Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chapter 15: On Butterflies and Fireworks

I have been thirty for well over a month now, and if the remainder of the year goes as well as the last seven weeks have, my quest to go “From Nerdy To Thirty” will likely be deemed a success. I have seen myself go from the depths of depression a mere six months ago to a font of optimism today. And how could I not be optimistic? I am in love, and someone is in love with me!

When last I wrote, I was proclaiming that out of the blue I have a boyfriend, and now suddenly I’m in love? I guess for Ramón and me to realize what we almost missed out on makes us appreciate all the more what we have. That awareness fostered an overall openness that endeared us to each other quickly and our mutual endearment in turn begat love and its proclamation. And the best part is: he said it first. I know I am historically the type to fall too hard, too fast, so when those three little words started tempting my vocal chords, I stifled them.

I didn’t want to complicate the good thing we had going by professing my love, only to have it unreciprocated. The moments of free-fall while skydiving are far less intimidating that the ones in which the words “I love you” float unanswered in the air. Ramón is a particular mix of sensitive and sensible and I couldn’t be sure how he’d respond to the L-word, and didn’t think I could handle a negative response to my effusions. Besides, I was pretty certain that he knew how I felt about him because I felt pretty certain I knew how he felt about me, so it could safely be left unsaid.

One day we were lounging on my bed, just staring into each other’s eyes like in some Bryan Adams or Peter Gabriel song. I was enveloped by a warm and peaceful sense of contentment. As we lay there, Ramón repetitively opened his mouth and inhaled, as if starting to say something. After a few minutes of him behaving like a grouper out of water, and of me suspecting what might be on his mind, I said, “You seem like you want to say something.” He mumbled a reply to the contrary, so I left it at that.

A few moments later, my intuition was confirmed when he said, in a voice barely audible, those oh-so-sweet three little words. Even though I saw it coming, the way my body reacted was something I’ve never experienced. I am a girl who enjoys the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. They can be induced by seeing a guy I am falling for, nerves, or going over a hill in the road or apex of a roller coaster. While Wikipedia has the entry for “Butterflies in the Stomach” filed under its “Disease” category, it is something I couldn't live without.

When I was a child, my brother and I would seek out the thrill of those butterflies like junkies seeking a fix. The road behind my grandfather’s house, aptly named Hillside, was a rolling thoroughfare. At family get-togethers we would beg our Auntie Betsy to take us for a drive on that road. When you hit the crest of the hills just right, butterflies would follow. As a young woman, I found great joy in the butterflies induced by a newfound romantic infatuation. I realized one day that the only time I’d felt butterflies with James was when he intentionally sped up before the small rise in the West Side Highway near 96th Street. While this was a sweet gesture, its artificial induction was no replacement for the real thing. It was an instance when I truly should have listened to my gut.

With Ramón, my gut is telling me a different story. When I walked up to the café to meet him for our reunion in April, my stomach was all a-flutter. From that point on a simple glance or touch from him (or even a wanton thought of him while sitting at my desk) could send my stomach somersaulting. None of those errant butterflies compared to the bevy that was released upon hearing him profess his love for me. In chorus with the butterflies, my heart leapt into my throat. It was a jolt I can only compare to the time I accidentally laid my hand on the electric fence wire surrounding the paddock housing my Grandmothers horses, albeit entirely more pleasant. Oh, and in case it isn’t obvious: Once my internal organs realigned themselves, I told Ramon I loved him too.

As if in some reverse-Lenten fever, over the last forty days we have seen each other almost daily – spending well over three hundred hours in each other’s company (yes, I counted). Working a block from each other means we can meet up for a quick coffee and a kiss, lunch, or an after-work rendezvous. Our outings are varied, but generally standard date material: dinner and a movie, a hike through the woods, hanging at friends’ houses, an overnight trip to the North Fork of Long Island, brunch, and a museum visit. Ramón has been spending some weekend evenings at my house, and I have been spending an increasing number of weeknights at his place.

Throughout our adventures Ramón continues to give me reasons to fall for him. Ever the gentleman, he is quick to open the car door for me. One day I was alone in the office and could not leave for lunch, so he brought me over a sandwich. He reaches for my hand any time we are walking somewhere. He gave me the CD containing the lovely song he had set as my ringtone so I could listen to it. When he says he will call me, he always calls. The dirty clothes I leave in the drawer he emptied for my use are magically returned freshly laundered. And in a particularly charming gesture, en route to my first visit to his apartment, and in an effort to encourage future visits, he presented me with a gift. It was a “SmartLink” card that is automatically replenished with fares for the PATH train that goes to New Jersey from Manhattan. I sometimes wonder how I came to be so lucky and try to figure out ways to reciprocate.

So while I am falling head-over-heels for this man, the wounded pragmatist inside me, having been once bitten, is now sadly twice shy. I want to navigate this relationship with my eyes open and to know that, while it may be rainbows and unicorns right now, ultimately it takes work to make any relationship succeed. I recognize that “falling in love” is the easy, fully enjoyable part. It is dictated in the subconscious by a mix loneliness, lust, readiness and hormones. It is building a love-filled and loving relationship that requires the effort, and that is what I hope Ramón and I are cultivating with our exchange of affectionate gestures.

In building our relationship, Ramón and I have independently and jointly envisioned our future together. While we cannot be certain what exactly that future holds, we both enjoy relishing the possibilities. We talk about it in “ifs” not “whens,” but the mere fact that our future is an accessible topic of conversation gives me great relief. Being able to discuss what we want out of life and finding that in general we are on the same page only solidifies my feeling that this is a much different relationship than my marriage was. I wouldn’t say I am learning from my mistakes but rather learning to appreciate what a true relationship – and the actual relating that creates it – can be.

To our disservice, James and I rarely talked about the important issues that create a strong foundation for a marriage. We each filled out a brief questionnaire before meeting with the pastor who was to marry us, but beyond that we never broached subjects such as finances, children or our grand life plan. Many things that should have been hashed out well before our engagement were never discussed. Those that were brought up more often than not resulted in a disagreement. To prevent further altercations, I refrained from mentioning the difficult subjects on which I knew we had disparate viewpoints. I decided somewhere along the way that in time James would grow to be a responsible family man, and all I had to do was stick by his side until that time came. I only hoped it was sooner rather than later. One example of the different pages we were on was our views about starting a family together.

I think around high school I began harboring the desire to have my first child by the time I was thirty. My mom and dad were young parents, twenty-five and thirty respectively when I was born. Granted, it’s not prom night childbirth young, but they were always active and energetic with my brother and me. I wanted, as a parent, to have the energy to chase a toddler around; to stay up sewing the child’s Halloween costume long after she went to sleep but not be bleary eyed in the morning to feed her breakfast; to not embarrass the poor kid with my out-of-touch fashion or music preferences; and to ultimately be around when my grandkids and great-grandkids were born.

My twenty-fifth birthday came and went, along with one boyfriend after another. At twenty-seven I realized that if I were going to have a baby before I turned thirty-one, I would have to meet the father of my unborn child that year. It would leave me one year to date, one year to be engaged and one year of newlywed bliss before conceiving. Simultaneously I realized that I was in no position to be raising a child at that point. A broke waitress living in Manhattan is not exactly set up to become Mother of the Year. But I figured if the balls were in motion at least I could set my eyes on motherhood at thirty-one, thirty-two, or thirty-three.

When I met James it felt like he was the right guy coming in to my life at the right time. In retrospect, if the life plan I’d concocted was a square hole, James was the round peg I was trying to force in it. Certainly my resolve to make the relationship work, if only to fulfill some great scheme I’d concocted, did nothing to further its cause.

However, James was wary to reproduce again. Jamie was such a perfect child, he said, that he didn’t want to risk having another who turned out to be a lemon. In my eyes, I knew that having a child with James in the near future was inconceivable (excuse the pun) as he was barely a father to the one he already had. I was willing to wait until the time was right for us, when he (and I) had matured enough. Rule number one of relationships is you can’t change a man (or a woman, for that matter). Why I thought James would change on his own or under my coaxing is unclear. It wasn’t until we were in couples counseling that I was bitch-slapped with the realization of just how ridiculous my “if onlies” were.

“If only we moved in together(I pepper my entries with links, and even if you don't click on any other , I beg you to click this one)

“If only he didn’t go out with his friends so often.”

“If only he became a better father and let me be a step-mother to his son.”

If only I hadn’t expected him to change. Just as the discussion of children was shelved, so were all others of any significance. I avoided the confrontations and therefore avoided the reality of my situation. I honestly don’t think reflecting on our future was a priority with James as, in his own words during the dissolution of our marriage, he never saw us growing old together in the first place.

