At First Sight: A Strange But True Love Story
Don Rice Jr.
This work is based on actual events, certain details have been altered to reflect the author’s wish to protect the privacy of certain individuals. No names have been used within for the same reason.
© 2013 by Donald C. Rice Jr.
All rights reserved.
“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction…” Lyric by Kris Kristofferson, sung by Johnny Cash
It was August of 1980. I’d only been in the small city of Poughkeepsie, New York for three weeks. I was on my new job, as a dishwasher and sandwich maker in the Old Coat Cabaret on Market Street. It was a bar and restaurant that featured live bands on weekends, and on Wednesdays they had open mic amateur nights.
It was a Friday night; the band was loud and the crowd was louder. It would be fair to say the place was packed. But the kitchen was slow, as the big drinkers were eating the peanuts laid out on the bar, while the people on the other side of the divider wall, sitting at tables and watching the band, were enjoying chips and breadsticks dipped in fondues set out by the day cook at each table with a lit Sterno can underneath to keep them warm and soft.
With nothing to do in the kitchen, I decided to play one of the video arcade games near the door for a bit. I told the bartender where I would be if a food order came in, then began to thread my way through the bar crowd toward the machines near the front door. I got about halfway down that aisle when I almost bowled over a thin figure that had just come sliding out from one of the booths. I stopped just in time, backed up a step, and said, “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
She looked up at me through the thickest glasses I’d ever seen on a young person, then said, “You didn’t scare me.”
I introduced myself, and she did likewise. We talked a bit, then I invited her to join me in a game. I noticed she had a slight limp, and asked about it. She said it’s nothing, so I dropped it. But the funniest thing happened in that short time. Even though I’d never met her before, I felt like I knew this tiny wisp of a girl from somewhere. In the back of my head, there was this still, small voice telling me, “She’s the One!”
At first, I thought, “No way, I just met her!” But that voice was quietly insistent, and rather hypnotic, as I recall. I knew, even before I had to go back to the kitchen to clean up and close down, that I had to see her again. I wasn’t aware of it then, but I had already fallen in love with her.
The job only lasted a couple months. The company went bankrupt; as it turned out, one of the owners was tapping the till to feed his cocaine habit. In that time, I got to know this young woman more, and fall more in love with her. She was a little spitfire, five feet three inches tall (she insisted it was five-two-and-three-quarters), ninety-nine pounds soaking wet fully dressed. She was Puerto Rican, born in New York City and raised by her paternal grandmother in Puerto Rico, sent there as a little child when her mother decided she didn’t want to deal with her any longer.
Time went on, and her grandmother grew less able to take care of this troublesome child who always needed medical attention. If it wasn’t the visits to the neurologist for her epilepsy, it was the trips to the hospital to check the steel plate in her hip that was supposed to insure that the bones didn’t pull away from the joint as she grew. The plate had to be taken out every couple of years and another put in, so that the bone’s growth wouldn’t be stunted or otherwise cause problems. At least that’s how she explained it to me when I eventually got her to tell me about it. The doctors hoped this would allow her to walk more-or-less normally when she reached her adult height. And her eyes were so bad that she would never get a drivers’ license.
Even so, her leg was still short enough to make her limp, just as her right arm was visibly shorter than the left. Yet she was still a woman who had something indefinable that attracted me like a moth to a light bulb. Or a flame. But I was also young, only twenty-five to her twenty-two. And the flame held no fear for me.
None of her physical differences detracted in the least from her essential femaleness; she was all woman, and she knew it. But she didn’t let that go to her head. There was instead a basic insecurity that tended to overshadow her femininity, at least until she became comfortable with a new person. And she used her innate sexuality to not only cover up that half-unconscious self-doubt, but also to prove that her disabilities didn’t stop her from being a woman. But I had no idea of all that when, after three weeks, she invited me to her apartment on Noxon Street after the bar closed. Further deponent sayeth not.
Had I known in advance what was in store over the years, I might have run as fast and as far as I could. Then again, maybe not. I was young, not totally naive, and I thought I was invincible. I knew, in the deepest part of my being, that she was destined for me, even though it took me four years to convince her of that truth. Yes, there were times when she had come around to accept me as hers; but then she would back away, afraid of losing her freedom, or even of losing herself.
I got another job, at J. L. Petz Company, assembling computer mainframe cables. That lasted about a year, until they lost a lucrative contract with I.B.M. I, was one of several who got laid off on a “last hired, first fired” policy. But not long afterward, I found myself working a few short-term jobs in quick succession.
During this time, our budding romance took a nose-dive. We argued, sometimes loudly. She left, then came back. I left, then went back. Finally, either I’d had enough, or she had. I don’t really remember which. I went back to Florida. I met a lovely lady at a neighborhood store on 9th Street and 3rd Avenue North, and we became friends. It never went past that, because she was dating someone regularly at the time. And I was still in love with that crazy little Puerto Rican back in Poughkeepsie. I didn’t realize this, of course; we men can be a bit dense and clueless at times in matters of the heart. My new friend saw it, and let me know what time it was.
So we agreed to keep in touch, and I went back up to New York. I got a temporary job as seasonal help at an Italian bakery. Caffe’ Aurora was on Mill Street, just up the hill and around the corner from the Metro North train station. Later, after the holidays, seasonal became permanent and I began learning to be a baker’s assistant.
After I’d settled into a room I’d rented until I could get another apartment, then began that job, I went to my lady’s place, hoping it wasn’t too late to mend things. She wasn’t home, so I left a note telling her where I to find me. A week later, I came home from work to find a note from her. It read, “If you really want to see me, you will meet me in person like a man instead of leaving a note.”
So I went to her apartment every afternoon for the next week or so, trying to catch her at home. If she was there when I rang, she didn’t answer. I had just about given up when I ran into her, not quite so literally this time, at the store down the block from her place. Again, we talked, just like at our first meeting. We apologized to each other for our bad behavior when we’d went our separate ways before. And we began rebuilding our relationship.
By this time, I’d known her for about three years. We did volunteer work together at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House on Market Street, just a couple doors down from the former cabaret that was my first job in that town. The Bardavon was the oldest active opera house in the state of New York, and the sixth oldest in the nation.
