2017 has not been my favorite year—although I’m ever grateful for the readers and contributors to FGP. You’ve all been bright lights for me.
This year has also made me glom on to the moments that have brought me joy. One of those moments happened with my youngest nephews, who are—like me—big fans of Mad Libs. Over Thanksgiving, we didn’t have any handy, so I wrote some.
I figured that, hey, if any of you are goofballs like we are, you might enjoy one, too.
So grab some scratch paper. The story is in the first comment. Please add your results—that’s the best part, isn’t it?
Fellow goofball or not, here’s to a fabulous 2018!
My mother twice bought the pitch of a salesman at the door, and both were, in one way or another, a response to one or another of her failed marriages.
The first sell came in 1992 from David Vitter, chinless Republican candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives from the 81st district, running on the amorphous platform of family values. He was conducting, in his words, a traditional, old-school campaign, knocking on constituents’ doors and actually listening to their needs and concerns about the future. My mother invited him into our dustbusted living room. My father had been a radical Vietnam/Watergate leftist, lying across the busiest intersection of Robert E. Lee Boulevard in New Orleans to protest the draft, kicking a hole into the TV during Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” telecast. After a few of years of marriage, his behaviors lost whatever charm they once possessed. When Vitter arrived at our door, my parents had been divorced for eight years. For my father, politics was sacrosanct, and supporting a Republican was anathema to everything he believed to be good and true. It was perhaps on this ground alone Mom promised Vitter that he could count on her vote.
Soon afterward, another salesman introduced us to the exorbitant Tri-Star vacuum cleaner, a silver, futuristic-looking contraption with a long hose separating the motor from the power brush. The Tri-Star promised everything: healthier environment, enhanced home appearance, peace of mind. My mother was finalizing her second divorce—she required some sense of “here is something I will never have to think about again.” The Tri-Star, purchased around the time Vitter was sworn into the state legislature, has lived through more than a dozen political cycles, including the public admission by Vitter in 2007 that he’d habitually solicited DC prostitutes over the years. His wife Wendy joined him in solidarity at the press conference. Hands clasped at her front, she wore a form-fitting leopard print dress while her husband repeatedly asked her, his constituents, and God for their collective forgiveness. She said nothing. They remain married today.
My mother passed that Tri-Star vacuum cleaner on to me just after my wedding. Nearly ten years later I remain married to my husband, breaking my mother’s record for her first two marriages.
Dusting my writing desk I recall a foremost precept of cleaning: dust accumulates most quickly in unused spaces. Thus, I am not writing enough. If I wrote more, the dust might more readily fall upon the nightstand, on the oscillating fan next to it, on the sewing machine in the corner of my office which I never use because, as my mother has joked more than once, women shouldn’t learn to sew—they should divorce if it came to that.
Dusting is the minutiae of moving objects around. So is marriage and, sometimes, so is divorce.
I bump my silver philodendron too forcefully with my dust rag—its soil dumps neatly into the small cubic space between my writing desk and bookshelf. The Tri-Star’s hose attachment is broken, and I can’t sweep away the wet soil because it will grind into the carpet. If only an appliance existed, I consider, that will pick up just this dirt, in just this small space.
I have forgotten all about the Dustbuster. For children of the eighties, dustbusting was an invigorating verb. After dinner it was my job to dustbust the crumbs from the table and sometimes, gleefully, from my little sisters’ shirtfronts. Through easy tasks like dustbusting we learned the virtues of responsibility and cleanliness, in the Mc sort of way. My eighties were filled with Mc-food (frozen or fast), Mc-parents (stepfathers), and Mc-neighborhoods (subdivisions built up in a few weeks with the same three house plans multiplied endlessly down the block). Mcs were shoddy replacements for the real thing.
One summer afternoon I attempted a cleaning shortcut: rather than vacuuming the living room, as I’d been tasked, I resolved to dustbust every inch of its twist pile carpet in long, straight lines. But the Dustbuster clogged on my third row, and it died on the fourth. To clean it out, I detached the nozzle from the handle and spilled crumbs everywhere, for which I reluctantly lugged out the Tri-Star.
The Dustbuster was invented in 1979, the same year as the McDonald’s Happy Meal, and a year after that, both the Chicken McNugget and I were born. Carroll Gantz, Black & Decker’s Industrial Design manager, marketed the Dustbuster as a portable suction device for picking up light dirt and debris. But that was the thing: it didn’t do much else. It sucked the surface grime but couldn’t penetrate to the root. In the eighties I knew, McDonald’s Mc-fed and the Dustbuster Mc-cleaned.
The original Dustbuster was a cream-colored plastic duckbill with a single brown button to rev its tiny motor. To charge one meant matching it up to its opposite-shaped wall holder. It looked like two hands clasping together. Like a prayer.
Our Dustbuster hung next to my mother’s wood carving of the Serenity Prayer, which seemed the most permanent thing in our house by virtue of its basically being a letter to God—God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change—though I never heard Mom ask God to grant her a thing. It might have been during one of her fights with my stepfather when the prayer was knocked from the wall. Once rehung, the carving remained askew for a long time, a rearrangement I thought appropriate.
Were my mother’s remarriages what Samuel Johnson called “the triumph of hope over experience”? Or, ultimately, the failure of assignation? Promises weren’t just made at the end of a church aisle, I intuited. A couple’s foundation wasn’t so simple as “man and wife,” and the sickness and health and love and death weren’t even the half of it.
Often before those bigger tests play out, a couple lives together, slowly ages together, moves around in lockstep or with four left feet, depending on the day. And rather than acceding to the unequal dynamic of our earlier parent-child relationships, in which the parent figure dictates appropriate rules and chores for the child, a married couple makes up the rules together.
