I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 2

Part 1 of this essay may be found here.

I cannot remember exactly when I first saw Hammett. By which I mean, when I first watched the second half of the 1982 film, a fictional account set in 1928 San Francisco, just before the eponymous writer published his first novel. One night, while I was still living with AC in our Somerville, MA apartment, I was flipping through our cable channels. The title caught my eye – I have written elsewhere about my adoration of detective fiction pioneer Samuel Dashiell Hammett, though he had not yet become my literary idol – and I began to watch.

I was charmed by Hammett, even if Marilu Henner struck me as an odd casting choice for Hammett’s – played with boozy exhaustion by Frederic Forrest – love interest. Just now, however, when I used to Google to confirm the spelling of Forrest’s name, I learned he and Henner were married from 1980 to 1982.

At its core, Hammett is a movie about the act of writing – of storytelling – itself.[1] It examines how one constructs fictional worlds from one’s one life experiences, shuffling them around into something both unrecognizable and entirely familiar. Such ideas had been rattling around my own brain for years, though I never had the discipline to pursue it.

Instead, I pulled my Hammett books off their bookshelf – and I now recall re-reading Red Harvest, Hammett’s first novel, while eating lunch at the counter of the Cambridge location of Johnny’s Luncheonette. It was located at 1105 Massachusetts Avenue, a short walk east of Harvard Square, and I was working a little further east, at #875; Zoe’s, a Greek diner, sits there now. I had been working at North Charles Research and Planning (“NCRP”) for months, placing this lunch early in 1999. I hated that job, and Johnny’s was my daily refuge.

In the film, Hammett is still writing short stories at a penny a word for pulp magazines like Black Mask. Perhaps that is why it was his short stories – especially those lovingly collated by his longtime lover Lillian Hellman into The Big Knockover – made the biggest impact on me. Hammett’s ability to create an entire world with only a few carefully-selected words, to reduce a story to its essentials – no more, no less – while still writing more than simple, declarative sentences was revelatory.

The dormant writer in me began to stir. It began to look around at my own life for material, even as I left NCRP in a classic “You’re fired! / I quit!” situation. Even as I needed to find a new guaranteed source of income – which I did in January 2000.

This is where you came into the story.

**********

SP was not being coyly self-deprecatory when she told me she could never “succeed” at romantic relationships. She was being direct and honest with me. In retrospect, she was not…wrong, though there is a difference between self-awareness and self-fulfilling prophecy.

By that point, AC and I had been doing our best to avoid each other for more than a month. It helped that we had not shared a bedroom since we moved into our apartment – nor had she ever completely unpacked. And that tells you a lot about our 5+ years of cohabitation. We loved each other deeply, but we never quite – OK, I never quite – made a full emotional and legal commitment. While I never cheated on AC – though I came very close one night – I always had a few toes out the door. Blame growing up surrounded by failed marriages, blame an inner child that did not quite want to grow up, blame a nagging sense this was not the right person with whom to spend the rest of my life.

And while AC had come to terms with the end of our relationship, she naturally resented my talking to SP using the phone line that was in her name. This meant I often had to schlep to my office at night to talk to my new girlfriend. In fact, through December 27, 2000, my entire “relationship” with SP was talking on the telephone, often for hours at a time. I had barely spent any time with her – and none outside of where she worked. I only vaguely remembered what she even looked like.

Nonetheless, we decided I would fly to Ann Arbor for six days. If memory serves, SP thought six days was far too long; looking back more than two decades later, she was right. But having ended a 7+ year relationship in large part because I had fallen in love with SP, and because I was not thinking clearly, and because I was impulsive and impatient and immature, I talked her into six days. I do not think it took that much convincing, but my memory is unreliable here.

I actually flew out of Philadelphia, having spent the winter holidays with my mother and stepfather in Haverford. I cannot recall ever being quite so nervous about anything – and because I was an undiagnosed clinical depressive who lived too much in his own head and had seen too many romantic comedies – I constructed an unrealistic scenario about what was going to happen in the terminal. There was a lot of collapsing in each other’s arms and deep passionate kissing and the entire world fading out around us and – you know, happily ever after because love conquers all and love is blind and…

The reality was far more prosaic, over and above arriving an hour late. As I emerged from the ramp into the waiting area, I scanned all of the faces. Did I expect a thunderclap or fireworks to go off when I saw her? Yeah, something like that.

