I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 6

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.

Part 5 of this essay may be found here.

Early in Chapter 7 (Reading Is Fundamental) of my Interrogating Memory book, I write:

When I was four or five years old, I climbed down from the northeast corner of our backyard into an adjoining backyard on Garlor Drive, only to be severely bitten on my right hand, between thumb and forefinger, by an angry black dog. That did not stop me from begging for a dog, however.

I have always loved dogs, and SP’s dog when I first met her – a charmingly neurotic black cockapoo – was no exception. When I learned he had died, during our first conversation after she told me in March 2002 she had indeed moved to Baltimore, I was genuinely sad to hear it.

Being a woman who loved dogs, one now living alone in a new city, it was only a matter of time before SP acquired a new one. True to form, it was a rescue dog, a male that had been abused in the past, making it especially belligerent around men. Which – in the context of trying to maintain a long-term relationship with a man she had once called “the best thing that ever happened to me” – is an interesting choice. Now, it may simply be that this was the dog that most appealed to her, full stop. Or…SP was right all along: she was genuinely bad at romantic relationships, and either simply did not see the disconnect or unconsciously knew our renewed relationship was not going to last long.

Either way, we once again run into serious memory interrogation problems. In fact, this has become a theme of this series of essays: using every tool at my disposal to unravel what exactly happened, and when, during my convoluted relationship with SP, adjusting my own faulty memory in the process.

In fact, I am doing so in real time.

***********

In the previous installment, I described – as best I recalled them – two trips I made to Baltimore in the spring of 2002: a day trip on Saturday, March 23 and what I thought was an overnight trip which ended on Sunday, April 7. Here are three “facts” I thought I knew about that weekend, beyond actually spending the night:

  1. SP had not yet brought home her new dog.
  2. I was photographed running a red light on the drive home, late at night when I was agitated.
  3. I stopped at the Waffle House in Elkton, MD on the return drive.

To help me reconstruct a SP-visit timeline, I used Sunoco bills, a Verizon telephone bill and e-mails from these months; all times are EST. The first thing I learned was that I bought gas at my local Sunoco at 3:02 am on April 7, suggesting I did not spend the night. Meanwhile, at 3:36 PM on Friday, April 19, 2002, I wrote this to the former chair of my department at the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), for whom I had just begun to moonlight as a data-analytic consultant:

“[SP] and I have our ups and downs, including her new dog biting me (we suspect a “new-environment, over-stimulated” one-time reaction). However, we have many more ups than downs. I am driving down tomorrow morning for the weekend. The overall prognosis remains excellent. Still, keep your fingers crossed.”

Actually, I did not drive to Baltimore on Saturday, April 20. At 2:35 pm, I called SP; the call lasted 12 minutes. Six minutes later, I called a cousin’s cell phone for two minutes. I called SP again at 11:23 pm that night, for three minutes, and the following night at 11:20 pm, for two minutes. Perhaps one of us was ill?

And here I present the only night SP spent with me in Drexel Hill, PA. She already had her new dog, because we discussed whether she would bring him with her. Deciding it was too tricky to have him in yet another new place, one which smelled like a man, she instead left him in his crate, expecting not to be gone more than she would be during a typical work day.

Given that I was in Baltimore the weekend of April 6-7, calling SP multiple times the weekend of April 20-21, and attending a conference the weekend of April 27-28, that leaves two possibilities: March 30-31 and April 13-14. I had previously concluded it was the latter weekend, except I just reread a Thursday, March 28 e-mail I wrote to the Valentine’s Day buddy for whom I cooked dinner: “Hey–I would love to go Saturday morning–except that [SP] is coming in around 1:30–we are going to a 3:00 Flyers game.”

Hmm. I have no recollection of this game, which the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the Buffalo Sabres, 3-1, nor a ticket stub, suggesting we did not attend this game.

Meanwhile, I called SP at 12:18 am on March 30 – basically Friday night – for 67 minutes. I next called her at 10:28 pm – for 28 minutes – on Sunday, March 31. Earlier that Sunday, at 1:51 pm, I bought gas at a Sunoco in King of Prussia, PA. And, on Saturday, I withdrew $60 from a non-Sovereign-Bank ATM. This is all consistent with my being in Philadelphia that weekend – and, if we were going to alternate who drove to whom, this would have been SP’s first weekend in the “rotation.”

Meanwhile, I called SP at 3:54 pm on Saturday, April 13, for one minute, and at 8:37 pm the following night, also for one minute. Three minutes later, I purchased gas at my local Sunoco – literally a two-minute drive away. I made a debit card purchase for $21.94 on April 13, and a total of $38.43 in debit card transactions on April 14.