In stark contrast, when Ramón and I discuss our future together, it comes very naturally as part of our everyday conversations. Nothing is forced and nothing is a battle. I think most women browbeat their men with persistent nagging to settle down and procreate, and the men do their best to avoid these discussions. In a refreshing and somewhat startling role-reversal, it is Ramón who often brings up these fairly sensitive domestic topics. His matter-of-fact way of interjecting them into our exchanges puts me at ease. As a result I generally feel comfortable telling him about my dreams and aspirations without fear of ridicule or avoidance on his part. In the last six weeks we have shared many of our considerations for our future together.

Over dinner one evening, Ramón casually asked me how many children I wanted to have. I answered, but was so surprised by the inquiry that I don’t think I posed the question back to him. The query came during a conversation about parenting, during which I asserted, “I think I’d be a good mother,” to which Ramón replied, “I wouldn’t be with you if I didn’t agree.” This was not a conversation I would have expected to have with a man who’d only that morning called himself my boyfriend for the first time, but I guess at thirty, with one child and one divorce under our respective belts, these sorts of things can be discussed matter-of-factly. Heck, the on-line dating services ask these sorts of questions, why shouldn’t the actual guy you are dating?

With the “number of children” question out there to break the ice, our discussions continue to share our visions of our shared future. I mentioned at one point that I wasn’t sure what I would do in December when my lease expired, whether I would want or be able to afford to continue living in my Inwood apartment. Ramón replied “Assuming we are still together when your lease comes up in December, I doubt I would be happy if we didn't move in together.”

We’ve even discussed what our wedding would be like. I think Ramón is in a way grateful to potentially marry a girl who has already had her dream wedding as he doesn’t seem to be one who would make a big fuss about that sort of thing. During a discussion in that vein, I quipped, “We could just walk down to the courthouse on our lunch break one day and get hitched.” True to the nature of our relationship, he responded “I was just thinking that.”

Other topical issues pop into our conversations: the use of diamonds in engagement rings, the option to terminate a fetus known to have Downs Syndrome, the idea that baby food should be homemade rather than from a jar, an individual’s right to bear arms. I think we listen to each other’s opinions knowing that the answers are more than just political but also personal. Because the conversations are started casually they are easily revisited, even if they didn’t result in us completely seeing eye-to-eye the first time around. And even if I disagree with Ramón on a topic, I definitely enjoy hearing his arguments because they are always well thought out and clearly articulated.

The crazy thing is, after three years together, I don’t think James could have articulated my stance on any of these issues. In fact, I sometimes wonder what the hell we talked about for all that time. Because of his overbearing nature, I often felt too intimidated to bring up anything of a delicate nature. And goodness knows he never bothered to ask.

In relationships past, I would normally fret for hours or even days over how best to ask the guy’s feelings on an issue, big or small, or how to tell him my own. I would become overwrought trying to build up my courage and then blindside the poor fellow with whatever it is that was weighing on my mind. With tensions thus raised on both sides, the likelihood of an argument increased dramatically.

To avoid these face-to-face conflicts (and not just in my romantic relationships), I often prefer to address my concerns in writing. The advent of word processing, e-mail, on-line chatting and text messaging has created forums far less formal than the pen-and-paper days of yore. Electronic messages can be conveyed casually, yet precisely. Often when I am angry or hurt, I feel like a frustrated child, unsure what exactly it is that is making me unhappy. I just know I am upset. Typing out and editing a letter helps me sort through my feelings (much like writing in this blog does) and ensures that I say what I mean rather than simply say something mean. Perhaps writing as a means of conflict resolution (or outright conflict avoidance) is a crutch propping up my awkward nerdiness, but it is one I value nonetheless.

My relationship with James had no written component (aside from mundane text messages about what was for dinner or when I would be home from work). Over the course of our entire relationship he sent me exactly thirteen e-mails. Most of these contained material he would normally have texted, but as I had a penchant for leaving my phone charger at home I was often rendered unable to receive texts. The very first e-mail he sent me said simply, “There, I've sent you an e-mail. Now hopefully we can a cyber couple, and go on AIM dates and play online games together when we should be working.” His opinion of e-communication was pretty clear (and frankly downright mocking), which left only our flawed verbal communication.

As nerdy as it may seem, I cherish the e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, YouTube forwards and yes, even the occasional hand-written note, which Ramón and I exchange. A simple “Thinking of you!” beamed up to a satellite and back down to the earth only a block away from the message’s origin gratifies me as either sender or recipient. On days that we can’t meet for a post-market close coffee, in Ramón’s words, these “nuggets of intraday joy … add a bounce to my step.”

I have used e-mail to ask Ramón questions that were overlooked during a tête-à-tête but later still piqued my curiosity. My nonchalant questions are met with nonchalant answers. In another example, Ramón e-mailed me one day to air a concern that was “not a big thing, small enough that I didn't want it to consume any face time together and small enough that I felt comfortable emailing about it instead of [discussing it in] an in-person conversation.” (Of course his comment was in response to a misinterpreted, poorly worded text message I had sent, so the lesson here is clearly that electronic communications lack the nuance and inflection of their verbal counterpart). Yet clearing up that misunderstanding meant that when we met up later that day, we spent the entire time enjoying each other’s company and not working out some conflict. So, despite the possible pitfalls, I value our e-lationship.

Despite our open channels of communication, Ramón has, on a few occasions, seen my unfortunate tendency to dramatize the raising of concerns. Recently I sent him a long e-mail outlining a concern I had that I feared would be a deal-breaker for him. I had spent far too long lost in my own head running over how to present it to him and what his possible responses would be. I spent hours crafting a letter to him, pasted it in to an e-mail, and clicked send. I waited nervously for his response, and when it came I was overwhelmed by the kind, calm and rational response. His reassuring reply (and I quote verbatim) included the following words of support, “Calm the f@$k down. I'm not going anywhere! We'll figure it out together ... I love you!” After breathing a huge sigh of relief, I thanked any deity who was listening that this man was in my life.

And securely in my life, he is. We are becoming more entwined with each passing day. Last weekend I met his nine year old daughter. Yes, this is the same daughter who I was told “would never meet a woman I was seeing until a ring was on her finger.” But given the fact that I have been spending time around his apartment, Ramón decided it was in everyone’s best interest if I was at least introduced to her as his “friend from the dorm at college.” I enjoyed meeting her over lunch and a couple games of “Go,” followed by ice cream. She is a thin, pretty girl, who is intelligent with a shy giggle. Upon meeting her I immediately thought of my young cousin Sierra, and making that connection left me much more at ease.

I had met Ramón’s baby mama in passing one day, and just last night Ramón and I met up with her for a little while. She is very laid back and quick to laugh, and in no way seems threatened by my presence. Next week Ramón’s parents will be in town, and he is arranging for the four of us to go to dinner. Getting to know the people in Ramón’s life is helping me understand how he lives it. He’s asked me to keep the specifics of his family life private, but I think I can say that it has taken me some getting used to, as his arrangement is not the typical “dad gets the kid on the weekends” type of deal.

Not only am I becoming immersed in Ramón’s family life, but I have welcomed him into mine. In early May I invited Ramón to go home to Chicago with me for the Fourth of July holiday. I am optimistic about our future together so felt comfortable planning for an event that was two months away when we’d only been together for one month. I am excited for our trip, but he is understandably nervous to have to follow in James' disappointing footsteps.

Our Fourth of July trip will be a pretty emotional and hectic weekend. Not only am I bringing Ramón with me, but my brother is bringing his girlfriend of over a year home for the first time. My maternal grandma will be up from Florida and will also be staying with my parents. Family from Texas is flying in to celebrate the holiday with my dad’s side of the family. Plus, my paternal grandmother is trying to convince my Great Aunt Mindy and her husband Jumpin’ Jack Flash to fly in from Vermont for the holiday. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Mindy and Jack that they never even met James!

In addition to the family events, my brother and I have decided to host a pool party at my parents’ house on third. We have invited all our local friends – from grade school through high school, and in my case the handful of college friends who landed in Chicago after graduation. Many of my childhood friends I have not seen since I was fourteen, but we have gotten back in touch through the wonderful world of Facebook. It would be such a blast to see some of them again. Many of the visiting family members will also be invited, including my aunt Crystal and the cousin we had lunch with at Christmas (along with my cousin’s mother, whom I have not seen since she divorced my mom’s now-estranged brother some fifteen years ago).

I am looking forward to being surrounded by all these friends and family. I know if I were alone that weekend, I would likely spend it on my sofa in tear-soaked flannel pajamas, as though I were some Yankee Bridget Jones. My faithful readers will recall that the upcoming Independence Day (ha!) weekend will mark one year since James told me he was leaving me. One year! Part of me can’t believe it’s been that long, since I have come so far and am so happy, and yet part of me feels like the wound is still fresh. No one is more aware of this dichotomy than Ramón, and I often wish I hadn’t been hurt the way I was, if only for his sake. Yet whether it passed quickly or arduously, one year seems significant. I hope that when that day passes I will be able to let my relationship with James go once and for all. At this point I think I have learned all I can from it, and to dwell on it only prevents my current relationship from developing organically.

