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.
Part 8 of this essay may be found here.
Part 9 of this essay may be found here.
Part 10 of this essay may be found here.
One thing I had not anticipated in August 2005 was how much more expensive it is to live near Boston than near Philadelphia. Not knowing this, I budgeted the same ~$875 a month, included unspecified utilities, I then paid Gulph Mills Village. But when trying to find a decent apartment in that price range took me to the Altitude Apartments in Malden – lovely, but well off my beaten track – I realized I had to accept a higher monthly cost. This is why I agreed to pay $1,348 a month – a ~54% increase, without those unspecified utilities – to Windsor Village in Waltham, MA for what was essentially the same apartment I had in King of Prussia, PA.
After settling into my new apartment – and taking a day trip to Northampton, MA – I faced another budgeting choice. My plan was to complete the eight classes required to earn a master’s degree in biostatistics at Boston University School of Public Health in one year – four in Fall 2005 semester, four in Spring 2006 – but I had such a hard time following the professor in a linear regression course, I dropped it and follow a 3-3-2 timeline instead.
So much for my careful budgeting.
Meanwhile, RB was not quite getting the hint about our status. She wrote me a series of admittedly-sweet e-mails, including for my 39th birthday on September 30, 2005, noting “[p]erhaps all those late night cups of coffee and pieces of pie have desensitized me some.” Then, at 3:47 pm (all times Eastern Standard Time) on October 13, she e-mailed me this with subject heading job news:
“oh my, oh my, oh my. I just got an e-mail from the Eagle Eye Institute in Somerville [Massachusetts] I had told you about. They want to set up a phone interview for next week. Things are really happening. This is a good thing but really scary.”
To refresh my memory of the fall of 2005, I not only examined Discover and Sunoco card bills, I also examined records of the Sovereign Bank accounts I opened on September 7, 2005. This is how I remembered I spent the nights of October 7, 8 and 9 near Philadelphia, likely at the King of Prussia Best Western; for various reasons, I studied for both biostatistics MA qualifying exams there. I spent time with RB on this trip…somewhat muddying my message to her.
So much so, in fact, she was already making plans to move to Boston. At 10:07 am on October 24, she e-mailed me this with subject heading my interview time, etc.:
“My interview is at 3:30pm this Friday. How about Friday you drop me off for my interview, you can hang out in Somerville for the hour or so (I don’t see it being terribly long), I’ll call you when I’m done, and we can go to Maine from there. Eagle Eye’s address is 14 Chapel St. and they said they are share office space in a church.“
A follow-up e-mail tells me her flight was scheduled to arrive at Logan International Airport (“Logan”) at 7:58 pm on Wednesday, October 26. I recall dropping RB off at her interview on Friday afternoon. I then spent $32.93 for gas at the Sunoco off of I-95 in Wakefield, MA on October 28.
We stayed two nights at the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, hitting all of the now-familiar places: meals at King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta on October 28, and at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro and Le Garage in Wiscasset on October 29; I spent $347.91 at the L.L. Bean outlet in Freeport, perhaps after midnight on Sunday, October 30, as the date on my Discover Card bill is “November 2.” Driving south to Logan Airport – RB’s flight was scheduled to leave at 3:30 pm – we passed through Portland, where I used my Discover Card to buy gasoline at what I conclude is 393 Commercial Street. We also stopped at the New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet off the Route 1/I-95 rotary in Portsmouth, NH, where I spent $82.98; New Hampshire has no sales tax.
I base all of this upon my carefully-archived records. Otherwise, I have zero memory of this trip. This is likely because what happened on Monday, October 31, 2005 blocked out everything that came before it.
After sleeping late on Monday, I spent $80.17 on groceries at the Star Market one block north on Lexington Street, possibly buying candy for distribution that evening. Once the final trick-or-treater had rung my doorbell, I sat down at the desk in my bedroom to check my e-mail.
