#56 It Takes Two

The quick version: A friend introduced me to a man. We were just friends, then became more. We lived together, were supposed to marry and built two homes together. He was brilliant, funny and everything that comes with the dark side of brilliant. I’m tenacious and wouldn’t give up, but after nearly eight years together finally chose survival.

Except that doesn’t describe how one waits eight years to choose life.

Back in the late 80’s, a virus attacked me and there was no cure for my immune system. I was weak and could only adapt. I was new to the area and isolated, so a friend introduced me to a man who was funny, smart and accomplished. He picked me up for lunch the day after we had some witty banter on the phone.

He was a terrible driver gunning then pulling back off the gas. He whistled, I guessed out of nervousness. I was not from the area so he gave me a tour of downtown, driving the wrong way on one-way streets. I sat across from him at lunch and I knew I would not have a relationship with him.

He said it had been a long time since he broke up with his ex. It was safe because he wasn’t looking for anything but friendship. So he’d drop by either before or just after his therapy sessions. That was kind of sweet. I served him countless cups of herbal tea, which I’m pretty sure he hated. He had also just joined AA. That to me was in his favor because he was trying to get life right. We were pals. He said he joined AA because of me. Okay he was working it. When I got sick I could no longer tolerate wine so I didn’t drink. This was convenient.

Oh the reason he was such a terrible driver; because of his well known drinking, his wife drove him everywhere for decades.

He was a talented writer and admired the play I had just finished. Someone’s admiration is damned attractive. One night he took me to dinner and when the restaurant didn’t have any herbal tea (they never did) he opened his jacket and took out several tea selections for me. That was one of those little moments.

I agreed to go away for a weekend so we weren’t going to be just pals any more. I still had never seen his house. So other weekends were spent at an expensive hotel. Finally he explained that he had been through a long depression after his breakup and the house was a disaster. It really was. When he got that cleaned up we spent time there. That breakup was fresher than he had told me when we met.

He was older and I thought striking, but was never athletic. Because my illness cut out skiing and tennis for me, we went to movies, concerts and galleries. It wasn’t long before we were spending most of our time together. But I believe that if I hadn’t been sick, we’d never have even had that first lunch.

Suddenly he’d disappear and then return. He called it his push pull. When you spend a lot of time with someone you get used to them so the disappearance was unpleasant. This happened a few times. By then I was getting to know some of his many children and his friends. I heard some stories about his past behaviors, but always with a touch of how special he was: and occasionally a bit about his scary mother.

A lapsed Catholic, he went away on retreat. When he returned he announced to all of us that he was going to leave the area and become a monk or something like that. Okay, we all adjusted. Wished him well. But he didn’t go. This may sound lighthearted on my part because I cared deeply about him by then. I just had nothing to say in the matter. He was pondering deep things?

Once he picked me up and we went to a nearby park. It was a hot day so he took off his shirt, and tucked it into a back pocket. He left me on a bench and began walking on the grass as if he was mowing a lawn. He meticulously walked a line, then returned next to that line, again and again and again. I assumed he was working his way up to tell me something. But he just walked back and forth. What’s coming back as I write this is the constant state of uncertainty with him.

When my first play was in rehearsal he disappeared again. It was upsetting but I resolved that it was the end. He reappeared and gave me a big surprise birthday party on opening night. He gave me my favorite flowers and a trip to Maine after the close of the play. Only he was repeating a trip, stop for stop, he had taken with his ex-girlfriend. There were long periods when he didn’t speak. Once when he threw the map at me, I got out of the car to walk back to Pennsylvania if necessary.

When we returned he disappeared, re-appeared. I can’t count how many times he said good-bye and then would do anything to have me back in his life. Okay, eight.

He was impressed with a friend of mine who was both a chaplain and a therapist and decided to see her for therapy. This was not my idea. He had admitted by then that he’d been to many therapists but he just performed for them. As soon as they were on to him, he’d disappear. It meant ethically that she and I couldn’t communicate during that time which was at least six months. Maybe more.

