn’t hooked. I thought he was. His mother seemed to agree when I called her, distraught, one day. But she said that actually his drinking was a bigger concern. Apparently she knew more than I did.
A fight over the definition of addict. Another fight. Another. He would cry
and weep, crawl across the floor, flush his pills. And then, I would catch
him. More pills, alcohol. These were not the only secrets eventually revealed.
Time after goddamned time, he would tell me something he had “forgotten” to mention before the nuptials. That he was a Republican. That he’d hit women. These
revelations made my skin crawl. One night, around 4 a.m — by now I was
exhausted all the time, worn down by sleep deprivation induced by his late-night epiphanies — he woke me once more. He had to tell me: “I’m not exactly the person I told you I was.” A blanket confession, too late. In my heart I already knew that he had deceived me on many counts to win me. (I had then deceived myself.) “But I’m still a good guy,” he
insisted. Was he? Then why had he lied, what else was he hiding?
Then came the pregnancy — passive non-resistance on my part. He was a
control freak who refused to use birth control. I was an idiot who didn’t
protest enough. Things had already gone to hell. A few nights after my
discovery, we were driving to a concert. Arguing. I missed a turn. I swore. He puffed himself up, an angry blowfish. Got within a quarter-inch of my ear. He screamed. I truly thought my eardrum had shattered. Petrified, paralyzed, I gripped the wheel, recalling the night when, angry that I would not give in to some point, he squeezed my wrists until I
thought they might break. We did not attend that show. I drove home,
retrieved my child, went to spend the night at a friend’s.
I could not have this baby. The marriage was a mistake. So was the pregnancy. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life entangled with a lying, drinking, pill-popping man who told me he had hit more than one woman in his life. This would not be my third strike.
I announced, tentatively, myself disbelieving, that I would have an abortion.
He glared, hissed threateningly, “How would you like it if someone killed
Henry?” I am a mother. You do not use the words “kill” and my son’s name in the same sentence. I had already witnessed him forcefully pick up my child
against his will. I had seen him leave my child curbside on a busy street,
whining that Henry “is not playing fair.”
The fear that had been inside of me unleashed. I said, “I am leaving.” He
lunged, grabbed me. I broke free, tried to run, but he — 6-foot-2, 280 pounds –
puffed up, blocked the doorway. There was this look in his eyes.
Neon-flashing recollections of what he’d admitted doing to the others. I,
agnostic, began to pray.
God answered. I slipped out and ran — to my lawyer’s. My husband’s
attacks, verbal and physical, were grounds for a temporary protective
order. I picked up my son from school and told him that we could never go
home again. I didn’t tell him, right away, why. My head was too full. I
said we were going to stay with friends for a little while. That it would
be fun, “like a vacation.” My voice, I knew, was unconvincing. We moved in
with friends. I called the women’s shelter. Hide, I was told.
Too late. He knew where I was staying. He e-mailed. He called, all hours. He cried. It was as if he wasn’t merely a man distraught, but a man out of control. One day he left a string of urgent messages. Something about the gerbil. Henry’s gerbil was dead. He said it must’ve been the wind. Or a cat. A cat? We don’t have a cat. When I sneaked over — he was at work — to retrieve a few things, I found the gerbil cage smashed to pieces on the floor. The wind?
The messages continued. One day he said he would pay for an abortion. The next he rambled, said he would sue to stop this abortion, force me to give birth, take the child.
The protective order expired and I filed for a temporary restraining order,
which clearly stated he could not contact me in any manner. The e-mails
continued. One taunted that he knew he was in violation. So what? What was I going to do? I went to a lawyer. My ex was found to have violated the protective order. He got a suspended sentence and six months’ probation. A permanent restraining order was delivered.
I went to therapy. I went to the doctor. I had an abortion. Twenty minutes
before my appointment, the phone rang. A faraway sister. She wanted me to
reconsider. How did she know? He had tracked her down. He, who had never met my family, who spoke to my sister just once before, had contacted her. He knew that everyone in my family is adamantly pro-life. This was a low blow. I took it as a message that he would do what he could to maintain a presence in my life.
I found a new neighborhood, a new apartment, a new school. More therapy. I was diagnosed as clinically depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I hardly left the house — borderline agoraphobia induced by fear. Anti-depressants only fed my insomnia.
Transferring to a new school — mid-kindergarten, no less — wrecked my
plan to keep Henry in one place, give him stability. The new principal
recoiled when presented with the restraining order. I didn’t need this
additional guilt, having already spent countless hours wondering what
if. What if he kidnaps my son? His words echoed, “How would you
like it if someone killed Henry?”
I worried the other parents would shy away, their children reject my child.
Not because we were new, but because with us came the black cloud. Would my son’s presence among their children mean that one day we would all be on the evening news, weeping, hysterical, because this man decided to gun down a dozen children to “get even”?