Despite barely looking at Facebook in months, I still kept my profile updated. At one point, just for fun, I added 10 questions intended to test common interests. They are long since lost, but from what I can piece together, there were questions relating to Genesis (listed first three drummers, asked who they were), Miles Davis (“Freddie Freeloader sits between what two greats?”), Philadelphia Phillies, Jack the Ripper, Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett, the Wharf Street Café and Wine Bar (then at 38 Wharf Street in Portland) and Somerville; two remain lost.
Earlier that evening, a 33-year-old 4th grade teacher at The Park School found my profile on Friendster. Thinking I was both attractive and interesting, she responded to my quiz – actually researching questions about which she was not certain. This research took her down some wild rabbit holes, including a connection between King Phillip and Somerville.
Alerted that “Nell” had sent me a message on Friendster, I looked through her profile, seeing an attractive and slender blonde with an intelligent face; I later learned she had graduated from Smith College – did I mention it is located in Northampton? – in 1992. I responded to her message, thanking her for completing the “quiz” and assessing her responses. Following an invitation, she e-mailed me the next day, using the subject line “persiflage.” After looking up its meaning, I changed the subject line to “palaver.” On Wednesday, November 2, I spent the afternoon at St. Peter’s Field on Sherman Street in Cambridge pitching (four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, curve, change-up) to get some exercise. While I was there, ironically, the woman I had met on Friendster in December 2003 called to say hello.
Having been an ace softball pitcher at Smith, this intrigued Nell even more; we arranged to meet on Saturday, November 5, 2005. Here is how I describe that night in my Interrogating Memory book:
“We met in person shortly after 5 pm on November 5; emerging from the Harvard T stop, Nell recognized me by the Phillies cap I was nervously spinning in my hands. I kept dropping the tickets to see Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s riveting black-and-white portrayal of Edward R. Murrow’s battles with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, at 7 pm at the Harvard Square Theater on 10 Church Street; only the theater’s façade remains. We ate dinner at the Bertucci’s which then stood at 21 Brattle Street – across from the Brattle Theater, where I helped to launch the first NOIR CITY Boston in June 2018. After the movie, I drove Nell home to her Brighton apartment, kissing her for the first time.”
The meal at Bertucci’s cost $46, I just relearned.
As strong as our chemistry was, though, we had our share of ups and downs – including a disastrous second date at Cityside Tavern in Brighton’s Cleveland Circle on Thursday, November 10. I was tired and cranky, and I was already telling myself this relationship was not going to work. A great third date at what was then Yangtze River in Lexington Center broke the tie in our favor. In fact, what started on Halloween 2005 process ended with a wedding in an unseasonably-warm Concord, MA on October 6, 2007.
As we navigated the early stages of our relationship, I took Nell to some places I had often gone with AC. Nell called it the “[AC] Magical Mystery Tour,” though I did not (consciously) intend it as such. Restaurants like Christopher’s and Cabot’s were favorites of mine, period, and I was still reveling in the idea of living in the Boston area again.
Well, except that when we drove north on Route 38 to what had been called T.D. Waffle House – it was now Vic’s Waffle House – things came to a head. Nell was already grumpy this place I thought was so special did not use real maple syrup; in retrospect, there really is no excuse for a New England restaurant not to use real maple syrup. But when I chastised her for not walking out of the restaurant the way AC and I always did, she completely lost it, reminding me in no uncertain terms she was not AC.
I heard the message loud and clear; she was right to be upset.
Meanwhile, one Friday or Saturday night, probably early in 2006, Nell and I had dinner in another place I had loved to eat with AC, but which we had now made our own: Sierra’s Mexican Restaurant on Route 117 in Sudbury; sadly, this exceptional restaurant closed suddenly in April 2013. That night, Nell and I were seated in a dark quiet booth in the rear of the small building. Both the atmosphere and the alcohol – I loved their Blue Dream margarita – lent itself to confessional storytelling, so we told each other the details of our “ghost,” that one doomed relationship still haunting us. This was when I told Nell the full story of SP. Apparently, I told the story a bit too well, because Nell deemed SP the one woman from my romantic past I was not allowed to contact again.
While I understood the feeling behind the request, something about being told to whom I could speak that rankled me. So even though I had no desire to bring SP back into my life, I agreed to this with a modicum of reluctance.