Our work there was as ushers and, for the men, to provide security. In exchange, we got to see the shows at no cost, and we stayed after the shows for the receptions, where we could mingle with the players and invited guests, as well as partaking of the often-sumptuous refreshments that were invariably laid out. And some of the shows were well worth seeing: the Broadway hits Annie and One Mo’ Time, which we each saw at least four times for free; and several Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, seasonal shows, chamber music performances, and my least favorite: classic operas.
One Friday night in August 1984, after a show and reception, we started walking home; it had rained earlier that day, so we each had an umbrella. A light drizzle was falling, yet it was a pleasant walk nonetheless. At least it started out that way. As we strolled along Cannon Street, the rain started picking up in strength, along with the wind. By the time we got to Reservoir Square, our umbrellas had been turned inside out and we were soaked through and through. When we got home to Rose Street, we dried each other off, laughing and teasing each other.
The only thing I’ll say further about that night is that, three weeks later, she missed. When her gynecologist confirmed a week after that, all her resistance broke down, and she asked me to marry her.
Think about that for a moment. The first year after we’d met we spent getting to know each other. I’d been asking her to marry me more-or-less regularly for the next three years, with no success. When her pregnancy was confirmed, she finally made up her mind that we were going to be husband and wife.
We got married on October 8, 1984. It was a civil ceremony in a judge’s office, with a priest friend and the judge’s secretary as witnesses. We went out to lunch, then went home to get out of our dressy clothes. We both had the day off from our jobs, so we just went around the town enjoying the day. In other words, life went on.
There were problems that came up, of course; there always are in any relationship, I think. But we worked through them. The only one that gave us any real difficulty was when she got it into her head that she wasn’t ready to be a mother. Just talking her back to normal was nerve-wracking; at one point, she had her hands around my neck telling me to shut up. Thank God it was easy enough to break her relatively weak grip without hurting her. She apologized the next day, and it never happened again.
One thing more was troubling at that time. Her epilepsy medication, Phenobarbitol and Dilantin, had to be increased; it seemed the baby was taking it too, which neither of us had considered. This, in turn, suggested that our child might be born addicted, or at least dependent to some degree. Frightening thought, that. I’m thankful that this turned out not to be the case.
After the increase in her meds, she had no seizures at all for the almost the rest of the pregnancy. Until the very end, that is.
Her due date was June 5. In the wee dark hours of May 31, I woke up; as I looked over at her, she started convulsing. As I always had, I guided her through this one, made sure she was okay, then went back to sleep. I got up a few hours later, woke her up so I could be sure she was okay. I told her she’d had a seizure and that I was going to stay home from work, just in case. She insisted that she was okay and that I should go on to work. I took her at her word, then told her to call me if there was any problem at all.
I got home around three o’clock to find her sleeping. She never slept during the day. I woke her up, asked if she’d had another seizure. Yes, she felt it coming on but couldn’t get to the phone before it hit her. I checked the bed sheets to see if they were wet; they were. I sniffed; no urine smell, so it wasn’t just the baby kicking her bladder. The only other possibility I could think of was that her water broke. But then the sheets would have been a lot wetter than they were.
I called the hospital and asked to be connected to the maternity ward. I explained the events from that morning on to the nurse on the phone; she said that sometimes, but not very often, when the water breaks it trickles out rather than just flowing. But the main concern was the seizures. The nurse instructed me to bring her in to be checked out and to make sure the baby was all right; the seizures could cause damage if they were strong enough.
We got to the hospital, and the nurses hooked her up to the fetal monitor. We could here the baby’s heartbeat, which the nurse said sounded healthy. That was a relief; the seizures probably didn’t cause any harm. Then she showed us the picture on the screen, and we saw the baby moving around, kicking and waving.
Then the nurse said, “Okay, there’s a contraction, and the baby’s heartbeat picked up as it happened.”
My wife said, “What contraction? I didn’t feel anything.”
The nurse replied, “That’s okay. It was probably a Braxton-Hicks contraction, what’s called false labor. Nothing to worry about.”
The nurses left us alone for a while. We talked about our plans for the future, how we were going to raise the baby, all the things that we figured most new parents talked about. The time seemed to fly; the head nurse came in, told us that they wanted to keep her overnight so their neurologist could check her out in the morning. Visiting hours were over, “But you can come back tomorrow to take her home.”
The next morning, I called her just to see how she was doing and what time I should come to pick her up. She told me that the neurologist hadn’t come yet, that he’d called and said he’d be there some time after noon.
“You should go to work, then come get me when you get off.”
“If you’re sure, okay. I love you.”
“I love you too. Bye!”
So I went to work. She called me just before I got off.
“The neurologist just left. He said I seem to be okay, but now they want to keep me here ’til Monday so they can call my neurologist at St. Francis to check me over before they let me go home.”
“What? That’s crazy! He could write a report and just send it to your doctor!”
“Calm down, baby. It’s all right. But since I have to stay here all weekend, can you stop at a store and bring me one of those circle-a-word puzzle books? You know I love those, and they keep my mind occupied so I don’t get bored too much.”
“Okay, but I’m going home to take a shower first; it gets pretty hot here, you know.”
“Well, hurry up then. Love you, baby!”
“Love you too, sweetheart!”
We spent several hours together, just talking mostly, but going over the names we’d considered for the baby as well. Then I went home when visiting hours were up, asking the nurses to call me if there were any changes. of course they would, it was standard procedure; but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly at that point.
I was in a deep sleep when the phone rang. I looked at the clock next to the bed; it was 4:15 in the morning.
“Hello?” I said in a slurred voice.
“Sir, you’d better come down here. Your wife is having trouble with her breathing exercises. But you don’t have to hurry; she’s only dilated one centimenter. It’s going to be several hours before she has the baby. A first pregnancy labor ususally lasts at least 10 hours, and sometimes it can go more than 24.”
“Okay, I’m on my way.”
I called a cab, then quickly got dressed. I got down the stairs just as the cab arrived.
I ran through the emergency room doors, waved at the E.R. nurse as she recognized me, and continued on through the waiting room to the hallway and the elevators. I hit the button, but after two seconds decided it was taking too long. I ran down the hall a few yards to the stairs, and then rushed up them. I slammed the door open and ran past the nurse’s station to my wife’s room, but she wasn’t there.
A nurse caught up with me and directed me to the labor room a few doors down. I went in, and the nurse there told me that she’d gone from one centimeter to ten in the short time since they’d called me. They hadn’t had time to even take her to a delivery room, and they definitely hadn’t had time to perform an episiotomy.
