When I hung up the phone, I excitedly told Tommy that my long-lost camp friend was coming to spend the weekend with us. He hesitated for a moment – asked where she would sleep, how we would arrange things in our small apartment – and I assured him we would figure something out. These were some happy times in our relationship but from time to time, Tommy expressed unwarranted jealously. This was one of them.
We had a few days to straighten up the place and get groceries to help our guest feel welcome and cozy in our happy little space. There wasn’t much to organize, as I kept quite a tidy house and Tommy was really good about keeping organized too. In this way, we were great partners. He hated a mess and so did I. It was part of my morning routine to wipe down the kitchen counter and table with Windex and vacuum the small living space and bedroom. We had a filing system for mail and other papers which we set up together. I was the financial guru in the house; Tommy did not have a checking or savings account, he had never kept a checkbook or had his own credit cards. By this time in our relationship, I guess we had been together almost two years, he had a full set of “secondary user” credit cards which I had arranged through my credit card companies. We had an agreement that if either of us wanted to spend more than $500 on something, that we would talk to the other before making the purchase. For a while, that worked really well. I was making enough money in my managerial position at the bookstore and managed the bills really well – never paying late, keeping balances low and maintaining good files at home. Tommy agreed to be in charge of rent. He lost and changed jobs often and there were long stretches when he did not work at all, so I would occasionally have to dip into savings to keep things running smoothly. Overall things were going well and I did not feel a sense of urgency about money. Having grown up in The Bronx, Tommy was used to doing laundry in a laundromat and didn’t mind about helping with putting clothes away. I mostly did the grocery shopping during the week because the stores were on my way home from work and we only had my car but during weekends we’d go early on Saturday morning to beat the crowds and be able to spend our days grilling and hanging out with his friends. So, in preparation for Louise’s stay, I went to the store a few days before to make sure I had enough snacks and food to welcome her. I adored playing the role of being Tommy’s little woman – his Angel – as he lovingly called me because he felt I had saved him – and I could not wait for Louise to see how far I thought I had come from our days in summer camp.
Brian was a six-foot tall black man who had seen difficult times growing up in The Projects. Tommy was five foot eleven but walked like he was seven feet tall. The two made quite a comic pair. During Tommy’s drug dealing days in The Bronx, he and Brian somehow crossed paths and became friends. Brian was hopeful that one day he would be a member of Metallica because he played a mean air drums to “Nothing Else Matters“. Whenever he and Brian got together, they told stories of the good old days that made anyone in the vicinity laugh big hearty belly laughs. They were only in their thirties when I knew them but you would swear they were two wrinkled old men when they started to reminisce about the old days in “the neighborhood”. They filled hours with their comic adventures of crimes gone awry. They sounded as though they had moved way past those shenanigans and in a way they had. “Moving to the beach and finding a good woman” made Tommy feel he had put his life in The Bronx seem very well placed in the past. It was Tommy who encouraged Brian to move to the beach to make a clean start for himself, to get off drugs and make an honest living, but Brian never seemed comfortable living sea-side. We helped him find an apartment, conveniently located down the street from ours, and Tommy introduced him to his cronies in our town in hopes of landing them both jobs. The town where we lived was mostly Italian-American and very much racist. Back in the day, Tommy was known as “Mighty Whitey T” because when he had hair he was blond with wild crystal blue eyes and ran with a mostly black and Puerto Rican crowd. He earned his street cred by being fiercely street smart and was always up on his game, as was Brian. They made strange bedfellows indeed.
After work one sunny summer evening, I picked Louise up from the local train station. Always considerably overweight, Louise barreled out of the train station with more bags than seemed necessary for a weekend stay. She was dressed all in black which made her stand out in our beach community but this did not phase me. She was here and with her she brought stories of our own naughty adventures at camp. We embraced and giggled and I loaded her artifacts into my car and we made our way to my little apartment. She was surprised that we lived in the upstairs portion of a private house. Louise had grown up in a Manhattan townhouse and currently lived in a Second Avenue apartment building. She had a clear sweet sounding voice and had a way of making people instantly warm to her. It was just the two of us at the apartment, so I fixed us something to eat and we chatted about my life with Tommy. She commented on how cute our place was, and how lucky I was to be so “settled”. She couldn’t wait to meet Tommy, who I explained was with Brian so that we could catch up and have our girl time. Louise asked about Brian, as single girlfriends often do. When I told her to forget about it because he had a troubled past and was currently out of work, she said that didn’t bother her – after all she was only staying the weekend. Only staying the weekend.
Later that night we met up with the boys and made our way down to the beach. Louise had fished around to find out if I was a pot smoker – no way I told her, and explained how Tommy was trying to stay sober- so, she let it drop. When we met up with the boys, she pulled me aside to showed me the dime-bag of Hashish she had brought with her, and asked me if I thought Brian would be interested in smoking it with her. I told her he probably would be but not to bring it up because he too was trying to make a clean start. Of course she ignored me and at some point they walked away from us down the beach. Tommy rolled his eyes and suggested we go home.
We snuggled up in the bed and talked about what a disaster Louise and Brian would be as a couple. Tommy asked me to try to talk her out of it and I assured him I would. I talked to him about how she would always be the one to devise a naughty plan for us at summer camp but that those little adventures were fairly harmless. He outright told me he had a bad feeling about her and I, of course, defended my friend. I remember having the same feeling but did not want to be right, so I pushed that thought aside. When we woke up in the morning, Loise’s bags were neatly organized in the living room where we left them. Obviously she and Brian spent the night together. Tommy told me he would call Brian later to find out what happened and I got showered and ready for work.