Given what I recall of that Saturday and Sunday, I now conclude SP drove to Drexel Hill sometime before noon on March 30. The late-afternoon call on the 13th could have been “have you left yet?” but that is inconsistent with what was supposed to be a day trip; I also think she had a cell phone. This means she brought home her new dog at some point between Sunday, March 24 and Friday, March 29, inclusive.

The details of that weekend are fuzzy 20 years later, but not attending the Flyers game suggests SP left Baltimore later than planned and/or was delayed by significant traffic. In fact, the only thing of which I am absolutely certain is eating delicious red snapper soup at the Country Squire Diner in Newton Square – and even then, in my mind’s eye we are looking out the large glass windows not at West Chester Pike, but at Baltimore Pike. It is possible – though not likely – we had breakfast or brunch on Sunday at the Empire Diner, though, and I am conflating the two restaurants. In my memory, there is an emotional charge to the “Baltimore Pike” meal – a kind of nervous tension – but I may be misremembering entirely.

The other thing I recall is that SP did not drive back to Baltimore that night, as planned, spending the night at my apartment instead. Basically, we kept delaying her departure, even knowing her poor dog was waiting in his crate. And while it is true dogs have almost no sense of time, in retrospect it feels like just this side of animal abuse – especially given this was a rescue dog still getting used to his new home.

We did not have sex, though just before she left on Sunday, we began to make out crazily. She was wearing light-blue jeans, which were quickly unbuttoned; at one point she put my hand down the inside of her pants, and I could feel how wet she was. “This is what you do to me,” she said. Why we did not just rip off our clothes and get to it already, I do not know. By now, another 15, 30 minutes would not have made that much difference, while “taking it slow” was starting to feel a bit arbitrary.

At any rate, the events of the following weekend now make more sense.

I drove to Baltimore on Saturday, April 6 intending to spend the night. My first encounter with the new dog – who possibly remembered the smells his owner had brought home with her six days earlier, when he was finally let out of his crate – was…fine, actually. SP and I spent a nice afternoon and evening; perhaps we went out for dinner, and I had a bourbon and soda or two? Returning to her apartment later that evening, I was tired and perhaps a little tipsy.

Somehow, the dog got hold of a new bag of his food and refused to let go of it. Foolishly, imperiously and impatiently, I tried to wrest it from him. The bag tore, and kibble spilled all over the floor just inside the front door and just outside the kitchen, not quite to the living room area. Not heeding SP’s warnings and irrationally upset, I bent down to clean up the spilled kibble, only to have the dog growl loudly then bite me in the – right arm, I think – enough to make me bleed but not enough to do any serious damage. In the shock of the moment, though, I instinctively lashed out at the dog – who had done absolutely nothing wrong. I think I only pushed him away, because any more violent action would have led SP to end any relationship with me on the spot. Unless, of course, she was in the kitchen and did not see me; I do not even want to think about the unmitigated cruelty of that.

What I should have done next was clean myself up then take a short walk to clear my head while SP dealt with the mess and her dog. Instead, however, I let pain, exhaustion, rage and, yes, jealousy get the better of me. This new dog, some part of my feral brain had decided, was – at the very least – going to make it harder for SP to drive to my home, so I would be doing all of the driving. This was complete crap, of course, and a product of undiagnosed depression, but that does not change what happened next.

I stormed out of the apartment, probably around midnight, and drove back to Drexel Hill, purchasing gas at 3:02 am and entering my apartment by 3:10 am. Meanwhile, a red-light camera had been installed two years earlier at the intersection of E. Monument Street and Pulaski Boulevard,[1] on my route to I-95. This is likely the intersection where I was photographed driving through a red light, though it does not match what I see in my mind’s eye when I think about the incident nor does it explain why I wrote the check to a municipal court for a neighborhood two miles north. Still, not being patient enough to wait for a red light to change fits with my driving home in an impatient rage. And I definitely stopped at the Elkton Waffle House for coffee and a snack, which I consumed while nursing my wounded pride, though I now doubt this is when I left my business card.[2]

***********

While I now recall the incident of the dog that did bite in the night as a pivotal turning point, the fact is we continued to speak regularly on the phone – 88 minutes on April 15, and 87 minutes on April 18. And while we planned to see each other on April 20 and 21, we did not actually see each other until Saturday, May 4, when I drove to Baltimore, again intending to spend the night. Spider-Man had opened nationwide the previous night; it was playing at 13 movie theatres in the Baltimore area – I have no idea which one we had chosen.[3]

As I have noted, SP suffered – suffers, presumably – from clinical depression, for which she took varying medications. Whatever she was taking in May 2002 made her very sleepy, because she deliberately did not take her antidepressant that day, wanting to stay awake for the movie and whatever we did next. This suggests she had recently changed prescriptions, because side effects like fatigue typically disappear after about two weeks.

