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.
Part 7 of this essay may be found here.
This strangely prophetic photograph was taken at my post-Bar-Mitzvah luncheon, held at Gatsby’s Restaurant in Narberth, PA on September 15, 1979.
The woman on the right is my 41-year-old mother Elaine Berger – separated from my father, but not yet divorced. The man with his arm around her is 48-year-old Edward R. “Eddie” Saretsky, a family friend.
I do not recall how they reconnected, but the two began to date in 1994, moving in together within a year – though my mother still owned a condominium in the Oak Hill complex. On February 20, 1998, my mother called me from Eddie’s car as they drove north on I-476 to the Poconos. “We just got married,” she told me, “Is that OK?” At the time, I thought it was great. After living alone for most of the previous 20 years, she had finally found somebody to share her life; that he owned and operated two of Philadelphia’s last X-rated movie theaters did not faze her.
They settled into a house at 3505 Darby Road in Haverford. She continued to run A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company out of a converted bedroom, while Eddie worked out of the basement. It was here I spent the night of February 5, 2001, moving into the Madison Building of the Presidential Apartments the next day. It was also where I heard the March 2022 voicemail from SP telling me she had moved to Baltimore, MD. In the bedroom where I slept those few nights was a photograph of an attractive dark-haired girl – I believe she was 16 when she posed with that rifle – I soon learned was the daughter of Eddie’s stepdaughter from his first marriage; you could say she was my step-step-niece.
Despite all that happened between Eddie and me after my mother died, I have very fond memories of this house. I often brought food from a nearby pizza and steak sandwich joint called Pizzi’s to eat with the two of them. And despite the ovarian cancer scare of late 2001, she seemed healthy and happy.
I forget now why they decided to move from this house – possibly a realtor made them an offer too good to refuse – to one at 1301 Bobarn Drive, right on the corner of Hagys Ford Road – as 2003 faded into 2004. This house was right across from Har Zion Temple, in whose adjacent parking lot my mother first taught me how to drive 21 years earlier. The synagogue was just around the corner from the Oak Hill complex – and the tree I had defaced with a pair of initials in the spring of 1985.
Unfortunately, no sooner had they begun to pack up the Darby Road house…well, this is how I describe it in my Chapter 11 (A Film Noir Fan Is Born) of my Interrogating Memory book:
“[O]n the evening of January 5, 2004, my maternal aunt called me to ask if I had ‘heard the news.’ Thinking she meant the death of former Phillies relief pitcher Frank Edwin “Tug” McGraw, Jr., she was actually calling to tell me my mother had been admitted earlier that day to Fox Chase Cancer Center, on Cottman Avenue in Jenkintown, less than a five-minute drive from Montefiore Cemetery. My mother and Eddie had started the process of moving […] For the next month, I helped my step-father pack up the Darby Road house. By early February, just after her 66th birthday, Elaine Kohn Berger Saretsky had come home to hospice care, though I think I was the only who fully appreciated what was coming. She fell into a coma on, or just prior to, February 27; over the next two days I brought [my severely intellectually-impaired older sister] Mindy and her mother into her bedroom to say goodbye. This was the first time I went to Woodhaven [the Northeast Philadelphia residential institution where Mindy lived] without my mother.
“As I rode the Norristown High Speed Line train through West Philadelphia on the morning of Monday, March 1, 2004, my cell phone rang. All my maternal aunt, who had recently flown to Philadelphia, said was, ‘It’s over. Come home.’ In the background, I heard my step-father shout something like ‘tell him to get his ass back here now.’ This is about when our relationship began to turn from cordial to adversarial. That night, I bought an ill-fitting black suit and sat down to write out what I wanted to say the next morning at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home at 6410 N. Broad Street.” 
Speaking of the Norristown High Speed Line, which I had begun to ride from my new apartment in King of Prussia to my job as Senior Research Associate at the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), let us now back up a few months.
As I noted in the previous essay, I had a knack for striking up friendly conversations with women on the various commuter trains I rode to and from FPC, beginning in February 2002. These were never intentionally flirtatious – I do not actually think I can flirt – but I count at least six times where this conversation ended with the young woman possessing one of my business cards. This is how one young woman and I had our one and only date – a meal at Minella’s Diner on March 21, 2003. A few weeks later, however, she renewed her relationship with her ex-boyfriend; this was fine as the age difference was substantial.
The following month, I reached out to SP for the first time in 11 months, and we began to speak on the phone nearly every day again. I traced our non-dating relationship through mid-November – when I returned from San Francisco – in the previous installment. The remainder of the year is a bit blurry, though this may be when I first noticed an attractive young thin blonde woman who regularly rode the Norristown High Speed Line with me. She had a habit of pulling strands of her hair down over her face then running her finger through them while she stared ahead through the split ends.