When I finally saw her, standing on the very edge of the waiting area, almost in the corridor, I was…

I was…

I was disappointed, to be painfully honest.

She was very attractive, mind you – but I had built up this moment in my head to a level that was impossible to match in reality. I then rewrote history – lying to myself and, until now, only to myself – in “Valentine’s Day.” Primarily because I felt so guilty in that moment – so, “shit, what the hell have I done?” – that I had to push those thoughts away quickly.

I walked shyly up to her. We awkwardly hugged and kissed before trudging together down the corridor to the baggage claim area. Happily, by the time we got to her car, we had returned to our “normal” selves.

Well, except, that awkwardness was replaced by SP trying to maintain her composure as we drive to a Macaroni Grill for dinner. She kept looking at me and saying, “You’re that guy from the phone” in her thick Michigan accent.[2] And the way she held my hand and touched my leg…I remembered exactly why I was there. I stupid crazy loved this woman, and she stupid crazy loved me. And we were going to have SEX!

Google Maps informs me the driving distance from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport to the restaurant (now permanently closed) is 22.5 miles via I-94. It was a Thursday evening, though I do not recall much traffic – figure 35 minutes. We had a lovely dinner, at which she asked me to order “that drink you always get,” which was a Jack Daniels, light on the rocks, with a side of club soda. For some reason, I switched from Scotch whiskey to bourbon for a few years.

The rest of the night was very decidedly not G-rated, so I will simply excerpt “Valentine’s Day” again:

            “The first three days I was out there were even better than I had imagined. I was in love, she was in love, life was perfect. It was on the fourth day that things began to sour…Put simply, she hit a wall. [SP] hardly knew I was there the last three days I was there. It was the most heart-wrenchingly depressing thing I hadve ever seen. Sure, she was able to get herself together New Year’s Eve to see Uncle Bonsai at tThe Arck with me. In fact, The Ark was the first place I ever publicly referred to [SP] as “my girlfriend.” This was to Andrew Ratshin, the male member of the musical trio. It was also the last time. She was also able to get herself together to get herself together New Year’s Day to introduce me to her family. Most tragically, she was able to get herself together on the last day I was visiting to drive her to the airport. Naturally, tThe plane was on time.”

While this is all basically true, there is a lot to unpack here.

First, savvy readers will deduce SP suffers from debilitating clinical depression. I was going to skip that detail, but it is not as though it was a secret to her coworkers. And it provides necessary context for the ensuing month

Second, the first three days truly were great. So much so, I am reminded of an expression my wife Nell often applies to children: Leave at the height of fun. Like I said, SP was absolutely right.

As for the latter three days, however.

I thought, I really did, that I understood what clinical depression looks like and how it manifest. I also thought, I really did, that “we are so much in love that it simply will not matter.” Had we lived in the same place, that might have been true. I was never formally diagnosed with clinical depression although I have been taking Effexor for nearly five years now. Nell suffers from depression and anxiety, and we will celebrate our 15-year wedding anniversary this October. But I was not at all prepared for watching SP essentially switch off for a few days – and to my eternal regret, I took it very personally. I could not understand why my sheer presence did not just – and I cannot believe I am about to type these words – snap her out of it.

Having finally admitted to myself what I should have known in my early 20s, that I am capital-D Depressed, I know better now. For more on this slow awakening, I urge you to read my Interrogating Memory book.

All that said, the last few days were not nearly as awful as I portray them in “Valentine’s Day.” Seeing Uncle Bonsai at The Ark was incredible – I still have my Apology CD signed by all three band members – after which we went for a lovely drive while she played “Uncertain Smile” by The The for me.[3] We had a pleasant drive, I think, to her parents’ house, where I met her extended family; I genuinely liked them, and I believe they felt the same about me. And I think it was a niece who made a “Welcome Matt” sign for me; I was deeply touched.

I reserve comment on “It was also the last time” for now.

The day she drove me to the airport she said something to the effect of “This is the moment I have been dreading.” And, of course, the plane departed on time; I still want that lost hour back. Just as I would like to relive those days without the crushing burden of impossible expectations. I foolishly tried to pack the slow buildup of a romantic relationship – the in-person trial and error necessary to a mature understanding of whether you and other-person are compatible long-term – into less than a week. As I keep saying, SP tried to warn me in various ways.

I just did not want to hear it.