Even as this was happening, though, RB had still not quite gotten the memo about what was happening between Nell and me, and what was not happening between her and me. This was primarily my fault, as I told her much of what upset me about Nell, while avoiding all that excited me; I should have been far more transparent from the start – communication is everything. She thus applied for yet another job in the Boston area, visiting at the end of January. I spent some time with her, though when she tried to initiate a sexual encounter at the end of the evening, I gently put a stop to that, as tempting as it was.
This time she got the job, moving to an apartment just south of Boston in early February. I still enjoyed spending time with RB, purely platonically, even as Nell and I continued to figure out our relationship. This made for some awkward nights when Nell was not free, so I drove south to spend time with RB. Then, early in May, Nell decided she needed to take a break from our relationship. Tellingly, she texted me precisely one week later to tell me how much she missed me. I was actually driving west on Route 2A with RB when the text came through, and I almost drove off the road.
While RB may have seen this as her opportunity to “win me back,” I did not, although we did have sex twice more while Nell and I were separated, the second time on September 30, 2006, my 40th birthday. I spent the previous night at the Cod Cove Inn, and I was on the rocks at Pemaquid Point Light at midnight. I also hooked up with a fellow resident of Windsor Village earlier in September. I met her at the pool, where I spent most afternoons in the summer of 2006, swimming into the best physical shape of my life.
Two days later, a birthday card arrived from Nell. We spoke briefly but did not see each other until I put a card and some gifts on her car for her birthday a few weeks later. We did not look back after that, surviving a partial molar pregnancy, aborted on Valentine’s Day 2007, and our encounter with AC on May 5 (see Part 4). I asked Nell to marry me on June 2; she said yes, after which we drove a mile or two west to Sierra’s to celebrate.
RB was not at all happy with these developments – our last e-mail exchange was on May 24, 2007, though we may have spoken on the phone once or twice after that – but the engagement really did end things. Not to worry, though, for she married and had children with the man she had begun to see around this time.
As these essays near a total of 38,500 words, I return to where I started – 10 pages of history I sleepily and somewhat drunkenly wrote on my computer in the early morning hours of February 15, 2001. To be perfectly honest, after more than 21 years of thought, I still have no idea what larger “story” I was trying to tell in those 10 pages. Late one night, I sat at the counter of Minella’s Diner and wrote this in the red notebook I always had with me:
The morning of 2/14/2001 dawned cold and gray…
[Arrow pointing down]
Tell story of day — Fill in background as needed.
e.g. – don’t mention [SP] until I am on phone with [friend name]
use story of tree as lead in – build to the emotional release of the evening.
2) why hate V D
3) Cancellation of plans (?) à call to [friend name] – we hang out
4) Story of tree à introduction to [AC] and [SP].
5) Home talking to [SP] – now tell story.
make this a real time conversation
6) Evening – storytelling
what is the point of Genesis story?
7) Build to explosion on way home à [illegible] w/ Genesis story – doomed to repeat past.
But, still, what is the point?
NO Learning from mistakes?
Comfort in friends?
In December 2013, I sat down to rewrite and polish “Valentine’s Day,” though I only wrote 1,709 words over nearly four pages. Those four pages, however, include key details I had since forgotten – and thus neglected to include in the previous 10 essays; they do not mention a growing desire to write stories in the spare Hammett style.
For example, I emphasize in the opening paragraphs how lonely I felt on this supposedly romantic day. I was compelled to write those pages because it was dawning on me how miserable I was barely two weeks after moving “home” to Philadelphia, ending two serious romantic relationships in the process. Never mind that I wrote this about AC on page 3: “I loved, and enjoyed being with, [AC], but as a dinner companion once observed to me: ‘you don’t look at her the way she looks at you.’” The quote is from a woman we had given a ride to a college friend’s wedding in June 1996; I was instantly smitten with her, and AC could tell, though she had a boyfriend then. She did not have a boyfriend a few months later, though, and she and I spent an evening together in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner after I helped her move some things; this area is only a few minutes from where Nell and I moved 11 years later. We bought ice cream at J.P. Lick’s and ate it in the playground just down the street, then part of Devotion elementary school. After that, we went back to her apartment and listened to the end of the Phillies game – if my memory is correct, it was this September 11 game. After avoiding the issue all night, we finally acted upon our intense physical attraction. I was just, umm, ethical enough not to advance past intense kissing and groping down the inside of shorts, but that was still the closest I came to sleeping with someone while I dated AC. A month later, I started a new job, and I decided to stick it out with AC, telling wedding-ride we could no longer be friends.