However, rather than accept this as a gesture of love – I am willing to experience certain withdrawal symptoms in order to be with you – I chastised SP for putting her health at risk…for me. Never mind this was her choice, and her choice alone. In that moment I felt incredibly guilty, once again cajoling her into doing something she did not want to do. Looking back, this sounds like the disordered thinking of my own clinical depression.

She absolutely wanted to see Spider-Man with me. She absolutely wanted me to spend the night. She had made an informed decision about her own health. Whatever had happened with her dog was in the past, forgotten; I have no recollection of the dog that night, good, bad or meh.

Once again, though, I was not truly listening. So, instead of enjoying our first good experience seeing a movie together, we had a nasty argument about when she took her medication. And, just as I had nearly a month earlier, I drove back to Drexel Hill instead of spending the night with her.

The single biggest counterfactual of my involvement with SP is this: what if I had simply acknowledged on the night of Saturday, May 4, 2002 that SP knew exactly what she was doing then spent a fun evening (and night and morning) with the woman I loved, and who loved me.

It as is though, it now occurs to me to wonder, I was unconsciously trying to sabotage this relationship.

***********

Sometime in early April 2002, a female coworker invited me to come with her to a friend’s party somewhere in Philadelphia. Also attending this party was a woman who looked very familiar – and when I heard her first name, I knew exactly who she was.

Shortly after I enrolled at Harvard in early September 1989, I met a strikingly-attractive woman with dark curly hair. She was fiercely intelligent and very warm. I forget how we met, but she was also a graduate student at Harvard, albeit in a different field. There was an immediate, very strong attraction between us, though nothing ever came of it. I have a vague recollection of her saying something about being “too” attracted to me, though that makes very little sense; she later married a fellow doctoral student. At any rate, a few weeks later, I met the woman – a doctoral student in economics, which then shared Littauer Center with the government department – I dated until January 1991.

This was the woman – call her DS – I encountered at the party.

At 10:46 am on April 19 – the day before I had planned to drive to Baltimore – I e-mailed DS happy birthday wishes. She responded warmly two days later, and I wrote back the next day, writing the passage about going taking SP to Boston over Memorial Day weekend I quoted in the previous installment. Later that night, DS wrote:

“Are you back with [SP]?  Same [SP]?  Is it good?

“Hey Matt, you know, you could still get that PhD if you wanted—I mean, you definitely have the smarts to do it–not too late either, if you want to…just a funny feeling I have that you might be wondering about it…[etc.]”

The following morning, I responded to this kind e-mail with the passage about how SP and I were taking it slow, and Baltimore was much closer than Ann Arbor. DS responded with great exuberance, wondering if we ever took the train; she also echoed my suggestion we should catch up in person at some point. On May 1, 2002, at 1:32 pm, I wrote,

“Unfortunately, it is a feeling that fades in and out like a bad radio signal. Which is to say, I enjoy my work but lately I am feeling, umm, exploited. I am crazy in love with [SP], but we definitely have issues. I love being back in Philadelphia, but I miss Boston and am finding Baltimore more and more interesting. All in all, though, I am at a better place in my life than I have been in a long time.

We prefer the flexibility of our cars, but I agree about trains.”

In retrospect, I was not in as good a place as I stated. The grant funding my position at FPC was ending, and it was not clear what would replace it. I lived in a dumpy apartment a two-hour drive northeast from the woman I loved. I was legitimately missing Boston…though “finding Baltimore more and more interesting” puzzles me.

Three days later, I drove to Baltimore intending to see Spider-Man with SP, only to drive back to Drexel Hill a few hours later for truly asinine reasons. And here my archives go silent: no Verizon bill for May 2002, I wrote my monthly checks on Friday, May 3 – including to the Municipal Court of Hamilton – and there are no clues in my Sunoco bills.

On Sunday, May 12, at 2:24 pm, DS e-mailed me to ask if I wanted to meet for a “beverage of choice” after work on Tuesday; I responded in the affirmative the next morning. Then follow two e-mails in which we tried to hammer out the details. For some reason, however, we did not meet for a drink on the evening of May 14.