I took it in as I looked at my wife; I could see the veins sticking out in her neck and on her forehead, and the muscles bunching up on her arms. I took her hand and said as calmly as I could, “I’m here, babe; take a deep breath, just like we did in the LaMaze classes. Breathe with me, sweetheart; you can do this.”
She squeezed my hand so hard I thought she would crush it as she yelled, “Fuck you, you son of a bitch! You did this to me!” I didn’t even notice until later that her Spanish accent had come out strong. In spades, as the saying went.
I ignored her, trying to coax her to breathe as we’d been taught. One of the nurses said, “You can stop pushing now. We have to wait for the doctor to get here to deliver the baby.”
My wife glanced at me, then at the nurses. An expression of fierce determination rose on her face. She yelled, “Nnnnnoooooo!” as she gave one final push. The baby came out just as a nurse’s hands went down to catch the baby.
She took a long, slow breath, then collapsed back on the bed. The nurse cleaned the baby up as she said, “It’s a boy!” Then she handed the child to me and asked me what his name would be. It was 4:50 A.M.
I gave the name that we’d agreed on for a boy, then added a middle name. A Spanish one. My wife looked at me curiously, with both eyebrows raised. I said, “He’s half you, and you’re Puerto Rican. He’ll have a Spanish middle name to help him keep in touch with his heritage.”
I handed him to her as the nurse guided her arms to the right way to hold a newborn. She looked down at our new son, a soft, wondering gaze filled with love. She looked back up at me just long enough to nod her acceptance at my choice for a middle name, and to say, “I love you, baby.” I don’t know whether she was talking to me or the baby; I’d like to think it was both. But at that moment, it didn’t really matter.
Half an hour later, the doctor showed up, apologized for being late, and proceeded to deliver the placenta while my wife was on the phone talking to her mother in New York City, in Spanish, so I didn’t know what was being said beyond a few words I knew. She kept on talking through the procedure, as if nothing was happening. Well, that was my wife, one tough little cookie.
Over the next few years, things didn’t really change much except that we were now raising our child. No matter what either of us did, we still had some rather serious ups and downs. We even separated a time or two, for our own sanity; and at one point, she was hospitalized after an attempted suicide. And there were several people who were supposedly our so-called friends, telling each of us, separately and together, that we should go our separate ways. But even with all of that, I still loved her, and nothing anyone said to me in those times mattered. There was no way I was going to leave her or our son, and her attitude was the same on that issue.
Before we married, she’d gone back to school, taking a continuing education course at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, a few miles north of Poughkeepsie. The course she took was food preparation, which taught not only the prep, but also the presentation of a variety of dishes to the public. It was designed to provide entry into the world of food service for the discerning diner.
But because of her disabilities, she couldn’t get hired at the good places in the area. She wound up working first at the McDonald’s on Main Street, then at Rustler Steak House on South Road as a salad prep person. She stayed on in the same position when the chain was bought out by Sizzler. But there was no chance for advancement, again because of her disability and ethnicity. But we couldn’t prove that. So she started looking for a better job, one with at least a chance for advancement.
She got hired by a company that ran the cafeterias at the local IBM facility on South Road. She was a salad person again. After a few months, a new manager assigned her to wash the pots and pans, and put someone else on salads. She asked why the change, and the new manager said, basically, “Because I said so.” But she overheard the woman talking to the newly-assigned salad person. What she heard made her blood boil, but she held her temper until she got home.
The manager had said, “I don’t like that little spic. I can’t fire her because of the law. But she’s staying in the back washing dishes as much as possible.”
She told me about it in fits and starts, fight her anger, her frustration, her tears. When the whole story was out, I took her in the bathroom, drew a hot bath. I added a little bit of scented bubble bath and told her to strip and get in. I made her just sit there while I washed her gently, massaging as I went, working out the tension as best I could. She almost went to sleep in the tub, and probably would have if she hadn’t gotten turned on once the stress of the day had subsided.
Further deponent sayeth not.
I did my best to talk her into fighting that manager. I suggested that she file a written complaint and file it with the company’s personnel manager, and that I’d help her go up the company’s chain of command if necessary. She started the process, then stopped, saying she didn’t want the hassle and didn’t want to start any trouble. Shortly afterward she began looking for a new job.
She got one, interestingly enough, at the same K-Mart store that I was working at by then, on Route 44/55 in the Town (as opposed to the City) of Poughkeepsie. She was hired by the book department manager for what was then called the Reader’s Market. The department only had two employees: her and the manager. She learned to sort the books and magazines into categories, find the right ones for mark-downs, and put them in the correct places on the display racks. She also got to see and read, if she desired, advance reading copies of upcoming books. With her boss’ permission, she gave me one of these, entitled “Promises To Keep”, which speculated by way of a fictional story what might have happened if the assassination of President Kennedy had failed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
By this time, our son was approaching his fourth birthday. I was asked if I wanted to be trained as a stockroom manager; of course, I accepted. I wound up doing the job but never got the position or pay that went with it.
Some time in the late summer, she decided she wanted to fain weight; she was tired of being only 99 pounds soaking wet at 5’3” tall. She went to the pharmacy on the Main Mall and bought a bottle of some over-the-counter weight-gain formula. She didn’t tell me about this until a few days later when I found it in the refrigerator. Within a week of starting to take it, she began having multiple seizures, one right after the other.
I called her neurologist, and he asked if she had changed her diet in any way. I told him about the weight-gain liquid, and he asked me to read the ingredients. About half-way through the list, he stopped me. The last one I’d read was the culprit; it counter-acted her epilepsy medication. So he told her she had to stop using it.
It took a few days, but her seizures tapered off in frequency, even though she didn’t return to her normal once-a-month or so occurences. Then one day in September, she came home from work very tired and wanting only to sleep. I’d made dinner and had already eaten and fed our son; she said she’d eat after she had a nap. A nap? At 7:30 in the evening? But I didn’t think any more of it.