Since it looked as though he wasn’t going to run away to become a monk, he and I began looking at condos. Because that’s what you do when a man is completely undependable. He didn’t want to keep his house. He had expected to live there with his ex girlfriend. (I was 44 and he was 55. Girlfriend sounds so silly. ) Since I was writing on my own, I had no particular schedule and more and more time went to him, less to my writing. We looked at a new condo with a beautiful view.

We attended his friend’s annual New Years Eve party at a restaurant. People came from all over the east for that party, in part to see him. He wasn’t drinking then and was silent that night. He just played with the candle in front of him. I looked around and most of the other men who had been trying to get his attention started playing with the candles too.

He signed a lease/purchase for the condo and knowing nothing about one another’s taste somehow we chose all the finishing and furniture. I was writing less and less.

I got to know more and more of his large family. I’d had so little family of my own it was warm at times to be on the outskirts of his. They were all smart and funny and there were so very many of them.

A friend still shared her house with me, but I spent more time with him. When it was time for him to move into the condo, I did a practice run and typed the directions for delivery people. One day at a store, he started to tell them how to get there. I did the unthinkable. I interrupted him. He didn’t speak to me for four days. But before his silence began, he told me that it was, “obvious that I had no breeding.”

And there it was again, that ancient numbness, in the center of me: that childhood feel, not feeling. If there was anything to say, I couldn’t say it. I went for a drive to nowhere to get away from the meanness. He pushed me away.

And he pulled me back about a week later. He had taken yet another sullen trip into his wilderness, or whatever he did during those departures. In spite of his behavior he had me convinced that he loved me. I believed that I loved him.

Then he asked me to meet him at the condo to talk. At least it would be final. But instead, he asked me to be “betrothed.” Was he on one knee? No he just slid lower on the couch. But I heard myself saying yes. It seemed I had passed some sort of test. Soon I was moving into the condo we had designed together. Of course the fact that he had appeared and disappeared many times would never happen again.

But that’s about when he started drinking and I attended Alanon. Our Saturday night dates were Chapter Nine meetings. In recovery programs those are meetings for families. He took me to AA meetings with him, perhaps to prove he was trying? He wasn’t seeing much of his family so I spent more time with them, as a substitute and for their company.

There were things about his past that he admitted, but naturally I believed that he meant to change for me. Remember the title of this collection: Stupendously Stupid List.

He did a lot of freelance writing and had one big client. His background was publishing, politics, government and PR. He had accomplished a great deal. Considering the many phobias that kept surfacing I had respect for what he had overcome.

We took another trip to Massachusetts and Maine. One day in Boston I waited in the car when he went to see a client. I looked up as he exited, literally clinging to the side of the building. His phobias for tall buildings and open spaces paralyzed him. I rushed to help him back to the car. I had always thought he was so affectionate taking my hand in public. But he needed my hand to get across any street.

His ups and down were so frequent, that roller coaster doesn’t picture enough of a peak. One son described it as, “the walls would suddenly turn black.” I had a vision of myself on the deck of an old schooner, holding on for dear life to the mast in the middle of a perfect storm. Oddly in this vision I wore a 19th century dress. My writing was sporadic. But still I thought it must be so difficult to be him. Hell Elizabeth it wasn’t easy being me.

The drinking escalated. I’d be in bed at night listening to his slippers slap on the tile of the kitchen floor, the glass hit the counter, the refrigerator door opened, and then the closing of the door again, his slippers slapping on the tile back to the den. He spent nearly all night drinking in the den. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I counted the drinks.

His ex-wife and I became friends, if for no other reason than we were the only two people on earth who knew what it was like to live with him. She’s a kind woman and maybe it made her feel better to see that it could happen to someone else. And we planned family gatherings. Through her and the children I got some of the ancient history. He never helped any of his children with an education, but did with rehabs. They didn’t get proper dental care, but he’d buy himself 60 shirts at a time. But this was old behavior.

All the things a man says he loves about you, independence intelligence, even beauty and competence, were becoming impediments. He told me I was the most sentient person he’d ever met. But he didn’t love that anymore.

He was a foodie. I’m not. I asked if he ever just ate franks and beans. We planned dinner parties together but I did all the chopping, shopping and cleaning. He’s a wonderful if not theatrical chef. One evening with friends at our table the conversation turned to Russia where I had traveled twice and about which I had written a screenplay. But he gave all the opinions. Not once did he refer to my experiences. That was the balance in our relationship.

