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.
Part 6 of this essay may be found here.
The increase in biweekly take-home pay – 16% relative to my starting salary – first appeared in my checking account on October 4, 2002. The Research Department of the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), where I had worked since June 11 of the previous year, had been awarded a federal grant to assess the impact of service provision at a street youth center and at a needle exchange program. As of September 1, it was my job, as Senior Research Associate, to direct the day-to-day operations of this research project. We hired two new staff members, one of whom reported directly to me; she remains a close friend. I even moved from a cubicle into my own office with a window, round wooden meeting table, filing cabinets and – best of all – a door.
The following month, the American Public Health Association annual conference was held at the Philadelphia Convention Center, and for the third time in 12 months, I gave a professional talk. The keynote address was given by the Democratic governor of Vermont, a former physician named Howard Dean. It was a captivating speech, focused on the need to expand the affordability of high-quality health care/insurance to all Americans. By the time he announced his candidacy for president of the United States on June 23, 2003, I was already a full-fledged “Deaniac,” even if I ultimately voted for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in the 2004 Pennsylvania Democratic Presidential Primary.
I was also earning money as a consultant: I had the statistical software package SPSS loaded on my home computer and time to analyze data. To celebrate all of this, I drove to Boston on September 2, purchasing gas at a Sunoco in Niantic, CT just off I-95 at 11:52 am (all times EST); it was on this trip I stopped at Connecticut College to examine the 1989 yearbook, not the Memorial Day trip. I stayed at the same friend’s apartment, though, reading a beautiful collection of Dashiell Hammett’s letters SP had given to me as a gift. I left Boston on September 5, stopping at the Willington, CT Sunoco at 2:50 pm. Curiously, I again bought gas in Ardmore, PA the next day at 3:06 pm.
Meanwhile, my mother was in full remission from her ovarian cancer, so she decided to find a better apartment for me, knowing my lease expired at the end of January 2003; I was busier professionally than I had ever been, so I welcomed the assist. She located an upscale one-bedroom apartment in Gulph Mills Village (“GMV”) in King of Prussia, PA. The complex had a pool, was a short walk from a laundromat and was only a few minutes by car from the Gulph Mills stop of the Norristown High Speed Line. I wrote checks to my new landlords on November 23 and November 27, 2002 – and then again on January 30, 2003. Anticipating a fresh start, I bought new furniture: a large white-cushioned sofa and glass-topped coffee table, and I spent $282.92 at IKEA on January 30, including new bookcases and two three-drawer bedside tables. Later that summer, I bought a new desktop PC.
On Saturday, February 1, 2003, I moved into my new apartment, and I felt like I could breathe again. Helping me move – and trash some large items – were the buddy I drove home to Center City after our Valentine’s Day celebration nearly two years earlier, plus a close male cousin. My new sofa had not yet been delivered, so we sat on the living room to eat pizza while watching Charlie Chan at the Opera; my cousin fell asleep during the movie.
Unfortunately, my other Valentine’s Day buddy and I were barely speaking to each other. Not long after SP and I ended the third iteration of our romantic relationship in late May 2002, he met and fell in love with a woman; he later married and had two children with her. I despised her…or, at least, that was the story I told myself. In reality, I was angry and jealous that a) he had found a new partner and b) we were spending far less time together; even as my professional life soared, my romantic life all but ceased to exist. In mid-March 2003, we had an e-mail exchange that is painful to read now, in large part because he was correct to call me a “self-obsessed jerk.” From the distance of nearly two decades, it is clear undiagnosed depression – exacerbated by events – was severely clouding my judgment.
During the previous summer, meanwhile, I almost reached out to SP to acknowledge her birthday – but did not. She had not reached out to me when I moved into GMV. So, I tentatively started to date again. I was briefly interested in the daughter of my former department head, but nothing came of that; I was given contact information for her cousin on May 22. I had a few brief encounters with a woman I met at Minella’s Diner, which had become my primary hangout. Casual conversations on the commuter rail – giving a young woman my business card became almost a running gag – led to a number of dates. The cousin who helped me move wanted to fix me up with a woman he had just met, then dated her himself; she and I were not right for each other – though we did reconnect as friends for a brief time a few years later.
