Everything I have written about in this blog up to this point has been absolutely true. I have used real names and written about events as accurately as I can. I will admit that the order in which things occurred may well be a bit jumbled but that does not lessen their having happened. Where I have chosen to protect someone’s identity, I have simply not given a name. Starting with this post, I will need to use pseudonyms for at least two people who, I assure you, are very real. I feel I need to do this out of respect for them and their privacy. Perhaps one day I will discuss my writing with them but as you will see, that may not go well. Until then, I feel it is important for me to not use their real names.
When my my not-yet-husband, Tommy, confessed to smoking crack, snorting cocaine, and drinking himself half to death for four days in a local hotel room with his best friend Brian, I felt as though I were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I gave him my fill of name calling, screaming and throwing items around the room. But I stayed. God help me, I stayed. Over the course of the next year, he pulled this disappearing act at least three more times that I can remember. Each time he would cry, I would yell, we would collapse in each other’s arms in tears, make love and move on trying to put it past us. Each time he said he wanted to stop, made efforts to stay clean and we found ourselves right back where we started from. Tommy worked and lost jobs, we fished together and he by himself. We had so many ups and downs it became normal to experience his disappearances, loss of money and cleaning up after the mess he left for us to struggle through. I’ve often thought about why I did stay with him then because I remember how angry I was and how dark and soiled this whole situation felt. Part of me was was hugely embarrassed that I had gotten so deeply invested in him. Another part, I must admit, was a bit excited by the drama of it all. There was certainly never a dull moment with this wild boy-man. Still, another part of me was convinced that with time, patience and love I could certainly fix him and make him love me endlessly. I know much better now and often wish I could have sat down with my younger self and explained all of this. But I have no regrets because I know I needed to learn certain lessons.
So many important events in my career happened that year. The bookstore I was managing and had been with for four years could no longer afford the rising cost of rent for the exclusive North Shore Shopping district it had been a part of. The corporate office told me to fire eighty per cent of the staff and to expect construction to begin on decreasing the size of the once palatial bookstore. My sanctuary was being destroyed and there was nothing I could do about it. Firing people whom I considered my only family was difficult and caused me great upset and sleepless nights. Several staff members were angered that I had fired them despite my attempts to handle the situation as humanely as possible. I was following corporate orders and honestly, glad to have my job. A few months after I had fired everyone, I was handsomely rewarded with the news that my services were no longer needed. They were getting rid of me in order to save money and promote my assistant manager. Since the new space would be reduced to forty-five percent the size of the original space, there would only be a need for one manager, two full timers and one part timer. I had never lost my job before and losing this one was more than just losing a job. It was losing my sanctuary, my friends and family all at once.
One day, Louise announced she was pregnant with Brian’s baby. Brian was overjoyed, but both Tommy and I reacted the same way, feeling sick knowing that both Brian and Louise were still using drugs on a regular basis. At the time, I thought it was reckless of her to get pregnant but a disaster of gargantuan proportions to carry that child to full term and have it. Nevertheless, over the next several weeks, Louise and Brian then told us they were moving to California to get clean and have our baby where there are no drugs or temptations. Louise asked if she could borrow some money to get settled and she would send it back. I told her not to worry about it, that we were friends for life and that I would be happy to just hear about their happy life in California. I had mentally washed my hands of them when they left, hoping Tommy and I could finally get down to the business of repairing what was left of our badly damaged relationship. Tommy breathed a deep sigh of relief, admitting both of them were poison to us for so many reasons and that he was glad to see them go. We knew we would miss their friendship and the laughter but we were happy to get on with our lives in peace.
I was well into the first year of my Master’s degree studies at Hofstra University in the Education Department and working part-time at a high-end department store that was opening a new location on Long Island not too far from where we lived. Tommy was working mornings on the party fishing boats again. He got home about 2:30 in the afternoon and liked to go out on the boat we bought at the beginning of the season. I had taken out $10,000 above what I needed on my student loan and bought a 1964 30ft Chris Craft straight in-board engine boat that was in fair condition and ideal for fishing. It was Tommy’s idea to get the boat. He convinced me it would save us a ton of money on vacations (which we never took) and give us the most use out of our time living near the beach and the inlet where we did most of our fishing. He also convinced me it would be a great way for us to bond and spend time together every evening and weekend. He convinced me that having the boat would connect him to nature again and create a new sense of responsibility; a diversion from being bored which is what so-often lead him to use drugs. Finally I agreed and it made me so happy to see him smiling and feeling useful again.