Both my stepfathers were natural tinkerers, so they’d be our home’s occasional handymen—cleaning gutters, repairing the toaster, performing tasks inconceivable for my idealist father who was versed in the oeuvre of Graham Greene and themes in Don Quixote but couldn’t hang a picture frame. And my mother, in her postfeminist sensibility that women could do anything and have it all (and much more secure in that ideal than most women I know today) reflexively took up the mantle of “You do the tinkering, and I’ll take care of everything else! I’ll dust and cook and clean and work full time and do pretty much all the kid stuff and still love you unconditionally, because I’m that strong and powerful!” In other words, rather than balancing their duties or at least having a conversation about them which might allow for future fluidity, it was: mother = everything, Mcfather = whatever he’s in the mood for.
At some point, probably when the burden of her constant doing began outweighing her husband’s facility with a screwdriver, or how hilarious he could be when drunk or stoned, my mother’s purview on their respective roles and personas sharpened considerably. Both my Mc-parents, for example, were—in the beginning—described by my mother as real men’s men: handy, diffident, fun. After a few years they were lazy, selfish drunks, that last word always like an uppercut—there was nothing more to say or think about who they were. That lovely marriage pronoun, the we, was gone. Each spoken I became a towering, dauntless god, while the you was a stub of the toe, a malignant growth, something grossly foreign and unrecognizable. Marriage became a war with clearly-defined sides, and as with most warring parties, both sides saw themselves within their struggle as the victims and heroes.
In my adolescence, when my mother was gradually falling out of sync in her second marriage, she became enamored with an epigram of unknown origin, pithy and reductive enough to sound to my young ears like a frightening admonition regarding my future: “Men may work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done.” The couplet became such a popular refrain for her that, in seeming solidarity, my second Mcfather occasionally parroted it as well, letting us all know he too was aware of its truth: men, in effect, have a singular job in a marriage, while women own all of them. To me the phrase sounded dirty coming from him, a prolix substitute to the beautiful brevity of “thank you,” or “I’m grateful.” But it was even more cringeworthy coming from her, equitable to the “it is what it is” shrug of the shoulders. Why did she accept a position within her own home that drove her crazy? Was it the married woman’s fate to passive-aggressively, ineffectually complain? Was every marriage doomed to stasis until at some point both partners tacitly agreed to stop working on it altogether?
Here’s how, in each of my mother’s marriages, the stopping started: more and more frequently after one of their fights in which words were no longer sufficient to communicate their disgust—his hands on her throat, her nails in his cheeks, each sound and scene a rolling pin across my insides—the most interminable sound became their protracted silence. Weeks without acknowledgement of each other, ghost parents floating around the house. The standard emotional cleanup following a fight—the I’m sorry, honeys and never agains—regressed to a spit-and-shine job at best, hardly even Dustbuster-worthy. Eventually, every ignored resentment piled up too high and deep for anyone to tackle. Betrayal and fear shoved into every closet, mutual antipathy ground down into every thread of our twist pile carpet. I wanted to dustbust the marriage detritus, dustbust her justifications, but I’d already learned: the Dustbuster can only hold so much.
In my marriage I’ve broken all the rules I made for my future self as a child: I’ll never yell, he’ll never drink too much, I’ll never swear or shove, we’ll love just enough to forever keep us in an orderly, perfect alignment. I didn’t know then that getting dirty isn’t a choice—it’s inevitable.
In my marriage, we fight. In our fights my past is often transmogrified. We get mad, we ruin dinner, I break a remote, then break another, he slams a door, punches the wall, I throw myself off the porch and scream into the grass. Yet the difference is the aftermath: that incontrovertible grime it leaves behind that we willfully, immediately recognize, and labor at once to scrub away. Rather than allowing our bitterness to slowly boil then hopefully evaporate with time, mirroring the paradigm of fights I grew up on, we call out the other’s mess when we see it. With every why and what for and pleasecan we not anymore and what did you mean, we wipe down the obvious films of dust and move on to where decay resides: those concealed psychic baseboards and window panes, the forgotten space behind the toilet. We take on this grit together to see clearly where it is we live, and with whom. It is not in a carving on the wall but in this work where we find our prayers, and help each other answer them.
Still, despite these ideals, in my marriage I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit parsing out whose mess is whose. Sure, I’m happy to dust my desk in my office, but when my husband announces our dining room table looks dusty, I ask “Does it?,” give him a look, and wait for him to clean it. The longer I’m married, though, the more I wonder who is delineating the his role and the hers. It’s difficult to unlearn what our childhoods have encoded, what we never believed but enacted for the families who would accept nothing else, because we were playing the parts they’d prescribed.
According to my mother, I should grow up to never take shit from men, let them clean up their own messes. According to my Mc-fathers, I should become the kind of woman who doesn’t give men so much shit. It’s through the continual polishing of my relationship that I’ve been able to gradually reject that either/or dichotomy. The more time we spend dusting ourselves off after a fight, or spot-cleaning our marriage when we’re not, the more the influence of Mc-everythings from the past starts to subside.
Because there is no precedent for the scene in which I often find myself: my husband in our kitchen, mixing sauces for Chicken Mario or a red pepper and tofu stir-fry, working purposefully toward each meal that feeds us fully. We never eat from the paper sacks of my youth. For an aesthetic sense of parallelism, and as a gesture of gratitude, I make sure we eat his lovely dinners on my shiny tables. No: our dinners, our tables.