Around 8:30 I got our son his bath and put him to bed. When I was sure he’d gone to sleep, I took a shower and got ready for bed. I saw her on the bed, still fully dressed except for her shoes. I shook her to wake her up, told her she needed to eat; again she said, “Later.” She repeated that one word when I suggested she take a hot soak in the tub. So I climbed into bed, wrapped my arms around her and let her sleep. It took me a long time to get to sleep myself; I knew there was something wrong here. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I woke up just after 8 the next morning. I know this because the Sun was shining through our bedroom window at a higher angle than it normally does, so I checked the clock, which hadn’t gone off at 7 like it should have. My wife was laying on her side, nearly on her belly, with her face turned away from me. I reached over and shook her. “Hey, babe, it’s after eight o’clock; we’re late for work,” I said as I began getting dressed quickly. I finished and called her again; no answer. I reached over and shook her once more. That was when I noticed that she was stiff as a board. Pushing down an urge to panic, I started to roll her over, and then saw that the left side of her face was dark and the right pale. I knew from reading somewhere that her blood had settled, and that she was dead.
I don’t know how, but I held off the immediate emotional instinctive reactions of denial and loss. I finished dressing. Then I went into our son’s room, woke him up, grabbed the clothes I’d laid out for him the night before. I took him across the hall to the neighbor’s apartment, knocked on the door. When the woman answered, I quickly told her what had happened and asked if she would watch my child while I called 9-1-1.
The next few days are a blur. Even, perhaps especially, in spite of remembering bits and pieces here and there.
The police arrived first. There were four officers, as I recall. Two of them went into our bedroom after asking where my wife’s body was at. The other two stayed with me, taking my statement and asking questions. What seemed like an eternity later but had to be a short time, the coroner showed up. Someone, it might have been me, pointed him to the bedroom. Or it might have been the two officers who had already been in there and come back out.
Somewhere along the line, a friend came in. The police told him he had to stay out, but then let him pass when he identified himself as a priest. I heard voices in the hall, but they seemed to come from far away; it was a few of my neighbors, coming to lend their support. But of course, they were kept out; looking back, I think there were most likely a couple more officers. But I don’t really know.
I remember the coroner sitting down next to me on the couch as the police detective finished questioning me, made a final note and put his notebook away. The doctor told me what his initial finding was, that my wife had died from (I recall the words exactly) congestive heart failure secondary to hypoxia secondary to seizure. He also asked me what she had eaten the night before; I told him that I’d made some macaroni and cheese and a vegetable side, but that she’d gone straight to bed when she got home from work. I think he asked me if she might have gotten up during the night to eat, or maybe eaten before she got home. If he did ask that, I probably told him that either was possible.
Then he said, “We have to take the body to the hospital for a full autopsy. I’m sorry, but it’s the law; any time a death occurs at home or away from witnesses, we’re required to take it in for a complete examination. If you want, I can send you a copy of my report when I’m finished.”
I remember a pair of ambulance attendants, probably paramedics, taking her out on a stretcher; I don’t remember the stretcher being brought in. The police left after the lead detective gave me a business card and asked me to call him if there was anything else that I might remember. I watched out the window as the stretcher was rolled to the curb where the hearse was waiting. I saw but didn’t really see the officers going right behnd them. I know the tears were rolling down my face, and I felt like my world had come to an end.
Then I was turned around by a pair of dark arms and drawn into a hug; it was one of my neighbors, a robust black woman with two boys of her own. She said softly in my ear, “Just let it out, man; just let it out. Don’t try to hold it back.” Then the dam broke.
My next memory was of that woman taking me to the funeral home to make the arrangements and to the Social Security office to begin the process of applying for benefits for my son. I found out then that I also qualified because I was the child’s guardian.
Some time that afternoon, with my friend the priest, one of my neighbors, a couple I’d met through the priest standing by to lend support, I called my mother-in-law in New York City. Her son answered.
“Who are you?”
“I’m your sister’s husband.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to speak to your mother. Is she there?”
“Why you want to talk to her?”
“To tell her that her daughter died this morning.”
I heard him say something in Spanish to someone else on his end. Then, just before another voice came on the line, I heard the young man laugh as if something was funny. I was dumbfounded, too much so to even get angry. Then an older woman said, “What you want?”
“Senora, your daughter died this morning. The funeral’s going to be in three days.”
“What you want me to do?”
“I just thought you might want to come to the funeral. I know you two didn’t really get along, but she is your daughter.”
“I can’t come. It’s too far.”
“Too far? From New York to Poughkeepsie? You could take the Metro North train.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t come.” Click.
I related the conversation to my companions. They were flabbergasted; I was just numb. I couldn’t comprehend that a mother wouldn’t come to her child’s funeral. “It’s too far,” she’d said. Eighty miles or so. Too far for a woman who flew from New York to Puerto Rico and back every year.
I’m glad my friends were there…
The funeral was a lovely affair as such things go. It was in a smallish chapel at the funeral home, seating maybe eighty, or a bit more. Almost every seat was filled, which surprised me even through my grief. All of our co-workers were there, at least of those who could get away from the store; I even saw a few of the managers. And there were a lot of friends and several of our neighbors. I was hugged so many times I kept thinking the next one would crush the life out of me. The preacher gave a wonderful talk that I don’t remember; all I recall was feeling greatful that he’d hit all the right spots, telling of my wife’s successes in her short life, the trials and tests she’d overcome, including and especially her disability, and her devotion to her husband and son. Where he learned all of that, I could only guess, since we didn’t attend or belong to any church.
The only cloud, other than it being a funeral, was the song sung as a memorial to her. I had requested “The Morning After”, originally sung by Maureen McGovern. What was sung was “Over The Rainbow”. I was livid. I was so angry I started to get up from my seat in the front row to stop everything. I was about to start yelling and shouting to bring the roof down. But I felt my priest friend’s hand gently on my shoulder. I looked at him; he shook his head slightly, and I sat back down.
After the service was over, I made my complaint known to the funeral director and to the owner of the funeral home. I was given the urn with my wife’s ashes after a brief reception. Those priest got into the limo with me, and the owner of the funeral home drove it herself, taking us as close to my front door as possible. I felt like I was walking a guantlet as I saw those of my neighbors who hadn’t come to the service standing by their doors, watching me. I could see that more than a few had tears in their own eyes to match mine. Again, I was greatful.