**********

Not long after returning to our Somerville apartment – and after being chewed out at work for my chronic lateness and, frankly, indifference – I decided to leave my job as of January 31 and return to the Philadelphia area. I had talked around the idea when I was there for Thanksgiving, and again the next month. Gnawing at the back of my mind was a sense I had used up my opportunities in the Boston area. Also, my mother, some cousins and many of my closest friends lived there. It made perfect sense at the time; it still does.

Meanwhile, my relationship with SP was getting worse. We made plans to go to her best friend’s party in Washington, DC. “Valentine’s Day” tells me I used Priceline.com for the first time to buy tickets. However…

“…two days before we were supposed to fly, she called me and told me that she couldn’t make it because of her illness. I will always regret that I didn’t hide my disappointment better. This was her best friend she was blowing off, and it killed her that she couldn’t go. All I could think of was that I wasn’t going to get laid that weekend. OK, that isn’t completely fair. It was more that I wasn’t going to see [SP] that weekend.

[Added later in pencil] “Even worse, maybe I began to was anticipating what was to come.”

Ouch. I actually wanted people to read this half-assed attempt at self-immolation I called a “story?” Because when I write “her best friend she was blowing off,” I really meant it was ME she was blowing off. I still really did not understand Depression, despite my arrogant assumption I did.

I raised such a stink in fact, SP refunded the price of my ticket, sending me a check along with a short note which is shaming in its calm friendliness.

I will let my 34-year-old self take up the story from here (penciled additions bracketed):

“[Meanwhile], {SP} had been getting worse. She was sinking deeper into this particular depressive episode abyss, and it was scaring the hell out of her. She was fluctuating between thinking I was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her and reverting to her earlier assertion fearing that she couldn’t have anyone close to her in her life. By way of an example, a week-and-a-half before I was scheduled to move, she told me that she had been thinking very seriously about selling all of her stuff and moving in with me in Philly. Three days later, she broke up with me.

“The conversation started out the same way all of our conversations did. I told her about my day, and she told me that nothing had changed. She still felt empty inside. However, during this conversation she worked herself into a state of absolute anxiety. You could say she had a full-fledged panic attack. Halfway into the conversation she began to remind herself that she had chosen to be alone—because she didn’t want to drag anyone down with her. It was a point of pride with her that she would adapt to her permanent depressive mental state on her own. The inevitable conclusion of this line of thought was that she [simply] couldn’t have anyone close to her in her life—especially someone in love with her. It absolutely killed her that there was someone who loved her as much as I did—and it still couldn’t make her get out of bed in the morning.

“I fought with every weapon I had. Primarily, I reasoned that the kind of love we had was something that most people seek but never obtain. How could you throw away a gift from God like that? I don’t believe in God, but that was the phrasing I used. Nothing I said made any difference. She had convinced herself that she would always feel this way, therefore she should always be alone.

“The truly tragic part was part of me agreed with her. Three of my best friends were had been married to clinical depressives. Two of them were now divorced and the third was teetering on the edge of divorce. This was not comforting news. However, one of my divorced friends desperately wanted his wife back, so there was some comfort to be taken there.

“I didn’t want my relationship with {SP} to end so coldly, so she asked me to call her once I was settled in Philadelphia. To be fair, she remembered it as ‘write to me,’ but the point is the same. She could have ended it there, but she didn’t.”

Far more comforting was the fact that AC and I made our peace with each other over the last few weeks we lived together. Note that even after SP broke up with me, I still moved out of our apartment. AC and I went out for a few last meals together then she discreetly left me alone as a friend and I moved all of my stuff into the rented U-Haul.

I will always be grateful I stopped for dinner at Denny’s off of I-91 south before the blizzard began – because once I did, it took me three hours to drive a handful of miles. It was late when I arrived in Haverford, though how late I do not recall.

And the next day – one week before Valentine’s Day – my two buddies, my mother and I moved me into my new apartment.

To be continued…

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! Also, if you are not already registered to vote, please do so immediately. And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[1] I recently rewatched my DVD copy, and I was amazed how much of a meta-commentary on the act of writing it is – not unlike this series of essays. At some point, I will turn my thoughts about Hammett into a Just Bear With Me essay.

[2] To be fair, it was not until my sophomore year at Yale, when I asked someone for some “wooter” that I realized how thick my Philly accent was. I have mostly lost it over the years, while somehow never acquiring a Boston accent.

[3] She especially loved Jools Holland’s concluding piano solo. I often fantasized about learning how to play it then surprising her by playing it her wedding.

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