I know that, as Leona Lewis sings, “it will all get better in time,” and each milestone I have passed in the last year has helped me take one more step towards happiness and success. I am so glad that those steps forward now lead me into Ramón's waiting arms. I am thrilled to bring him home this year not only to introduce him to my family and show him where I grew up, but to create some joyful new Fourth of July memories with him and to feel some fireworks under the fireworks.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Chapter 11: Caring for Crystal

One of the main reasons I hesitated to tell my parents about James leaving me (aside from the large wedding bill they’d fronted mere months earlier) was my concern for how my mom’s nerves would handle the news. She had a dream in January of 2008 that James and I were getting a divorce, and at the time I reassured her that everything was going well with us. I think her dream was prompted by the fact that her youngest brother was separating from his wife and her older sister Crystal was beginning the process of divorcing her husband. I was to become the final piece to fulfill the prophecy that “bad things happen in threes,” and I was not sure she could bear it.

Once the truth inevitably came out, Crystal and I began commiserating on our parallel yet distinct situations. While I was about to turn thirty and had been with my husband for less than a year when he left, Crystal was about to turn sixty and had been married to her second husband Bert for thirty years. Divorce can be terribly isolating, and knowing someone else was in same situation (even if she was twice my age and had been married as long as I’d been alive) was a kinship we both understood and valued. Once our respective papers were signed (and we were both surprised at how easy that step in the transition was), we were not just a niece and an aunt, but two single women setting out on a new adventure, not really sure how we arrived at that trailhead in the first place.

Growing up, I’d always enjoyed hanging out with my aunt Crystal. She is a an extremely passionate person, whether it was about her sewing, her giraffe collection, building her backyard Koi pond, decorating for the holidays, entertaining her grandchildren or off-roading in her Jeep. Crystal has a laugh that is boisterous and loud, the kind that would be easily recognizable on a laugh track, were she sitting in a sit-com audience. After her parents moved to Florida, she was usually the one to host family gatherings and grew into a second-generation matriarch of the clan. Crystal moved up to Wisconsin with her husband to be closer to her grandchildren after they were born, so my visits home to Chicago included precious little time catching up with her.

Because I had not seen much of her in recent years, when my mom told me that Crystal and Bert were having marital troubles, it came as a shock to me. I knew Bert had been dealing with some health problems, but I didn’t realize the extent to which they affected his personality. After a heart attack many years ago, Bert’s company essentially forced him in to retirement. Bert did little to fill his newfound free time, and over the years became a slovenly couch potato who would go for days without bathing or getting dressed.

This behavior, coupled with his increasing confusion (bordering on dementia) accentuated the wide difference in their ages. Crystal, through a combination of clean living and hair dye, looks (and acts) much younger than her nearly-sixty years. Over time she began to resent the fact that he had essentially checked out whilst she wanted to remain an active participant in all life had to offer.

Crystal would work long hours to support them, and upon returning home would find that Bert had done nothing to contribute, such as chores or projects around the house or even preparing her a simple meal to come home to. No matter how many hours she picked up at her job, it never seemed to be enough to cover their cost of living, especially when compounded by Bert’s medical bills.

Not willing to throw in the towel on a life they had spent thirty years building, the two tried couples counseling for a grueling three years. Whether it was senility or just stereotypical maleness, Bert couldn’t seem to comprehend Crystal’s unhappiness and made no effort to change his ways. Crystal had finally had enough and decided that divorce was the only solution to alleviate her misery.

Eventually they sold their house and Crystal traded in her beloved home with its pond for a two-bedroom apartment. Because she was downsizing, she sold most of her possessions (as I did when I moved), forcing her to take a hard look at what was important. One thing she rediscovered was music. Much as I rediscovered writing after I started “getting my fragments back,” Crystal realized she had found so little joy at home towards the end of her marriage that she had stopped playing the stereo all together. In her new bachelorette pad, her Mac sits on the desk in the kitchen, a constant stream of music filling the air.

She set up the second bedroom as a guest room so her grandchildren could visit, but the children’s parents were those of Bert’s offspring from his first marriage and Crystal’s step-children did not take too kindly to the divorce. They perceived that she had abandoned their ailing father when she had vowed thirty years earlier to be with him “in sickness and in health.” Crystal was barred from seeing her grandchildren, a blow I think she took harder than separating from her husband.

Bert moved in with one of his children, and even after the split she continued to care for him, taking him to the doctor and such. Slowly, she cut the apron strings and began to move on in earnest.

While I was in Chicago for Christmas in 2008, my mom and I drove my younger cousin out to Crystal’s new apartment to have lunch and catch up. I can’t think of the last time I laughed that hard, even going back before James and I split up. All four of us had tears streaming down our faces, and Crystal’s laugh was as riotous as it had ever been.

Crystal spent the entire afternoon regaling us with stories of her single life. After her divorce papers were signed, she joined an online dating service and had begun meeting men from throughout her metropolitan area. To keep them all sorted in her mind she would print out their profiles and jot down details she learned about them in their online and telephone conversations. This dossier of eligible bachelors ranged from young professionals to older bikers and everything in between. None of them resembled Bert in any way.

Crystal re-entered the dating scene after thirty years with as much passion as she had for any other project in her life. This, in her own words, rendered her a “slut.” She told us of the many strange dates she’d been on and the nights she spent bouncing around the city, laughing with one man or another. I had begun meeting guys by this point too, and Crystal encouraged me to follow her “slutty” example. To be sitting around a kitchen table with my aunt, mom and my twenty-one year old cousin where the word “slut” was tossed about with abandon was what had us in stitches. (This newfound vulgarity was at times a bit awkward for the younger two at the table. We were raised in a family of WASPs, after all!)

Around the time of our lunch, Crystal had been devoting the most attention to one man (who happened also to be named James), a distinguished, older, black gentleman. Crystal enjoyed his companionship, but was also pleased to rediscover her carnal side after so many years of being turned off by her mate. She e-mailed me after I returned to New York to fill me in on her adventures following our lunch, and her message pretty much sums up how she felt about her new beau.

Crystal wrote, “Slut life is fine here! I called to cancel my hair appointment the other day because James spent the night. My hairdresser said today that is the first time she had heard ‘something big came up’ as an excuse to change an appointment. ‘Forty-two years,’ she said, ‘and never that excuse.’ At my age ya gotta get what ya can, right?”

Crystal was open about her newfound romance, sharing her happiness with everyone from the customers at her store to her own mother. My Gram was of course a bit surprised that her daughter would be dating someone who was not white, but when emailed a picture was quick to comment on how handsome James was. My aunt knew my cousin has a propensity for dating black guys, and over lunch Crystal caused her young niece to blush fiercely when asked if the adage “once you go black, you never go back” was actually true. (My cousin did not respond.)

Crystal continued to see her James for a while, but their relationship was primarily confined to the bedroom, and she didn’t see how it would fare in the real world. He would often travel for work, and while Crystal had no reason to believe otherwise, she often wondered if James was honoring their tenuous commitment. Everyone has a deal-breaker when it comes to relationships, and for Crystal it is lying. She never caught him in a lie, but the unease she felt and his lack of effort to allay her fears was enough to warrant ending their fling.

She wrote me, “I think about how I have always believed that any relationship – to survive, grow, change, enhance – requires work. And that's what I did in my marriage. I always worked at it, and when Bert stopped working is when things fell apart. I want it all. I want to work at it all.”

Crystal and I would talk on the phone or email, and I often felt as though I were coaching her through her relationship ups and downs as I would a girlfriend. I would send her quotes that seemed pertinent to our conversations or relate stories from my own dating experiences. Towards the end of her relationship with James, Crystal received an enigmatic email from him. She forwarded it to me, adding simply, “I need a manual after thirty years!” I replied with the Amazon link to the book “He’s Just Not That into You.”

During one of our conversations we discussed the effort we’d been putting in to meet men. I had begun my writing project with the hopes of improving who I am as a person, and shared with her one of my favorite odes to singletons, from the exceptional Ms. Gloria Steinem: “There are many more people trying to meet the right person than to become the right person.” We both knew that without love for one’s self, it is impossible to share love with someone else.

In that regard, Crystal was struggling to figure out who she was in her new life, just as I was. She wrote me “I have lost my identity. I was a wife (no longer), a mother (no longer needed), a gardener (no longer), a Jeeper (no longer financially possible), and a grandmother (on their terms). These things defined who I was. They were my passions. And within the space of a couple months I lost them all. So I have to reinvent myself.”

One step Crystal has taken that I hope to explore soon was with her spirituality. She grew so depressed at the prospect of her first Christmas truly alone that she began seeking answers in uncharted territory. Crystal, a vocal atheist, began going to church. I could see how she ended up there. On one particularly dark day, shortly after I found out about my husband’s mistress, I was walking the streets of New York and thought to myself, “If I pass a church, I am going to go in. It will be a sign.” I didn’t happen to pass a church that day, but Crystal must have felt the same sort of tug.

