I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 3

Part 1 of this essay may be found here.

Part 2 of this essay may be found here.

When I awoke in my new apartment – on the 8th floor of the Madison Building in the Presidential Apartment complex, situated where City Avenue meets the Schuylkill Expressway – on Wednesday, February 14, 2001, the temperature was 44°F.  The sky was obscured in the Philadelphia area by clouds the color of dull steel, from which a sporadic drizzle fell. The wind was blowing from the south at 8 miles per hour (“mph”); after slowing to 3 mph by 7 pm, it blew the southwest between 13 and 15 mph starting at 9 pm.

This echoes what I write in “Valentine’s Day:” the day “dawned gray, cold and dreary. It was the sort of day which made even [my] young bones ache.”

Despite having moved one week earlier, I had neither called SP nor followed her actual suggestion to write to her:

“The truth was that I couldn’t go through the trauma of saying goodbye again. Once had hurt more than enough. I told myself that I wanted her to call me, that I was tired of being the pursuer, but I knew in my heart she didn’t have the energy to call me.”

While being dumped by my girlfriend in 1987 had been brutal, it was the only “bad” Valentine’s Day I had ever had. Nonetheless, as of 2001, I disdained the holiday, feeling anyone in a relationship should not need it, while anyone not in a relationship simply felt inadequate.

I was thus happy that I would not be alone, as I planned to join my mother and stepfather as they took my grandmother to dinner. However, my stepfather had also succumbed to the cold, damp weather, and the dinner plans were cancelled.

Seeking company, I called my college buddy, one of the two divorced male friends who had helped me move into my new apartment. We now call him ES. He had recently divorced, with no desire to rekindle that relationship. I suggested I would cook dinner for us, and he agreed to come to the apartment around 6 pm. Or, as I write, “A pretty picture this, one bachelor in his 30’s cooking dinner for a[nother] divorced man in his 30’s on Valentine’s Day.” Actually, it is a great picture – two long-time friends enjoying each other’s company on a day single people often find torturous.

We soon learned ES and I were not the only two single people who felt that way.

**********

Shortly after I began to reread my Dashiell Hammett books in the spring of 1999, I realized that I wanted to model my own writing style – to the extent I wrote anything – upon his concise, fact-as-fiction style. It was the purest writing qua writing I had ever read. But it was a struggle: while I could faithfully record events from my life reasonably well, I did not yet know how to craft a coherent narrative from them – or if one even existed. It was not until I launched this website, nearly 18 years later, that I began to figure out how to do that – simply because I had to. Psychotherapy and newly-prescribed daily doses of Effexor also helped, clearing away the mental debris preventing me from focused discipline.

The more I hone my non-fiction-in-fiction-form writing “style,” meanwhile, the more I find myself thinking cinematically – visualizing how a particular sequence would look on screen, and which of these “scenes” work better than others. In fact, should my Interrogating Memory book ever become a limited-series, or even a feature film, I already have the opening shots mapped out in my head.

Actually, “Valentine’s Day,” and my memory of writing it, tells me I was already thinking cinematically in February 2001. This is why I spend seven paragraphs (out of 80) describing a small moment that felt extremely important. As before, brackets indicate penciled text added later:

            “I had time to kill early in the afternoon, and [,after beginning to run some errands] I found myself driving [to] my old apartment complex. This complex bordered upon a wooded hill which sloped down to a creek. I spent many happy hours rambling through these young woods as a teen, expounding upon the many women I had crushes [on] to my predominantly male friends. As I recall, nothing much ever came of these infatuations. Still, the memories of these passions [, and of these conversations,] brought a smile to my face.”

Pausing for context, I refer to the Oak Hill Estates in Penn Valley, two miles north of my new apartment, where I lived with my mother from February 1980 until I left for Yale in August 1984; my mother remained there two years longer, so it was where I lived on school breaks. Also, the woods actually slope down to Mill Creek Road, just opposite which is a rocky, tree-lined bit of land overlooking Mill Creek.

            “Without thinking, Before I knew what I had done, I had parked my car along the edge of the woods and was tramping into them. As the sun was visible through the thinning layer of clouds, it was just warm enough for this to be comfortable. It was still cold enough, though, that I didn’t want to stay long.

            “Withing a few moments, I knew why I had stopped. Just along one of the paths that led down to the creek was weather-beaten old oak tree. Generations of lovers—and wannabe lovers—had carved their initials into this tree, attempting to give permanence to their situation feelings. [As I stood there shivering slightly,] I wondered how many of these couples even remembered that their initials were recorded here, let alone were still together. Many of these were now nothing more than faded blurs, so I was not hopeful of finding what I was seeking.

            “Acting solely on instinct, I walked around to the side of the tree facing into the woods. Almost immediately I saw one of the few sets of initials encased in a heart. This heart even had the obligatory arrow drawn threw it. Though worn down by the effects of fifteen years of weather, you could just [still] make out X.Y. + M.B. So, it was {woman’s name} I had carved into the tree. Until that moment, I hadn’t remembered just which ex-girlfriend I had chosen to memorialize in this way.”