In fact, it was not until I reviewed these e-mails that I recalled anything beyond seeing DS at the party – and what happened next.

Either on Saturday, May 18 or Sunday, May 19, I drove on Lancaster Avenue between Bryn Mawr and Ardmore, running errands. I knew DS lived just off this road. If memory serves, I actually saw her sitting on the lawn behind her house – because I was looking for her. The weather forecast for Sunday – “Clouds will limit sunshine, and there will be a gusty afternoon thundershower along with a chilly wind”[4] – fit my memories of a substantial downpour while I visited DS.

Deciding on the spur of the moment to visit her – our e-mail exchange suggested a positive reception – I parked in front of her house. She greeted me warmly, and we spent a few hours talking about everything. DS is one of the few people whose brilliance actually intimidates me, and I was feeling self-conscious about not having completed my doctorate, especially with genuine uncertainty about whether I would even have a job in a few months. Nonetheless, the conversation flowed freely – and that was all it was, despite a palpable charge in the air. I had a serious girlfriend, after all.

Does this pattern of behavior begin to sound familiar?

We did not have dinner together, likely because of the great deal of work to which DS regularly alluded in her e-mails – though some wine may have been poured. I thus left somewhat early in the evening. It was raining, and DS put on a yellow raincoat over her shirt and blue jeans to walk me to my car.

When we got to my car, the floodgates finally opened – my unfulfilled horniness and what DS had been obliquely hinting in her e-mails. Pressing her against the Buick, we kissed with a kind of fevered desperation, tongues straining for purchase. Hands groped everywhere, belt buckles were loosened, shirts untucked; intimate parts were caressed. We came very close to having sex outside, in the rain, against my car, but I drew a mental line at how much I was already cheating on my girlfriend (either that, or DS pushed back some). Still, it was all I could do not to kneel down on the wet ground and bury my face in her; as it was, she came very close to orgasming against my hand.

Somehow, I extricated myself – DS was also coming to her senses – driving to Drexel Hill in a swirl of conflicting emotions that boiled down to “what the hell am I doing?” I called at least one friend that night – the former co-worker with whom I planned to stay in Boston the following weekend.

I never told SP about this incident, for better or for worse.[5]

It did not really matter – she ended our renewed romantic relationship by telephone either the next night or Tuesday night. I pushed back a little, but I had already seen the writing on the wall…and it was not as though I was keeping the home fires burning for her.

Curiously, I did not make a new set of mix cassettes for my looming drive to Boston, my first since moving to Philadelphia more than 15 months earlier. After filling up my gas tank in Belmont Hills at 9:52 pm the night before, I departed Drexel Hill on the morning of Friday, May 24. I stopped in New London, CT to examine – and photocopy pages from – the 1989 Connecticut College yearbook. Even as I mourned, yet again, the end of a romance with SP – and had been rebuffed by DS for a rendezvous in Boston – I still wanted to see photographs of my greatest high school crush, one of the women who shared the first initial I had carved into a tree behind the Oak Hill Estates 17 years earlier. [Ed. note: Upon further investigation, this detour took place on September 2, not May 24. Interrogating memory is a continuing process.]

I spent three very happy nights in Boston, driving as far north as York Beach, ME one afternoon.

I also visited Cabot’s Ice Cream restaurant – where AC and I ate every Tuesday night for a few years – with my best friend from Harvard, the one for whom my buddies and I expressed carnal desire on Valentine’s Day 2001. There, I enjoyed a drink I had created years earlier with AC: a chocolate strawberry banana frappe.

At 2:49 PM on Sunday, May 27, I bought gasoline at the Sunoco just off I-84 in Willington, CT. The next day, I returned to work at FPC. Whatever I thought might now happen with DS – well, it did not. In a June 7 e-mail, we discussed getting together again, but that never happened; aside from a mass e-mail that November, we have not been in touch since then.

Meanwhile, there was a finality to my last conversation with SP that implied I was truly unattached for the first time since mid-July 1993. This was the universe’s way, once again, of telling me to get my life in gear.

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] “City to install red-light cameras at 6 more corners,” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), February 4, 2000, pg. 7B

[2] Looking back, I am fairly certain I first went to this Waffle House with a female coworker. We decided to drive there one night, perhaps after I first saw the sign in October 2001. My leaving my business card makes far more sense in this context.

[3] Advertisement for Spider-Man in The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), May 3, 2002, pg. 3E

[4] “Today’s Forecast,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 19, 2002, pg. B7

[5] At least, I do not remember doing so.

2 thoughts on “I Never Wrote the Most Important Story I Ever Wrote, Part 6

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