Around the time I moved into GMV, though, I attended a Jewish singles mixer at a restaurant in Center City. At least three women gave me their contact information, one of whom I dated for a short time. In fact, she was the first woman with whom I had sexual intercourse since October 2001. Nothing stuck, however.
This is not remotely surprising, given that I had not had anything remotely like a “first date” for nearly 10 years. Prior to AC – who literally knocked on my front door when I was 26 years old – I had not had a romantic relationship last more than 15 months. Finally, and most importantly, SP was still lurking in the back of my mind…thought I fought off the urge to contact her as long as I could.
Which brings us the 2003 NHL playoffs.
While dating AC, I became a serious hockey fan, in large part because her graduate school had an intramural hockey league. They played at a more leisurely pace, allowing me to understand the game better. I began to follow the Philadelphia Flyers during the baseball offseason, cementing my “ESP90s”. In a bit of sequential irony, one of AC’s new graduate school colleagues was a Michigander who adored the Detroit Red Wings – who had just swept the Flyers in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, four wins to none.
Six years later, those same Red Wings were swept out of the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The fourth and final game was played on April 16, 2003. At some point the next day, I wrote this e-mail to a Detroit-raised woman with the subject line No spades, partner: “That’s really harsh—you have my sincere condolences.”
At 8:32 pm, SP responded thus:
“I’m not sure what this means….I would just assume it was some weird virus thing that got sent from your hotmail account, but the subject line is a bit more specific than a virus would create.
“Did you mean to send this???”
Why I simply did not write something to the effect of, “Hi [SP], I offer condolences for your favorite hockey team being swept out of the playoffs. How are you? -Matt” is beyond me. Being nervous that she had met and become romantically involved with someone new does not explain the cringy weirdness of this e-mail.
I did not always save both ends of our e-mail exchanges, so the only thing I know for certain is that SP wrote this to me at 7:17 pm on Saturday, April 26, with the subject line how’s it going?:
“Good to hear from you. Things are going wel [sic] on this end. I just bought and moved into a house. It’s about 85 years old and started out as a post office. It needs a ton of cosmetic work, but it’s in great structural shape.
“Work is fine. Based on the extreme flakiness of (nearly) every female PhD on the staff, I’ve decided against the PhD plan. I have applied to Johns Hopkins for another masters degree […] and should hear from them soon.
“Catch me up on your life. I hope all is well.”
Curiously, I wrote down her new address and telephone number on the same sheet of paper on which I wrote the phone number of the niece of my former department head. And while I only have Telecom*USA bills for May 16 to June 30, 2003, it is clear we quickly fell back into our daily-interaction routine. Of the 26 calls I made to her in these 46 days, 12 lasted at least 30 minutes and five lasted at least 100 minutes, with the longest (Sunday, June 15, 2003) lasting 176 minutes; I suspect – but cannot be certain – that we again had phone sex that night. We may not have been “dating,” but the intense attraction was still there.
There is a weeklong gap after a combined 75 minutes of conversation starting at 9:49 pm on Sunday, May 24 because the following morning I drove north to Boston for the third time since I left two-plus years earlier. Entertaining me on this drive were the last four mix cassettes I ever made: Stuff and Such Vols. LXXXVI to LXXXIX. Feeling flush, I stayed at the Radisson Hotel in Woburn for three nights, during which I made two long distance calls of some length; the combined cost was $26.34. While I borrowed my mother’s cell phone for emergencies, I elected to keep calls to SP off her next bill. On the night of May 27, I met my former department head’s niece for drinks at Café Florentine in the North End; I only vaguely recall this “date.” Earlier that day, according to a transaction tally sheet I created later, I had bought two gifts for SP for a combined $54.45.
