I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 5

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.

Part 4 of this essay may be found here.

When I sat down to write this multi-part essay – which has taken on an interrogating memory life of its own – I thought I did not SP at all between Sunday, June 10, 2001 and a weekend in mid-October, a weekend that went all kinds of wrong. The former day is when I drove back to my West Philadelphia studio apartment from Ann Arbor, MI, only to wake up the next morning for my first day as a Senior Research Associate at the Family Planning Council of Southeast Philadelphia (“FPC”).

Meanwhile, according to ticket stubs in a folder marked “2001,” I had a busy July. The buddy who wanted his ex-wife back and I saw the Philadelphia Phillies lose to the New York Yankees 4-1 on July 17; Roxy Music at the Tweeter Center in Camden, NJ on July 19; and former Men At Work lead singer Colin Hay at The Point in Bryn Mawr, PA on July 21. I drove to New York City for a college friend’s wedding on July 28; the post-nuptial festivities were held in the Bronx Zoo.

August and September passed. I had just arrived at the FPC on the morning of September 11 – 15 minutes early because I needed to finish a presentation – when I heard something about a plane crashing into a building in New York City. My first reaction was that it was a repeat of this freak accident from 1945. This same day project directors from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) visited FPC for an update on the federally-funded research project I was helping to conduct. Nonetheless, we closed at noon, concerned colonial Philadelphia landmarks might also be targets. Even then, however, as I lunched with the CDC brass outside on Spruce Street, we did not really comprehend the magnitude of what had happened. That did not sink in until I turned on the television that afternoon and watched the World Trade Center collapse – and started to cry.

Besides my mother, a cousin who worked at the Pentagon, and my ex-girlfriend (AC), I called my current girlfriend, SP. Her reaction was a bit different: she genuinely wished she had been on one of the planes. We had often talked about suicide and suicidal ideation, but we had both resolved never to attempt it – for a third time, in my case.

In contrast to these thoughts, in fact, SP was actively seeking ways to exit the company where we had met a year earlier, including enrolling in a graduate program in schools like the University of Pennsylvania or Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD. At the beginning of October, she excitedly informed she was being flown to the latter city for a promising interview on October 12. She planned to stay at her best friend’s place in Washington, DC – the same best friend whose party she had not attended in January.

I had different ideas, however. The idea of barely seeing my girlfriend when she was that close – just 100 miles southwest – rankled me. In fact, I hated it. So, I offered a very impractical and selfish alternative. Why don’t I drive to where you are interviewing, so that you when you are finished, we can drive back to Philly for the night?

As I noted above, I had long thought I had not seen SP for four months. But, in thinking about that dreadful weekend – including seeing the execrable Don’t Say a Word at the United Artists Main Street 6, just across the Schuylkill River from my apartment – I recalled we had seen another clunker together that same year…in Ann Arbor.

I wrote in 2017 about my struggle to reconcile Woody Allen films with Woody Allen the man. For the previous 16 years, however, I had not seen a new Allen film, because The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was so awful.

Interrogating that memory, I learned Curse opened at 12 movie theaters in or near Detroit, MI on Friday, August 24, 2001, including the Showcase Ann Arbor 1-20.[1] Looking at the location on Google Maps, this is probably the theater where we saw it. But it could not have been the first weekend it was released – I wrote checks to pay my monthly bills on Saturday, August 25, something I only did at home. I wrote my rent check on Friday, September 6 – and Sunoco bills remind me I bought gasoline in the Philadelphia area on September 6, 9, 16 and 27. That suggests we saw Curse on the weekend in between – which my brilliant wife Nell pointed out was Labor Day weekend that year.

I used a bank card to purchase something for $183.45 on Friday, August 31; unfortunately, I only have banking statements dating from September 2005. I also withdrew $100 from a non-Sovereign-Bank ATM on September 1 – carefully noting the $2 fee. I even constructed a new mix tape – Stuff and Such Vol LXXXII – which I now date to August 2001. These actions suggest I flew to Detroit to spend Labor Day weekend with SP – a weekend from which all I can remember is seeing an awful movie. This begs the question, was it the movie that stank, or was it SP and I?

Even the most intense memories may defy interrogation.

**********

As I had in June – when I must have borrowed $60 from SP, because I sent her a check for that amount on June 17 – I convinced my girlfriend to follow my plan, despite serious misgivings. I gleefully created a new mix tape for the drive: Stuff and Such Vol LXXXIII.