“I chuckled slightly, knowing that I must have been alone when I carved those initials. The great love of my freshman year of my college, and the first really adult relationship I ever had, she had only visited me once in Philadelphia. It was for Thanksgiving dinner, and I was recovering from a particularly bad case of mono, so I don’t think we ever left the apartment. I almost certainly carved these initials, alone, over the following spring break. {First name} dumped me for the man she eventually married two months later. I saw have seen her maybe twice after that since then. Maybe.

            “Looking more closely at the tree, I realized that while the {first letter} was clearly visible, the letter following it was not. It was almost certainly a {second letter}, yet with just the right squint and a little imagination, that empty space could have been any letter. I probably hadn’t carved it very clearly in the first place. [Maybe it wasn’t even {woman’s name} at all. Maybe it was…] Only then did it strike me how many women whose first initial was {first letter} I had either dated or been extremely taken with. Besides AC and SP, there were two {woman’s first name} in high school. There was even the lovely, if already taken, {other woman’s first name} who had caught my [eye] in the supermarket the day before.

            “Further reflection upon my romantic history was cut short by the retreat of the sun behind thickening clouds. I climbed back into the car and completed my errands.”

The sun really did appear and disappear while I mused upon the carved initials, though I remain puzzled just what this moment is meant to convey. The simplest answer is that I felt lucky the sun came out long enough for me to find those initials. A more dramatic answer is that I was “shining a light” on the idea of romantic impermanence, showing how fragile even the strongest love can be. And when that love ends, as it surely will, you simply have to change the last initial carved into the tree to move on to the next one.

This is a rather garbled message, so let us get me back to my apartment at 5:15 pm, giving me 45 minutes to prepare for ES’ arrival.

And make a telephone call.

**********

As I later wrote in pencil in the margins of page 3, “I had finally decided to call SP earlier that afternoon.” It was Valentine’s Day, after all.

I freely admit, however, it was “a cowardly act” to call her when I knew she was not yet home from work, rationalizing it thus:

“I had very specific things I needed to say to her, and I decided it would simply be easier to do so on her answering machine. Part of me didn’t want her to call me back and have her The simple truth was that I couldn’t say goodbye to again her (sic) for a second time. [The first time was heart-wrenching enough.]”

Ten minutes later – and 35 minutes before ES was to arrive – SP called me back.

While the “sound of her voice her voice made my heart sing…the tone of her voice made my heart sink.” I wrote “her voice” twice – was I fixating on it?

Meanwhile…

“We bantered for a few minutes before picking up where we had left off two-and-a-half weeks earlier. She couldn’t have anyone in her life because she didn’t want to drag anyone down with her. She was desperately afraid of losing her job—which she hated—because she was missing work two days a week. She had convinced herself (in a classic case of self-fulfilling prophecy) that she would never be whole again. She had tried everything from therapy to drugs to exercise to getting out to staying home; she still couldn’t remember the last time she had been completely happy. Maybe she never had [been.”

            “I listened to all of this and attempted to counter as best I could. I didn’t care how sick she was, I would always love her. ¶ ‘I know,’ she whispered softly, ‘but I care.’ I knew how much she had missed me and still loved me. ¶ ‘God, I missed, and I worried when you didn’t call. But it is not fair for me to say, “I love you,” because I would be holding out hope for something that could never be. ¶ I told her that she shouldn’t decide what was fair for me, that I was choosing to stay with her. ¶ ‘No, I decide what is right for me.’”

This is when I heard a knock on my door. ES was 20 minutes early. I invited him in, apologized for not yet starting to cook, and took the telephone into the bathroom to continue the conversation. According to “Valentine’s Day,” I was no longer trying to maintain a romantic relationship with SP. I was just wanted not to say goodbye again.

My high school friends sometimes thought of me as “Uncle Matt,” the person to whom anyone could tell their problems without fear of judgment or betrayal. So, when I wrote, “All I was offering was to be a friendly, distracting voice on the phone—an unconditionally supportive presence.”…

…first of all, yeah, right, sure I was…

…I was reverting to my Uncle Matt persona.

Just as SP reiterated it would too hurtful to be friends – “We can’t have this same conversation again and again” – I heard not a knock, but a beeping sound. My other divorced male friend – we now call him OW – was trying to reach me.

“Hey, on this day, given that [last name] chick, I figured you probably need to get drunk.”

[The thought had indeed crossed my mind.]

“I am actually on the other line with the [last name] chick.”

“Oh, well, then this is a good thing.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

Shortly after that, I ended my conversation with SP, convinced it was for the last time. I reacted calmly and maturely to this by “slamming my hard against the bathroom door as hard as I could.” I began to cook grilled chicken and pasta while working myself into a state, alternating between screaming “fucking bitch” and proclaiming my undying love. I kept returning to her “idiocy,” failing to understand how someone could just walk away from – in her words – “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

ES had finished eating, though I had not, when OW arrived “with…a bottle of gin, a bottle of vodka, tonic water and a bag of crushed ice.” I have since described OW’s drink-making style as “giving you a bottle with a few ice cubes in it.” It did not take long before ES and I were on our second very strong gin-and-tonic, while OW was on this third.