When the Smithsonian acquired an original model of the Dustbuster in 1995, the year my mother began her third marriage, 100 million had been sold. McDonald’s, meanwhile, heavily marketed the Arch Deluxe sandwich in an effort to cultivate a more adult image. Only, no one bought it. It was a standard burger with all the regular fixings, but with the lagniappe of sweet Spanish onions and, as noted in one advertisement, “a secret sauce for grown-ups.” The problem, it seemed, was the tremendous effort and dollars spent in the narrow hope of catering solely to adults. Millions of sesame seeds atop their potato flour buns went uneaten, went unspilled upon the twist-pile carpeted floors of America, went un-dustbusted. McDonald’s experiment with maturity resulted in one of the most expensive flops in the history of branding.
Black and Decker now sells nine popular models of the personal vacuum that pivot easily to pick up larger debris, use lithium-ion technology powered by cyclonic action, offering a more hygienic cleanup with less clogging than ever before. The world apparently still needs the Dustbuster, but I don’t. When I spill plant soil on the carpet I vow to get the old Tri-Star repaired. I’ll accept no substitutes if we’re going to go all the way, because a real partnership calls for a real vacuum.
BROOKE CHAMPAGNE was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work appears in Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Louisiana Literature, and Bending Genre online, among other journals. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays.
There comes a time when you’ve seen the underside of the bus too many times. When you stand up, brush yourself off, and decide you will not be near the bus when it comes flying by. That you’ll be beside it or away from there, but not under.
Three days before our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband told me he was leaving the marriage. He had talked of being unhappy for some time. We had spent years—weekly—in the office of a marriage counselor. But this time he meant it: he planned to leave. When I asked about the timing, he said he couldn’t stand to go through with the anniversary. I cancelled the hotel, the babysitter. I couldn’t return the custom gift I’d had made for him, a drawing I commissioned by his artist cousin depicting a note that was important to us both from our first months together. If you are wondering why, of two people in the same marriage, one would be commissioning art for a gift while the other would be planning his moment of exit, then you have a good point. We were not, as they say, on the same page.
Before that, many good years.
Our two daughters and I would wait for him to come home at the end of the workday. Since I was a classroom teacher, I got home first. We would sit on the front steps of our house and watch the corner for his bike to come around it. Then there was a race and happy shouts, girls running toward their daddy, my husband: he would stop on the sidewalk and ruffle their hair, listening to their important stories about their days. Up the stairs together, all four, and into the house for dinner. Even as I write this, I can still feel how much his face, his smile, him, would melt me back then.
It’s palpable, the change. Slowly he started to withdraw his hand from mine. One day we finished an errand early and found ourselves without kids, near a favorite restaurant downtown where we had a gift certificate. I suggested we park and grab a meal, just the two of us with a stolen hour. He wanted to go back home and get our kids first. Not because the sitter had to go. Like the anniversary, he couldn’t face the meal alone with me. That’s what we did. We fetched the kids, let the sitter go, and ate as a family.
Say what you like. Maybe it was the brutal cancer treatment I did, coming on the heels of some difficult years as I recovered from childhood sexual abuse. But I’ve seen other couples with as much on their plate, strengthened by the challenges, bolstered by the hard work. I’ve seen it done—with nerve and with grace.
It was probably already too late when we started couples’ therapy.
The pattern became familiar.
Our hour with the clinician began.
My husband would point out my flaw: You don’t fight fair. Something.
I’d agree with him and hustle to change my pattern. (Who doesn’t have a flaw or three?) I’d work on it hard with my own therapist for a week or two until I could shift, show progress. I loved him and I really wanted my treasured marriage to work, so I did it.
The next week he’d agree I had addressed the original flaw and improved. But he had a new flaw for me to work on.
I shouldn’t take online quizzes. I take them sometimes, looking for an answer. What changed? When I see that he gets a 25-out-of-25 as I score him for “behavior your spouse might show if he’s having an affair,” I’m sad for us. It doesn’t ring true—I don’t believe he would cheat. He says no when I ask. In my mind, I retitle the quiz “behavior your spouse might show if he has removed himself emotionally from the marriage.”
Once we moved to Chicago, we would occasionally walk with our daughters by the looming stone building with gargoyles where we spent our wedding night almost twenty years before. I remember we’d had the penthouse suite that night and I’d stood by the leaded glass windows in the dark, watching the full moon over Lake Michigan. I’d felt full of magic and promise that night, like the luckiest girl in the world: sent off by my loving family into the arms of this perfect man.
Whenever we passed the building with the girls all those years later, in the thick of the crowd on the sidewalk, I would point my daughters up to that floor, to that night, where their parents’ official union began. He would shove his hands deeper into his pockets and walk on, ahead of us, silent. They knew not to ask me what was wrong with Dad. We followed in his wake.
There were so many signs, had I wished to read them.
We married in February, my attempt to add something—our love, our anniversary—to a month that, with its gray end-of-winter, wasn’t my favorite. If I disliked February before, I now loathe it. November, the month our divorce was final, bookends the grief. The specific days within those months: February 26 the delirious beginning, November 2 the sober end. Time will return the months to me. Soon I will say to myself, What day was it again? And in this way be healed.
He was livid that I sometimes took a sticker off a piece of fruit and, instead of throwing the sticker immediately away, affixed it to the side of the kitchen sink briefly until throwing it away later. Livid.
He was upset that he had to be the one to make coffee for my visiting, out-of-town friend when he thought I should have made it for her, should have gotten up a half hour earlier.
The bad years. The last ten.
Under the bus. I lived there. Thrown or situated there of my own will. Even in that ditch, I remembered my spunky self who had lost her voice.
Among the signs, according to the Internet:
One partner creates a more private life.
The hours he stayed up with his computer after I went to bed.
His refusal to introduce me to his new friends. “I’ll be back late.”
His weekly poker game to which I wasn’t invited.
His solo appearance to his work holiday party.
His refusal to give permission for our couples’ therapist to speak to his personal therapist.
