I asked Nell to marry me in June 2007.
Thankfully, she said yes—sending us scrambling to find a place to live together by summer’s end. After touring apartments that were either “absolutely not” or “great…wait, it’s already been rented?,” it was crunch time. Going into internet overdrive, Nell (then I) could not believe our good fortune when she found an appealing-sounding apartment on a quiet Brookline street a short walk up from commerce and public transportation.
The apartment comprised the bottom two floors of an attached red-brick, three-floor townhouse. By “bottom two floors,” I mean the ground floor (opening onto the road) and a basement level (opening onto a shared back yard).
Despite odd features—three fireplaces occupy too much wall space, oddly-placed single steps—the apartment was exceptional, especially the large round window looking west from the living room. Best of all, it had TWO covered parking spaces—the Holy Grail of Brookline, which disallows overnight street parking.
We moved in at the end of August. Since then,
- Nell and I married.
- Both of our daughters were born
- We put one golden retriever to sleep and acquired another.
- Nell turned 40, and I turned 50.
- Nell oversaw the sale, packing and cleaning of her childhood house in Washington DC before moving her mother to a nearby retirement community.
- I was laid off from one grant-funded job then spent four years at another grant-funded job before being laid off again.
- I earned a doctorate in epidemiology from Boston University and finally obtained a Master’s Degree in political science from Harvard I had completed in 1991.
- I launched this blog and began to write this book.
- I completely rewrote the story of my genetic heritage and adoption.
- I discovered the Film Noir Foundation and attended five consecutive Noir City festivals. You may read about my experience at the 2018 festival beginning here.
- The United States elected, then reelected, its first African-American president, whose party then nominated a woman for president for the first time; she lost.
- The Philadelphia Phillies went to the playoffs for the first time since 1993, won their second-ever World Series, made it back to the World Series and were National League East champions five consecutive years.
- The Philadelphia Eagles won their a Super Bowl for the first time.
Unfortunately, the townhouse we have called home for nearly 11 years was recently sold; we move into our new apartment, a seemingly-better (and more expensive) one less than 10 minutes away by car, at the end of July.
In preparation for the move, I undertook a massive purge of masses of paper and other detritus in the downstairs walk-in closet I have used as my office since 2011. Items I uncovered and the fact of the move itself led me to reflect on transitions: previous moves, vanished landmarks and era ends.
Excluding being brought to my childhood house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown in early October 1966, when I was five days old, my first move came in March 1977.
My parents’ marriage had been decaying for months. By February 1977, my mother, having had enough of my father’s gambling addiction, had decided to move with me and our Keeshond Luvey into a nearby apartment. To her credit, she made the disruption as “fun” as possible, poring over floor plans with me and giving me the illusion of choice. She also guaranteed I would not change elementary schools.
My father rarely helped me with schoolwork. However, the night before we moved, he sat at our kitchen table and typed my two-page report on George Gershwin. When he finished, he asked me if I understood what was happening the next day.
Yes, I said.
He started to…actually, I do not remember what he said, but it was the first time I saw him cry. Even at 10 years old, I could see how devastated he was by the impending separation; I comforted him more than he comforted me.
Two years later, my mother decided the three of us (Luvey included) would move into the house where her only sibling and her two children lived. My aunt had also recently separated from her husband, and to the sisters it made sense to share a four-bedroom house in the upscale suburb of Bala Cynwyd (pronounced kin-wood).
No disrespect to my aunt and cousins, to whom I remain close, but I was vocally NOT HAPPY about this move. For one thing, I had to change schools in the middle of 7th grade—the worst grade of all. Also, I had to share a bedroom for the first time in my life. Finally, while I had at least the illusion of control in the first move, I had zero control this time.
A cold cleverly delayed the first day at my new school for three days. Finally, on a March Thursday, just after noon, I was ushered into my first class: science. All I had with me were a three-ring binder filled with lined paper and a paperback copy of a Cheiro numerology book.
I countered adolescent lack of control by dabbling in numerology, astrology, card reading and other dubious pseudo-sciences. I affectionately blame my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs I read when I was around nine years old.