I can understand how she found religion at this point in her life. Divorce throws everything in to question, and you want to find answers. You want to believe that even though you may no longer matter to that one person you were so devoted to, you still matter. You want to believe that there is a plan and that everything really does happen for a reason. Frankly, you just want to believe because hope seems so much more appealing than the hopelessness that threatens to take over after a divorce. Religion can provide that something to believe in.

I have been putting off my own deep spiritual soul searching because I don’t know that I can buy into the dogma of organized religion or even that I believe there is a man up in the sky controlling things on I. I was watching The Tyra Banks show one day (I know, I know), and she had on as a guest the woman who inspired the main character on the television show Medium. During the interview, the psychic said that if prayer is the way to ask God a question, meditation is the way God answers. I think my road to spiritual enlightenment may come through these channels rather than inside the four walls of a church. But for Crystal, the sermons she hears speak directly to her situation and her epiphany is helping her past her post-divorce depression.

Having her first post-divorce foray into romance under her belt, and well on the way to reclaiming her happiness and reinventing herself in her new life, Crystal ventured back out into the dating world. Right around the time that I initially started dating Ramón in February, Crystal met Chuck online. Their connection was instant and intense, and she was immediately more at ease with him that she’d been with her James.

Our two relationships seemed to run a somewhat parallel course at first, and Crystal and I would discuss our happiness as well as the bumps in the road. For me it was more of a bottomless pit than a pot hole when Ramón called things off between us in March. However, Crystal was able to work out her difficulties with Chuck through honest communication, no matter how brutal the truth was.

She emailed me, saying, “It's amazing to me (and maybe to him) that two people who know how they feel about each other and really want to be with each other (and have voiced this to each other) cannot just find happiness. I guess we both have baggage, and I just never thought of it as baggage. But if the communication stays open I think we'll be okay.”

Chuck (who, incidentally, rendered the answer to my aunt’s query a definitive, “No, you don’t go back.”) declared his love for her after just a month together, and she found herself falling for him too. Chuck introduced Crystal to his teenaged son, who immediately warmed up to my charismatic aunt. The couple spent an increasing amount of time together, yet one major issue hung over Crystal’s head.

My aunt, who is still recovering from the financial strain of caring for her ailing ex-husband, realized she could no longer afford her new apartment. She was faced with the choice of moving to Kentucky to live with her brother or seeing if Chuck was amenable to her moving in with him. There are three primary variables that can change in life: where you live, what you do and who you are with. If she moved to Kentucky, all three of those variables would be altered, with the one known being where she would be living. If Crystal moved in with Chuck, her location would not change greatly and she could theoretically keep her job. Plus she would not have to cut short her burgeoning romance.

Crystal was relieved when Chuck invited her to stay with him. The thought of losing her far outweighed the risks associated with welcoming her into his home. That security meant she could remain close to the majority of her friends and family, including her dear grandchildren, who live in the area. With geography and relationship status settled, Crystal set out to find (and secured) a job much closer to Chuck’s home. Crystal just recently moved many of her possessions in with Chuck. She must be happy and busy getting settled in, as I have not received any analytical emails from her since the decision was made. Their arrangement is for now on a bit of a trial basis. Most of her things went into storage and she knows that if things turn sour with Chuck she can always fall back on her idea of moving to Kentucky.

I know that our family must look at Crystal as foolhardy, but I understand where she is coming from. My renewed relationship with Ramón is turning out to be the same sort passionate, open and committed relationship she is experiencing with Chuck. At the end of the day, the people who love us just want us to be happy. I think Crystal and I have evidenced to our friends and family that we are rushing in not as fools but as experienced, optimistic romantics who have found something worth dealing with any snags that surface along the way.

Sometimes circumstances dictate that you must make tough decisions that would have otherwise been deferred, and you can only hope that your heart and your gut help you make the right choice. Whereas the tables turned when my idolized aunt turned to me as a sounding board, they have now turned back as I watch her life change. I hope for her continuing successes to be a portent of my own to come

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chapter 7: Uptown Girl

Telling my friends and family about James’ departure was the first hurdle I had to overcome in fully extricating him from my life. Signing my divorce papers was the second, and finding a new apartment was the third and final major step I had to take, and when the time came it was a task I relished. Moving to Queens in December 2007 was bittersweet. While I was excited to set up house with my new husband in a place that we’d picked out together, I knew I would miss my old apartment, and perhaps more importantly I would lose my long-standing identity as a Manhattanite.

Just before I officially moved to New York City (after college in 2001), I spent a weekend hunting for a place to live on the magical island of Manhattan. It was a whirlwind two days touring neighborhoods with which I was not yet familiar, popping into internet cafes to check the Village Voice listings (this was a pre-craigslist era, after all), reading e-mails from prospective roommates, and stopping into various restaurants to find nourishment and a place to rest my weary feet.

After two days of looking, I’d narrowed my choices down to three apartments. One was a tiny two bedroom above a Chinese fish market in the neighborhood the young, blond male professional lease-holder had advertised as Little Italy. Aside from the close quarters, I wasn’t sure my vegetarian olfactory nerves were ready to face the pungent smell of seafood every day. Next was a warm, nicely decorated apartment with a seemingly friendly girl outside Tomkins Square Park in a neighborhood I had been warned was a bit seedy. Or maybe I was just thinking of the two girls from Ronkonkoma in the movie 200 Cigarettes who were told never to go east of Avenue A. In any case, the vagrants in the park made me a bit wary. Last was a modern high-rise apartment in Midtown with a tennis instructor who seemed a bit too old to be recruiting a twenty-two year old female as a roommate. I think even then I sensed that this apartment’s proximity to Times Square would over time become an annoyance.

Exhausted and hungry, with the sun setting on my weekend in New York, I debated ditching my last appointment of the day and settling on one of the places I’d seen. Instead, I gathered up my last reserves of energy and headed out to 28th Street to view that final listing. The building housed a restaurant on the ground floor and was walking distance from my new office.

The neighborhood, I came to learn, was called Rose Hill. It is a small area sandwiched between Murray Hill to the north, and Gramercy to the south. On the maps inside taxi cabs, it is not identified or brightly color-coded like the rest of the city, so it is known to some as “the grey box.” Others, because of its abundance of Indian restaurants (and the scent permeating the air), call it affectionately “Curry Hill,” a play on the name of the neighborhood to the north.

Upon reaching the second floor of the walk-up, I was greeted at by a short guy with spiky hair. He immediately welcomed me in to what, compared to the closets I’d viewed all weekend, seemed like a palace. The apartment was on two levels, and after offering me a cocktail, my host Joey showed me around.

On the first floor was the kitchen (with a dishwasher!) that opened up to a large living room (with a working fireplace!). Off the living room was a small powder room and beyond it was a nicely furnished balcony. The stair led up from the living room to the second floor where there were four bedrooms and two bathrooms (one with a washer and dryer in it!). Joey’s bedroom even had a ladder that pulled down to allow access to the roof.

The room I would be renting was small, but given the spacious common areas, it was adequate. Joey took me out to the balcony and described the other tenants: two twenty-something women, one who worked at a fashion magazine and another who was a Greek model from Australia. Joey worked in the commercial production and film industries as a camera man.

~ The living room on 28th street, after I'd painted ~

I was dazzled by the prospects of this living situation and the glamorous careers of the roommates. As we chatted, I peered over the balcony at the street below and tried to imagine my life in this apartment. It was late at this point, and when Joey asked if I was hungry I realized I was actually famished. We walked to the Mexican joint down the street, and when he insisted on picking up my burrito tab, I knew the decision to move in was in my hands. And so on September 1st, 2001, I did.

The two girls ended up moving out shortly after September 11th, and were replaced by two guys. The four of us had a good run as roommates for about a year, throwing parties, watching movies, and just generally enjoying each other’s company. I sometimes compared living with those three guys, with all of our friends cycling through, to living in a fraternity house. But I enjoyed every minute of it. When the two guys moved out and were replaced by a new set of roommates, it seemed like the end of an era.

Throughout this time I was romantically involved with Joey, a relationship that grew increasingly strained as his depression stemming from the terrorist attacks began to take over his life. By the spring of 2003, deeply unhappy with the way thing with Joey were going, I made the difficult decision to move out. While he was away promoting a movie he had worked on, I began looking for a new place to live.

I don’t remember much about my second foray into New York City real estate, but perhaps that is because I located a new apartment with relative ease. I had grown accustomed to the square footage of my old place, so was pleased when I found a good sized two bedroom apartment that was within my budget. No longer a wide-eyed recent college-grad, I was not afraid of this apartment’s Harlem address. My two former roommates had also paved the way for me, having each moved about a hundred blocks north of our shared 28th Street apartment.

My new bachelorette pad was in a neighborhood of Harlem called Sugar Hill, whose name derived from the moneyed residents who enjoyed the “sweet life” there during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, while looking down the hill to the east at the poorer residents below. Pre-war buildings lined the street and a few blocks away was a little jazz club where luminaries like Wynton Marsalis, Olu Dara, Savion Glover and even Stevie Wonder were known to drop in for a jam session. I could walk to Yankee Stadium, just across the river in the Bronx, if the mood to watch some baseball struck.