Disclaimer: Yes, people do find they are in the wrong marriage. He did.
Disclaimer: People can also leave their marriage.
Disclaimer: I’m sure I have many annoying qualities.
Disclaimer: But I have great qualities too. Loving truly and never quitting are two.
Disclaimer: Yes, he can still leave. And he did.
Disclaimer: I don’t get to understand it from his point of view. But I know how I felt. I felt finished.
On the day our divorce was final, almost twenty-four years after our wedding day, I had lunch with my mother. I think I had tuna sashimi and barely touched it, took it home. I think I had wine at two p.m. I kept insisting I was fine, but some iceberg inside me was calving. Later that day, I got an email from my now ex-husband. It was about dividing bank accounts. He said that all in court had “gone smoothly.” (In Illinois, only the one who files must go to court. I stayed home.) It had been so long and, since there was no going back or changing his mind, I did want to be free, but I couldn’t help splintering a little more as I read that note from him. We had undone what we did that beautiful, snowy, hopeful February day so long ago. He did not say there were many things I loved about being married to you. He did not say thank you for the love. I didn’t say those things either. He said that the divorce went smoothly and here are the forms I should sign to divide the assets.
I stayed for my children and because I believed we were having a “rough patch.”
I am not religious, but I believed marriage was forever. At least I believed my marriage was.
I believed in our past. We had been happy. I believed that that husband would come back.
I stayed because I loved him.
February 23, 2014. We were both watching an early hockey game on TV. The weak, February sunlight filtered in through the bay windows of our rented apartment in Chicago. Our pre-teen daughters were asleep. I was on the side of the couch closest to the wall, and he was on the side closest to the doorway. He stood and turned the TV off to make the room silent. Then he told me quietly that it was over and he was leaving. He said he was leaving.
When he graduated from his Ph.D. program the year before that, a triumph even the girls had been involved in, he didn’t want us to fly and attend the ceremony with him.
Of course we would! I said. And I bought the plane tickets.
In his blue robe and cap, in all the photos, his disappointment is evident. He didn’t want to celebrate with us. Or maybe just with me. Like the anniversary, the meal out, birthdays. Like the night of Obama’s second election when I had two VIP tickets and I took a friend because he, a huge Obama fan, preferred to stay home on that same couch. My younger daughter saw me on TV that night. I was in the front row—with a friend.
Once, when I was sobbing at the mediator several months after that fateful February morning of the hockey game and my husband was joking with her, turning on the charm, I asked him why he had filed for divorce.
At first he didn’t hear me over the laughter, so I repeated my question.
He said—smiling, directing his comment to the mediator—“Oh, you weren’t meeting my needs.”
Then they smiled together about it.
I got a lawyer.
I’m embarrassed that I tried for as long as I did.
Two years after my cancer diagnosis, I wrote in a journal that he had said to me that day: “I’m having a midlife crisis and I don’t know how I feel about you.”
It’s a tired old line. This exact line is #14 in the Internet quiz of twenty-five items.
Which doesn’t mean he was having an affair. But it does mean he was removing himself emotionally.
I thought I wouldn’t survive it, his leaving.
The man I had planned to die next to, whom I had loved with all my cells, was gone—to his weekly poker game, his friends, maybe even to his sadness. He took the dining room table and one of the cars, and he was entitled to that. The kids and I were home after school and work, on weekends, and no one would be coming back from work by bicycle just before dinner.
I especially hated the weekends I spent alone when the kids went to his house. I wrote my way through them, pages I would make sure no one ever saw but that still got me to morning. I hardly noticed as it became less acute, as I didn’t need to call a friend or force myself to go to a movie, as I could sink into the evening and know that whatever it brought would be fine. I got to know myself again. I rediscovered my natural spunk, a ferocity that had been burnished during my married years.
The idea that we won’t survive something is a failure of imagination. Now I know: I might not have survived his staying. I’m sure I would have had all the trappings of being alive and fine—but my spirit. Being on my own gave me my spirit back.
He liked to say, especially in couples’ therapy sessions, that he thought I suffered from borderline personality disorder. The first time he said it, I was worried and suggestible. That was a big claim, an incendiary one. He was “diagnosing” me with a disorder that doesn’t respond well to treatment or medication. I went back to my own therapist, with her Ph.D. and thirty years of experience, and I asked her. I asked her, crying, shrinking into the comfy green chair where I spent a lot of time these days. She laughed kindly. She said, “You have PTSD. That’s it,” referring to the fall-out of the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from. Later I asked my psychiatrist as well, my glamorous runner psychiatrist who vacationed in farthest south Chile, who was also a mom: warm and compassionate, worthy of respect, who knew me well. She also swore that that was not my diagnosis.
I was reassured by their confidence. I had confidence in their confidence.
But he and I had to discuss it many times when he brought it to the couples’ therapist over and over.
A marriage starts to unravel. So many things are said, and most of them are best forgotten. But this piece, this particular grenade he lobbed and relobbed. This “claim” or “concern”: it is outside the way I believe people should be treated. It’s the thing I’ll remember, sadly, more than the father coming home by bike, more than our happy years when he still enjoyed dining out with me. I will remember this little piece of cruelty—repeated and sharp. I looked at him and wondered what in the world, who in the world? And although I didn’t know it yet, I was looking at the end. And the beginning of my spunky, messy life. Hard-won. It turned out that I could survive his leaving. I imagined it, and then I stepped toward that life, my life, the one that had been waiting for me.
CAMERON GEAREN is a poet and essayist living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Dame Magazine, Hippocampus, Ravishly, and elsewhere. She is the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. In 2016, her book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out from Shearsman Press. On Twitter she’s @camerongearen.