What made this trip particularly special, however, was that when I checked out of the Radisson on the morning of Wednesday, May 28, I drove north to Edgecomb, ME, where I checked into the Cod Cove Inn for two nights. This was my first visit to the Vacation State since celebrating my 34th birthday in Brunswick in late September 2000, and I made the most of it. Needing new clothes, I spent $180.34 over two visits to the 24-hour L.L. Bean in Freeport. On Thursday night, I ate at the downstairs bar of King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta. And after checking out on the morning of May 30, I wandered through the self-proclaimed prettiest village in Maine, Wiscasset, buying a calendar for $10.45 at Wiscasset Hardware. Including $23.58 for film developing at a CVS on May 31, I spent $1,326.99 this trip, while driving 1,391 miles.
If memory serves, I would have driven more, perhaps into Vermont, but a phone call from SP changed my mind. She had just had LASIK surgery on her eyes, and she wanted to – I want to write “show off her newly powerful eyes to me” – see me. She drove to King of Prussia on Saturday, May 31 – and we stopped in to visit my mother, who was curious to see clothing I had bought of my own volition. I especially loved this green anorak, which I kept and wore for 16 years. However, when SP excused herself to use the bathroom, I said to my mother, “Isn’t she beautiful?” I meant SP, but she thought I meant the anorak.
During this visit, she gave me this lovely apartment-warming (and essay-inspiring) gift – in lieu of the DVD copy of The Maltese Falcon I had already bought for myself – while I gave her what I had bought for her in Maine.
That being said, perhaps a week later I met a stunning young blonde woman from Germany – working a short time in the United States – at the local Acme supermarket; we quickly struck up a friendship, which loyalty to her boyfriend in Germany kept firmly platonic. She took this photograph of me – wearing the new anorak – in Newtown, PA a Saturday or two later, part of a long day trip that took us well north along the Delaware River on Route 32; we stopped at the Golden Pheasant for drinks, where I flirted with our server. On Sunday, June 29, we drove an hour west to Lancaster, where my maternal grandmother had lived and worked for nearly 20 years, to, among other things, visit the Amish Experience Theater and Amish Country Homestead; I proudly wear my Dean button in one photograph of us. On at least one occasion, I made a plan with German-blonde while SP thought we were going to meet at the Waffle House…or perhaps it was the day she was going to drive to King of Prussia to help me set up my new computer, which an ATM charge for $1,539.93 suggests I purchased on July 7.
Backing up briefly, on the morning of June 18, SP e-mailed me an article from The Onion entitled “95 Percent Of Opinions Withheld On Visit to Family,” along with this comment: “I have a baaaad feeling this is what my next week or so will be like…” She refers to an impending trip to Walt Disney World with her parents, sisters, brothers-in-laws and various nieces and nephews – many of whom I had met in Michigan two-and-a-half years earlier. In response to my response, which begins, “Hey sweetie,” SP succinctly sums up her situation:
“I have reconsidered about a million times. I really, really need a vacation — but this ain’t it. It’s going to use up every last vacation day I have and way more money than I care to think about (Disney ain’t cheap), so this is definitely “it” as far as vacations go this year. However, if I ever want to set foot in my parents’ house again, I shall go and smile pleasantly. “Oh really?” “Uh-huh” “That’s good” I think I got it down.”
That same response suggested I could go on this trip as well…though I did not. On June 30, SP mailed this postcard from Orlando, FL. On it she wrote in a swirl that begins on the left ear, “Fifteen [last name]. Six theme parks. 4 hotel rooms. Zero decision-making capabilities. Having fun (seriously). Missing you (also seriously). Many stories to tell.”
The point is – as July approached, SP and I found ourselves in relationship limbo: spending a great deal of time together, albeit mostly on the telephone, while still not declaring ourselves a couple, despite clear verbal feints in that direction. This passage of an e-mail I wrote to German-blonde on the morning of June 16 is a good summation:
“[SP] had left me a message, so I called her back. We worked through a lot of stuff, the upshot of which is that we remain friends while we both struggle with our respective demons. I need to get past the physical aspect (yeah, sure) and she needs to come to better terms with not being able to date anybody (yeah, sure). In the meantime, the degree to which we still care about each other struck me very powerfully. […S]he is too special to me to just let walk away for good. It may well be that this won’t work, but the one great advantage of being “just friends,” I have learned, is that I can not talk to her for a few weeks without fear of losing her. Also, I absolutely refuse to shut down my (completely non-existent) love life because I am still holding out hope for a true reconciliation with [SP].”