Curiously, she was living in Philadelphia in February 2001, so I called her; she was not interested, though, and she married shortly after that. This raises another question – if I had been more financially independent the fall of 1996, would I have split with AC and pursued a relationship with wedding-ride? A key reason Nell and I worked so well as a couple – enough to successfully ride out the inevitable waves – is that both us were financially and personally independent. We each had steady income, apartments and cars we liked, and a full life. Indeed, in writing these essays, this is the single most important conclusion I have reached about successful romantic relationships: each party should ideally be in a position where the relationship is not somehow necessary to complete one’s life, but instead is a worthy addition to it. Basically, this scene from Jerry Maguire is dangerous nonsense; only you can complete yourself, everything else is emotional manipulation.
Another theme of the 2013 pages is clinical depression. Three years before I was finally diagnosed with this illness, I write about “learning to coming to grips with how much a person suffering through a depressive episode needs to withdraw from the world, even from those they most love.” All three men celebrating – inebriating – in my Philadelphia apartment on February 14, 2001 had been intimately involved with clinical depressives; two relationships ended in divorce, the other was SP.
Which brings us, finally, to how I describe that fateful telephone conversation with SP in 2013, the one which ended with AC standing behind me:
“Matters came to a head one Monday in mid-November. I’d wrestled with my feelings all weekend, desperately wanting to tell [SP] how I felt, but terrified she didn’t feel the same way. I’d even almost broken down and told [AC]. Talking on the phone after my officemates had gone home, [SP] could sense something was wrong. My defenses weakening as she persisted in learning what was bothering me, I finally asked her, now close to tears:
“’Will you promise to let me down easy?’
“She said that she would.
“I don’t remember precisely how, but I told [SP] exactly how I felt. There was a long pause, and then she muttered something I couldn’t hear. Close to a full-fledged panic, I asked her what she had said. Another pause, and then:
“’Because it’s really mutual.’”
It is telling I end the 1,709 words here, as though it were too painful to continue – which it was. It always has been. Why? Because I now understand that both relationships actually ended at that moment – it just took 3½ years to deliver the last rites. Having had my feelings confirmed so dramatically, there was simply no way I could continue with AC. To paraphrase wedding-ride, SP and I were looking at each other the same way; I had already walked away from such a situation once, I could not do it a second time.
Except, SP and I had now put immense pressure on ourselves – on me, especially – to live up to this dramatic intensity. Perhaps if we had lived much closer to each other, and if I had been as financially and personally independent as I would be five years later, we could have made it work. Being able to retreat to our own corners while knowing we could physically see each other anytime we chose makes a huge difference.
I think I sensed the fin de siécle nature of the day when I returned to my apartment early on the morning of February 15, 2001. The emerging writer within me felt compelled to record the events of the day, from the tree, to the change in plans, to cooking (“to avoid the myriad romantic couples invading the city’s restaurants and bars that night”), to the drunken revelry, to the Genesis story, to the emotional ride to and from Center City. I knew that my life had changed in some irrevocable way – I just did not yet see how this was not completely awful.
As I advanced the narrative well beyond that single day – to tell “the rest of the story” – I realized I had been writing about the wrong holiday all along. This narrative actually begins and ends on Halloween, covering a five-year period during which I left a pseudo-marriage and Boston, only to return to Boston to get married for real.
On October 31, 2000, I wore to work an outfit I described as “punk becoming new wave.” First thing that morning, I walked into a conference call in my supervisor’s office. Folks in Ann Arbor, including SP, heard the expression of – let’s call it impressed bewilderment – at how I was dressed. Soon after I returned to my desk, SP called to learn “just what are you wearing?” I told her, and in the course of the conversation I explained as best I understood it then how I was related to Nancy Spungen (grandniece of husband of first cousin once removed); she made me watch Sid and Nancy when I visited her the following January.
