Part 1 of this essay may be found here.
Part 2 of this essay may be found here.
Part 3 of this essay may be found here.
When I awoke late on the afternoon of Thursday, February 15, 2001 in my small studio apartment in West Philadelphia, I felt completely rotten.
And more than a little sheepish.
First, two buddies and I had left a loud and inebriated “Happy Valentine’s Day” message on the answering machine of one of my recent ex-girlfriends (AC) the previous evening. I later drove one of those buddies to his home in Center City while I was still drunk. Sobering up, perhaps, but still with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit.
That I did not kill both of us – or get arrested – is remarkable.
Setting aside waking from a drunken revelry, I felt rotten because I thought I would never speak to my other recent ex-girlfriend (SP) again. The cascade of tears unleashed during the drive to and from my buddy’s home were more than just gin and vodka.
It helped somewhat that AC calling me to say she thought the voice mail from three men she liked was “cute” and “sweet.” With that, and a few final emails and phone calls over the next four years, she exits this story.
Except for one bizarre epilogue.
On May 5, 2007, I awoke in the Martha’s Vineyard home of my then-girlfriend. Two Halloweens earlier, a woman named “Nell” had reached out to me on Friendster. We struck up a conversation…and here we were a bit over 18 months later. The weekend was not going well, however, mostly because the house had no running water. Moreover, I managed to clock myself in the head sitting in a wooden lawn chair, while Nell slipped on a rock and fell into the pond.
Admitting defeat, we packed our stuff, put it and Nell’s golden retriever Jane into her Subaru Outback, locked the house and drove to where we board the Vineyard Haven ferry. As we approached Woods Hole, we began to calm down. By the time we were driving north on I-495 towards my Waltham, MA apartment, we were laughing about the day.
We decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner, so after washing and changing, we drove west to Sudbury. A favorite Tex-Mex restaurant called Sierra’s was still there, on Route 117 west. Unfortunately, though, we had forgotten it was Cinco de Mayo; the line for a table was out the door.
Undaunted, we continued a few minutes west into Maynard, where a restaurant called the Blue Coyote Grille still exists. At least, I though it did, but Google informs me it permanently closed on December 20, 2020.
We were shown to a quiet table against a wall. I forget how long we had been sitting there when a man, a woman and a girl no more than two years old were seated at a round table next to us; the child sat in a highchair. The woman had not yet seen me, but I had already done a double take.
Leaning over to Nell, I discreetly gestured toward the round table and whispered, “That’s…that’s [AC]!” Nell looked over at her with a rictus grin of embarrassment. I was not quite sure what to do myself. We finished our meal in an awkward silence.
As we left, however, we stopped to say hello. I introduced the two women to each other, and AC introduced me to her husband. The child was their daughter, a bright-eyed and lovely girl joyously oblivious of the tension in the air. The conversation was pleasant…and mercifully short; I have not seen or spoken to AC since. Nell later commented that she seemed less than thrilled to see me; I cannot really blame her. Still, I was very glad that she had found someone who, well, who did want to marry her.
It turns out I had, as well. Exactly four weeks later, Nell and I, accompanied by Jane and Abby, a friend’s black Labrador, drove to the woods in Mount Misery in Lincoln, also on Route 117 west. My shirt was uncharacteristically untucked. Arriving in a small clearing, I stopped and pulled a small box out of my previously hidden pocket. Stooping down so that my right knee was on the ground, I held out the now-opened box to reveal an elegant diamond engagement ring.
With the two dogs as witnesses, I asked Nell to marry me.
She said, “Yes.”
To celebrate, we drove a few miles west on Route 117…to Sierra’s.
I do not remember exactly when she called me, other than that it was on a Saturday, shortly after I moved into my new West Philadelphia apartment.
About a month earlier, after being dressed down by my supervisor at the company where I had met SP, I had decided to resign from that position and return to Philadelphia. I quickly found a new job there, doing psychometric analysis for a small firm in King of Prussia. However, two days before the Monday I was supposed to start – likely February 17 or February 24 – my phone rang. I was listening to one of the two CDs holding Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
It was a woman from my new gig – who informed me that new information about my previous work experience had come to their attention, information she would or could not reveal to me, and my offer of employment was being rescinded. Goodbye.
I was devastated.
What had they learned that was so damaging they could not even discuss it with me? Moreover, if I did not know what information it was, how could I possibly address it with any potential future employer?