I got my key out of my pocket before I even got to the building. But the door was already open; one of the teenage sons of the neighbor who had hugged me that first day held it open for me. As I approached my apartment door, the neighbor from across the hall opened it and ushered me inside. There was more food than I’d seen in a private setting since the last Fourth of July cookout I’d been to as a teen. Some was bought; I remember a large bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with all the fixin’s. But most was home-made. Someone, bless them, had made a huge batch of peach cobbler. There was baked macaroni and cheese, a ham, sweet potato pie, corn on the cob. If not for the fact of the circumstances, it could have been a celebration.
I turned to go out the door, intending to go thank everyone personally. But a dozen people were already coming in to help out. A few served the food; I was told to just sit down and don’t worry about anything.
I don’t remember how long this went on, but it was dark when the neighbor from across the hall and the one from the next building with the two boys, the one who had given me that hug and taken me to make the arrangements, had done all the cleaning up and stuffed my refrigerator with the leftovers.
The thee days of bereavement time off allowed by my job combined with my normal two days off and the weekend; this gave me a full week before I had to return to work.
Return to work I did, with my son safely in the day care center. Our lives gradually returned to something resembling normal, though of course it never really does, at least not for some time. Finding your wife dead next to you on waking does something to a man. But normal was not to be. About nine months after my wife died, I was called to the day care center; a man from Child Protective Services was there, wanting to speak with me.
They took my son that day, claiming that I had neglected him and that I’d inflicted, in their words, “excessive corporal punishment”. None of it was true, of course; but it took me three years to get hm back, and another year to get CPS out of our lives. There’s a story there, too, that I may tell one day. Suffice it to say that changes were made within that agency, including a CPS supervisor being demoted to the lowest level of a different department. But that three years did its damage as well, both to me and to my son.
By spring of 1995, I’d had enough of Poughkeepsie, New York. I began making my plans to return to Florida. I began selling what I couldn’t take with me; what I couldn’t sell, I gave away to people I knew would appreciate it. What brought it on, interestingly enough, was a woman.
She was another Puerto Rican. She was widowed and had a daughter about the same age as my son. She lived in the same building I did, which coincidentally, or maybe not a coincidence at all, was the same building my wife had lived in when I’d first met her. And we enjoyed each other’s company. After a while, she told me that I shouldn’t get too close to her. I asked her why; she said because I could find someone better, that she had problems. My problem was that I was getting close to her. But what she told me stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the same thing my wife had told me early in our relationship. The very same words. “I’ve got problems. You can find someone better.”
After all that had happened, I shut myself off. I decide that I didn’t have the patience to stick out another four years convincing her as I had done with my wife. In spite of what I’d considered all the signs that we should be together, I wasn’t going to even try.
The last thing I did was to give her daughter the Apple II-E that I had no room to take with me to Florida. And I told the woman, “Te quiere.” If she’d said anything then, I might have stayed; but she got back in her car without speaking.
The train took nearly two days to reach our destination. First there was the stop in Washington, D.C. where locomotives were changed due to a switch from diesel to electrical power. Then there was a stop in Georgia where a drunk had aparently fell asleep, or more likely passed out, across the tracks. Through the windows of the lounge car, where we’d spent the entire trip, I could see police and others checking things out before allowing us to continue on our journey.
Finally we arrived in Tampa, Florida and boarded the waiting minibus to Saint Pete, since Amtrak didn’t go past Tampa on that leg of the trip. We were met by three of my half-brothers and their signifcant others; one was married and the other simply living together. We stayed with the younger couple for a few weeks until I got my finances in order in the city that was to be our home.
I worked a few minor part-time jobs when my son went back to school. Dishwasher, roofer’s helper, and finally I got hired at a neighborhood store. My son, as children will, made new friends in our new neighborhood, and after a time began to get into mischief with them.
I got a call at work telling me that I needed to come home right away, that the police were at my apartment. When I got there, I found out that the boy had gotten into a fight with one of his friends. Nothing unusual about that, except that it happened in my living room, and there were patches of the other boy’s blood on the wall and the couch.
I’d laid out rules concerning this, of course. One was that nobody was allowed in the apartment when I’m not home. But it was summer, and he was pushing the limits of what he could get away with. For example, on night a couple weeks before this, my neighbor across the hall, who was also my co-worker at the store, told me that he’d seen my son sneaking out late at night to run the streets with his friends. Around midnight, my neighbor knocked on my door to tell me that he’d just seen my boy go out again. I looked in his bedroom, and sure enough he was gone; he’d left a couple pillows covered by a blanket to try to make it look like he was asleep. So I stayed up and waited for him to come home.
Two in the morning came, and still he hadn’t gotten back. By then I was considering calling the police. Just as I was picking up the phone, the door opened. I had the lights out so he would think I was sleeping. He quietly closed the door and locked it; I turned on the light, startling him.
“Hey, Dad,” he said. “What are you doing up?”
“I counted to ten silently, then replied, “Waiting for you. Where have you been for the past two hours?”
“I was just outside on the porch.”
“Don’t lie to me, son. I’ve been outside, all around the building and down through the neighborhood. You were nowhere to be seen. Now where were you?”
He hung his head briefly, then looked up, but not directly at me. “Out walking with my friends, that’s all.”
The discussion went on for about twenty minutes or so. Finally I got tired of him not giving me a clearcut answer. All I’ll say further is that this was the only time I ever used a belt on my son. I made sure my anger was in check before I began. I stayed calm and in complete control until I’d finished. Every stroke, five total, hit him nowhere except his buttocks. I’m not proud of this; I’ve often wished I could take it back. Yet what else was there that I could have done? To this day, I don’t know, because things only got worse from there.
I had a woman friend I was seeing, who stayed over on weekends at first, then later moved in with us. She’d been trying to get me to go over to the store on the corner, half a block away, because the owner wanted me to work for him. I’d been resisting because I enjoyed where I was working. But this thing with my son was getting out of hand; the fight showed me that I really needed to be closer to home, and that store was the only option I had. So I went there, talked to the man, and was hired on the spot. I asked if I could start the next Monday and was told no problem.
I took my son to work with me the next day. I explained to my boss what had gone down, and that I had to leave that job and take the one close to home, but that I would finish the week out because I wanted to give some kind of notice. Everyone understood my position and wished me well. My boy was well behaved for those three days until the weekend came.