~ The bed I built in my Harlem apartment ~

I was excited that for the first time in my life I would be living on my own. Sure, I had a single for three semesters in college, but never before had I had a bathroom all to myself or the ability to walk the halls in the nude, should I so desire (well, I suppose the guys in the dorm might not have minded, but I would have!). I moved quickly to buy furniture to fill the place and even designed, built and upholstered some of the pieces myself. Having a spare room meant I could house out-of-town guests, as infrequent as they might be, or even rent it out to those seeking temporary housing. In time I developed a roster of rag-tag roommates, and had begun to refer to my apartment as “Katie’s Home for Wayward Children.”

The weekend after I moved in, I set out to take a stroll around my new neighborhood, to get a lay of the land. It happened to be Mother’s Day, and I’d never seen such commitment to the holiday. Every male on the street was carrying something to bestow upon his mother, or perhaps the mother of his children. Helium balloons, flowers, stuffed animals, and those oversized greeting cards could be seen up and down the avenues of Sugar Hill. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday finest, and the mood was overwhelmingly jovial.

As I walked, I was exposed for the first time to the running commentary from the peanut gallery of those loitering on the street. I smiled at one man, flowers in hand, when he wished me a happy Mother’s Day. I then giggled to myself, however, when after he’d passed me, he called over his shoulder “And if you’re not a mother yet, I’d be happy to make you one!”

Later on in my stroll, I approached a guy who was washing his car in the street. He looked up from his chore as I passed and greeted me with the line, said rather incredulously, “Hey there… white lady.” Thinking of his cadence and tenor in saying that one line still makes me laugh today.

In the years that I lived in Harlem, I never found these comments to be akin to the catcalls of a construction worker, nor did I ever feel threatened by my observers. Rather, I felt that they were in a way looking out for me and appreciative of my presence in their neighborhood. As there were residents on the street most hours of the day, I took comfort in knowing that if something were to happen to me, there were people around to intervene.

So what were the people doing out on the street all hours of the day and night? There were the young girls playing Double Dutch and the old men playing dominoes or spades. There were the teens smoking weed, flirting and shooting Cee-lo against the stoops. In the summer there were families barbecuing in halved fifty gallon drums while the children ran through the fire hydrants. They listened to their music from boom boxes plugged into lampposts or from the stereo of a car with its doors left open. It may sound stereotypical, but these were the people in my neighborhood, the people that I met each day.

Or didn’t meet, as was more accurately the case. While I never learned any of their names, I would take note of all the people who I observed each morning on my way to the subway: my gay neighbor whose derrière, enhanced by too-tight slacks, wiggled in front of me as we walked, the white, bohemian mother taking her uniformed multi-racial son to school; the overweight super who inexplicably wore sleeveless mesh shirts to sweep in front of the building in his charge; the tidy businessman who lived in the stand-alone house next to the former Bailey (of Barnum and Bailey fame) residence, who kept his white sedan impeccably clean; the dreadlocked fellow festooned in an ever changing array of Rastafarian hats; the Mennonite and Mormon missionaries; and finally the pair of old men who talked about their dogs while leaning on the fence outside the grocery store adjacent to the train station.

I had discovered that contrary to my family’s initial concern, the neighborhood was in fact extremely safe. St. Nicholas Avenue, the street I called home, was primarily residential, so the only foot traffic consisted of people going to and from their homes (and those loitering outside theirs). Absent were the transient drunks, pan-handlers and hookers that frequented 28th Street. Because of my limited housing budget, I was an inadvertent pioneer in the gentrification of this historically black neighborhood (gentrification is probably not the correct term given my economic status, perhaps “white-washing” is more apropos. In the years I lived there, many downtown chain establishments moved in, including a Duane Reade drug store, a New York Sports Club, and yes, even a Starbucks).

The two ladies who lived in the ground floor apartments flanking the elevator in my building took a keen interest in this new white interloper, and seemed to make it their mission to look out for me. They had dubbed themselves the President and Vice President of the Tenants’ Association, and in those roles monitored the comings and goings of the building. The would caution me to be careful when they saw me stumbling in after a night at the bars, encouraged me to attend the building’s Christmas party and informed me of their ongoing disputes with the management company. They also signed for my packages, which I appreciated, as it saved me a ten block walk to the post office.

My favorite anecdote to recount to those who question Harlem’s safety as a habitat for a pasty white girl occurred one snowy evening around Christmastime. I returned home in a taxi late at night after my company’s holiday party downtown. I was bundled in my winter coat and was laden with parcels filled with Christmas gifts. After paying the driver, I stuck my wallet under my arm and fumbled in my purse for my keys before exiting the cab and heading up to my apartment (any street savvy city girl knows you don’t want to be caught unawares by your front door searching for your keys).

The next morning, having overslept following the previous night’s festivities, I couldn’t immediately locate my wallet, so rushed out the door assuming I’d find it later in one of the shopping bags I’d been carrying. Upon returning home from work that evening, I looked for my wallet with no luck. I hesitated to cancel my credit cards because I knew I’d had it the night before so figured it must be around the apartment somewhere, especially since no charges had shown up on the missing cards. Calls to the taxi lost-and-found line the next day were fruitless, and I headed home from the office prepared for an evening on the phone with Mr. Visa and Ms. Master Card.

Trudging up the stairs to the elevator, I bumped into the self-proclaimed Association President.

“Girl, I’ve been looking for you!” she said. “Where’ve you been?”

I mumbled something about being busy with the holidays. She replied, to my surprise, “I’ve got your wallet!”

She then recounted how a woman in the next building over had found my wallet in a snow bank by the curb while shoveling out her car. Knowing I didn’t live in her building, she asked my neighbor if she recognized the face on my driver’s license. Being the busy-body she is, of course she did! She handed me back my billfold, and I opened it up to find its contents intact. If I had dropped my wallet on 28th Street, it would have quickly become the property of some passer-by, and I likely would have had to dispute ungodly fraudulent charges on my credit cards.

“Sometimes it’s good to be the only white girl in Sugar Hill,” I thought.

Needless to say, I was happy in Harlem. I had become an uptown girl, living in my uptown world. In 2006, a few months after I started dating James I renewed my lease, signing on to a fourth year in my apartment. Following his graduation that year, James moved in with me. We had debated the merits of cohabitating versus James setting up his own place. In retrospect, he probably would have been better off living on his own for a while to gain some responsibility and independence, but at the time we were spending every night together so the practicality of living together (transit time, financial savings, not having to transport toothbrushes and underwear, etc.) seemed obvious.

When James moved in he brought with him little more than his clothing, a Don Mattingly bobble head and a wok. I tried to make the apartment as welcoming as possible for him, proudly framing and displaying Jamie’s most recent class photo. But there was no getting past the fact that the apartment had been mine and not ours, so after we were married it was clear we should move in to a place that we selected together. Upon returning from our honeymoon, we began searching in earnest.

We compared our requirements for a new place. My ideal living situation would have two bedrooms, laundry in the unit, a dishwasher, and an outdoor space. I of course would have preferred to stay in Manhattan, but to have the amenities I desired, I didn’t mind living in Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey, as long as it was near public transportation.

James would only consider living in Long Island or certain parts of Queens (the two areas where he grew up). He also wanted a parking spot off the street, ideally room for a pool table, and most importantly to be closer to his job. James had spent the year and a half we’d been together commuting by car, first to his college more than an hour and a half away in Stony Brook, and later to his work, about 45 minutes from Harlem. While my subway commute was also 45 minutes from home to work, he held a grudge about all the time he’d spent driving out to his classes. He felt it was a sacrifice I had not matched and did not appreciate (he somehow conveniently forgot all the weekends I would take the Long Island Rail Road to meet him at his weekend bartending job). He insinuated that it was my turn to sacrifice when it came to our living situation, so I let him filter the apartment listings based on locations he deemed acceptable. I was in newlywed bliss, and the thought of setting up our idyllic semi-suburban life charmed me.

~ Whitestone Apartment ~

After a few weeks of online apartment hunting, we set out to see some places in person. And that is how after looking at only three apartments, I found myself in Whitestone, Queens agreeing to sign a lease on an apartment in a house on a residential street further east than I’d ever ventured in that borough. Whitestone is a racially mixed area in the north east corner of Queens, past Shea Stadium and past La Guardia. The landmarks in the neighborhood are the New York Times printing plant and the shopping center containing a Target and a Costco. It was worth it to live in this pseudo-suburbia, I told myself, as I began to envision myself as the happy homemaker.

