In 1987, I found myself living with my parents. This was not an ideal situation. It was never an ideal situation, but being 24 made it even less ideal than ever before. I was raised in a very tiny house. A crackerbox, really. You can stand in one spot in the living room and see into every room in the house. That wasn’t so bad when I was a little kid, but as an adult ... no, thank you. I’ve always been a night person and during that time, I got into the habit of going out at night, sitting in all-night coffee shops and writing. I killed two birds with one stone – I got out of that claustrophobic little house where I had to be very quiet while my parents slept, and I got some work done. Then I’d come home and type up my scribblings (this was back in the stone age when I used an electric Brother typewriter). One of the all-night restaurants I frequented was the nearby 76 Truck Stop.
It had a gift shop that sold surprisingly elaborate merchandise for a truck stop. The shelves were crowded with pricey tchotchkes like Windstone dragons and Willits carousel horses. I was surprised to learn that this stuff sold like hotcakes to truckers looking for gifts to take home to their wives. Some of those truckers, I’m sure, were feeling guilty about the lot lizards they’d spent time with, and their wives were lucky if tchotchkes were the only gifts their husbands brought home to them.
During the night, the gift shop was run by a beautiful woman with long red hair who caught my eye immediately. I’m not as shy as I used to be (as Craig Ferguson said, “I find the older I get, the less I give a fuck.”), but at the time, I was terribly shy. I was a bit of a mess then. In more ways than one. To get to the coffee shop, I had to walk through the gift shop and I found reasons to take my time doing that. This gave me a chance to be near the lovely redhead. I was working my way up to speaking to her. When I finally mustered the courage to do that, I began stopping at the gift shop register nightly to chat with her. Her name was Dawn Millhouse, and she was friendly, funny, and a voracious reader and lover of movies, like me. I liked her. A lot.
I was pleasantly surprised when Dawn began to spend her breaks with me in the coffee shop. When I learned that she loved vampires – vampire movies, vampire novels, all things vampire – I told her about my new vampire novel, Live Girls. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“You wrote that?” she said. “I just read that book!”
“You did?” I was skeptical. “You didn’t know I’d written it? My name’s on the cover, you know.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, I never pay attention to who writes the books I read.”
An avid reader with no interest in writers, I thought. You know how to pick ‘em, Ray.
In 1987, Dawn’s mother died of a blood clot after having surgery. The Millhouse family was devastated. I didn’t see much of Dawn for a while. I didn’t know her well enough to insert myself into the family tragedy, so I just sent her a card with a note letting her know I was thinking of her and telling her to let me know if I could do anything. I missed her a lot during that time.
When she returned to the routine of her life, I asked Dawn out. The first movie we saw together was Fatal Attraction. We saw more of each other after that. I moved slowly, cautiously, like someone in a park trying to coax a deer to eat out of his hand. I didn’t want to blow it.
Dawn had a cat named Murphy. When I visited Dawn at her house, Murphy paid a lot of attention to me, and I always left with bloody claw marks on my hands and arms. Murphy played rough. During one of those visits, as we stayed up late watching movies, Dawn introduced me to tequila. It’s not that I wasn’t a drinker. I was. In fact, it was a problem – I just didn’t know it yet. I was an alcoholic, but not really a drunk in that I didn’t get slurry, falling-down drunk. For some years, I’d been maintaining a level of inebriation, drinking at home, while I wrote, remaining so functional that even people who knew me were unaware of my condition. My beverage of choice was vodka. I had not tried tequila until that night at Dawn’s house. I had a few drinks, and then woke up on the bathroom floor hours later, wrapped around the base of the toilet, with Murphy sitting in the doorway giving me a very suspicious glare. I was terribly embarrassed. I told myself I wasn’t that kind of drinker – I didn’t black out and wake up on bathroom floors. No, I was another kind of drinker, but a serious drinker nonetheless, and I would have to deal with that soon. But that night, my biggest concern was that Dawn would be horrified by my behavior – whatever my behavior had been while I was on my little vacation from consciousness – and never want to see me again. She just laughed and said, “Boy, you really aren't used to tequila, are you?”
Dawn and I began to get to know each other better. It turned out we had a connection that went back a lot farther than the truck stop. I attended a small Seventh-day Adventist junior academy in Redding from grades one through ten. The school was next door to Lawncrest Cemetery. I remember sometimes seeing a group of older kids playing in the cemetery when I was in the school playground. I learned that Dawn was in that group (she’s five years older than I). They used to make fun of the weird Adventist kids. They themselves were weird kids who liked to play in a cemetery – Dawn was “goth” long before anyone knew what it was, before it was ever called that – but we seemed even weirder than they.
In 1988, Dawn said she wanted me to move in with her. She lived in a house that was – impossibly, it seemed – even tinier than the house in which I’d been raised. But it had a big advantage over my childhood home: Dawn lived there and my parents didn’t. I told my parents of my decision. Mom and Dad were very religious Seventh-day Adventists and I assumed the idea of me living in “sin” with a woman would not go over well. I was surprised by my mother’s casual reaction.
“What’s her house like?” Mom asked.
“Very small. Just one bedroom.”
Mom frowned. “One bedroom? But where are you going to sleep?”