He revealed this fact to me on our second date, as I put a forkful of the insalata di frisee in my mouth at the Italian restaurant he’d recommended for dinner.
“I’m sorry?” I said, trying to swallow without appearing overwhelmed by the kidney that suddenly arrived at the table.
“Yeah, I don’t like to get into this conversation so soon after meeting someone. But I wanted you to know what’s been going on with me,” he explained.
Rick, or Rican Rick as he called himself on the dating app where we met, was forty-eight, one year older than me, Puerto Rican, balding, bearded, and four inches shorter than my usual preference in potential suitors. Scootercrunch, my online moniker, was newly single after a two-year relationship that soured, dissatisfied with his corporate communications job, and searching for “the real thing” by finally swapping out drunken hook-ups for serious dating.
I hadn’t expected “serious” to translate to a man who spent most of his adult life on dialysis, dealing with one failed kidney after another.
“What else you got?” I joked in an attempt to unpack all his baggage before the entrees arrived.
“Well, I haven’t really worked in seven years.”
And there it was. This attractive man, obviously thin and dealing with a disease, played his whole hand as my roasted chicken and his pasta nudged in between me, him, his kidney, and his unemployment.
The big revelations in gay dating usually consisted of HIV status, recent STDs, favorite sexual positions, and whether or not one of you suffered a serious porn addiction. On a recent date, a middle school English teacher sipped Merlot and plainly announced, “I like to come home after work, smoke a joint, and watch porn.” I immediately sensed I’d be third in line behind weed and over-the-top orgasms. Now that I was confronted with real life problems, I was unsure how to address my feelings about them.
“This is not the man for you,” said my friend James, when I told him about Rick.
“There are some serious red flags going on here,” said my sister during our weekly phone chats.
“Absolutely not! We’ve already had enough death and illness from cancer, let alone bad kidneys.” That was my brother, who begged me not to take on someone with health problems.
Cancer lurked in the shadows waiting to take the next member of the family—at least that was our fatalistic outlook. First our father from brain cancer almost twenty years ago and then more recently our mother after a brutally quick three-month battle with lymphoma.
Our working class parents weren’t the care-giving kind. The sympathy gene never made it to the next generation. You had a cold; you tried your best to go to school. God help you if you stayed home with the sniffles and spent time whiling away the hours watching television.
“If I come home and find you had that TV on, you’ll get the belt,” assured my father.
And he wasn’t kidding. He’d march upstairs to press his hand on the back of the TV to determine if any offenders had snuck into our parent’s bedroom and watched afternoon soap operas. The trick? Only keep it on until three p.m. so it had an hour to cool before his arrival home.
When our mother struggled with cancer, my siblings and I badgered doctors, questioned nursing home administrators and attempted to rally my mother out of her own feelings of doom. But we already loved her. She wasn’t someone new entering our lives.
I often teased my brother that when we got older I’d move in with him and spend our remaining days as brothers drinking and helping each other to the bathroom. “Look pal, it’s bad enough you’ll live here when you’re old, but I’m not taking in some guy with a bad kidney,” he concluded.
For Rick, an ongoing battle with renal failure combined with fear of romantic rejection seemed easily outmatched by my battery of questions and confessions of uncertainty on entering this relationship. In his former working life, he managed a career in the mental health field, so I was on the defensive from his comebacks to my questions.
“What would I do if you got sick again?” I inquired.
“Well, Scott, you could easily get sick anytime too.” Touché.
I told him to watch out as both my parents died of cancer, and I was surely the next one to be afflicted. He found my sense of humor troubling.
“What happens when I come home from a tough day at the office and I say you don’t understand because you don’t work?” I hoped being up front and honest would win me points.
“So it sounds to me like Scott would have feelings of resentment,” he suggested.
“What about a year from now when you’re still not working?”
“You’re assuming things will be a certain way a year from now, aren’t you?”
He made valid points as I learned how Medicare and a supplemental plan covered his medical bills and how he maintained a living. What I didn’t like was his therapeutic approach in response to my honest hesitations.
When he stumbled once in conversation, I joked, “You’re not stroking out on me are you?” A long pause filled the air.
“Don’t tell me you’ve had a stroke before?” I asked.
“Well, they’re not sure what it was,” he replied.
“Are you kidding me?”
During my last relationship with a guy six years my junior, we were dating only a few months when an evening of Mexican food resulted in him rushing to the restroom repeatedly with stomach cramps.
“You’ve got a sensitive stomach,” I proclaimed, chalking his boo-boo belly up to the spicy salsa we just ate.
“No, this is not salsa pain. It’s something more serious,” he said.
“You’re fine. Gosh, what are you going to do when you hit your forties like me?”
My poor attempt at a belly pain diagnosis backfired. The next day he summoned me from work as they wheeled him from the ER into the operating room to remove his swollen appendix. All the while he glared at me with an unspoken “I told you” from underneath the silly surgical hat crammed on to his head. Any ache or pain announced during the rest of our two-year courtship immediately ignited my fears, and I quickly encouraged him to see a doctor or head straight to urgent care.
Our love story already had begun taking shape when the appendix appeared right after that chips and salsa appetizer. And, that was not a chronic illness defined by stages and the possibility of failure. My former boyfriend’s appendix wasn’t making a comeback. Kidney failure, on the other hand, remained a possibility for Rick.
I started to question my goodness and whether I was a bad person for wanting to pass him over because of his maladies or lack of current career mobility. As a grown adult I confessed to ending brief affairs of the heart by ignoring calls or texts or coming up with transparent excuses. It was hard to hate yourself for following a dating blueprint adopted by millions of others. But meeting a truly genuine and honest person confronting real-life struggles and dismissing them outright seemed cruel.
I agreed to another date.