This explains why the narrative gets a bit blurry here, so much so I later penciled into the margins, “Too many vague expressions. ‘At some point,’ ‘Somehow or other.” Here is the sequence of events as best I recalled them seven or eight hours later:

  1. Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock album ends.
  • I play snatches of songs on my full-size Yamaha electronic keyboard. (This photograph was taken a few months later.)
  • A conversational turn toward “the genius of Miles Davis” leads me to put on Kind of Blue.
  • Our conversation begins to feel louder, so I turn up the volume on the CD player.
  • We call AC, who later called “three near-drunken men screaming their affection into her answering machine” both “cute” and “sweet.”

Consuming large quantities of gin and vodka do not fully explain why I – we – thought calling my second-most-recent ex-girlfriend was in any way a good idea. I did not want a reconciliation. Maybe I just wanted to be reminded what a non-toxic relationship felt like. And I genuinely missed her…7½ years is a long time.

Even as I was missing one ex-girlfriend, however, I was still working myself into a lather over the other one. With all the best intentions, both ES and OW volunteered to call SP on my behalf. I was also hearing about OW’s first wife’s battles with clinical depression for the first time; I was already well aware of ES’s first wife’s struggles.

We were also now in the “I love you, man” phase of our revels.

Returning to the timeline:

  • I play the second CD of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. This induces OW – a gifted storyteller whose style I envy – to relate the story of running into me at a Genesis concert in the summer of 1987. The upshot is he and his friends driving at an average speed of 110 mph to arrive at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium just in the nick of time, where we encountered each other in the parking lot.

“Weaving about the room as he told the story, he lingered over the descriptions of careening over the many very hilly and very windy roads in the area. Luckily for him and his passengers, he knew every curve of those roads, as I did I.”

ES responded with tales of the similarly-torturous roads near where he was raised. “84 on 84 was a very popular phrase in my high school yearbook,” adding that he not only rarely drove over the speed limit, his ex-wife had done most of the driving.

  • I play Stevie Wonder’s Songs In the Key of Life.
  • I pull out my photographs of a celebration I threw at the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square on January 28, prompting three drunk 30-something men to ponder the eternal question: “Why isn’t she sleeping with me?” [“Because she’s married,” I parried at least once.]

Yes, we had now reached the slobbering man-child phase of our revels.

**********

We were also nearing their end. ES, beginning to fall asleep, said…

            “’I need to get home soon, but the busses have stopped running, and I don’t think either of you are in a good state to drive’

            “’You are both welcome to crash here.’

            “’No, I need to get up early tomorrow,” they replied almost in unison.

            “By now all of the alcohol that [OW] had brought had been consumed, so it was time to get going. [OW], unwisely, chose to drive himself home. To be fair, I had already made two pots of coffee, one regular and one decaf, and we had each done a good job working through my seltzer and bottled water. Still, I was fully aware that neither [OW] nor I were in a condition to drive.”

Regardless, OW put on his coat, said goodnight and closed the door behind him. The next time I saw him, he presented me with the sketch you see above. While he made it home safely, I would driven him home as well, if necessary. As I wrote, “They were drunk in large part because of my pain.”

I was mentally, emotionally and physically drained when I wrote that sentence – please do not judge me.

Meanwhile, I drank more water, splashed water on my face and slapped “my cheeks hard to so as to awaken my fuddled senses.” I also selected Stuff and Such, Vol. XXX to play during the drive into Center City Philadelphia, where ES lived.

I now let 34-year-old me resume the narrative:

“{ES} staggered behind around behind me into the elevator and out the front door of the apartment building to the car. The cool, misty night air revived me a little, but not enough. I found myself performing the same sobriety test over and over. You close your eyes, hold your left arm out and bring your left index finger around so that you touch the tip of your nose. I didn’t miss once, sadly. [This didn’t mean anything, of course.]

            “Using every ounce of will power I had, I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot and onto the Schuylkill Expressway. I had every window in the car [was] wide open, allowing the cold air to keep me awake as my fingers dug into the steering wheel.

            “The first tune on the tape, unfortunately, was Uncle Bonsai’s Silent Night. This only served to bring {SP} front and center back into my mind. She hates hearing songs about fathers dying (like she knew anything about it) and this hauntingly beautiful song hit her hard.”

In a long penciled marginal note, I discuss the death of my own father nearly 19 years earlier.

            “Between my memories of {SP} and my father, I felt the first tears fall down my cheeks halfway down the expressway [from City Line Avenue]. {ES}, more awake now, rubbed my back sympathetically.”

ES expounds upon what he will tell SP when he calls her the next night, though I have no recollection he did. I offer him her counterarguments, which do not dissuade him.

            “By the time we had reached 20Th and Market, I had abandoned all pretense of dignity and was weeping openly. As we pulled in front of {ES}’ apartment, I had to lean my head on the steering wheel and just cry. {ES} rubbed my shoulders again, said good night, and got out of the car. Somehow I drove myself home safely.”

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.

9 thoughts on “I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 3

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