Tommy was making a real effort to stay sober during this period of time. He decided he could handle having one beer on occasion instead of an entire six pack. In the wake of missing Brian and looking to attract positive people into his life, Tommy decided to reconnect with his estranged cousin Aiden who lived upstate. Aiden and Tommy grew up in the same Bronx neighborhood which was, at the time, mostly Irish-Catholic. They played together, spent holidays together and got into boyhood hijinks together. When Mary, Aiden’s mother, noticed that the neighborhood started to change, becoming less Irish and more Dominican and Puerto Rican and West-Indian, She decided to move herself and her only son Aiden to a “better” part of the Bronx. The part with less drugs and crime. Tommy and his brother Mickey stayed behind and Tommy eventually fell in with the wrong crowd and never got out until he went off to jail. The cousins had on-again off-again contact with each other over the years. Aiden, Tommy’s cousin was married to his high school sweetheart Claire. Aiden and Claire were now parents to two teenage boys and living in Upper Putnam County near the border of Connecticut. Aiden had a good engineering job at the local hospital and Claire was a medical assistant at a local doctor’s office. The cousins chatted, laughed and got caught up. Tommy had railed on about what an angel I was, how smart I was because I had been in college, how I was sweet and classy and not like those bitches from the Bronx. He boasted that he was a new man and that I was the best thing that ever happened to him. and by the end of that phone conversation we were invited to spend the weekend upstate as Tommy would continue to refer to it. He continued to say upstate, though in the big picture of New York State, their town was really considered Downstate. This was a fact Tommy understood but decided it was so far from Long Island, it might as well be upstate. So that was how we always referred to it. Upstate.
We arrived upstate on one of those summer days when there is a cool breeze but the sun leaves your skin warm and smelling of sunshine. I was a bit nervous about meeting Aiden and Claire, as I knew I would be getting the once-over from them. They wanted to see for themselves if everything Tommy said about me was true. I didn’t know what to expect… were they rough talking like him? Would they be educated? Good or bad looking? Cool or warm toward me?…
Aiden and Claire’s house sat on a small hill on a street that had no sidewalks. They had a long blacktop drive way that that had four cars parked on it. Tommy beeped the horn of my Nissan Sentra, and out the loose screen door ran Casey, their German Shepard mutt barking and drooling an excited greeting. Next, Aiden punched the door open. I remember his subtly red hair and big happy smile. He was slightly bow-legged and stood at the same height as Tommy but much slighter build. Aiden never worked out but had a slim build. He had a little paunch of a belly, possibly from a few too many beers over the years but had a friendly smile on his kind, boyish face. Just as the cousins were embracing and back slapping and laughing, out came Claire with a big wave and arms stretched toward me for an embrace. She had shoulder-length blond hair, sharp blue eyes and the body of a little girl. A few extra pounds stayed close to her waist and lower body since having the kids years before but she would not be considered heavy by any means. She was covered in freckles on her face and arms and was cute and very motherly looking. My first impression was that they were two warm, sweet people and had the appearance of being a comfortably married couple who seemed more like brother and sister than husband and wife. I was so relieved… they seemed normal.
We went inside for a bit and had iced tea and some pretzels and potato chips to munch on. Aiden was excited to show Tommy his grill and Claire and I hit it off right away. We talked about her herb garden and the flowers in her front yard and life up in the country. She admitted she was better suited for a life of farmer’s markets and five-mile drives to the local grocery store over city life in The Bronx where they all grew up. We sat all four of us on lawn chairs on the front lawn, sipping iced tea and talking and laughing in our shorts and t-shirts until the sun began to set and the lightening bugs flashed their wares. It was a perfect summer night in the country. The temperature dropped slightly and we all grabbed sweatshirts and began preparing dinner by the grill. We ate, talked and laughed some more. It’s like we had been best friends for years. Tommy was so happy that night. As I was helping Claire clear away some dishes, we met each other’s glance and he looked at me with a tender loving look that told me how much he loved me without speaking a word. That night Tommy and I cuddled up in each other’s arms and slept a restful contented sleep. It was the first in a long time. I felt we were coming back to each other.