In between our meetings, Rick wondered aloud about sex and when we’d explore physical affection. I kept things strictly above the waist and insisted that somewhere between date three and date ten “something surely was bound to happen.”
But it didn’t.
Sunday brunch and casual shopping served as our third date’s agenda. He arrived fifteen minutes late, a pattern I noticed once the kidney and career conversations took a back seat. Before settling on a selection or deciding on a non-purchase, he subjected every waiter or retailer to a multitude of questions and follow-ups. He complimented my good skin repeatedly as if nothing else interesting about me stood out. My humor, Rick pointed out, wasn’t always necessary, and I needed to listen more and talk less.
I wasn’t a bad person, simply someone on a bad date … a third one of my own making. Forget the kidney, and possibly a stroke. No burning romance ignited inside my heart. There was a sense of emotional availability for sure; we certainly talked about his feelings and what he needed. What my brain forgot was why I started seriously dating again in the first place.
I yearned for a true meaningful connection with another man who complimented my late forties skin, yes, but also my wicked sense of humor and my ambitions. I didn’t need analysis—and while the thought of dialysis didn’t exactly excite me—I did need some stirring below the waist to know that sex wasn’t going to wait until date ten.
I agonized over how to tell Rick my heart just wasn’t in it. Friends told me to get over it and rip the band-aid off now, and early, before feelings took shape or sex slipped in to fill the expected next step I swerved to avoid.
We met a final time a week later, having already purchased theater tickets in advance. I waited between nervously devouring the guacamole and paying the bill to tell Rick that this felt more like a friendship than a budding romance. He listened, of course.
“How do you feel about it?” I prompted him.
He paused for a few minutes before replying. “You know. I think we have very different communication styles.”
It felt like the first real connection and mutual agreement we had since meeting.
After the show we chatted briefly on a cold, windy street corner and hugged goodbyes, promising to stay in touch. We haven’t. I watched him confidently walk down the street, moving on to the next adventure life held in store for him, and I did the same.
I was hung up on his physical ailments and lack of a job too quickly, which delayed my discovery of the real issue—our incompatibility. It wasn’t so much about health or career. Of course they mattered when taking in the whole of a potential mate. And yet, it really did come down to the fact that we simply had no chemistry. Rick wasn’t right for me or I for him. Someone needed to say it and save us both from grasping for companionship so blindly rather than patiently staying single.
Truthfully, the kidney mattered too. I wasn’t ready to love someone who brought renal failure as a possible third wheel in our relationship. But with Rick, I hope I did my best to take care of his heart while I practiced stretching mine.
SCOTT GERACE is a corporate writer by day and an essayist by night. He currently resides in New York City. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Purple Clover. Read his work at www.scottgerace.com.
He burst through the door of my bedroom, pulling me from blissful sleep. Startled, shirtless, harried, and vulnerable—I still thought of myself as new to New York—I turned to face my intruder. The shirtless man with the scar above his left eye was my roommate of the past five months. His face was as animated as it had ever been. “Hey, Eze,” he said. “You need to get up. Some crazy shit is happening right now!”
Daniel was prone to embellishment and hyperbole. So, I assumed that the “crazy shit” he was hyped about would eventually become much ado about nothing.
I was in no mood to begin the day. Cursing him underneath my breath, I turned away from my roommate. Daniel, still hyper and insistent, would remain undaunted. He parked himself at the foot of my bed and yelled down at me. “Why are you going back to fucking sleep right now? Get up man! The towers are burning down! The fucking towers are burning!”
I was a recent transplant—I’d arrived in the spring of 2001—and still somewhat impaired by exhaustion. I didn’t understand what Daniel meant when he said that the towers were burning down. Daniel, a Brooklyn native, was standing in the common room in front of the television, completely rapt by what was being broadcast on the screen. The tops of two buildings were engulfed by massive flames, and thick, black smoke was snaking its way toward the sky. I thought that he might have been enraptured by a television movie, that is until a banner flashed across the bottom of the television screen that read: Breaking news: World Trade Center Disaster. And then came the video of the two airplanes hurling themselves into the façades of the World Trade Center buildings, followed by reporting from a catatonic news anchor. This was definitely not a movie.
The two of us ran up the hallway stairs until we reached the roof of our East Williamsburg apartment complex. The sky was a clear blue except for the area above lower Manhattan, which had been blanketed with the fearsome black smoke. As we watched the billowing smoke clouds spread more of their pernicious hate across the sky, Daniel posed the question that was like a blinking light inside of my brain: “Is the world ending?”
The September 11th attacks would not prove to be the end of everything, though it did presage the end of something precious that I was unable to put into words.
The world would go on for Daniel, for me, and for everyone else that remained alive in the new world. Daniel was still thinking about securing a license to drive trucks while concocting more nefarious schemes to make money. I’d accepted a job as an actor with a traveling theatre troupe a few days before the attacks had taken place and had received assurances from the theatre director that the show would go on. I thought it was serendipitous timing that I’d been offered the theatre tour a few days before the terrorists attacked the city. For the air that I had been breathing in the wake of the attacks was a miasma of rage, charred metal, and burning bodies, an extremely toxic mixture that was affecting my psychological health. Spending an extended time away from New York City, where breathing in the noxious mixture was a regular thing became necessary.
I exited the city a few weeks after September 11th, one of five passengers of a cream colored van and trailer, relieved and grateful to be leaving a city that was still twisted from the wounds that had been inflicted upon it by terrible men. I was eager for the adventures that lay ahead on the open road, though somewhat peeved that Daniel insisted that I continue to pay rent even though I would not be living in the apartment for the next two months. I hoped things would improve for the city while I was gone.