As I stood there – vowing never to listen to Bitches Brew again (even though I am listening to “Pharaoh’s Dance” as I type this) – I realized that in the space of two months, I had ended one long-term romantic relationship, started another one long distance only to have it end within two months, resigned from a well-paying job only to lose my next well-paying job, and had moved from a pleasant two-bedroom apartment to a tiny studio overlooking a highway.
What the hell had I done to my life?!?
For a new job, at least, I had a kind of Plan B. OK, more like a B-/C+. A small polling firm in Media, PA, about 13 miles southwest of my new apartment, hired me as one of their data collectors. I worked three days a week, for about eight hours a day, trying to get anyone who answered the randomly-generated phone number to answer a long series of questions about recent DVD releases of Disney films. A rummage through my filing cabinet tells me I was promoted to Data Collector C on May 28. This was one of the worst jobs I ever had – the pay was terrible, the work was monotonous and unrewarding, and I felt like I had taken a giant step backward.
To be fair, I had.
Within a week after my promotion, however, I went to a job interview on the 10th floor of the Atlantic Building, on the northwest corner of Broad and Spruce Streets in Center City. The Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”) needed a new Senior Research Associate. The interview went very well, and I began to work there on Monday, June 11. The next four years and 19 days were easily far the best of my professional life.
Before I started, however, I made two new mix cassettes – Stuff and Such Vols. LXXX and LXXXI – which opened with “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The drive to Ann Arbor, MI would take at least nine hours, and I needed something new to listen to in the older-model Buick Century my stepfather had obtained for me four months earlier.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
My best guess is that SP called me before February ended. In the interim, I had printed out “Valentine’s Day,” editing it at least once while sitting at the bar of the TGI Fridays a short walk from my apartment building; it is still there on City Avenue. “No working in here,” Michelle the bartender rebuked me with a smile.
Those pages are why I started telling these stories three essays ago. Arriving home just after midnight on February 15, I sat down at my computer, determined to write down all of my memories of the previous day, as well as my thoughts associated with the end of two romantic relationships – albeit while only shedding tears over one of them.
The question on the floor is why I never turned those pages into either a short story or a non-fiction essay. One answer is that as talented as I am at writing non-fiction in a fictional style, I stink at writing actual fiction. But in February 2001, I wanted to be Dashiell Hammett – I wanted to write compelling short fiction based upon my personal experiences.
There is a second answer. No matter how many times I read those pages, the point I wanted to make remained elusive. What linked the sunshine-splashed initials on the tree to the drunken revels with two other 30-something single men to the tales of AC and SP to that lachrymose midnight drive? Where was the story, with its beginning, middle and end?
To be honest, I still do not know what story I was trying to tell when I wrote the first draft of “Valentine’s Day.” However, for the first time I had finished something I had started to write of my own volition. This was a game-changer. Without knowing it, I had written the prototype Just Bear With Me essay, the first piece of memory interrogating, the first use of events from my own life to make a larger point.
There is a third, far simpler, answer, however: subsequent events rendered the conclusion of “Valentine’s Day” moot.
When SP’s name appeared on my Caller ID, I was…stunned, but not really surprised. More surprising was the night, some weeks later, when SP’s voice suddenly boomed out of my answering machine – while I was having sex with a different woman. This was understood to be a purely physical relationship, though, and she knew about SP.
SP was not calling because she wanted to renew our romantic relationship – at least, not consciously, so far as I could tell. Rather, she missed talking to me, she was still in a bad place emotionally, and she wanted a version of “Uncle Matt.’ The result, though, was that we once again spent a LOT of time talking on the phone, even as I slowly settled into my new life and crappy job. How we felt about each other had not changed, though, and slowly, gradually, we drifted back into being “boyfriend and girlfriend,” despite still living more than 500 miles apart.
This is why, three months after I hung up the phone on Valentine’s Day then smashed my hand against a door in bitter frustration, we made plans for SP to fly to Philadelphia over the long Memorial Day weekend. Actually, she and I had been discussing lots of possible arrangements, including her enrolling in a graduate program (MPH?) at the University of Pennsylvania. Now that is a counterfactual to contemplate.
She most likely arrived on the evening of Thursday, May 24. That first night, we met the buddy who wanted his ex-wife back at Minella’s Diner in Wayne. SP asked the disgruntled older waitress the difference between the apple pie and the apple crumb pie. She went away for a moment, returning to inform us “the apple crumb pie has crumbs.” Indeed, it did.