I did not talk to her, though, until the day the train we were riding broke down at the Radnor station. All of the passengers, including thin-blonde and I, left the train and stood on the platform to await a new train. We somehow struck up a conversation. Over a series of conversations on the train, I heard about how she worked at the University of Pennsylvania, lived in nearby Bridgeport, was trying to separate herself from a deeply conservative religious family and irregularly dated a handsome (and well-endowed) man who was a bit controlling; she observed more than once she would miss his – anatomy – should they break up for good. She was clearly a little bit afraid of him. I, in turn, told her about my work, my background and SP; I do not recall if my various Friendster encounters ever came up in conversation. She was clearly attracted to me, because she would occasionally rest her head on my shoulder as we rode and talked.
I sensed a certain – instability – in thin-blonde. This, along with her ominous sometime-boyfriend and the feelings I still had for SP, cooled my ardor somewhat. Nonetheless, we met for lunch at the Centre Square restaurant at 15th and Market Streets on Friday, January 16 – for which I paid $28.00 on my Discover Card. She also occasionally called me at work and at home; in retrospect, I think she was mostly scared and lonely.
The following Wednesday evening, she called to let me know she was at the Gulph Mills station. Did I want to pick her up, and then we could go somewhere? I was reluctant, but also intrigued. I collected her then drove to Champps, a sports bar then located at 330 Goddard Boulevard in King of Prussia. All I remember of a very odd conversation while sitting at the bar was her inviting me on a trip to Germany (or somewhere in Europe) she was planning, then loudly adding, “But I’m not going to sleep with you!”
“OK,” I said, a bit taken aback. I had not realized this was even on the table for discussion.
When we left, she did not want to go home – where I wanted to take her – nor did she want to be alone. If memory serves, she had left her boyfriend, and he was not taking it well. This is why, against my better judgement, I brought her back to my apartment.
Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend was slowly tracking her, through a bit of technological wizardry, to my apartment. While we waited, transfixed, as he got closer, my telephone rang – it was SP. I took the phone into the bedroom to talk to her, filling her in on the developing situation. This is where I was when my front door suddenly opened – had I not locked it behind me? – and in walked the ex-boyfriend. As unnerved as I was, I had to admit, he was very good looking, even with that rather wild look in his eyes.
He had convinced himself that thin-blonde was now my girlfriend – leading me to wonder just what she had told this man – so I literally held up the phone and said, “I am on the phone with my girlfriend right now!” To her credit, SP did not demur. I honestly feared for my physical well-being in that moment, despite he being the one trespassing my apartment, though thin-blonde pulled him into the living room to calm him down, quietly defusing the situation. I do not recall how long he stayed, only that when he left, he pointed to thin-blonde, sitting forlornly on my sofa, and said something to the effect of “Fine, if you want her, there she is.”
Having gone this far, meanwhile, I agreed she could stay the night…on the sofa. I do not recall how we came to start physically interacting with each other – we were not making out in the usual way, because she only kissed men with whom was seriously involved – but it culminated with my hand down her pants, rubbing the area around her clitoris until she came against my hand. The only reason we did not, well, fuck was that she was having her period. She somehow believed I came as I was doing this, but I almost certainly masturbated a short time later.
Not surprisingly, she did not want to sleep alone on the sofa, so – in for a penny, in for a pound, as Nell often says – I allowed her to share my bed. She held me very tightly. The morning is a bit fuzzy – either we drove into town together or she somehow got a ride to her apartment. At any rate, a few days later, she called to tell me she was leaving town for a while – and that was the last I ever heard from her. Wherever she is, I sincerely hope she is doing well.
This happened about the same time the woman with whom I had had such a nice time at London Grill on December 30 – followed by a brief spurt of dating – was pulling away from me. On the morning of January 9, though, I had received the following e-mail from an FPC coworker; she had started work as a data analyst the previous July:
“Do you have to be somewhere right after work? If not, would you like to get coffee? (I resolved to cut down on caffeine for New Year’s, but I’ve decided moderation is key).”
And here we run into a bit of a memory interrogation conundrum.
Included among the 84 names that signed the funeral home guest book on the afternoon of Thursday, March 4, 2004 are eight of my FPC colleagues, each of whom then helped to serve while we sat shiva at the Bobarn Drive house. One of those names is that of the young woman who invited me for coffee two months earlier.
She was of medium height, and had shoulder-length brown hair which framed a kind and open – and very appealing – face; her green eyes were always slightly closed, as though she were always squinting in the light. FPC-brunette was also the softest talker I have ever known – I often had to lean in closely to hear what she was saying. One time it was in a noisy Germantown Avenue bar, and she was saying how remarkably not bored she was being with me.