I returned to our apartment building on December 15th, feeling shrunken and skinny after having walked a few blocks in the bitter cold. The cold was made worse by my worried mind. Repeated attempts to contact Daniel a few hours before had proven unsuccessful.
I scanned the windows of my apartment for signs of activity. There was nothing. No lights. No music. Nothing. It was night, but it was still early, and for there to be no sign of life inside at this time was unusual. I knocked three times on the metal door. No answer. I knocked again, harder this time. Still no answer. Freezing and frustrated, I took a few steps backwards, looked up and screamed his name: “Daniel!”
“Hey,” said a voice, startling me.
I wheeled around to meet the voice. A burly and bearded man, an employee of the adjoining bread factory, was walking toward me. “Are you looking for the guy who lived on the second floor? Daniel?”
Lived? Did he say lived?
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I am.”
“He doesn’t live there anymore and you can’t go in there,” the bread factory worker told me. “Dude got murdered a few days ago. The place is a crime scene.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
And in that instant, a once inviting home morphed into a sinister structure. I backed away from the apartment slowly and quietly, so as not to disturb the demons that were at rest inside.
On the subway, I thought, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Though exhausted after three months of traveling and powering through shows with my theatre group, I should have been able to bask in the glow of a monumental accomplishment: I had established myself as a paid New York City actor. But I’d returned to a building complex that had been locked and sealed by the New York City police, a place that was no longer my home.
Where can I go?
It was the question that I had to ask myself after hours of riding the subway train, hunched over in my seat, still reeling from the news of my roommate’s untimely demise—I was reeling for myself as much as I was for my roommate. Besides the clothes that I was wearing, the suitcase that rested on my shins contained everything in this world that I could call mine at the moment. And it was a very small suitcase. Compounding the shock at my roommate’s unexpected passing was the explanation for why Daniel was no longer alive: murder.
I called the police station a week after I’d found lodging at an upper Manhattan hostel facility. My reasons for calling the flatfoots were not quite so honorable, though. Reaching out to the police—something that I hoped that I never have to do—had not been a byproduct of my suspicions of what happened with my roommate, although I did have an inkling as to why he’d been murdered in cold blood.
What I needed was access to the apartment so that I could retrieve the property that I’d left behind. My computer, headshots, and some of the other things that remained in the apartment were essential components of my nascent acting career.
The cop on the other end of the line seemed to perk up at hearing my reason for calling and said, “Why don’t you come on down to the precinct so that we can talk about a few things? After we talk some, we’ll go to the apartment and pick up your belongings.”
After hanging up, perspiration attached my clothes to my body, blood drained from my face, and my stomach felt hollow—my normal reaction to fear. With that call to the police precinct, I’d enmeshed myself in an open murder case, a real big ball of shit turds! And for what? A couple hundred two-year-old head shots, an obsolete computer, and some other things that were replaceable? I was so hesitant to enter any kind of police station because I believed that it was the place where my current vulnerabilities—young and black, homeless, and alone—would be amplified.
Unable to quell my combustible emotions, I took a walk down Broadway, taking in the cool air to clear my head of poisonous thoughts. When the cloud containing these thoughts cleared after a mile or so of walking, I set my mind on visiting the station house the next day.
After entering the police station, the realization hit me that I was probably within the vicinity of a few human cages.
I was received by two detectives. One of them was a white male, middle aged and balding, dressed in a short white short-sleeve shirt and black tie, a grizzled veteran of the Brooklyn police department. The other was younger, black and better looking, had all of his hair, and sported a slight mustache.
I sat facing the older detective, who proceeded with his harrowing rendition of what had taken place in my apartment while I was on the road.
On a cold night in December, two men rang the doorbell to the apartment building in which Daniel and I had lived, announcing their presence. Daniel made his way to the window overlooking the avenue below, looked down to the street, and recognized the faces of his eventual killers. And so, thinking that he was safe because he knew his assailants, he had permitted the visitors entry into the apartment building. As soon as the killers crossed the threshold of the apartment building, they stopped for a few moments to collect themselves in the dark, then covered their faces with black ski masks. The assailants sprinted up the stairs that led to the apartment, shoved their way through the door with guns drawn, bound and gagged the new residents who were visiting from the apartment one floor up, and then proceeded to torture Daniel while making demands for the money that he owed for drug sales. When it became clear that Daniel would not be able to meet their demands, the assailants forced him down on his knees, shot him twice in the head, and ended his life. He was only twenty-seven years old when he was killed, a baby boy cut down in the prime of his existence.
I was quite shaken. Both the detectives were able to easily ascertain that, and they gave me some time and space to process everything that I’d just heard.
Although I’d lived in that apartment with Daniel for five short months, I knew that he’d been involved in questionable activities involving drugs and drug dealers. Some of the dealers would spend some late nights over at the apartment, laughing and inhaling smoke from gargantuan blunt cigarettes while conducting business in the common room, keeping me awake as I attempted to sleep in the adjoining bedroom.
The most frequent visitor was a guy named Jesus, a temperamental, rotund man of impressive height who wore glasses and sprouted a thin beard on his face. His body type and temperament had been diametrically opposed to that of Daniel, who had been skinny, balding, clean shaven, slight, shifty, and calm while alive. Daniel and Jesus mostly got along despite their many dissimilarities, except for those times when Jesus felt that he’d been “disrespected” by Daniel.
A particular instance came to my mind. Jesus and I were alone in the common room—the only time he and I were alone in my apartment. He fumed as he recounted the story of how Daniel, while being taxied around Brooklyn by Jesus, shed crumbs from a pastry that he’d been eating in Jesus’s car. Jesus remembered Daniel breaking into laughter after he’d chided him for his offense. And then Jesus’s face went beet red as he said, “It’s the ultimate sign of disrespect. Dropping crumbs in another man’s car, right? You wouldn’t like it if someone dropped crumbs in your car and then laughed if you asked that person to clean that shit up?”