Maybe I am being overly deterministic, but in my mind that conversation cemented our feelings for each other. It suddenly seemed completely natural we would have a long chat about the history of punk and new wave while sitting at our work desks some 700 miles apart, highlighting the most important relationship element of all: open lines of communication. I was slowly realizing I had gone as far with AC as I was going to go. It just turned out that SP was not the long-term solution. She was merely the impetus to end my relationship with AC and return to Philadelphia, where a series of events forced me to take financial and emotional control of my life, allowing me to return to Boston and be ready for the actual long-term solution, which made its presence known five Halloweens later.
While this this is the end of the story I intended to tell, there is a brief epilogue.
In the summer of 2009, Nell and I were looking ahead to our second wedding anniversary, and I was more than two years into my highest-paying job ever. Our first child had been born the previous year with another due later that year. We were still learning how to navigate her spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard while I remained in Brookline to work. After six years of drift, everything suddenly happened very quickly, and I felt more than a little overwhelmed. Trapped, even – except that I now had an entire summer to myself. This was a recipe for emotional mayhem.
Five years had also passed since I had been so brutal to SP on the telephone, an anniversary that rattled around in my brain like an errant pinball. Within a few months of that call, I was seriously regretting my behavior; the outcome, however, was likely predetermined. As her birthday approached, my resolve weakened, and I decided – tentatively – to reach out to her on Facebook, despite my promise to Nell.
Not knowing how my outreach would be received, though, I reverted to “cryptic,” as you see from the message I sent at 12:51 am on the morning of SP’s birthday:
I was an asshole, and I was awful.
I hope you are well.
Be well, stay well,
Off to a great start: I neglected to mention her birthday, and I had forgotten I had adopted my “Be well, stay well” signoff after our last conversation. So much for open lines of communication.
Two days later, at 11:13 pm, SP wrote back:
I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this. But, I am well and will stay well.
It is funny – in my memory our entire exchange took place over two days, three at most. Reviewing my archived Facebook conversation (I formally left Facebook in May 2020), I see it was actually nine days – and 17 total messages – until we finally spoke by telephone. This is the first time I have read these messages in 13 years; it is painful to do so.
This exchange basically sums it up:
SP: Seriously, I don’t know why you’re apologizing for that conversation. As I said then, it was probably the first time you were actually honest with me.
If you’re interested in re-connecting, then say that. If this was just a drive-by apology, I really don’t get it.
MB: That’s the thing…I wasn’t honest in that conversation. In retrospect, while I was holding it together (so everybody else could fall apart), I took out my anger and grief on you, deliberately saying some very mean things. And THAT was likely because I was finally getting that our relationship was never going to be what I had hoped it would be.
But making you the target was wrong and unfair, and the thing for which I am most sorry. You were great to me during that entire period, when I really needed it, and then I turned around and treated you like shit.
And I felt it was high time to tell this to you. What good does it do to regret how you treated someone if you don’t then tell that person?
Beyond that…I figured I had pretty much obliterated the “re-connecting” bridge, but I would be happy to continue this conversation…
SP: […] No bridges have burned – they may have been unsafe to drive on for a while, but not obliterated.
A few days – and a subtle softening in tone – later, SP is still calling out my “ambivalence.” Curiously, this is a word my psychotherapist used a lot in reference to me, at least at the beginning. I respond with a passive-aggressive “If you want to re-connect, great. But you say you are dubious about it…which I also understand. I am simply letting you choose what happens now. That is not ambivalence.”
Seriously, I want to bang my 42-year-old self’s head against a wall and make him simply say what he feels and wants. Communication, communication, communication.
Funnily enough, next comes an exchange of cell phone numbers, during which SP writes, “Yes, I did say I had doubts, but why would I continue to respond if I didn’t want to connect? It’s weird to write paragraphs, then wait, then write, then wait, etc.”