~ James' pool table ~

The apartment had two big bedrooms, a dining area, a linen closet, and even an attic. It had an open floor plan, new windows, a full-size fridge, a washer and dryer, counter space and built-in air conditioning in the living room (the last item turned out to be invaluable because James had been too lazy to help remove my fancy A/C unit from the bedroom window when we moved out of Harlem). There was a living room and a dining area, allowing James to get the pool table he wanted. Outside there was a private driveway and garage and not only a balcony but a backyard to boot! I didn’t get the dishwasher I wanted, but James promised he would make up for that by taking care of the dishes (which turned out to not be the case and would later be a huge point of contention).

The other downfall was the new apartment was not near the subway. While James’ commute was cut to five minutes, mine was effectively doubled. I was required to take a bus ride to the extremely busy 7 train terminal in Flushing, ride the entire length of its track, oftentimes standing up the entire way, to Times Square (which I have already mentioned I detest) and transfer to the 1 train heading downtown to my TriBeCa office. James shaved about 15 minutes off my trip most mornings by driving me to the train on his way to work, but when he had an early meeting and of course after he moved out, my door-to-door trip was an hour and a half, twice a day, five days a week.

If I stayed out late at night with friends in the city, I could end up in Flushing waiting in the cold for a bus for thirty minutes rather than take the twenty minute walk home. The streets in the area were not well lit, and for whatever reason I never felt as safe walking them as I had in Harlem. Some nights I would get so frustrated waiting there, I would call James to pick me up, but I don’t recall him ever coming as he would either be out somewhere with his friends and not want to leave or the bus would happen to come just as I was calling. On these late nights I tried to remind myself that it had been worth it to hang out with my friends in the city, but was intensely jealous that they all had been whisked home in ten minute taxicab rides to their husbands’ loving arms while I was still endeavoring to get home two hours after we’d parted ways.

When I was actually at home, however, I was generally content. At Christmas we joyfully decorated a tree and strung lights on the front porch. We prepared a New Year’s feast for a group of friends and included James’ mother. I channeled Martha Stewart when setting the table that night, laying a table cloth over our pool table’s ping pong surface, placing the dishes on chargers, arranging a festive centerpiece, lighting candles and setting each place with one of those old-fashioned poppers (as my grandmother always does).

~ My Garden ~

When spring rolled around, I planted flowers, herbs and vegetables in the back yard. I enjoyed watching the earthworms, absent in Manhattan, aerating the soil in my bit of earth. We hosted regular backyard barbecues for our friends on the weekends. James would mow the lawn, a chore that after he left I had to take on for the first time in my life. (It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.) James would often cook dinner for me, as he’d promised in his wedding vows, usually a vegetarian stir-fry of some sort.

On the surface it must have seemed like a charmed life. I surely wanted it to be, but I was short one picket fence and one loving husband. When James left, the house felt haunted by his presence. I spent many nights on the sofa, not wanting to retire to our marital bed. I looked around the apartment’s bare walls and realized I’d never hung up any of my art. More shockingly, I had not displayed in the bathroom any of my extensive rubber duck collection, perhaps the most “me” decoration there is.

Maybe I didn’t want to make my presence overtly felt, to ensure he felt that this was “our” place. Maybe I grew to busy tending to my new husband or too complacent in my new life to make the effort. Or maybe I knew deep down that my stay there would not be long enough to warrant putting everything up only to take it down again.

Whatever the reason, upon his departure I ventured up in to the attic to swap out James’ possessions for my stowed décor and displayed them around the house. It comforted me somewhat to see my things around me and knowing that there was an definite expiration date on my lease helped get me through those months.

This time when I set out to find a new apartment, Craig and his list were not too kind. Despite the housing bubble having supposedly burst, my budget for a rental was equal to, if not less than, that with which I set out to find an apartment in 2003. Plus I had two cats, so my future landlord had to be amenable to that. I looked at apartments in western Queens, despite my newfound distaste for that borough, but found nothing. Brooklyn had been overrun by privileged hipsters and I was priced out of that borough. Many of the apartments in New Jersey I saw were in seedy areas or required a bus ride in addition to a train trip, and I had grown allergic to the concept of commuting on buses. The apartments that were near the train were generally linoleum-clad basement dwellings that appeared likely to have been previously inhabited by a middle aged serial killer. So Jersey, it seemed, was out. I toyed with the idea of looking in the Bronx, but even there found little of interest.

Deep down, I wanted to move back to Manhattan anyhow, with all of its beautiful wood-floored pre-war buildings and city-so-nice-they-named-it-twice mailing addresses. The gentrification of Harlem that I had been a part of all those years prior was now pretty much complete, and the same apartment I lived in before would have rented for at least fifty percent more than I had been paying. I found that the line above which I could afford apartments had moved about fifty blocks north. I kicked myself for giving up my old bachelorette pad.

I looked at about a dozen places before finding the perfect place. Or at least it was perfect given the circumstances. I would be downsizing to a one bedroom unit, but it had several closets and was a decent size. It had interesting moldings and windows in every room. A previous tenant had installed some mirrors on the walls of the foyer and living room, which at first seemed a bit odd but which I have now grown to appreciate as an opportunity to give myself a quick once-over before heading out the door.

The neighborhood, called Inwood, seemed lively. There were the restaurants and all-night bodegas that I’d grown accustomed to in Harlem but were absent in Whitestone. It was near two train lines that brought me closest to my office. Even if the commute was still almost an hour, the idea of getting a seat on the train and not having to transfer seemed like bliss. And since my stop on the express train was its terminus, if I were to fall asleep on the ride home (as I often do), I knew I would never accidentally wake up in the Bronx.

The kitchen in this new apartment was perhaps the main selling point. In my old Harlem apartment, as in many New York City dwellings, the kitchen was tiny. It was so narrow you would have to turn sideways to allow a person to pass by you. The fridge door would hit the opposite wall before it could fully open, rendering the crisper door useless. The counter space was only wide enough for a toaster and the cabinetry included exactly one drawer. I have seen closets bigger than that kitchen, but it was the only detriment in that apartment so I lived with it.

~ Big Kitchen ~

This new apartment had a kitchen at least twice as wide and quite a bit longer. I could fit my little café table in the kitchen itself, along with a bookcase for my cookbooks. The countertops, while not extensive, could at least fit my microwave with room to spare. The cabinet space was ample enough to stow away all the wedding gifts I was in turn ashamed and pleased to have ended up with. I was still without a dishwasher, but I had to leave something to aspire to!

I signed the lease and moved in on December 1, 2008. I was a little disappointed that all of my friends did not rally around me to help me move, but was extremely grateful for the one friend who braved the cold on my moving day. I had hired some guys (off craigslist, natch) to assist, and the move went relatively smoothly.

~ Some of my charity donations ~

Knowing I would be downsizing, I took a hard look at my worldly possessions when packing up. I tossed what was junk, sold what I could, and donated the rest (35 kitchen trash bags worth, plus furniture) to charity. Gone were the clothes that I hadn’t worn in years, most of the childish tchotchkes my mom sent me over the years, the furniture used to fill the second bedroom, my college textbooks, and immeasurable detritus that had been cluttering my life.

I tried to get rid of everything that reminded me of James from his pool table down to the apron I bought him with his initial on it (that he of course never wore). I wasn’t sure what to do when it came to the sentimental things, like my wedding dress, wedding rings, jewelry he’d bought me, and the photo albums and mementos from our time together. These I brought with me when I moved, though they have remained hidden away in drawers and closets since that time. I am just now, six months later, preparing to free myself from the bad juju they embody.

I am hoping to extract some value from that “diamond ring that doesn’t shine for me anymore” and maybe even the polyester dress I wore just once. It’s a hard thing to figure out, but I am inspired by those advertisements on television promising cash for gold or witty eBay listings posted by jilted husbands selling their exes’ dresses. I can’t bear to just chuck it all, as enticing as a giant bonfire seems, as it was a chapter in my life that I may want to share or reflect on in the future. So some items will remain, albeit out of sight, and hopefully for the most part, out of mind. The only thing displayed in my new apartment that has any overt connection to James is a portrait of me, sketched on a Drury Inn notepad, drawn by Jamie during our last visit to see him. I keep this little keepsake on my fridge as a reminder that we were once almost a happy family, and that one day I will create a happy little family with somebody else.

Despite my major purging, when I loaded everything into my new apartment, I realized I still had a lot of stuff, but I justified this. Much as hanging my artwork on the walls at the old place gave me some peace of mind, having my things around me at my new place made it feel like home. At a time when I needed comfort, being able to gaze on relics from my childhood or the smiling faces gazing out from picture frames offered me that sense of well-being. I worked hard to make the new apartment a cozy sanctuary. There are two simple things I have done in every apartment I’ve lived in that have improved my quality of life immensely and made each feel more like home. If I leave you with nothing else I hope you heed these two nuggets of my interior design wisdom.