I showed her around the Philadelphia area on Friday, then drove her to Margate, NJ early on Saturday; it might have been the other way around. My mother and stepfather were spending a few days in a rented house a short walk from the beach. After an early dinner at Ventura’s Greenhouse off Atlantic Avenue, the four of us drove to the darkened rear parking lot of a drug store. As my mother stepped out the car, she asked us if we wanted anything. I do not recall what SP or I said, but after my mother started to walk away from the car, my stepfather rolled down the driver’s-side window, stuck out his head and yelled, “DOOOOOTS!”
The internet tells me that on Sunday afternoon, May 27, left-hander Bruce Chen started for the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium. Women who attended the game received a free pair of Phillies flip-flops, leading SP to declared “I want a pair of flip-flops.” For some reason, though, we drove to my mother’s house in Haverford instead. In retrospect, I regret not going to the game that day (and not only because the Phillies won 7-5) – once again, I was not listening to SP.
Either that night or the next day (Memorial Day), we had dinner with my other single buddy at the Broad Street Diner. When she excused herself to use the bathroom, he told me how much he liked her, adding “I see no red flags.” My other buddy had said much the same thing. We then spent some time at his apartment; photos capture the two of us sitting on his sofa, laughing uproariously.
After a blissful – and all too short – visit, SP flew home on either Memorial Day or Tuesday, May 29. The drive home from Philadelphia International Airport was…long.
A few days later, though, I was hired by FPC – and I desperately wanted to celebrate with my girlfriend. It was my turn to travel to her hometown, but having maxed out all three of my credit cards, my only option was to drive to Ann Arbor; I still had room on my Sunoco credit card. If memory serves, SP was eager to celebrate with me, but also tried to dissuade me from impulsively driving there for only a few days. But – I was still not listening. I was immature, impatient, impetuous, impervious to good sense and extremely horny. In other words, I talked her into it.
Archived Sunoco bills tell me I left Philadelphia early on the morning of Thursday, June 7, 2001, stopping for gas at 12:56 pm at the Warrendale service area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I drove directly to where SP worked, making the mistake of waiting for her in the main lobby. A former coworker saw me sitting there; she was naturally curious why I was there. Prior bad experiences with nosy and intrusive coworkers let SP to decide to keep our relationship secret from them. I forgot what fib I told the coworker, but SP was miffed at me, to put it mildly.
Nonetheless, the trip was a happy one, highlighted by a visit to the original home of Motown Records, where I tried to sing The Temptations’ “My Girl” with other patrons.
We explored downtown Detroit that same day, listening to a Leonard Cohen cover CD in the car; this was my introduction to Cohen’s music. Our running joke was trying to figure out which track was performed by That Petrol Emotion. We also spent time at what I just relearned was called the Detroit Festival of the Arts; within the next month, SP sent me a card she purchased there, noting in the inscription she missed and loved me. Best of all was our celebratory dinner at Gandy Dancer, which I knew as the fancy restaurant to which our company took visiting employees. I had not yet the pleasure of dining there, however.
Another Sunoco bill tells me I left Ann Arbor on June 10, stopping for gas at the New Stanton, PA service area at 6:09 pm on June 10. I entertained myself by listening to Game 3 of the NBA finals between the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, which the Lakers won 96-91 on their way to 4-1 series victory. Curiously, 76ers star Allen Iverson often drank at the same TGI Fridays at which I edited “Valentine’s Day.”
The one-month stretch from mid-May to mid-June 2001 was, by far, the pinnacle of our relationship.
Nothing, it seemed, could stop us.
To be continued…
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 I do not recall whether it had to be turned on for the summer at all, or was simply off that weekend.
 If she was upset, it was not necessarily on her behalf. In the last e-mail I ever had from her, dated August 18, 2005 – just as I was about to return to the Boston area – she nixes the idea of getting together because she though it would make her husband uncomfortable.
 Given the three high-paying professional jobs in the same field I had over the next 15 years, my best guess is that the funding for my position had been cut, and they feared legal action if they told me the truth Whatever the paranoia-inducing reason, it worked out much better for me in the long run.
 I suspect it was actually the day before. I watched the Phillies blow a late lead to New York Mets early in my visit. This game was played on the evening of June 7. So, either we ate a quick dinner after leaving her workplace around 5 pm, then settled in to watch a baseball game on television, or I arrived the evening before.