She said it was over. I emailed her the next day to start making the arrangements (money, paperwork, the usual). Three days later she wavered: “I don’t want this.” Oh, honey, I thought to myself, you don’t get to zig and zag for a year and a half, finally call it to an end, and then zag on me again. “Ooooook,” I said. She said she realized that she had blamed me for everything and had been blind to her own issues. That sounded promising, but after all I had been through, I was dubious.
She said she would go to some counseling. I said we should go incommunicado for two months to give her time to work through things. She agreed. But wait, she couldn’t afford rent and needed a roommate. This meant she needed to return Penny to the foster organization we got her from.
If there is one thing I’m seriously pissed about, it’s Penny.
I was talking with a friend a couple months back about breakups. She told me her last boyfriend cheated on her, and even though she was pissed and over it, she never would love anyone as much as she loved him. I found the sentiment strange and said as much. “No,” she said, “You don’t understand, I loved him.”
I’ve never been much of a romantic. My mother says I was born old and I think that applies here: I know that gushy romance wears poorly over time and eventually you have to learn to settle down into deeper love of older age. Still, I wonder how much that sentiment has to do with the fact that the early stage of my marriage didn’t have many butterflies and rainbows. Either way, I think that explains in part why I couldn’t get my head around my friend’s sentiment.
It was the fifth month of a “constructive separation”—that’s how she put it when she kicked me out. Truth be told, it was constructive. The first couple months I spent with Indian Momma, and after that melted down, I moved to Harlem. As I headed uptown, I was hopeful for the marriage and not without reason even looking back on it now.
I got tickets for Cabaret through my school. Alan Cumming and Emma Stone starred. She loves Cumming, Stone, and Broadway. This was a perfect coup. The night before I had texted her that things were going really well. She agreed. I suggested I move back in even if that meant I just crashed on the couch. She said we’d talk about it. There was something ominous about that and I knew it at the time.
The show was fantastic, but she was cool towards me and shifted uncomfortably in the seat—like someone who knows they should be thrilled but cannot work up any genuine emotion let alone fake it. Something was on her mind, and as soon as the show was done I asked her about my couch proposition and she said we’d talk about it later (after I got back from Chicago) and I told her, “No, we’re talking about it now.”
A new pastor just got hired. “How’s that going?” I asked Tonto. He shrugged, “It’ll be fine, but it’s hard for a guy to lead when he’s gone through so little suffering.” I was taken aback. “How do you know he’s gone through so little suffering?” I asked. Tonto: “I know the guy personally. He grew up in a stable, loving home, got good grades all the way through college. He’s happily married with a couple of kids, and now leads a church after a couple years on the job.” “Oh,” I say, “that does sound nice.”
Before I discovered Tom Waits, Titus Andronicus, and the Rolling Stones, I use to be a big Jars of Clay fan. They were a solid 90s Christian band and they’re still kicking out the albums although I haven’t kept up with them. In 2003 they released Who We Are Instead. As a thirteen year old kid, I listened to it often that year and still occasionally go back for another spin. The track “Faith Enough” especially haunted me at the time. The song embodied one of the elements I liked about the band: their ability to take a beating, feel the hurt, but not turn into pansies about it; or worse, slap the Jesus bandaid on the suffering and call it a day. I mean, sure, Jesus, but that’s a vague comfort when you’re in the shit. Continue reading
January. Cold. Upper West Side. On the stoop of my penal colony, I smoke my cigarette and swig beer from a plastic bag-clad can of beer.
I got my mother on the phone (she doesn’t know yet of my exile) and we are chatting—about what I don’t recall. This is a normal night for me. Normal, that is, until two cops come sauntering down the street towards me. There’s a slight change in their direction and now they’re headed my way.
“Mom,” I say, “I’m going to have to call you back. Two cops are coming my way.” Click. I suppose that’s not the most reassuring way to tell your mother good-bye.
“Hello, sir,” goes the big burly officer with a crew cut. “Hello,” I respond pleasantly. “Is that your beer can, sir?” he asks. I pause, amused, and glance down at the plastic bag. I’m in a good mood (just enough to drink) and a bad liar. So I cop to it with an oh-shucks-you-got-me expression: “Yeah, that’s mine.” The woman with him asks me for my ID and I comply: “Sir, we just need to see if you have any outstanding warrants.” “Ok,” I say with a chuckle, knowing nothing will come up. Continue reading
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.
Contrary to those who claim to know the arc of history or declare themselves on the right side of history, it is more wise than foolish to acknowledge the ambiguities of the present in these troubled times. If the study of the past teaches us anything, it’s that ideas and movements wax and wane, twist and turn. Predicting the future is as dubious as it is interesting. While certain trends seem set, the future, simply put, is wide-open and progress is as common as regression (leaving aside the lofty standards by which we judge such things).
Two poems highlight this dual reality of trends and surprises.
7th Ave. between 135th and 136th on the roof.
Evening and Night.
Pacing the roof, cigarette in hand, a bottle of beer, and a friend on the phone. Time Square shimmers to the south; the George Washington Bridge northwest; Yankee Stadium northeast. These are my terrestrial constellations as the city lights blot out the stars. These are my nights.
I used to haunt the fire-escape and watch the passer-byes. Most places people are hidden by glass and steel as they traverse from one place to another in their automobiles. In New York you walk and when you bump into someone it is flesh and blood (“Excuse me, miss.”) and not a call to the insurance company. In this city you can casually watch people go about their business or spot and plunder sidewalk trash (two bookshelves!). Despite the simplicity of opening the window and escaping my coffin of a room, I was ill at ease perched on the side of this Harlem canyon and not because of the height (a meager four stories). A boy from South Dakota, I grew up under open skies. Somewhere in my psyche I knew this was the problem. The sky was too small. I had gone from one confinement to another. And then one day as I sat outside my window a moment of imagination: wait, the roof, there must be a roof. Odd how your apartment door (this is my home, I go no further) creates an artificial barrier to climbing higher. Wasting not a minute, I left my apartment, and trotted up the extra two flights of stairs where I found the door. The alarm disengaged, the handle broken, I pushed it open. Continue reading
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (7th Ave.) between 135th and 136th
7th Ave. between 135th and 136th
Boys playing catch with a tennis ball on the street. I slip into the corner bodega, grab a beer, and emerge to find one of the boys up on the fire escape. He’s retrieving his ball while his friend yells at him to hurry. Kid has some jumps. The end of the ladder is eight feet off the ground in front of my apartment door. The kid begins to descend the ladder and then I see the father (only he could have lifted him that high) waiting for his son to descend, blocking my way. Stuck, I watch, amused. “I’m going to jump!” declares the kid. The father, dismissive and annoyed, “No you’re not,” as he reaches up to help his kid down.