January of last year I found myself living on the Upper West Side with a 40 year old Indian mother and her two year old kid. It was an odd arrangement born of tragedy and the light at the end of the tunnel was only a pinprick.
I was there because my wife had kicked me out. She was there because hurricane Sandy had destroyed her home and she had just divorced her husband. Like a pair of shipwreck survivors we clung to this driftwood of an apartment in the projects.
My room was only sort of my own as she needed the space for her son during the day. The apartment was full of the detritus of her previous home. The bathroom in particular was problematic as she used it for storage, which meant that I occasionally couldn’t take a shower because it was periodically full of stuff. One particularly memorable episode required me to crawl over boxes and then balance precariously to take a pee at the toilet.
And then there was her ex. Apparently he had a violent temper and had a habit of flying off the handle (you wonder why she divorced him?). Occasionally he’d come over to watch the kid for her, and on those evenings I’d get a text telling me I needed to camp out at a coffee shop until Rodrigo had left. She thought it would be best if he didn’t know a 25 year old guy was living with her (“Hey, also, if you can keep the room clean just so if he looks in there he doesn’t see any of your stuff that would be great.”). I agreed, but that made it no less strange. Oh, and it was also an illegal sublet so I had to be careful coming and going.
There was also the free babysitting. A single mom, she would sometimes need to run errands or just get out and I would keep an eye on her little tyke. I’m a nice guy and good with kids, so why not? The kid was cute, but you could tell life had taken a toll on him. His mom could barely keep her shit together (I don’t rightly know what she did for work. I got the impression her wealthy parents were keeping her afloat.) let alone take care of her son. He often went to bed after I did and I remember few times when he wasn’t gazing into the glittering depths of his mother’s iPhone. He sort of spoke English. Maybe he had some kind of learning disability (specialists worked with him on a daily basis) but the chaos of his life couldn’t have helped anything. Either way, I felt bad for her and him, so I did what I could to help out. Suffering creates solidarity.
But you know what they say about nice guys and familiarity breeding contempt. As if the situation on this little raft in the midst of a storm wasn’t bad enough, she slowly but surely began to fill my room with stuff (“It’s only temporary, sorry!”), I found myself watching the kid way more often (“I just really need a break, can you keep an eye on him?”), and then she started complaining about my drinking. To say I was a frequent drinker would be an understatement. A fellow who gets kicked out of his home and then finds himself living with an increasingly naggy and invasive woman, does not a happy fellow make. Men have turned to drink for far less. But I’m an affable drinker and kept to myself so I find the harping especially annoying. Anyway, her first rate nitpicking along with exploiting my space, time, and goodwill began to wear me thin as I tried to hold my marriage together.
My faith was a ballast that kept me sane even as I hit the bottle. Having gotten bamboozled and burned by my soon to be ex, Jesus wasn’t exactly my favorite person in the world but he was the most necessary. Yath00m says that people are either masochists or sadists. If you’re a Bible guy, and Jesus is your hero, and Jesus gets nailed to a tree, when the cards are down you lean towards masochism. What they say: testing of your faith creates endurance and holiness. But yada yada, I thought, would the big man upstairs stop being such a pain about it? But ok, ok, I’d think to myself, he’s testing me so I keep on keeping on! So, no, I didn’t actually enjoy all the pain I was going through, but it did give me a vague sense of moral superiority that religious people acquire from the belief that God is pleased even as he throws another thunderbolt their way. Or to put it another way, even in war there is glory. If you find yourself caught up in a battle, you might as well be a good soldier, keep fighting, and emerge (or perish) with the honor of a battle well-fought. In the midst of miserable marriage, I found dealing with an exploitive Indian momma a cake walk. So bring it on, already.
Funny thing about it, though: the very Jesus that gave me the energy to keep fighting for the marriage was the one that kept me in the fight in the first place. If I had an ounce of secular sense, I would have dropped the wife like a sack of potatoes and abandoned the field. Those lovey feelings having all but disappeared, what was the point? It was all meaningless anguish.
Truth be told, both women deserved empathy (The masochist: Love thy enemies.). In many ways they couldn’t help themselves. The Indian momma in particular was broken down and barely keeping her head above water with a two year old in tow. Say what you will about the bad choices that got her to that point, people that have worked their way into a bad situation have a habit of thinking only about their own survival. When you’re at the bottom of the barrel, you tend to exploit the grace, time, and energy of others. Exploitation, after all, is not merely the strong taking from the weak. It is the weak preying on the merciful; and masochists are especially easy targets. I eventually figured out what she was doing and realized I couldn’t do anything to make it better.
Humans are naturally selfish, albeit to varying degrees. Selfishness is murderous as the self becomes the center of the world and those around the self are used as means to its own end. The inward focus and exploitation of others is ironically a destruction of the self. Of course no one wants to admit that they’re selfish. We all would like to think we are nice people and that our actions are always justified. This is the story we tell ourselves.
So after four months I moved to Harlem. She called a couple months later but I didn’t answer. Sometimes you got to cut and run.
P.S. For more on Harlem, checkout the tag below.