We did, indeed, go out for a drink on January 9, and she made no secret of how much she liked me. At the time, however, I was trying to figure out things with Friendster-lady, so that was as far as that went…then. Things soon began to go much further, however, though not exactly when I had thought. Sitting the funeral home that Thursday afternoon, she heard me – among other words of praise for my mother in my brief eulogy – list many things I had enjoyed being called in my life, including“[SP]’s boyfriend,” I heard later this made FPC-brunette very sad.
[The best thing I had ever been called, of course, was “Elaine Berger’s son.”]
This means it must have been later in January (or early in February), after Friendster-lady and thin-blonde, that FPC-brunette and I went out on our first serious date; in my memory this has always been later in the spring, or some time the previous year. We ended up in her Philadelphia apartment, making out like the world was about to end. I recall few women being as wet as she was when I first put my hand down the inside of her pants. For reasons I forget, we refrained from having intercourse that night. The next time we went out, we were in my place – and for a series of reasons that now seem very foolish– I did not take her by the hand in the kitchen and walk her the few steps into my bedroom. Now, I do not know that she even wanted to have sex with me that night, but I shut that door, mumbling something about not wanting to make a promise I could not keep.
I then drove her home, though when we reached her apartment complex, we again sat in my Buick making out like there was no tomorrow. The following Monday, she came into my office, closed my door – and let me have it with both barrels. At the time, I did not understand why she was so upset – in my mind, I was being noble. Sitting here now, I realize what an ass I was – and it only helps a little to say, “But my mother was dying, and I was in love with a woman who did not want to date me, and dating coworkers is a bad idea, and…and…” I deeply regret how I treated FPC-brunette; she deserved better – though this put what happened a few days after my mother’s funeral into clearer perspective.
Surviving Telecom*USA bills reveal how regularly SP and I were still communicating early in 2004: we spoke for 86 minutes on January 7, 34 minutes on January 18, 54 minutes on February 23, 55 minutes on March 1 – the day my mother died – and 59 minutes on March 3.
And 21 minutes on March 5, beginning at 9:53; all times are Eastern standard time.
As soon as I heard my mother had died, I got off the Market-Frankford Line at the next stop. I crossed over to the other side of the tracks, where I caught the next westbound train. From the Gulph Mills station parking lot, I drove to the Bobarn Drive house. What I most remember from that day is standing outside, likely on the elevated deck, making phone calls. One person was the buddy I drove home after our Valentine’s Day celebration three years and two weeks earlier; he gallantly served as a pallbearer. Another was SP…though we did not speak until I called her at 8:30 that evening.
She commiserated with great affection and kindness. However, when I asked her to drive to Philadelphia for the funeral, she told me she could not. There was a work-related event which she absolutely had to attend. To put it mildly, I was not pleased by this. Forget whether I wanted her to be there as my girlfriend, which was never explicitly stated. She was simply the person I most wanted – no, needed – by my side that day.
To her credit, SP was also upset she could not attend…but, work was work. As someone who later threw himself into his work to cauterize his pain, I get it. But that did not stop me from feeling profoundly betrayed. In fact, I later told her how much “I wanted to rip her a new one.” Yes, I know how awful that sounds – and is.
Meanwhile, it was either Tuesday or Wednesday, that my step-sister (step-step-sister?) and her daughter – the brunette from the photograph – arrived from Florida and Arizona, respectively. By which I mean a woman I barely noticed arrived, along with my somewhat younger, very attractive, very sexy, married-with-children step-step-niece. For some reason, we actually met at a WAWA – my mind tells me it was the one on Belmont Avenue in Belmont Hills – though I cannot imagine why.
Whatever: we were instantly two animals in heat – though I recall thinking that she was “sizing me up,” as though she was deciding if I might be a better (read, more upwardly-mobile) match than the husband with whom she was having trouble at the time. Whatever the case, we instinctively knew we needed to keep this – reaction – from Eddie.
However, once the funeral itself had ended, and we were sitting shiva in the Bobarn Drive house – well, the first thing that happened was that I begin to drink. A lot. The exact amount I drank is unrecorded by history, but something on the order of half or more of a bottle of whiskey seems about right; I may have been swigging directly from the bottle at one point.
And step-step-niece and I now began to perform a strange dance. A very close cousin saw exactly what was on the verge of happening. Early in the evening, he and I walked across the street to Har Zion, where he warned me not to do…anything. I assured him nothing was going to happen, using the story of thin-blonde, still fresh in my mind, as exactly why I would do no such thing.
Then I went back into the house, where step-step-niece was now, for all intents and purposes, stalking me – trying to get me alone. She finally cornered me in a downstairs bathroom, though by now I had stopped trying avoid her. Succumbing to the inevitable, we kissed. Hard and long and deep. Hands groped for body parts, though no clothes were removed.
We were sitting shiva for my mother, after all.