At this point it was almost exactly nine days – to the minute – since I had first written to SP on Facebook. I must already have been out driving, checking my mail as I drove, because I now pulled into the parking lot of the giant Star Market that then stood at 61 Locust Street in Medford. I parked my car perpendicular to the darkened grocery store so that I stared across Locust Street to the Mystic Valley Parkway shopping plaza, roughly where Marshall’s and Petco are now.
Hands shaking a bit, I dialed SP’s number. She answered…and I heard her voice for the first time in more than five years. I might as well have heard it the day before, it sounded so familiar.
Our conversation was extremely awkward at first – but then I told her exactly what had sparked that conversation in March 2004. I emphasized that OF COURSE I had always loved her, and that I had deliberately lied to push her away from me…because my step-step-niece had put the idea in my head. It all sounded so ridiculous in the telling, but I was glad to get it off my chest.
SP was more cautious, at first, but then she told me that she had assumed I was just blowing off steam, and that I would call back eventually and apologize, and that would be that. But when I did not call her back, she naturally assumed I had actually been telling the truth – I had never loved her, it was all a lie.
With that out of the way, though, the conversation began to flow, and soon we were chattering away like we always had, catching up on our lives and invoking our old schtick. At some point, however, a realization hit us both…hard.
We were still in love with each other.
The conversation must have lasted for a few hours because our Facebook conversation the next day – now very happy – revolved around how tired we are; “Still can’t quite wrap my head around yesterday. . .” wrote SP. To which I responded, “I hear you. The urge to call you has been nearly overpowering…but I used up all my best material last night/this morning.”
I also noted, “Oh well, no apple crumb pie for us,” calling back to our visit to Minella’s eight years earlier. Her response? “Had I known apple crumb pie (with crumbs) was available I would have made plans to attend. Every time my phone rings I get happy/sad/excited/terrified.”
The next six messages – all sent 11 days after I first wrote to SP – veer between pop culture references (including Flashdance, leading me to mention RB in passing) and “I wish I had some answers for you. Or for me.”
The final message came from SP at 11:55 pm that night:
“What has happened to me? I was just sitting down to watch some bad tv, and I thought ‘Oh, I’ll call Matt’ just like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“One conversation, and . . .”
I probably called her right after reading her message. We quickly realized we were back at a familiar impasse. We very much wanted to be in each other’s lives, but the thing I most wanted to talk about – my life with Nell and our soon-to-be-two children – was not anything she wanted to hear. Who can blame her?
Thus, we told each other, “I love you” one last time, SP noted again how much she hated her birthday – a well-deserved dagger in my heart – and we said goodbye. For one final time, the ensuing silence was deafening.
I did not tell Nell about these 12 days for another 10 years. She was, not surprisingly, extremely upset with me – though less about talking to SP than about my breaking my promise to her. To be clear, she was upset about both aspects, but the compromised trust hurt her more. Still, once she realized it was all completely in the past, she forgave me – though it still took a few days.
At long last, though, I understand the story I have been trying to tell, the one I could not tell until I had carefully reviewed every last detail, from Halloween 2000 to Halloween 2005 and beyond.
It is a story about trying to achieve closure where closure cannot exist, only the passage of time. I cannot lie, I still miss SP, and I would love to talk to – even see – her again. But I will not contact her, and it is more likely I will sprout antlers than SP will contact me.
If that last sentence is true, then this really is the end of the narrative.
Thank you for just bearing with me throughout its detailed telling.
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.
 E-mail dated September 30, 2005
 I write “likely” because I have no formal record of my stay there. It is likely this was my first trip to visit my severely intellectually impaired sister Mindy, something that quickly went from a planned “four times a year” to once a year. It is also JUST possible I stayed with somebody, though I cannot imagine whom.
 11:54 am
 The listing is simply “HBR VIEW CONVENIENCQ39,” which almost certainly refers to nearby Harbor View Memorial Park.
 As of July 2022, it is Max and Leo’s Pizza.
 Returning home that night, I drank a bottle of Molson Golden and showered before telling AC why I had returned so late, I had missed the last MTA train. She was suspicious but chose to believe whatever story I told her.
 I describe this relationship in more detail in Chapter 2 of my Interrogating Memory book.