~ Dual Showerhead ~

The first is to swap out the showerhead, a task that once you know how to do it is as simple as screwing in a light bulb. Older New York apartments typically come standard with a rust- and lime-encrusted piece of crap that was probably installed in the seventies. In my quirky apartment, the showerhead was awkwardly installed along the length of the tub rather than at its end. Obviously when the building was designed, they wanted to save a few bucks by running the plumbing for the kitchen and bath inside the same wall, so I was left with this difficult to use set-up. My solution was to install a diverter that allowed for a shower head to go where one had always been and another, of the hand-held variety, to snake along perimeter of the tub to its mount where a showerhead ought to be. My improvised dual massaging showerhead is a luxury my clients pay dearly for, and I am unendingly pleased with my DIY result.

~ My Living Room ~

The second is to paint the walls. While the white-on-white aesthetic works for some, I find that looking at stark white walls renders a place institutional. I had selected the color palette of my new apartment before I had even found one, which felt a bit like naming a baby before it is born. I was about to turn thirty, and I wanted my new place to reflect that. While my previous apartments had been decorated with saturated colors out of a child’s crayon case, this new apartment would be a bit more subtle. When executed, the paint on the walls had exactly the effect I wanted. A lemony yellow on the kitchen wall made it warm and inviting. Latte and China blue in the living room rendered it more mature than my previous habitats. And the teal on the walls in the bedroom was both chic and exotic.

After the paint was dry, I began to decorate in earnest. I selected a few photos showcasing the people I loved and framed them along with the miscellaneous artwork I’d collected. I carefully laid out my furniture and mounted all of my artwork as it pleased me. I hung curtains on all the windows and placed my rubber ducks in their place of honor in the bathroom. I filled my shelves with books and knick-knacks. Above my desk I mounted a bulletin board and tacked up all the clippings I had collected over the years in my “inspiration” folder. Above it I applied a laser-cut vinyl appliqué that reminds me to “be inspired.

~ Peacock Lamps ~

For Christmas my dad rewired a pair of his grandmother’s lamps that I had long coveted and my mother had long since relegated to the basement. Their bases are ceramic peacocks, and I’d always been too afraid that I would break them if I brought them home. In my new place however, I felt that my maturity and responsibility would prevail, making me a conscientious keeper of these precious heirlooms. They now reside in a spot of honor on my dresser, flanking my ten dollar IKEA mirror.

When Mother’s Day came this past weekend, I walked through my new uptown neighborhood amidst the balloons and flowers being paraded about and reflected on the places I’ve called home, from under my own mother’s roof to Harlem, where mothers are goddesses in their sons’ eyes. I am an uptown girl again, seemingly right where I belong. Yet I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that my time in Inwood is limited. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt that way until just now.

As independent as I like to think I am, it’s always nice to know there is someone looking out for me. In my life there has been a succession of protectors: my parents whilst growing up; my hall tutor or academic advisor in college; my roommates on 28th Street; the little old ladies on the ground floor or the men ogling me in the streets in Harlem; and then supposedly my husband. As a place to live, Inwood has offered me no protection and no connections, and oftentimes I find myself isolated from the important people in my life when I am up in the great (not) white north. Despite my best efforts to make my new apartment into my refuge from the storm (and despite my best efforts to avoid an overly cheesy metaphor), I ultimately can’t shake the feeling that my little craft is dangerously adrift in a rocky sea and the port that is my apartment is not the ultimate safe haven that I seek.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Chapter 5: Choosing Sides

After James left, I felt very alone. Too ashamed to share what was going on with the people I was closest to, I turned to the only people who knew the truth – James’ friends and family.

The first people who found out about our split were James’ brother and sister-in-law, Matt and Cammy. The first night back from our trip to Chicago, James packed a bag and went to stay with them. They had been through their own share of marital strife in their ten years together, and were working through their differences in individual and couple’s counseling. The four of us sat down on a few occasions so they could try to help us work things out, but James was adamant that he was leaving. When he tried to explain his reasons, it became harder and harder for Matt and Cammy to stay neutral. It was clear they found his explanations and accusations as absurd as I did, and tried to no avail to convince him to give me another shot. In some ways I found our talks with them more therapeutic than our sessions with the professional therapist.

After our impromptu therapy sessions, I felt closer to Cammy than I did the rest of the time I had known her. She and her husband were pretty private people, and quiet to boot. I called her regularly, and she was able to offer me great insight into my estranged husband’s actions, as her husband was definitely same cut from the same cloth as his brother. The treatment the boys received growing up verged on (or perhaps actually reached) psychological and physical abuse, and this had a similar effect on the brothers.

James once recounted an incident in which his father locked the boys out of their Queens apartment in their underwear as punishment for some misbehavior. James’ father was the youngest of many sons, and in his native Philippines he was regularly chained to the fence in front of the house or denied food while his older siblings were not. James attributed his father’s treatment as some sort of retribution for, or reenactment of, these past abuses. Despite being aware of the causality of his father’s actions, James (along with his brother) was profoundly impacted by them.

James’ mother was no picnic either, having fully emasculated her husband and run her eldest son out of the house for dating a black woman, she was left with only James to rely upon her. Her apron strings were a bondage to which James was only too willing to submit, as it meant never having to be accountable for his actions. James’ relationship with his mother was clearly in sharp contrast to his brother’s lack of one. Yet Matt and James remained close over the years because they shared the fraternal bond built in their turbulent formative years.

Cammy commiserated with my anecdotes about James’ behaviors and treatment of me. James, Matt and their father were all born under the astrological sign of Aries, which accordingly makes them all very headstrong. This trait seemed to be evident in their relationships with each other. It is also said that the Aries’ motto is “Ready, fire, aim,” meaning that those under this sign are prone to action without forethought. It is this curse of the impulsive Aries that caused Matt to up and leave his familial home in the first place and stubbornly stick with that decision for the following decade. As an Aries myself, I can think of many instances (with James or otherwise) in which I wished I could take back words or actions. Certainly with James I said things that, had I thought about it first, I should have realized would wound him.

As I talked to Cammy, who was successfully navigating a difficult relationship with my husband’s brother, I began to have hope that James and I could reconcile our differences. At my lowest moments, she offered me support and suggestions. I began to naïvely run “if only” scenarios in my head.

If only I could get him to see how sorry I was. If only I could apologize enough. If only I could start being nice to him. If only I didn’t get riled up when he picked on me. If only I could learn which of my actions triggered his anger, I could refrain from them. If only I could lose weight. If only I stop drinking. If only we could hang out and start creating new, happy memories. If only he would come and hang out at the apartment. If only we could have sex. If only I could change. If only these things could happen, I could get him back.

Cammy was as hopeful as I was, and at the time she was all I had so I went on believing it was possible.

Then I discovered the other woman in James’ life, and that was the tipping point. I told Cammy, and she was surprised, but not shocked. It helped explain to both of us that a line had been crossed and James would not be coming back to me, no matter how many “if onlies” I actualized. It meant that while something I did (or didn’t do) may have made James want to leave, nothing I could do (or not do) would bring him back. I slowly came to realize that by marrying a narcissistic Eeyore like James, I had set myself up for failure. Nothing I could do would ever be viewed as supportive, kind or loving. At some point in our relationship I had broken his trust, and unable to come back from that, he allowed every perceived slight to compound until I was the enemy.

Upon understanding this, I finally felt ready to begin outing myself to my friends and family as a future divorcée. In part I had held out because I hoped I could keep our troubles secret until they blew over. That now clearly was not going to happen. Less than a year before I had proclaimed before my friends, family and, yes, even God that I would be with James until “death do us part” and I still had a difficult time admitting to everyone that neither of us were in fact dead. I told my city girlfriends first, a pair who I am close with but were not amongst those who stood up for me in the wedding and therefore had a bit more distance and objectivity. Soon I told a few more friends, and eventually my family found out (when I removed “married” from my Facebook status, sorry Mom!).

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but of course all of my family and friends were extremely supportive. James had been so toxic as to convince me my friends and family were not the kind of people who would be there for me. James was generally on his best behavior around my friends and family, so they were certainly staggered by my news. James’ friends, however, weren’t nearly as taken aback. They had seen James’ true self, especially the way he’d been treating me.

In the months between my twenty-ninth birthday and James’ decision to move out, his treatment of me became so blatantly abusive that even his best friends felt the need to reach out to me. James worked as a bartender at his best friend’s family restaurant on the weekends. Dennis and James knew each other from high school, and Dennis was James’ best man at our wedding. One night after their shift ended at the restaurant, the three of us went out to some bars, along with Dennis’ girlfriend Shelly.

On the way home I called in a pick-up order to our favorite late-night Chinese spot. When the four of us arrived back at our apartment with the food, James realized I’d ordered him a roast pork soup instead of the roast duck soup he’d requested. It was an honest mistake on my part as both were menu items he was likely to order, but it was an error that drove James into a rage. He began one of his typical rants about how stupid I was, how I didn’t care about what he wanted, and so forth. I offered to call the restaurant and have another soup delivered at my own expense and was on the phone trying to do so when he told me not to. He ate the other dishes he’d ordered, but didn’t touch the same soup he would have happily tucked into on any other night.

