This is the story of a part of my life which spanned over 41 years. It is not a trip down memory lane when time was young and so was I but rather a tiny insight into a life that I now view as a tragic waste.
When I was 24, I was working at a well-known, established hangout where all the locals came for a good country meal. It was also the place where the elite Ivy league college students came. They came for the food but mostly they came for the beer and the music.
Saturday, August 17th, 1974, was the day my life would change forever. That’s the day I met him. A mutual friend introduced us and I offered the obligatory “nice to meet you” but he didn’t even look at me. He just responded with a grunt. He was one of those elite graduates of the college. He was a reporter for the local newspaper and had aspirations for a higher position.
After that initial introduction, I noticed that he came to the hangout on a regular basis. He would always sit at the end of the bar on the last stool. He just sat there, looking at his beer. I rarely served him because I didn’t work in the bar area but on those few occasions when I did, he always ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, which was a salami and onion sandwich on pumpernickel.
His pants were always somewhat wrinkled and he often wore the same corduroy shirt. His left sleeve was split from the cuff to the elbow and the sole of his left shoe was coming off. I remember thinking to myself “this poor guy has nothing.” I felt sorry for him so I had our delicatessen person make a special sandwich for him. I told her to put everything on it that she could but I forgot to mention pumpernickel bread. I proudly took him the sandwich and handed him a free beer. A few minutes later, I went back and asked him how he liked the sandwich. He answered with a sneer and said “it was great. Do you think next time you could put it on fucking pumpernickel?” It hurt my feelings and that sort of reaction was nothing I hadn’t experienced during my formative years…but that’s another story.
Later that evening, he overheard me talking about going to the laundromat. He jumped off of his bar stool and asked me if I would wash his clothes for him. I said I would even though I was taken somewhat aback. When he gave them to me, his underwear was among the clothes. I was embarrassed that I was handling the underwear of this man who I had only just met. He never offered any money and even though he thanked me, he acted like I should have been honored that I had been asked to do his laundry.
I continued to talk to him and slip him free food and beer. He intrigued me. He was tall and clearly intelligent. He was what I would call unconventionally handsome and very aloof, I believe because he viewed himself as smarter than everybody else. I was no idiot but I was uneducated, which would in later years become an embarrassment for him. He would often tell me that I looked like a “truck drivers’ wife” because I wore my hair pulled back tightly in a bun, which was necessary considering my job. I never said a word even though I thought it was demeaning.
After work one night, I went over and sat down with him at the bar. He told me that his wife had just left him. He seemed to be shaken up about it and was drinking away his sorrow. Although he didn’t give many details, he did say that he came home one day and she was gone. They were high school sweethearts and had only been married for a little over two years. He gave me the impression that it was her fault that it didn’t work out.
Our “relationship” slowly evolved and we started spending more and more time together or so I thought. He would invite me over to his house which was just a block from the hangout. I would arrive and several of his friends would be there because they had come over to play bridge. I didn’t know how to play and it wouldn’t have mattered because I was never invited to take part. Instead, I would literally sit in the corner for hours and hours while he played. It was only when he got up to get another beer or make a quick bathroom run that he at least glanced my way. I could have walked out and I don’t think he would have even noticed. He was all about himself and it would become a theme in our lives.
I would ask him to take me places and he would agree although most of the time, begrudgingly. I had a car and he didn’t, so I had to do all the driving. When I would get to his house to pick him up, his little brother would be waiting. I had no idea where he had gone but I enjoyed his brothers’ company so it was okay. It never occurred to me to question this strange behavior.
He was a huge reader and one day he asked me to go to a used book fair with him. I was never a reader but I went. He gathered up several books and then asked me if I had any money. I had my rent money and nothing more but I gave it to him. He never offered to pay me back and I had to borrow the money from somebody to pay my rent. He would ask me for a dollar at times. I would scrounge around and try to dig up 100 pennies so that I could take them to the 7-Eleven to get a dollar bill. I was too embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t have a dollar.
I was at his house often and most of the time I would just sit around while he read a book. I would sometimes work on a painting. One day, I made him mad and he picked up my red oil paint and threw it across the room. It went everywhere…all over his clothes, all over the walls and all over the floor. That was the first real outburst of anger that I had seen from him and it had an impact. I never painted with oils again. There was no apology or remorse. He acted as if he thought I should apologize for making HIM angry. Anger, abuse, neglect and indifference were the only things I had ever known and it was as if I was drawn to him like a moth to a flame.
There was no intimacy between us for the first several months….not even a kiss. I finally asked him if he was ever going to kiss me and he impatiently said “I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.” That was actually okay with me. I had tried to figure out who this man really was and what made him not only think he was so superior but what made him seem to be so indifferent but at other times, attentive. It was at this point that I decided to end it. I could see no future with him. I had noticeably been damaged and he was obviously not the caring, nurturing type. I wondered if maybe we had just become a habit for each other or he just enjoyed the free beer and sandwiches. When I tried to end it, he angrily asked me what I was talking about. He said “I love you and you know I love you.” I was stunned. If what he had shown me was love, then I had clearly misunderstood the definition of the word. I had never really known love and had no manual but I knew that I was looking for a knight in shining armor to rescue and protect me. When he told me he loved me, I wanted to believe it. I had been starving for love and affection and he was offering it to me, even if it was obtusely.
Christmas was coming and I was pleasantly surprised that he bought gifts for me. Months before I met him, I had lost a cameo ring. It was a gift from a former boyfriend and the only piece of jewelry that I owned. I guess I went overboard with my grief and he got tired of hearing about it. He gave me another cameo ring. It was touching but tempered with a feeling of admonition when he said “now maybe you will shut up about that fucking ring.”
He was still wearing his wedding band and I asked him to take it off. He said “okay.” There was no hesitation, no look of regret or even a hint of sadness. It was as if I had asked him to hand me a cup of coffee. It had only been five months since she had left him and she seemed to no longer even be a thought.
A few days later, he was going “home” to spend some time with his family, and he said he wanted me to meet them. He had told me about his “mama and daddy” and it was clear that he had a good relationship with them. He had told me on a few occasions that I reminded him of his mama. He told me that his mama dipped snuff (I didn’t) and that his daddy smoked cigars. His parents had been married a long time and he said that he would be willing to bet money that his daddy had never even looked at another woman. I remember thinking that I hoped he was like his daddy. I remember hoping that they would like me.