The science teacher introduced me to the class, all but one of whom was paired with a lab partner; this boy’s lab partner had left school for some reason. Naturally, I was sent to sit with the un-partnered boy. Exchanging hellos, I asked him when his birthday was (a vital piece of numerological information for assessing interpersonal compatibility).
He told me, and I excitedly said, “Oh, you’re a 3!”
My new lab partner (who remains one of my closest friends—his mother introduced me at his wedding as “my third son,” which was a great honor) just kind of looked at me. Our relationship improved considerably a short time later when I performed nearly all of the frog dissection.
Some months after we moved to Bala Cynwyd, my mother (with help from her own mother) bought the small carpet and upholstery cleaning business for which she had worked as telephone solicitor since October 1976. This made my mother the most financially secure she had been in nearly five years, and she decided—a hair under one year after moving to my aunt’s house—she, Luvey and I would move into an elegant two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment in the recently-built Oak Hill Estates in beautiful nearby Penn Valley.
While my cousins and I had gotten along just fine, the idea of having my own bedroom again—with my own color television hooked up to HBO!—appealed to me immensely. Actually, everything about that move (my third in four years) was exciting, from the platform a family friend constructed in one corner of the living room for my mother’s new white and silver desk to the modern-feeling navy, silver and white decor (down to new navy plastic-handled silverware; a lone fork survives) to the two adjustable tall white bookcases our friend built for my bedroom. Best of all, I could finish 8th grade at my current school because I could simply walk to my aunt’s house from there, where my mother picked me up after work.
Capping off the sense of a fresh start, I enrolled that fall at Harriton High School with yet another group of new classmates.
In June 1982, when I was a 15-year-old rising 11th grader, my father was walking to a diner to eat with his fellow cab drivers when he suffered a massive, instantly-fatal heart attack (his third) and died on the sidewalk in front of a Philadelphia hotel.
That fall, my fellow high school Latin students and I opened the school year by relating the best and worst things that had happened to us over the summer.
Imagine the stunned silence that followed by turn to share.
That tragic time aside, however, I loved high school. So much so that, despite knowing I would be attending Yale in the fall and having a fun summer job delivering food for long-defunct Boardwalk Pizza and Sub, I did not want to leave.
The day of my high school graduation was hot; the red robes we wore over our clothes did not help. Moreover, I was well aware that sitting with her parents in the audience was a girl (a rising 11th grade sister of a classmate) on whom, without her knowing, I had a long-term crush.
At some point, the Vice Principal announced the academic, community and other awards. Each recipient would stand briefly to be acknowledged.
Having been president of the Harriton High School Math Team (still one of my proudest achievements), I received seven awards, mostly math-related. I still remember hearing, “Don’t sit down, Matt” to increasing laughter.
After the ceremony, most of my graduating class and I piled onto school buses bound for a restaurant where we would spend the rest of the night eating, drinking (non-alcoholic beverages), chatting and dancing.
Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the embarrassment of continuously standing—with my secret crush watching me—for all those awards. Maybe it was going from days of fin de siécle overdrive to…nothing. Maybe it was leaving a comfortable place where I had happily thrived for four years. Maybe it was not having any quiet time to sufficiently process the intense emotions of that day, and all the equally-intense preceding days.
Whatever the reason(s), I started brooding on the bus, and I continued to brood as I sat at a table with friends. As my mood and words darkened—I commenced tearfully announcing (to an increasingly alarmed group of friends) I deserved none of my awards.
Reaching a saturnine crescendo, I began to tear them up. It took the gentle ministrations of my friendly academic “rival’s” girlfriend to snap me out of it. And suddenly I was ready to dance and chat away the rest of the night.
A few weeks ago, while collecting my diplomas together, I found the surviving scraps (the archivist in me was unable to discard them) of the three awards I had shredded. In the same spirit of self-forgiveness that led me to apply for my “consolation prize” A.M. from Harvard, I carefully taped the pieces back together again:
Other than not speaking to another close cousin for months (after I “playfully” pushed him into a pool in his work clothes), the rest of the summer was terrific, and I made it to Yale in September 1984—my first move across state lines—without a hitch. Ignoring, of course, the awful case of mononucleosis that sent me home to bed for two or three weeks and a tumultuous relationship with a sophomore…let us skip my first semester there entirely.