In the morning we woke to the sound of Casey barking, the screen door banging and the smells of freshly brewed coffee. Tommy and I showered and dressed and met Aiden, Claire and the boys at the breakfast table. The boys announced they would be going to a local water park with some friends and other parents as escorts. The boys shoved toast in their mouths and guzzled orange juice, grabbed their beach towels and ran out the door. Claire and Aiden high-fived when the screen door slammed behind them confirming their exit. The four of us had the day together to laze about and have fun. We were like peas in a pod; we shared stories, laughed and laughed, Tommy pointing at Aiden and exclaiming on occasion, this guy – you were always a funny motherfucker. We all pitched in to prepare and cook meals. At night, Aiden took us to his pride and joy, his basement bar. He had built it himself to match the exact proportions of his favorite bar in The Bronx, Saints and Sinners. Claire and I drank White Zinfandel and the boys drank beers. I was a little nervous about Tommy drinking, but said nothing in fear of ruining the weekend. By the time we left their place, we had been so happy to have made new fun friends who were also family. The boys were reconnected and I had a great new girlfriend. We planned to go back again in two weeks time. We were all so excited.
It went on like this for about a year. every couple of weeks we went upstate for a visit with them or they came down to Long Island to spend time on the beach. During the winter months we saw each other a bit less but made sure to spend Christmas together. Tommy was keeping his drinking under control. After several conversations with Claire, I decided to try going to Al-Anon meetings to sort out my emotions about Tommy’s drinking. I suppose I was also looking for a support network to talk to when things got rough, as I expected they might. The four of us were like birds of a feather and sincerely enjoyed each other’s company.
By January of the following year, Tommy and I moved one town further inland from the beach. It was closer to where we were docking the boat and consisted of whole first floor of a nice house with a fenced-in yard. In February of that year, Tommy and I got engaged and adopted a baby Rottweiler. She was an adorable puppy…shiny black coat and a cute round face. I named her Maxine because I thought it would be cool to have a dog called “Max”. I got a book about dog training techniques from a friend and began to teach Maxine some simple commands. By spring, we resumed communication of our friends upstate and started making arrangements to see each other. We went up to their place for a week this time. Aiden and Tommy made repairs around the house and Claire and I went to yard sales. At night we lit the wood burning stove in the living room and drank White Zinfandel and beers, talking and laughing. I started to think about what Aiden and Clair’s intimate life was like. Started to wonder who initiated sex between them after so long together, if they were passionate or not. I suppose that happens when you spend a lot of time with another couple. Things were beginning to unravel between Tommy and I despite out engagement. Claire made a fuss about the ring and how pretty it was, but she did not know he had put it on a credit card which I paid the following month.
When the summer rolled around Aiden and Claire were involved with some issues with the kids. It was difficult for us to find a time that worked with all four of our schedules to see each other. Tommy started going out on the boat more frequently because he lost his job again and told me he was continuing to stay dry not drinking at all, not even on the boat. One day I drove up to the dock to tell him about a phone call he received at the house and noticed the boat had taken on about three inches of water. I opened the engine cover, turned the key to start the engine, and pulled the bilge pump to drain the water. When I went under the hull, I found a case of empty beer cans. Some crushed some not, spilling out of the case box. I let the water finish draining, closed the engine cover, turned the key out and left the boat the way I found it. I had suspected he was drinking but previously had no proof. Now I knew. I said nothing that night.
A few weeks later I asked him if he were drinking again. We began to fight. There was screaming and yelling and now barking from Maxine. I told him I was going to leave him, that I had enough of his bullshit. I wanted a life, I said, but not this kind. I packed my things and drove to my mother’s. I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly three years at her insistence. Now that I was home, she asked if it was for good so I lied and told her yes. I was only there for a week.
Less than two months later we were married at City Hall by a Justice of the Peace.