I went to my new job bright and early Monday morning. I’d been there a month or so when I had to kick my woman friend out, making her no longer my friend. She’d been talking bad about my son to me, and talking bad about me to my son. I never did figure out what her problem was, but I wanted nothing to do with her any more. A month after that, I was behind the counter at the store, ringing up customer purchases, when a lady I hadn’t seen there before walked in. She was dark and dusky, well proportioned and … Oh hell, call a spade a spade; she was gorgeous beyond all my imaginings. I called out, Good morning; she turned and smiled. Looking back, I think I was smitten right then and there. Call it the weakness of men if you want to, but there I was, nearly forgetting all about my dead wife, just from that smile.
By the time she got up to the counter, all the other customers had been taken care of. She laid out a few items, I rang them up. “Is there anything else you need? If we don’t have it, I can see if we can get it.”
She smiled again, and it was like the store just lit up brighter than I’d ever seen it. I know that’s corny, but that’s how it was.
She answered, “No, nothing comes to mind right now; but if I think of something, I’ll make sure to let you know.” Then she picked up her bag, and headed for the door. Just before going through, she turned her head and saw that I was watching her. She smiled again, and this time she winked. Then she continued on her way. As I had no other customers at the moment, I came out from behind the counter and went to the door. I watched her walk away down 22nd Street and turn left on Burlington Avenue, right past the apartment building where I lived.
A few days later she came back. It was a slow day; there’d only been a few people come in, so I was wiping and cleaning shelves and putting everything in order. I’d gone behind the counter to get my cigarettes, and had just straightened out when she came in.
“Hello, there,” she said with a smile.
I smiled back and replied, “We meet again. Did you think of anything you want me to order?”
“No, I just came to visit. Do you have time?”
“It’s a slow day. I was getting bored until a minute ago. Yes, I have time.”
We introduced ourselves to each other. We talked for what seemed like hours.
The boss came in at some point, his car loaded with stock from the wholesale outlet. I helped to unload it, then introduced him to my new friend as someone who had just recently moved into the area. He asked me if I wanted the rest of the afternoon off, and I looked at this lovely lady questioningly. She smiled her bright smile again and said she had to be going but that she’d be back some time.
She came back a week later, and we talked some more, about a variety of things. As time went on, I got to thinking I knew her from somewhere; but I couldn’t recall where.
Then one day we were talking, and my son came up to me after school.
She asked, “So this is the son you told me about?”
“Yep, that’s him.”
I remember holding him in my arms when he was a baby!”
When she said that, I remembered where I had seen her before. I’d been walking on the Main Mall to meet my wife, and seen the two of them talking. And this lovely lady had, indeed, been holding my son! But there was more. I remembered meeting her here in Saint Pete, when I’d come back after one of several break-ups before getting married.
This was the woman I’d met in that convenience store all those years ago, when I’d come back to Florida for a time!
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I thought. I must have thought it out loud, too, because both her and my son looked at me inquisitively.
I looked at them both in turn, then asked her, “When did you remember?”
She smiled and replied, “Right after I left the store that first day.”
“And you didn’t say anything? Why?”
“Oh, believe you me, I thought about it. But I also realized that you had to remember on your own, that if I’d just told you, you’d never know for certain.”
I was speechless. It’s also possible that my mouth was hanging open. I don’t really recall. But she put her hand up to my face and cupped it on one side. Then she asked, “So what are we gonna do about this? Any ideas?”
I came back to my senses then. “I take it you’re not with anyone now, right?” She nodded affirmatively, so I added, “Well, we’ve been getting to know each other for the past several weeks. But it’s been around the store here. What would you say if I asked you out? Say, dinner and a show?”
She tunred her head slightly to one side and batted her eyes coquettishly. “You mean a date? Why, sir, I do believe I would accept such an invitation from you.”
“Well, then how about next Friday? Seven o’clock?”
“That will be acceptable, sir. I’ll be certain to be ready.”
But that date was not to be. Life interfered. Here’s all that happened.
Two nights later, I was awakened around three in the morning by noises coming from my kitchen. I grabbed my pistol, a .380 automatic, made sure there was a round in the chamber, and flicked off the safety. I quietly slipped out of my bedroom and through the living room to the kitchen doorway. I saw movement by the window. I aimed the pistol with one hand, finger on the trigger, then turned on the light switch. There, trying to come through the window, was my ex lady friend. I raised the gun and released the trigger, thankful for my Marine Corps training; if not for that, I most likely would have shot her.
The following Monday, my son bragged to me about hacking the school computer from the computer he was supposed to be learning on in class. I went to the school to request a conference with his computer teacher, where we agreed that the boy’s seat assignment would be changed to the front of the classroom, right next to the teacher’s desk.
And on Thursday, the lady of my dreams came to me with a problem. Her landlord had entered her apartment while she was out, and took all of her belongings out to the yard, selling them.
It just so happened that this was something I could help her with. Back in New York I’d been both a tenant’s rights organizer and a landlord’s agent, having managed the last building I’d lived in. On top of that, I’d done something of a study of landlord-tenant relations law, and knew that there were common elements of those laws in all states of the Union. One of those is that landlords cannot touch a tenant’s property without an order of eviction signed by a judge, and then only if the tenant does not move their belongings out before the date listed on the order. To make it more interesting, many states require that a sheriff’s deputy be present when entering an apartment under such an order.
As soon as I got off work, I got a camera, a Kodak instamatic, and my micro-cassette recorder from my apartment and went to the address she’d given me. I left her at the store, asking her to wait there for my return. I took pictures, ostensibly of the building and its surroundings, but actually of the personal belongings by a yard sale sign and the two men consucting the sale. One of them turned out to be the landlord, and the other was the maintenance man, which I found out by asking about the items for sale. They explained that a tenant had been evicted and had left her belongings behind. I asked if they had a court order; the landlord immediately went on guard.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“A friend of your tenant.”
“No, she hasn’t. She told me what was going on here. You’re selling her posessions without authorization; I have the pictures to prove it, and a recording of you saying so. I suggest you stop and put her belongings back in the apartment unless you show me the court order saying you can do what you’re doing.”
He stood up,trying to look intimidating. “I suggest you get off my property before I call the police.”
“Go ahead and call them. You can explain to them why you’re stealing and selling my friend’s stuff.”
He stared at me as though I were something that crawled out of a sewer. Then he told his worker, who had remained silent through the encounter, to take the things back in the apartment. He turned toward the new black Corvette in the driveway, unlocked it and opened the door to get in.