On another evening when the four of us were hanging out, Shelly pulled me aside and told me that Dennis had initiated a conversation with her about James’ treatment of me. The soup incident was just one example they’d seen, and they didn’t understand why he reacted so strongly. She wondered how I was holding up. I shrugged my shoulders and wrote it off, as I tended to at that time, as just James being James. In some ways I felt callous not taking his complaints seriously, but if I did drink his Kool Aid, it meant I was in fact a mean, stupid, uncaring, fat bitch who was not loved by her husband. It was easier to assume that these words, like so many uttered by an Aries, were in the heat of a passionate moment and forgotten in the next. However their concern touched me and reassured me that I was not crazy for thinking that James had become a bit unhinged.

I don’t know what Dennis and Shelly should when they found out James was leaving me. He failed to mention to them that he’d met someone else. He was upset with me when I told them as much myself. He claimed to be taking the high road by not badmouthing me to his friends and was upset that I was “gossiping” to them. My response was that it wasn’t gossip, it was the truth, and if he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, why would he be bothered if his friends knew about it? And frankly, I don’t think it would have mattered if he had debased me to his friends. Their opinion of me was formulated, and they had witnessed first-hand how he behaved. He was only insulting their intelligence if they assumed they would not judge him for his actions

In the months following James’ departure, I kept in touch with his friends and family. Cammy would check in via text message every now and then. James’ friend José, whose bachelor party was when James met Jacinta, lived near our marital apartment. When I was moving out, he gladly came over with his wife to help carry a few heavy things out. While they were there I plied them for information about my ex-husband. José had little to offer, telling me that James had all but disappeared. José and Dennis had tried getting in touch with him, but James didn’t respond. Bruno, James’ accomplice at the bachelor party had similarly been absent. I could only assume that James was in part so wrapped up with his new girl that he didn’t have time for his old friends and in part that he was so ashamed by his actions that he didn’t want to face them. I felt bad for an instant that I had in some way broken up a ten year friendship, until I checked myself. James made his own bed, and now he was lying in it (with another woman).

The last time I spoke to James’ mother when she came to collect a few remaining things from the apartment, she reassured me I would always be her daughter and if I ever needed anything, or wanted to visit the Philippines, to give her a call. I can’t say the same is true of my family. I was talking to my brother recently, and he recounted a conversation he’d had with my father. The two were talking about how disappointed they were in James, and my dad said that if he ever saw James again he couldn’t be responsible for his actions. My brother said he agreed with my dad, and the two used words like “lynching,” “broken kneecaps,” and “tied up and tortured in the basement.” My dad is not the most outwardly affectionate man, but I never felt more loved by him then when I heard he would handily rearrange my pretty-boy ex-husband’s face on sight.

Similarly, none of my friends have any interest in reaching out to James to inquire how he is doing. While he may have played a victim with me, they certainly don’t see it that way. To them, he is a villain to whom karma will come full circle.

José’s wife and Shelly regularly reach out to me to say hello, and while we have not met up in person, their electronic messages reassure me that I am not in fact a mean person, as James would like me to believe. José’s wife and I share the same birthday and traded wishes for happy returns on the day. When Shelly had her birthday party recently, she invited me and reassured me that James was not invited. It may be petty, but I feel vindicated that in our divorce I was left with all of our shared possessions, all of our friends, and most importantly, my dignity while his prize was the freedom to be with his female Doppelgänger.

The irony is that as I was writing this, Shelly instant messaged me, saying how she and Dennis missed me and we had to get together soon. After a few volleys of catch-up, my curiosity got the best of me, and I enquired after James. She told me she had seen him a few weeks prior when he went by Dennis’ restaurant to invite them to a party James was having at his place in New Jersey. That’s right, the same guy who refused outright to move to New Jersey, where I wanted to live, because he claimed his commute would be too long now lives even further away then I would have even wanted to. Shelly went on to tell me that James had moved into Jacinta’s place, which was no surprise to me. It made perfect sense that instead of getting his own place, as he told me he planned to do when he left me, he would move in with someone else who, like I and his mother before me, would take care of him.

Right about now James is getting ready to celebrate one year together with Jacinta. In that time, it took me five months to mourn the loss of our relationship and another three months for my heart to heal enough to let me open it up to someone else. In the process, I have learned so much about myself and who the most important people are in my life. When faced with the choice, I feel like the people I cared about sided with me. With their support, I am finally feeling optimistic about my prospects and beginning to believe what they have been telling me:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“You are better off without him.”

“You seem like you are in a good place now.”

In my life I always find exes coming out of the woodwork at the most random times, so it will probably be my luck that since I, like James, am now dating a New Jerseyan, I will run into him in a mall or something. I hope when that time comes I am wearing my hottest new size 6 jeans, with my amazing boyfriend on my arm, and a smile on my face. I will be able to look James in the eye as I brush by him, knowing that I am improving my life not because of him but in spite of him.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Inspirational Memoirs

I have been reading memoirs over the last few months in part to be personally inspired by other people's stories, but also to learn how a successful memoir is written in the hopes of one day having mine published. I will list here the ones I have read, along with a few words about each.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Read: July 2008
Source: Linked off Margaret's blog
Review: I haven't actually read this book, but I watched the video of the lecture itself. It was really inspirational, and the one thing that really resonated with me was an insight he shared. The professor broke the world down in to two kinds of people: Tiggers and Eeyores. This struck me as so profound at a time when I was trying to figure out why my marriage had failed. In the end, perhaps it came down to the fact that I am a Tigger, and the guy who had just walked out on me was an Eeyore. This is a really poignant lecture, and if the book reflects that, it has earned a well-deserved spot on the best-sellers list.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Read: December 2008
Source: Picked up at the airport bookstore on the way to China.
Review: This book had been recommended to me by a few people and was on the NYT best-seller list. I figured reading a book about a thirty-something woman travelling the world after her divorce would be apropos as I travelled to China months after mine. I enjoyed the book well enough, although the author seemed to lack introspection in many sections and often seemed a bit too whiny for someone so privileged to be travelling the world on a book advance. I found out later than many reviewers felt the same way, and the book even spawned a parody. The portion set in Italy was just okay. I almost felt like I'd had more revelations while living in that country as a nineteen year old than she did as a thirty-something. The Indian portion inspired me to pursue yoga and meditation. And the Indonesian portion, when she falls in love again was hopeful but closed the book with many unanswered questions rather than tying up her story with any meaningful conclusions. It spoke to me at a time I needed to know I was not the only one who felt lost and alone, but I wouldn't describe it as "life-altering"

People Are Unappealing: Even Me by Sarah Barron
Read: March 2009
Source: A gift given from Ian, with the intent to go to a reading together
Review: This was a funny memoir of a girl my age from the Chicago suburbs who became a waitress in New York City while pursuing her real dreams. Her anecdotes about her childhood were very humorous - every other sentence read like a punch line. While the book follows her life from childhood to womanhood, it does not read as a coming-of-age story but rather hits touch points in her life that shaped who she is today. Again this book ends abruptly. For someone so enamored by Jerry Springer, I would have hoped that she would have at least included a "final thought" to sum up her hilarious existence.

When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror by Carol Leifer
Read: April 2009
Source: A birthday gift from Ramon
Review: Ramon knew this was the book for me when he saw that Chapter 2 consisted entirely of a list (and I love me some lists). The narrator is a woman who reflects on her life as a fifty year old woman. She is a divorcee-turned-lesbian, animal hater-turned-dog rescuer, and later-in-life mother. The moral of her story, told through anecdotes and observations, is that old dogs can learn new tricks and leopards can change their spots. While the narrator of this novel may have superficially had the least in common with me, her book was so charming, insightful and funny that I think it may have resonated with me the most.

I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell Tucker Max
Read: May 2009
Source: From Ramon who found it so funny, I had to know why
Review: My brother had recommended the book to me years ago, and recently the man I am dating was laughing so hard he was crying while reading this book. I kept asking him to relay the anecdotes that had him cracking up, so eventually he just bought me the book. I have to admit, the author's tales of drunken debauchery were funny (I even laughed out loud at a few anecdotes). However, I think you have to be a guy to fully appreciate the extent of the pleasure and pain this guy was privy to.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
Read: Started in January 2009, but have not picked it up in awhile
Source: Airport bookstore on the way to China
Review: I am not finished with this book yet, but I enjoy that it is both narrative and educational. The author describes a year of eating locally, with food sourced from their own land or neighboring farms and green markets. The fact that all of the family members contribute to the book gives it a chorus of voices that tell a bigger picture than a regular memoir. I wish I could follow in their footsteps, but it's not that easy to raise a goat in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica
Read: online for years
Source: the internet
Review: I read this anonymous blog starting when I was a waitress, and when it became a book the author revealed himself. I attended a reading at the Barnes & Noble at Columbus Circle to satiate my curiousity of who this guy was. I enjoy his anecdotes and insights, both about life as a waiter and just life in general.