Let us also skip returning to Penn Valley (summer 1985), interning at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC (summer 1986), my off-campus apartments (summer 1987, senior year), living with my mother in a different Penn Valley apartment (summers 1988, 1989) and the intervening year I again worked at Brookings.
Instead, the next move of consequence found me driving a rented U-Haul truck north up I-95 in late August 1989 to the Boston suburb of Somerville. There I would share a spacious (and wicked inexpensive) four-bedroom apartment comprising the second floor of what I later described as “the ugliest triple-decker on Summer Street” with three young men.
Actually, the view from our large back porch was lovely.
Wait, did I say “three young men?” Sorry, I meant to say, “During my six years living there, I had 14 different apartment-mates,” though two of them only stayed a month or two; my last year there, I lived with three young woman.
We did have our moments of absurdist irreverence.
I had moved to Somerville to enroll in the doctoral program in government from which I resigned six years later. We had to “minor” in a different field, so I chose psychology (voting behavior greatly interesting me). One course was an in-depth study of Sigmund Freud’s work.
While I could write entire posts about him, I will simply describe Herr Freud as a phenomenal writer (check out his seminal The Interpretation of Dreams and his dire-warning Civilization and Its Discontents) who, despite formulating many theories now seen as late-Victorian anachronisms, fundamentally revolutionized the treatment of mental illness by moving it from the dungeon to the doctor’s office.
And as I noted here, my therapist and I have discussed Freud’s conception of “screen memories”…
…in which we essentially replace a traumatic childhood memory with a more innocuous memory. In her telling, a screen memory could be any set of memories which have become jumbled together, with the affect from an unpleasant event displaced onto a more pleasant event.
So it was neat coincidence when I came across this in a long-ignored folder labeled “Freud” in the back of a filing cabinet drawer:
I reread the essay. Typically well-written, I felt Freud’s analysis lacked testable hypotheses and reproducible evidence. Clearly, I have transformed over nearly four decades from impressionable adolescent devotee of numerology to scientifically-rigorous empiricist adult.
Epidemiology is, like, a gateway drug to epistemology, man.
As the summer of 1995 approached, I had finally wearied of finding new apartment-mates on average every year, and my girlfriend of two years (call her “NZ”) was pointedly lobbying for us to cohabitate.
On June 30, after a last-gasp year funded by a Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant (I would deflect NZ’s marriage talk with “Got the Mellon, can’t elope”), I officially de-enrolled from Harvard. Liberating as that move was, it raised the question of “If not a political scientist, then what?” I had little time to answer the question, because late that August, NZ and I moved together to a second floor apartment at 58 Cherry Street, literally a three-minute walk away.
It took a year (and a miserable stint as Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University) before I landed my first health-related data analysis gig. Four years and two similar gigs later, still living as boy/girlfriend with NZ, I was working for a company headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI.
As my colleagues and I wrapped up a few days there, about to drive to the airport, I wandered down a hall in search of a friend/colleague. A woman walked by me—tall, darkening blonde hair, blue eyes, white turtleneck over black jeans.
My heart skipped a beat…and I truly understood what “love at first sight” meant.
Of course, the friend I sought was hanging out in her (call her “CO”) cubicle. I recognized CO’s name from data-related conference calls. After I returned to Somerville, we chatted briefly by e-mail. One month later, we took a training together in Ann Arbor. An intimate connection was forming, which neither of us tried very hard to stop, even while each was in the dark about how the other felt.
Matters came to a head one Monday evening in mid-November. I had spent a restless weekend (NZ sensed something was amiss) wrestling with my feelings. I loved NZ, and we had built a good life together, but if we had still not married after a little over seven years together…well, I never had the courage to finish that sentence in my head, fearing the mutually assured disruption.
CO and I were chatting in our offices (650 miles apart) after work as usual, and she also sensed something with me. I hemmed and hawed, deflected and dodged, until—finally—I told her how I felt about her.
Thus began the longest pause of my life.
After it ended, the only thing I remember CO saying is “…because it’s really mutual.”
All this time, the message light on my office phone had been blinking: NZ had been leaving messages telling me she would swing by to get me.