“Just to let you know,” I added, “I’m bringing her here tonight to check things out. There better not be anything missing. And I’ll have other friends with me in case you get any bright ideas.”
Then I walked away.
I came back with her that night. She showed me some mementos she had, keepsakes like pictures of her father, who had been well-known in Rhythm & Blues as an up-and-coming star. One of those pictures showed him backstage with Elvis Presley. I was, of course, suitably impressed.
She put a few items in her purse, and a few more in her small travel bag; things that she didn’t want to risk losing. After seeing the kind of people that ran that building, I’d asked if she wanted to stay with me a few weeks until she could find a new place.
That few weeks turned into a few years. How that came about was what some might call serendipity.
About a week after moving in with me, I finally took her out to dinner. When we got back, I tried to kiss her, but she pulled back slightly.
I asked, “What’s wrong?”
She looked at me strangely. “I don’t know how to kiss you.”
“Huh? Why not?”
She turned her eyes away, then said, “You’re white.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” I was a bit stunned; this was not what I had expected.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never dated a white guy before. I’ve had a lot of white friends and acquaintances, but never went out with any of them, and so never kissed any.”
I took her head gently in my hands, turned it so I could look into her eyes. But she wouldn’t accept that, looking instead out of the corners of her eyes, until I quietly asked her to look at me. When she finally did, I said, “Just try it, and then decide if it’s gonna be a problem.”
There was no problem. She told me later that it was different than the few black men she’d kissed, but not in a bad way. She said I was much gentler than they had been, and that roughness wasn’t what she wanted in a relationship, so she’d stayed to herself. My response was that it was just my way, not necessarily other men’s, no matter what color.
She had this problem with her landlord, which I knew how to handle. And I had my problem with my son, while she had raised her own son and several nephews and knew how to deal with the issues common to teenage boys. So there was the mutual need for each others’ abilities. And of course, there was the attraction we’d felt for each other, even as far back as 1982.
So there it was, the combination of seeming coincidences and an already developed awareness of attraction. She stayed with me, introduced me to her few friends, and got closer to each other than I’d been with anyone since my wife died. We got so close, in fact, that her friends started referring to us as husband and wife. And though we never actually got married (she couldn’t because she was still married but separated, and very much afraid of her husband), we began thinking of ourselves and each other in the same terms.
She walked with a cane, having had an accident years before when the plaster ceiling came down on her in the bathtub, messing up her back and legs. As a result, she was in pain often, though she’d learned to deal with it in various ways, from hot compresses to pressure point stimulation as well as medications that weren’t really accepted by western medicine but were more effective and with almost no side effects. And she had to take some kind of pill that kept her from retaining water; I seem to recall that there was some kind of problem with her digestive system or something, I’m not clear on what exactly it was.
One day, during my afternoon break from working a split shift, she called me from my computer room and pointed to her legs; they were swollen, twice their normal size, and it had happened very quickly. I called the store and asked my boss if he could take us to the emergency room. He closed the store and pulled his car around to the front of the apartment building. I helped her to the car, then a few minutes later helped her into a hospital wheelchair and rolled her inside.
The doctor said she’d have to stay for a couple of days so they could drain her excess fluids and run some tests. She told me to go on home and come see her the next day.
When I went back, she told me they’d drained six quarts of fluid from her and were waiting on the test results. We spent some time together, talking and joking, and I told her not to worry about anything, that I’d take care of her for as long as she needed and wanted me. She asked why I would want to take care of a broken-down broad like her; my answer was simple. I said, “Because I love you, and love doesn’t need a reason.”
The day after that, her test results came back. It seemed that her body was not only rejecting the pills she took for the water retention, but were also causing other problems, including possibly kidney and liver breakdown, but they weren’t really sure about that part. So they took her off the water pills and a nurse suggested, out of the doctor’s ear-shot, that she try a couple herbs and herbal teas that naturists had found effective in the prevention or control of bloating. I don’t recall what they were now, years later, but the herbs did help. For a while, at least.
She came home a couple days later, looking much healthier and more energetic than she’d been. Hospitals, it seems to me, tend to take something out of you when you have to be there. I asked my boss for the rest of the day off, and he gave his okay.
We talked, watched a movie, and I fixed dinner so she could rest. As if she hadn’t done enough of that the past few days, ha-ha. Not a laughing matter, I know, but what the heck. I’d already gotten the herbs and teas that nurse had recommended, and fixed her a cup to go with her dinner.
It wasn’t long before she insisted on getting up and moving around, though. All I could do was remind her of the doctor’s orders to get as much bed rest as she could stand.
One day a few weeks later, we were out walking through the neighborhood, when we saw a young black man with a white woman walking in the opposite direction on the other side of the street. When he noticed us, he yelled out, “What’s a fine-ass sistah like you doin’ widdat white-ass trailer trash?”
I started to answer him that it’s none of his damn business, but she put her hand lightly on my arm. I turned my head to look at her, and she said softly, almost in a whisper, “I got this.”
She crossed the street, with me following. “You got a lot of damn nerve,” she said, “talking that shit, and there you are with a skinny, scrawny white crack ho hangin’ on your arm. Who the fuck do you think you are, king of the world or somethin’?”
The guy started to raise his fist to her.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I said. And when he turned his attention to me, ready to say something stupid, I lifted the front of my shirt just enough for him to see what I had for him if he laid a finger on my lady.
He decided wisely that he didn’t want to argue with my .380. He grabbed his ‘friend’ and rapidly walked off back the way he’d come, nearly dragging her with him.
She got a small settlement from her former landlord, and it came right on time since my landlord had sold the building and the new owner was kicking everyone out so he could refurbish it back to it’s original blueprint design plus a few modern amenities like central heat and air conditioning. We found a house a few blocks away that was within our budget, and used the settlement for the security deposit. Speaking with one of the two owners, I said that I was really looking for something that I could rent to own. He said that he’d run it by the other owner, his business partner, but that he thought they could do that. A couple days later, he called to tell me that they had agreed that if we stayed a full year with no problems, such as damage to the property or not paying the rent on time, then we could do the rent-to-own thing.
That cemented it; we moved into that house.
Almost a year later, we were told by the owners that the house had been sold and that we had to move. The second owner, whom we hadn’t met before, told us that his partner never informed him that we wanted to rent to own and he had no idea that this had been verbally agreed to. The lesson, of course, was to always get it in writing. But we were more trusting than was appropriate.