Not surprisingly, much of that evening and night is a blur – with the exception of when I was preparing to leave. Despite how much alcohol I had consumed, I intended to drive myself home. Wisely, however, a very large friend of Eddie’s – who I knew simply as “Yo” – told me, “If you try to drive yourself home, I’ll rip out your fucking distributor cap.” The same cousin who had tried to prevent me from – interacting – with my step-step-niece then drove me home and put me to bed, crashing on the sofa.
The next day was Friday, March 5, 2004.
Upon awaking and pulling myself together, I returned to the Bobarn Drive house, where Eddie was being attended by his step-daughter and step-granddaughter. After the latter woman and I once again – discreetly – made our mutual attraction manifest physically, I figured out a way to bring my step-step-niece back to my apartment. I claimed that the cold medicine I needed to go home to take made me drowsy, and I did not want to risk driving back alone – could she drive home with me? This story made absolutely made sense, but nobody was really paying any attention.
This is how my step-step-niece and I ended up in my bed, mostly naked. As much as we both wanted to have intercourse, she was still married (oh, the moral and ethical lines we draw), so we contented ourselves with using our hands, including me on what were the first shaved genitalia I had ever seen. We also knew Eddie was watching the clock to some extent, so we kept our mutual explorations relatively short.
As we drove out of the Gulph Mills Village complex, the conversation somehow turned back to SP, and how – in her perception – my feelings for her were holding me black from starting a new, healthy romantic relationship.
Now, despite the rather intense e-mails we wrote to each other once my step-step-niece returned to Arizona on March 7, with occasional references to “another long-distance relationship,” she did not mean a romantic relationship with HER. In fact, as quick as she was to say “I love you” to me – and not in a niece-uncle way – she was just as quick to push back on such a relationship, noting how much would have to change in her own life for that even to be possible. It is not at all surprising, in fact, that the tenor of the e-mails shifts markedly in just a few weeks. By March 30, we were closer to friends than hot-and-heavy lovers, though I did make it a point to show this to her (note band name at the bottom – and it is actually Route 662):
There is only one e-mail after April 8 – one she sent to me on April 26. On my end, it was though the fog in my brain lifted as March progressed, and I looked around and said something to the effect of “What the fuck am I doing?” At any rate, the last time I saw her was one year later, when we unveiled my mother’s headstone in Montefiore Cemetery. She had arrived for the occasion, husband and children in tow – and the spell had completely worn off.
But, returning to the afternoon of March 5, as I turned left out of the complex onto Shoemaker Road, my step-step-niece asked me the question that changed everything.
“Are you still in love with [SP]?”
I had to admit the answer was, “Yes, I am.”
“Well,” she responded, or something to this effect, “what are you going to do about it?”
Had I been thinking even remotely clearly – not still slightly hungover while deeply grieving the death of the mother I had been helping to take care of almost daily for the last two months while still working a full-time job and trying to date – I might have brushed off the question and allowed events to take their natural course.
Instead, I brooded and I sulked and I nursed my feelings of betrayal and rage – not just at her for not attending my mother’s funeral with me (as my girlfriend), but at all that had prevented us from making our relationship, which had begun with such intense promise more than three years earlier, last longer than a few roller-coaster months at a time.
[Yes, I know I was thinking all of this just after I had nearly fucked my step-step-niece.]
So, rather than have a mature adult conversation about exactly how I felt and exactly how she felt, and whether there was any way forward for us, I chose a…different path.
I told SP – standing in my narrow kitchen, the refrigerator door just to my left, shaking with pent-up rage and hurt – you know what, you were absolutely right all along: I have never loved you. It was all a terrible lie, and now I want you to get the hell out of my life. Forever. Fuck you, amen.
It was the worst, most upsetting, most vile telephone conversation I have ever had – and it was all my doing. I take full responsibility for the sheer nastiness of it. Nothing makes me hang my head in shame and self-loathing like that phone call. And no amount of “well, of course, you were grieving…” will ever change that.
Except, it “worked.”
Just under three years and three weeks after writing, one cold, dark, bleary-eyed morning, that I “never saw [SP] again,” those words were actually true.
I have not seen SP since that day.
That is not quite the end of the story, however.
Because, though it took nearly 20 months and a lot more heartbreak and pain to get there, that final severing of ties with SP did have the intended effect – reminding me my 15th wedding anniversary is three months from today.
How I got there – and one final postscript – is the subject of the next and final installment of this series.
To be continued…
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 In the summer of 1986, she moved out of the Oak Hill Estates. After living in a three-story row house in Bala Cynwyd for a year, however, she moved into an apartment in the North Building of the Oak Hill Apartments. On December 16, 1988, she purchased what was had become a condominium for $128,800 ($278,349 in 2019 dollars), briefly transferring ownership to me for $1 in 1992.
 And in one paragraph I note two corrections for the revised edition. It was actually the Market-Frankford line, and the funeral was held three days later, not the next morning.
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