When I replay the scene in my memory, no sooner do I hear CO’s four life-changing words when NZ is literally standing behind me like some avenging angel.
It was not quite that dramatic, but…close enough.
Within a few weeks, NZ and I had split up. Had I had somewhere to go, I would have moved out immediately…but I struggled to find a new place. And as CO and I tried to figure out our new relationship (made official during a roller-coaster work at her Ann Arbor home as 2000 became 2001), my work suffered.
Then CO and I split up a few weeks later—meaning I was working a job I hated and living with my ex-girlfriend while my overly-intense new relationship crumbled.
I lost about 15 pounds those two months from stress.
But that stress prompted a decision I had already been mulling: returning to Philadelphia. In mid-January 2001, I gave notice and found a new gig near Philly; my mother secured me a studio apartment. As painful as splitting was for both of us, I later learned NZ had already begun to date the man she would eventually marry.
(Nell and I encountered NZ by chance at a Maynard, MA restaurant with that husband and their two-year-old daughter a month before we became engaged. NZ seemed very happy, so I consider that circle well-squared.)
One afternoon in early February 2001, I climbed into another rented U-Haul and began to drive west and south.
On what became an epic, snow-delayed drive, I stopped to eat dinner at a Connecticut Denny’s.
Remember that cousin I pushed in the pool soon after graduating high school? He (call him LC) and I had become such close friends our names had fused into MattandLC. By then Denny’s had become a favored hangout, not only because they were open 24 hours a day. I have sought out Denny’s ever since. NZ and I took an epic three-week-long road trip in the summer of 1997, and it was not until we hit a Denny’s outside Lancaster, PA that I had a meal I genuinely enjoyed (a scrumptious loaded cheeseburger). When purging my office, I came across this 1996 directory, likely acquired that trip.
There used to be seven Denny’s within a two-hour drive of my Boston-area homes. And then there were five. The one in Salem, NH became a go-to destination on my occasional long meandering nocturnal drives. Last December, I read that the Salem Denny’s was closing.
A few weeks ago I took one of those night drives. On that drive, I decided to visit the Denny’s in Lawrence, MA instead.
OK, how about the one in Danvers?
It was seeing my personal history boarded up and hollowed out.
The franchise had clearly been going downhill, at least in New England (and when LC and I ate at one in Langhorne, PA two years ago), but three of them closing? Now that is fin de siécle—the end of an era—even as Denny’s remain in Leominster, MA and Nashua, NH.
Returning to Philadelphia: the job I thought I had fell through for still-mysterious reasons—but that June I started to work at the Family Planning Council; my four years there remain the pinnacle of my professional career.
CO and I got back together then split up, she moved to Baltimore, we got back together again, we split up again, and we sort of got back together again. Finally, a few weeks after my mother died (March 2004), and CO could not attend her funeral, I angrily told her in a contentious telephone conversation that I needed to get on with my life. In so doing, I lied to her about my true feelings…but that was that.
Despite what Nick Lowe sang, in retrospect there was no kindness, only cruelty.
A year after moving to Philadelphia, I moved into a dumpy one-bedroom apartment in Drexel Hill, just as my mother was beginning to battle the ovarian cancer that ultimately claimed her life. A year after that, however, having received a substantial raise, supplemented through consulting, she helped me find and move into a lovely apartment in King of Prussia. It was not the Oak Hill, but it still felt like a fresh start.
Just two-and-a-half years later, though, after an emotionally-draining legal battle with my late stepfather over my mother’s estate, I was headed back to Boston to pursue a master’s degree in biostatistics. Settling into a nice one-bedroom apartment in a Waltham, MA development, I dabbled on the now-defunct Friendster.
On Halloween night 2005, barely two months after returning, a lovely and bored woman named Nell sent me a message. Messages became e-mails (her first to me had the subject line “Persiflage;” I had to look up its definition) became phone calls.
Five days later, we met at the Harvard Square MBTA stop; I was so nervous, especially after seeing her in person, I kept dropping the Good Night, and Good Luck tickets I purchased before we ate at Bertucci’s.
And yes, both the movie theater and the restaurant have long since closed.
As for Nell and I…well this is where you entered the story.
Until next time…