I do not recall when the interview was on Friday October 12, but I arrived early enough to meet her in the building’s lobby when she was escorted there by her soon-to-be-supervisor; I must have taken the day off from work. For some reason – perhaps being met by one’s boyfriend appeared unprofessional – this did not make SP happy. The next thing I remember about the day was figuring out where to eat on Main Street in Manayunk[2] before Don’t Say a Word started at 7:45 pm.[3] Trying to pack everything into a single night, I took her to Thomas’ Restaurant – now The Goat’s Beard – for what I thought be a festive, slightly fancy dinner. As were seated at an upstairs table, I could feel SP getting more uncomfortable. She was not dressed properly, it was too expensive, it would take too long, it was just not what she wanted. I tried to assuage her before finally realizing she was right. This was not her kind of place. To be honest, it was not really mine either, but my stepfather and mother liked it. Looking back, I do not quite understand this choice of restaurant myself. Perhaps I was trying to make SP part of my mother-stepfather world?

I drove us to the opposite end of Main Street, to a pizza joint that was very likely Casa Bella, almost under the railroad bridge. Now beginning to unwind, we were able to enjoy how awful the movie was. I do not recall the next day, Saturday, but a Sunoco bill tells me I purchased gasoline at the Maryland House Travel Plaza on I-95 at 3:38 am on Sunday, October 14…nearly eight months to the day after I wrote “Valentine’s Day.”

Shortly after that whirlwind October weekend, SP ended our relationship again. The reasons why do not matter, perhaps because we built in a tiny bit of ambiguity: if and when she moved to Baltimore, she would get in touch with me.

If not, however, that was it for us.

**********

This was apparently the universe’s cue to kick my health-data-analysis career into a higher gear. On October 24, 2001, I gave my first professional talk to the American Public Health Association (“APHA”) annual meeting and conference in Atlanta, GA. My original supervisor had recently resigned, leaving me effectively in charge of the entire project, then nearing completion. The next night, my Phillies-Yankees buddy and I saw the Philadelphia Flyers lose 7-2 to the Ottawa Senators…using the season tickets FPC’s President bought.

It was probably two months later that my mother began to experience severe abdominal pain, which was quickly diagnosed as ovarian cancer. Her illness prevented her from helping me to find a new apartment; my lease expired on January 31, 2002 – her 64th birthday – and I did not want to remain in such a tiny apartment. With a limited budget (FPC paid well, but not that well), I rented an apartment in the Devonshire on Burmont Road in Drexel Hill. While the building was a bit run down, the apartment was at least bigger. The bathroom had a huge claw-footed bathtub, while the bedroom got a lot of light and had a pleasant view. The trolley into Philadelphia was only a few steps from my door. My monthly rent even dropped by $25, according to archived check registers. But when my mother recovered sufficiently to see it, she was horrified, vowing never to let me find my own apartment again. I was only 35 years old, after all.

Thirteen days after the same two buddies from “Valentine’s Day” helped me to move – a woman I had befriended at my new hangout, McShea’s, was not much help – I had a fender bender coming out of a WAWA on Baltimore Pike. I tell this strange tale – in which I was asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and I answered, “No.” – here.

I spent a weekend the following month – either March 8-10 or, more likely, March 15-17 – at my mother’s house in Haverford. While her cancer was still in remission, she still needed some help getting around, and my stepfather was out of town. Or something.

What I remember most about that weekend are three things: being impressed with the performance of new Phillies reliever Terry Adams, driving to Bryn Mawr to shop for my mother…and calling my phone to check my voice mail on Saturday afternoon. When one of the messages began to play, I thought it was my best friend from my doctoral program at Harvard, the woman whose photograph made my buddy drunkenly ask why she was not sleeping with him.

But when I heard, “…I said when I moved to Baltimore, I would call you…,” I knew exactly who it was; I had that message memorized for years. Still, I waited until I had returned to my apartment on Sunday night to call SP; I was sad to hear her cockapoo had been put to sleep. On Monday, March 18, I printed out directions to her new apartment in Baltimore. Sometime before Saturday, March 23, I made my first mixtapes since the previous October: Stuff and Such Vol LXXXIV and LXXXV.