Then it occurred to me that her reaction was casual because it had not yet occurred to her that “sin” would be involved. That’s my mom.
I moved in with Dawn on June 30, 1988. Murphy was not at all pleased with the new arrangement. Until I came along, he’d been the only other resident in the house. Being a cat, he’d been under the impression that he was the most important resident in the house. I invaded his personal space, and he didn’t like it. He frequently hissed at me if I got too close. That stopped, though, when we moved to another house. The change in environment seemed to alter his attitude toward me. I was home all day writing, and he seemed to realize suddenly that he had company. I became his buddy.
There was no official proposal of marriage, which was not like me, because I’d always been a hopelessly sappy romantic. We discussed marriage, but I think we were so comfortable together that we both already felt married. In 1990, rather abruptly, we decided to have a double wedding. Dawn’s dad Bill was going to marry his high school sweetheart Suzy. The four of us were married in a suite at the Red Lion Hotel in Redding, California, by Judge Richard Eaton, a living part of the area’s history, a little old man whose grandparents were early pioneers in Shasta County. We were surrounded by a small group of family and friends, and experienced none of the hassles or pressures of a big formal wedding, which neither of us wanted.
As of Friday, May 14, 2010, Dawn and I have been married for 20 years. At the end of June, we will have been living together for 22. And it really doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. I’ve spent almost half my life with Dawn, and I’m more in love with her now than I was 22 years ago. Like any relationship that’s lasted that long, it hasn’t always been an idyllic picnic by the lake. I know I haven’t always been a walk in the park.
I was raised in a family of very religious, irrational people in which the primary emotions were anger, fear and guilt. Physical violence was as common as hugs, and not knowing which was coming made life ... tense. Something was always wrong. Plans never worked out, there was always something about which to be upset. Dawn and her sisters were raised in a family of quiet, rational, easy-going people who respected each other. It was a household in which, for the most part, things went pretty smoothly and everyone got along. As she got older, Dawn was surprised to discover that all families weren’t like that. Then she married a guy who’d come from a family that was, in a sense, from an entirely different planet than hers. I was so unaccustomed to things going well that when they did, I was immediately suspicious and looked for problems. Dawn never got angry and was uncomfortable with people who did. Her easy-going nature was so foreign to me that sometimes it drove me crazy. And my angry outbursts and my conviction that something always had to be wrong with things somehow no doubt did the same to her.
She quietly supported me when it came time to deal with my addiction to alcohol. When my doctor asked me in 1990 exactly how much I was drinking, I answered honestly. He rolled his eyes and said, “If you keep that up, you’ll never see middle age.” Then he told me, in clear layman’s terms, what the vodka was doing to my body and precisely how I would die in the not-too-distant future if I didn’t stop. He scared the piss out of me. I stopped cold turkey and had an attack of the DTs that I thought was going to kill me. I ended up in an emergency room vomiting like Linda Blair and shaking as if I had a fully operational jackhammer up my ass. I went to an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting, where I was told that surely someone as clean and well-dressed and apparently “together” as I didn’t have a problem, but I was welcome to join in. All the people at the meeting talked about was liquor – what they liked to drink, when they liked to drink it, how they liked to drink it, what they did while they were drinking it, when they last drank it, and how very, very, very much they missed drinking it. This seemed counterproductive to me. I wanted to get my mind off booze, not obsess over it. Then I was told that I was absolutely incapable of dealing with my problem and had no hope whatsoever of getting off the sauce unless I turned to an imaginary friend. I decided I was not a friend of Bill W., told them to have a nice day, then drove home and went about the business of stopping drinking without the help of an imaginary friend.
Dawn stood by me the whole time. She was there when I needed her, but she didn’t prod me about it. It was a difficult process -- to put it mildly. I was cranky, morose, self-pitying and at times panicky. I had relapses, but a few years later, I suddenly realized how long it had been since I’d had a drink. A few years after feeling sheer terror at the idea of never drinking again, I found that I had become a non-drinker. I could not have done that without Dawn.
In 1999, my right hip began to hurt, and for the next eight years, I was virtually useless as I required countless medical procedures, three operations (including two hip replacements), and consumed a mountain of narcotic painkillers. I spent most of that time in a chair, where I bitched, whined, grumbled, groaned and bitched some more. During those years, Dawn did everything – cooking, housework, yardwork, taking care of me and holding down a job. If she went out, it was almost always alone – knowing I was lousy company because I was in so much pain, I tended to stay home. She never complained, she never threw up her arms. She did, however, quietly go out and buy herself a $350 wind chime she loved as a reward to herself for putting up with me – a reward she deserved countless times over.
And don’t forget, I’m a full-time writer. Along with being neurotic and often self-involved, we writers rarely get rich, and our income tends to be sporadic. Dawn has not exactly lived in the lap of luxury. But she’s never complained about that.
I have not been a fairytale husband, and I have not provided Dawn with the stable, quiet, easy-going atmosphere in which she grew up. But she’s still here. And I’m simply not a good enough writer to express how grateful I am for that.
Thank you, Dawn, for 20 wonderful years. I will spend the rest of our lives thanking you, and it still won’t be enough. I love you more than ever.