When I got home that evening, no one was home. I called Tommy’s cell phone. I could hear voices in the background but he avoided answering me when I asked him where he was and who he was with and if he had seen Louise. He said he would be home in a half hour and that was all. My stomach was unsettled and I didn’t know if I should make dinner, so I waited. He stumbled in with Louise and Brian nearly three hours later. They were all drunk and I was clearly angry. I asked Tommy if he had been drinking and he told me I needed to relax. He had been sober, as far as I knew, for months. I was furious but did not want to make a scene in front of my friend and his. Louise put her hand on my shoulder whispered in my ear that she really liked Brian, and they had so much fun all night and day. We moved into the bedroom and she told me all the details of her night with Brian. She painted the picture that this was just what she needed – a little fun. She told me they had decided she would move in with him. I was shocked and told her she was crazy, that she had known him for less than twenty-four hours and how could she do this. She admitted that she had been kicked out of her apartment and had nowhere else to go. She said she would have gone to her mother’s in Queens after the weekend, but fell into the good fortune of meeting Brian. I felt sick. The room seemed to be spinning all around me and I could feel my face getting redder as she went on. The boys were loudly talking and laughing in the next room and when we entered, Tommy took one look at me and repeated you need to fucking relax, life is good Maria. Try to have some fun.
The days and weeks after filled me with anxiety and suspicion. Tommy had started drinking heavily again. I was beginning my Master’s Degree in English Literature at Hofstra University, taking classes three nights a week after work. I always made it home before Tommy. Most days he said he spent the day looking for work and then took the evening to relax and have fun with friends, meaning Brian and Louise. It wasn’t until about two months into this that I realized he was smoking pot with them behind my back. Louise denied it when I asked and so did Brian. Tommy and I had a raging brawl over this. He told me I needed to skip on back to school and mind my own business. I thought he was my business. We had a life together and now it was being infected. I blamed Louise and Brian for my relationship issues.
I took solace in my classes. Academia was a world I felt comfortable in. Safe. I loved listening to lectures about Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost and found myself having sympathy for the primary character, the devil. Milton’s Satan had fallen away from heaven for loving God so much he wanted to be God. He was the angel that was most loved by God and is the one that fell the hardest. When the story begins, Satan is chained to a lake of fire… I found myself relating to this character more and more. My Catholic upbringing taught me the greatest sin was, indeed, pride. So, I pushed thoughts that I was better than Tommy – or deserved more- way, way, back into the recesses of my psyche. This particular class was led by a professor who had published many papers on the works of Milton. She was an expert. Our class was small, only eight students, and we had lengthy and heated debates about the characters. I felt that familiar connection with my professor that I had experienced with others in my undergraduate years. I admired her work, her tough assignments and her detailed feedback. When she assigned our first major paper – minimum twenty pages examining three key characters we had read about so far – I was up for the challenge. I had to find some time to write after work on the nights when I was not in class and realized I would need weekends too. I gathered the sources I would reference and created an outline for myself. When I began writing the first time, I felt stuck; that awful block when a writer is unable to organize thoughts into clear sentences. Tommy hated seeing me on the word processor (this was before the days of real computers) and demanded I spend time with him and that I should get off that fucking thing already and pay attention to him. In an effort to save my relationship, I procrastinated on my writing and figured I would get it done last minute. In my undergraduate years I had a knack for writing A papers by pulling all nighters. This would not be the case for me now.
When I handed the paper in late, it was only fourteen pages long. My professor commented that it felt thin but accepted it anyway. She handed it back to me the following week and asked to speak to me in her office after class. She point blank asked me what was this crap I had handed in. It took all of three seconds for my eyes to well up with tears. I could not answer her. I knew it was crap. She asked me what was going on, that the writing I handed her did not match the discussions we had in class. I don’t know why but I let it spill – I told her about my relationship with Tommy, that he demanded my time. She asked point blank if he was an alcoholic or if he was doing drugs. I nodded my head, yes. She told me I had a choice to make – to leave him or leave the program because there would be no way I would be able to write the amount of work that was required of me in the program if I were living with a drug addicted alcoholic. I left her office feeling defeated. My dreams of becoming an English Lit professor evaporated with my tears. A few weeks passed and I decided to drop out of the program. Things with Tommy had been escalating and I knew there was no way I could do it. I knew my professor was right.
I was beginning to accept my circumstances; I had a relationship that was spiraling out of control, my childhood friend turned out to be someone I could not trust and with the retail book world’s increasing use of discount programs our high-end publishing/retail company refused to join the pack. They maintained that they were a high-end retail boutique, offering publications that would eventually maintain a customer base that sought exclusivity in the purchasing experience. The executives at the company felt we would survive the discount trend. It was a shaky time, so I held on to my academic pursuits and went down to the registrar’s office at Hofstra to find out how to change my major. I at least had sense enough to know that continuing my education would eventually get me what I wanted in life. Though, I had no idea what it was I wanted. I acted the way I often do during a crisis. I went into autopilot and just acted. I kept the wheels turning.
And turn, they did.