We decided to take things a bit more slowly this time – and, having learned my lesson the previous October, I simply listened and understood. This is why I did not spend the night with her on my first visit to Baltimore.[4] Nonetheless, that drive – after purchasing gas at a Drexel Hill Sunoco at 4:56 pm – was far happier than the one I had made five months earlier. Once I found her apartment building and parked, I recall walking down a darkened corridor to meet her – and something about a door being propped open. It was a joyous reunion. Her street-level apartment had a small enclosed patio, albeit abutting a parking lot. After having dinner and exploring her funky urban neighborhood – during which I spied a nearby 24-hour diner I planned to make my late-night hangout – we made out rather intensely on her sofa. I then drove back to Philadelphia. It is possible I stopped at the Waffle House in Elkton, MD – roughly the drive’s halfway point, just west of the Delaware state line – for coffee. I must have put a business card in a glass bowl by the cash register. Stored in my “2002” folder is an undated letter from this Waffle House, addressed to me at FPC, which notes “[e]nclosed are several coupons.” This is almost certainly when I acquired the discount card I still keep in my wallet.

According to the April 2002 Verizon telephone bill I also archived in that folder, I called SP on 22 of 28 days from March 30 through April 26. Two missing days are Saturday April 6 and Sunday, April 7 – though I called her for two minutes at 12:32 am on Monday, April 8, likely to say I had returned safely to Drexel Hill. This is most likely the trip during which I was caught running a red light by a newly-installed camera; to save on car insurance, my Buick was registered in my mother’s name, so the bill for $78 went to her Haverford address. This is why I did not write a check to “Municipal Court of Hamilton”[5] until May 3. I recall running the light late one night, though why I was in Hamilton (IF I was in Hamilton) at that time – a few miles north of my normal route to and from I-95 – remains a mystery.

That same weekend was likely when SP and I spent the afternoon in the charming Ellicott City Historic District, a few miles west of Baltimore; looking at the area on Google Maps, it reminds a lot of Jim Thorpe, PA, roughly a 90-minute drive north of Philadelphia. And I think we briefly visited a college library – SP either needed to check something out or return something – but this is a difficult memory to interrogate because it we were in and out fairly quickly. The Goucher College Library comes the closest to matching my mental imagery.

We did not have sex that Saturday night – and here we have yet another memory interrogation conundrum. It has long been my recollection we waited to have sex because SP wanted to save that “official re-consummation” moment for a planned Memorial Day weekend (May 24-27) trip to Ocean City, MD.[6] However, in a March 26 group e-mail to Boston area friends I wrote, “I am thinking very seriously about going up to Boston that weekend. I may very well bring [SP] with me as well.” This is only three days after I first visited her new apartment in Baltimore. And Boston was still my planned destination on April 22, when I wrote this in an e-mail to another woman I had met early in my Harvard doctoral program, now teaching at Haverford College: “I am toying with the idea of going up to Boston for the Memorial Day weekend. If [SP’s] parents are not visiting her that weekend, I am dragging her with me.”

So, why did I think we were “saving ourselves” for a hypothetical weekend in Ocean City? One possibility is that the idea emerged in early April, say when I first spent the night, but was then dismissed for…reasons. Another possibility is that it was an earlier weekend in May, say from the 16th to the 18th, because SP’s parents were already talking about visiting for Memorial Day. I truly have no idea.

Whatever the truth about Ocean City is, however, April 2002 was the best month I had had in a long time. It was likely on Saturday, April 27 I drove a little more than an hour southeast to what was then the Seaview Marriott in Absecon, NJ for my second professional conference, that of the Eastern Evaluation Research Society, which lasted until Monday afternoon. I attended each of the next three years, serving as a Board Member in 2004-05. I last attended in 2008, when I became violently ill with a stomach bug.

Moreover, SP and I becoming a permanent couple never seemed more possible than it did then. In a follow-up April 23 e-mail to my Haverford College friend I wrote, “Yes, I am back with the same [SP], and it is very good.  We’re taking it slowly (given our twisted history, this is a good thing), but it feels wonderful and optimistic.  She moved to Baltimore which, while still a 3 1/2 to 4 hour round trip schlep, is a hell of a lot better than Ann Arbor.”

So, you ask, what the heck happened?

SP got a new dog.

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] “MOVIE GUIDE” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), August 24, 2001, pg. 7E

[2] A neighborhood of Philadelphia

[3] “NEIGHBORHOOD MOVIE GUIDE” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), October 13, 2001, pg. E2

[4] I was not certain of this until I saw I wrote a rent check on Sunday, March 24, 2002.

[5] Which no longer seems to exist.

[6] And we were having sex, after a fashion. SP remains the only woman with whom I have had successful phone sex – usually at the end of marathon telephone calls lasting up to seven hours. When I finally said goodnight and hung up the phone, I thought the deafening silence that followed would swallow me.

7 thoughts on “I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 5

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