“Of course, you’re right,” I said. “I wouldn’t want anyone shedding crumbs in my car and then laughing about it.” I inhaled a breath, for I had transported myself back to the memory of when I returned home from job hunting one afternoon and caught Daniel rifling through the contents of my duffel bag. I was a brand new tenant at the time, and not in the mood for another apartment search, so I shrugged off this disturbing discovery, taking Daniel at his word that he just wanted to make sure that he could trust me, the new guy. “But I don’t know. Maybe he just doesn’t understand that what he did was offensive. Or maybe he thought that since you guys are friends that you would let things slide a bit.”
Then came the explosion. “No, fuck that! I fucking asked him, and he should have taken me seriously. I ain’t got to take that kind of shit from him!”
“You’re right,” I said, waving my hands in surrender. “He should’ve known better.”
The detective seemed to be zeroing in on Jesus as a prime suspect for Daniel’s murder. I was more than eager to answer any and all of the questions that led to the hardening of the detective’s suspicions about the guy. Jesus’s professed trade was that of a professional bounty hunter. Bounty hunters use guns to accomplish their work, and I assumed that Jesus owned a significant stash of weapons. I also knew that if the detectives suspected that Jesus was involved in the murder of my roommate, then I could also be in immediate danger. And I would definitely feel safer if the police were able to capture the man who could potentially commit an act of violence against me. So, I cooperated with the police in every way possible.
But you know how the cops can be. Suspicion of others runs in their blood, even in the case of an individual—a person who was not in town at the time of the murder—who had voluntarily agreed to come down to the station to aid their investigation. The grizzled veteran wanted to know more about the drug sales, which were things that I hardly knew anything about.
He raised an eyebrow at my insistence that I had no knowledge of any actual transactions taking place and said, “A murder at your apartment. Lots of visitors coming over at all hours of the night, and you don’t know anything about any deals that might have went down at your place?”
Fear spread through me, increasing my blood pressure and the intensity of my subsequent breaths. I could hear my pulse pounding on the inside of my ears. My intuition began to whisper. “They’re going to try to keep you in here. Be careful what you say!”
I’d been away from my childhood home for only seven months, and in that time, I’d had to wrestle with the reality of a terrorist attack, the murder of a roommate, and the subsequent bout with homelessness that followed that murder. There was no way I was going to be able to accommodate having to spend a significant amount of time in a police station where cops and criminals roamed, thousands of miles away from home and family, and in a city that I barely knew. I was going to have to smack the nose of the dog that was clamping its jaws. “Look. I don’t know anything about any drugs deals. I have never sold drugs and I never will. You need to find Jesus. He is the one you need to talk to about all of this!”
And when he became resigned to the fact that my story was not likely to change, the bulldog would eventually release his hold on me.
The younger detective took my back to my apartment and allowed me to enter. My heart broke upon first glance at what the apartment had become, the scene of a horrific and terrible crime.
Before it had been defiled and ransacked, this unit had the look of a warehouse that had been converted into a makeshift art studio; an impressionist painting encompassed the entirety of the living room wall. Daniel and I had lived harmoniously with two young actresses in happier days.
Daniel was the native New Yorker, the man with all of these connections to all of the cool and interesting people. These people often graced the apartment with their presence when parties great and rambunctious, small and intimate, were held. He’d even allowed me to tend bar at one of his house parties, even though I knew nothing of bartending. The actresses—both of whom had moved out of the apartment before the murder—and I were grateful to have been within Daniel’s orbit.
But Daniel was gone now, an unfortunate casualty of a world that is often very cruel and unforgiving, and life was moving on without him. His apartment looked as if a tornado had ripped through it, and Daniel’s dried blood was smeared along the wall behind his desk. I swallowed the urge to hurl at the sight of the blood and continued ahead, wading through the wreckage in the search for my things. The detective’s pattern of movement through the apartment would match my own.
When we arrived in what had once been my bedroom, the detective informed me of Daniel’s older brother, who lived in a more affluent area of the Brooklyn borough. “He has kept your computer for you,” the detective said. “You should go and talk to him.”
He wrote the number of the brother on the back of his card and handed to me. I let out an audible sigh. I was going to have to talk with Daniel’s older brother now? That was certain to be another unpleasant, although necessary, thing that I was going to have to do.
As I approached the L train station with what possessions I was able to grab in hand, I heard a voice from behind calling my name. Heart pounding, I twisted my head around to meet the call and saw that the black detective was jogging in my direction, carrying photographs in his right hand. My headshots! “You forgot these,” he said handing the photos me. “Good luck to you.”
“Thank you,” I said, grateful for the gesture.
It was then that the anxiety and fear began give way to an incipient faith. There was a reason why I had been spared the fate that had befallen my unfortunate roommate. The serendipitous timing of the theatre tour spoke to something larger at work in my favor: I had an ally of the invisible kind, protecting me.
So I was going to be all right, just like the city of New York was going to be. We would both persevere. I’d just have to get through meeting with Daniel’s brother before I could begin to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. It wasn’t fair I had to start again from the bottom, but I was young, energetic, ambitious, and too brave and sure of myself to travel back home with my tail between my legs. Surviving at the hostel for the next few weeks before I embarked on my next tour of the United States of America wouldn’t be too difficult. And after touring, I would return to New York City with the wind beneath my sails, ready for the next stage of my journey.
EZE IHENETU is a hospital worker and freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. Once a teacher and an actor, Eze is confident that writing will be the last stop on his long professional journey. He is currently working on a memoir about his time as an elementary school teacher. You can reach him on twitter at @Eihenetu.