The irony is that we were physically spending more time together than we ever had. At 10:50 pm on Thursday, July 10, I bought gas at a Sunoco at 1120 Township Line Road, just off I-95 in Chester, PA, a few miles north of the Delaware state line. I was either heading to or returning from the Elkton Waffle House. This is three days after I bought my PC, so perhaps I had followed SP there after she helped me to set it up?
Nine days later, SP, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend and I went to Oriole Park at Camden Yards; this remains my only visit to this beautiful ballpark. This was the friend whose party in DC SP and I had planned to attend together in January 2001. While watching the Orioles beat the Anaheim Angels 8-4, I kept an eye on the scoreboard as the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Montreal Expos 4-3 in 11 innings. I bought gas at a Sunoco at 2565 Pulaski Drive (US Route 40) in Newark, DE at 2:00 am, suggesting I left Baltimore not long after midnight, more than two hours after the game ended, then stopped at the Elkton Waffle House. Either I wanted to explore, or I had forgotten there was a Sunoco at the Delaware House travel plaza only a few miles north.
Later that month – just to make my romantic life even more confusing – I finally took the advice of the coworker with whom I had visited that Waffle House for the first time: I joined the networking website Friendster. While not intended for dating, I did go out with some women I met there, though – with one very notable exception – never for very long. Even as I was exploring Friendster, though, SP and I celebrated her birthday together at what I believe was an upscale Asian restaurant on US 40, somewhere between Elkton and Baltimore. Something went haywire, because – and here my memory is muddled – we left, possibly early, in a bit of a huff, with SP again proclaiming how much she hates her birthday.
It is possible we were discussing the nature of our relationship – a conversation that was again running in depressingly familiar circles. A common exchange we had was my telling her I loved her followed by her saying how can you love me when you barely know me – or maybe it was that I had loved her since I met her.
Nonetheless, upon leaving the Elkton Waffle House late one night, perhaps late in the summer, we each bought gas at the adjacent station, after which I yelled – quite loudly out my driver’s side window – “I love you, [SP]!” I think she responded in kind, though all I know for sure is how elated I felt in that moment.
And here, unfortunately the official record gets quieter. It was probably for my 37th birthday on September 30 that SP gave me this wonderful book.
There is evidence of growing tension after that, however. In an October 13 e-mail, SP writes, “I’m glad you called back. Seriously.” Still, my November 2003 Discover Card bill tells me I bought gasoline at a Crown station somewhere in Baltimore on Sunday, November 2. On November 12, I wrote to SP – in response to the e-mailed story “Man Always Three Ingredients Away From Making Pancakes” – that I would treat her to pancakes at the IHOP or Minella’s on her next visit to King of Prussia, adding “We arrive in SF at 8:36 PT Saturday night. We are staying at the Villa Florence.”
I gave my fifth professional talk at that year’s APHA Conference, held at the Moscone Center, but the highlight of this trip was playing hooky with my supervisee so I could drag her on a Dashiell Hammett tour, after which we explored Chinatown, drank Boba tea and visited Alcatraz. I ate “Sam Spade Lamb Chops” at John’s Grill on November 18; the meal cost me $45. The only blemish on this trip, ironically, was an unpleasant phone call with SP either the night I arrived or, more likely, the next afternoon; I do not remember why it was unpleasant.
In the middle of December, finally, she sent me a pair of e-mails about a new data manager being hired where she worked…and that is the end of the public record.
Shortly after that, I began to correspond with the fifth or sixth woman I had met on Friendster since the middle of August. On the evening of December 30, we met at London Grille in Philadelphia, just across the parking lot from Eastern State Penitentiary. We hit it off, making out furiously by her car after we left. We dated a few more times – sleeping together one night after seeing In America – though this too came to nothing; however, we remained friends afterward, almost hooking up again one night a year or so later.
And then there was the attractive, if slightly odd, blonde woman I met around this time on the Norristown High Speed Line…but we will come back to her later.
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.
 Unless, of course, I did so on the Memorial Day trip.