I reconvened with the principal to stress safety. No mercy. She recalled a
long-past incident. An ex-stepdad came to steal his ex’s child. A teacher
stepped in, was injured, the child taken. “Now,” she said, “if someone
comes for your child, we do not intervene; we let them go.” I could tell
she wanted me gone.
Her tactic worked, my fear intensified. I fled the state, uprooting my
child yet again. He bawled. We’ll be fine, I said. Inside, I was sick.
The first day in our new school, I caught a glimpse of myself in the office
window. I was beaten down, defeated. Meekly, I approached the
administrators with the restraining order. Expecting hostility, I was
instead surprised by consolation and support.
That was a turning point. Their kindness nudged me toward healing. I would never be the same again. I had been in a horrible wreck. Even with years of work I will always walk with an emotional limp. But I started to realize: One person shattering your trust is no reason to distrust all. The universe sends reinforcing lessons. One day a stranger approached. I tensed. “It’s raining,” he said; “Would you like to share my umbrella?”
We signed up for martial arts classes. We learned about focus,
self-confidence, control. We learned how to pay attention.
Pay attention. To the outside. To the inside. What do I most fear now –
nearly three years later? The kidnapping and school-massacre scenarios still
visit occasionally — when we begin a new grade, or an extracurricular program.
At my worst, I contemplate other terrible scenarios. The perpetrator on his
haunches, waiting for me to blink. Maybe he will let me have Henry for
five, 10 years more. Maybe then he’ll pounce.
I want to hide how much I love my son, not voice these fears, lest they
provide a roadmap for destroying me. But he knows already.
There are other inconveniences. I pay for an unlisted phone number. The
address on my license is false. My daily drive to a P.O. box is an ongoing
reminder that I am the one restrained.
Financially, I have been wiped out. Therapy, anti-depressants, lawyers’ fees.
I lost the one good job I ever had in the midst of it, and I have never stopped wondering if it was at least in part because my producer — as she informed me, unhappily — had received a number of whacked-out letters from my ex. (This too was clearly forbidden by the restraining order.)
I will pay and pay. Henry pays, too — the biggest burden of all. Unlike his
friends, many of whom are already off riding bikes unchaperoned, Henry is
kept on a shorter leash.
Some claim I am irrational. Possibly. Nothing is clear. Some days I
experiment with exhaling — maybe I am paranoid? — only to read in
the paper of some man who, enraged by estrangement, hunts down
she-who-spurned (and who took out a restraining order), laying her to rest
on the asphalt, their dead children sprawled in crimson puddles nearby. How
much worry is enough? No, he doesn’t have a gun, as far as I know. No, he
never hit me. But he was livid.
Some say, “He hasn’t come physically near you in years, has he?” They buy
into out of sight, out of mind. But I feel his presence. He is out there,
watching, fixated. I know. More than a year after I left him, I had lunch with
an acquaintance. She revealed the story of a business lunch, with
strangers, among them a man who randomly announced — to the great
discomfort of all — that he was married to me and that I “killed his baby.”
Sadly, this fixation did not surprise me, only recalled another confession, when he admitted being obsessed for over a dozen years with a college mate who rejected him. Should we have a daughter, he told me then, he wanted to name the child for this woman.
I ran into another friend — it had been so long since we’d last seen each
other, she looked at me as if she’d seen a ghost. “I was so worried about
you,” she said. She detailed seeing him, watching him guzzle a bottle of
vodka, listening to him obsess over me as he violently knocked things over.
One night there was a knock at the door. Another concerned friend. She tells me he has started showing up at a club where I used to give poetry readings. He’d visited it with me once, hated it — it was a
dive; he is a fern-and-brass snob. Now he’s there. On poetry nights. A coincidence?
Another year passed. I published a book that detailed, among other things,
my relationship with him. A disjointed review appeared at Amazon, with his
name, his corporate e-mail address attached. He wrote about how he had let go, moved on. Yes, I expected there would be a response. But this one is creepy, and I receive e-mails from friends and strangers who have seen it, who worry about the content, about how it lapses from “critique” to addressing me by name, as if this is a letter to me. Again, forbidden by the restraining order.
Oddly, good has come from this. I am more aware than ever before that I
should celebrate every moment with my son, just in case, just in case.
Henry and I are both more than halfway to black belt, succeeding at
something I never thought possible. I write about my experience — despite
fear this will exacerbate the situation — and hear from others like me, grateful for my encouragement. I receive profound love and support from the parents of Henry’s peers, who join my circle of friends in helping me not dwell self-destructively on what can neither be changed nor sugar-coated: a lack of foresight that has led to my life, my son’s life, being forever altered. They remind me that to sink into guilt and regret will only taint my mothering.
I pay attention. I teeter forward. I pay attention.
Spike Gillespie is an on-line columnist and the author of "All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy."More Spike Gillespie.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)