So we moved again, this time to a large apartment several blocks away.
I recall very clearly one morning, the two of us were on the couch watching a couple episodes of the remake of the old TV show, ‘Dark Shadows’. Her son was visiting. The phone rang; he answered it in the kitchen, then called out, “Ma, it’s for you.” It was one of her friends, as I recall.
She picked up the extension, said “Hello”, then a moment later said to me, “Turn on the news, something big is going on.”
I changed the channel to CNN. My jaw dropped; I was dumbfounded.
The date was September 11, 2001.
Something happened to her that day. Or maybe it was the accumulation of news over the next several weeks; I really don’t know. But she’d been travelling for several years after leaving her husband, and had decided to settle down when we got together. But she suddenly wanted to travel again, to go see her family and friends in other places. So she left, but said she’d be back. Nothing I said or did, no promise made, would change her mind.
A couple weeks after she left, I got into an argument with my new boss, who had taken the store over from my old boss. The new boss was stocking things that nobody was buying, and wouldn’t listen to anyone who tried to tell him that. He was a really old guy from India, and insisted that he knew all there was to know about running a store. And he owned the property; the old boss had just rented it from him.
To make a long story short, he fired me. I, of course, had to tell my landlord that I’d lost a major part of my income; serendipitously, he happened to have an open position that I could fill. So we moved again, just me and my son, and I took over as the live-in manager of an apartment complex on the south side. That covered my rent and phone, since the phone was needed for the job; and around the corner was another store where help was needed. So I had two part-time jobs; with the Social Security survivor benefit
I’d been getting for my son, I was able to cover all my expenses and still have something left over at the end of most months. Yes, it was a step down, but it was necessary just to keep going. And the apartment was nice, even if the neighborhood wasn’t all that great.
My lady came back a couple times. Once, when I’d fallen asleep on the couch while watching a movie, I woke up hearing my name being whispered. I opened my eyes, and there she was, in all her splendor.
“Did you miss me?” she asked seductively as she opened the bathrobe she had on. There was nothing underneath.
It turned out that my son had heard the knock and let her in. He started to call me to wake up, and she stopped him; she said she wanted to really, really surprise me. So she asked him if he had any friends he could hang with for a while, then went in to take a shower. The rest I’ll leave to your imagination.
She stayed for a couple weeks. She said she’d found a house in Ohio she wanted to look at, and if she bought it, she’d send for us to join her. It seemed she was ready to try settling down again, but on her terms this time, not so subject to the whims and agendas of others, like landlords and such.
If anything, our parting was even more bittersweet that before. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried a bit. Yet I knew she was doing this, not only for herself, but for us.
We talked on the phone twice a week for the next month; then I didn’t hear anything for two weeks. I was worried, of course; I called the few members of her family I knew of who also knew of me. A sister in Jersey City, a brother in a residential hotel in New York City. And a few friends of hers I was aware of. Nobody had heard from her.
Then came the knock on the door. It was 7:30 in the morning; I’d just gotten up and was getting ready to go to my job at the store. I opened the door; it was one of her son’s friends who had also become one of mine. He’d gotten a call from someone or other, I don’t recall who. My lady had been rushed to the emergency room in Columbus, Ohio.
The herbs and teas had either stopped working, or she’d forgotten (or neglected) to use them. She’d bloated up overnight while she’d slept. She got to the emergency room of one of the hospitals there, but it was too late. She was admitted, and while a doctor was examining her, she had a heart attack. The strain had apparently been too much for her body to handle.
At that point, I began to lose my sense of self. It didn’t happen all at once, to be sure. But it did happen. Within a month, I’d gone into a degree of denial; I snapped at anyone who reminded me that she was gone for good. I lost both jobs as a result; the only funds I had was the one check from the government each month, since the one I’d gotten as my son’s guardian had stopped when he turned 16 the year before.
In the meantime, my brother (we’d adopted each other as brothers back in New York) had been practically begging me to come to Montana, where he’d moved after I’d left that state. He wanted me to help him build a home-based business.
So, with little income, I made plans. I sold what we couldn’t take on the bus with us, gave away what hadn’t sold by the time we had to leave. That was the day before the grace period when rent was due. We took a Greyhound bus to Billings, Montana, in January 2003. No heavy coats or winter clothes. But the weather stayed fairly mild during the trip. And when we arrived, my bro had a couple coats for us that fit pretty well.
I looked for work, but couldn’t find any; the area was seriously down economically. If a locality can be said to be in a depression separate from the rest of the country, that was it. So we concentrated on trying to build our business. And ran into a major issue between us.
No need to go into what it was, just that it was never resolved to my satisfaction. And then my son’s 18th birthday came up. He was the sole beneficiary of his mother’s life insurance from her job. It wasn’t much, even with interest added; only around 16 thousand dollars. I made the phone calls to the insurance company; they sent the forms to fill out. Two weeks or so after sending them back, he got a check by special delivery.
A month later, he’d bought an SUV and left, driving back to Florida.
I felt totally alone then. Alienated, in my mind at least, from my adopted brother. No contact with my biological family. My son moved out; both women I’d loved gone. No job, no income.
I gave up. On life, on the people around me, and on myself. As far as I could see, I had nothing left to live for. So I started to let myself slip away. I immersed myself in any activity that would let me not think, just do something. I spent hours online, and went to flea markets with the merchandise we we’d gotten for our failing business.
But I did little else.
Then I met a woman online. I won’t say she was another “woman of my dreams”; she wasn’t. But she woke up in me a will to keep living, to see what else there was that
I might do with my life.
We chatted online, even spoke a few times on the phone. Finally, we agreed to meet in person. I found a way to get to where she lived, in El Paso, Texas. She met me at the bus station. We tried the relationship thing, and that didn’t work.
But the most important thing she did for me was to introduce me to a new way of looking at life. What she did was to show me how to begin healing myself. Or, more properly, how to learn how to heal myself.
She gave me the means to take my life back from the brink I’d been teetering on. For that, I’m eternally grateful, because she showed me that what I thought was love, wasn’t really. She helped me learn that the only love affair worth anything, is the love affair with life itself.
How and what she helped me learn, well, that will have to wait for another time, another story.