My play had another larger production. And I received a rare arts grant for playwriting. We did not celebrate that grant. It made him sullen.

We usually dined out on Friday nights. One evening he spotted his best friend with a woman, not his wife. I was uncomfortable, but they wanted us to join them for coffee. From the minute we sat down, his friend, a highly respected and principled attorney, kept telling me how much he wanted to “fuck” me. Excuse the term but it’s what he kept saying. I was annoyed that the man I was with didn’t speak up. Then I thought of the woman, the mistress actually. Then there was the wife at home. Mostly I was really pissed at the guy for talking to me that way. I got a call and an apology the next day. But it was an accepted tone of the way things had been done for decades in a political town.

The next summer he wanted to take a trip west. I suggested Seattle and my home Port Angeles. I spent much of each week with his family, yet he laughed out loud at the notion of seeing my home. Breathe that in.

He wanted to go to the Southwest and I was to plan it. It was probably a concession about not going to Washington State. Within days of our departure I went out onto our balcony and locked myself out. Traffic below made it impossible to be heard. I was up too high to climb down into the parking garage. I could do nothing but wait in the sun. I heard the phone ringing inside again and again. At last he showed up and opened the door. I burst into tears from relief and went to hug him, but annoyed, he turned and left.

We flew to Albuquerque and rented a car. I had nabbed the best room at the best hotel at the Grand Canyon. I didn’t appreciate the strength of his phobias. Our room had a house-sized porch on the canyon. He had to sit at the back clinging to the wall.

We drove through Monument Valley. Brilliant. A man terrified of open spaces. There was more: Santa Fe and Taos: the open sky of New Mexico. For nearly three weeks he was in phobia hell and got altitude sickness. He was also on a spending spree in galleries.

At home with little discussion I was in charge of making everything run. I also wrote checks for him to sign. I found a second hotel room on a bill for one of his business trips, and a restaurant bill that could feed 12 people. He said it was a mistake and he’d deal with it.

The drinking escalated, and then stopped. He decided that we needed a bigger space. There was no talk of marriage, and now it wasn’t something I was about to bring up. Life was too uncertain. I spent many nights getting in my car to get away from his drinking. He’d stop again, then start. There was talk in the family of intervention. A few sons did go out to find him one time, and ended up visiting in a bar together. I nearly called the police to find him because I didn’t want him killing an innocent person. But I never did.

He surprised me one Christmas with an electric piano. But couldn’t stand my playing it. The drinking started again. It stopped. When he was in the middle of a work project all life stopped for everyone, as if no one else in the world had ever had a deadline.

We looked at larger condos, but we found a ranch house in a 60’s neighborhood. He bought it without negotiation, hired an architect to gut it and add on to it. I didn’t even know if he could afford it and was not consulted. A contractor was hired. When the contractor came to sign his deal suddenly the man I’m not naming reduced the poor guy’s percentage. I wanted to evaporate. It was horrible. The contractor had no choice but to sign. He rightfully hated him for the entire project and substituted inferior materials.

Six months of my life were spent picking everything there is to pick when you build a house. They say there’s something like 30,000 decisions. Every day I laid out samples of carpet, tile, paint. And the job was running more than a month late so the friend who had introduced us, loaned her unoccupied house.

I went to the construction sight every day. And once a week I took lunch to everyone trying to keep peace. The man I’m not naming would stop by, scream at the crew, especially if anyone dared smoke. One time he threw the construction phone pulling the cord out of the wall.

Somehow though we created a beautiful home. It was envisioned in part as a gallery to hang paintings we had collected on trips. It was open and light and I’ve never felt more at home in a house in my life. Except a little voice in my head kept saying, “I want to go home, I want to go home.”

When we were staying at the friend’s house he barely spoke to me and we ended up in different bedrooms. He was panicking over the money he was spending so he spent more. And blamed me, or the architect, anyone.

He didn’t show up on moving day. That was too overwhelming for him, which made the meanness escalate.

We bought a chair for me, he took it over. I bought a leather knapsack to carry my scripts. It became his. When I parked my car in the garage, he wanted that spot even though he always parked outside.

One of his sons came over and hooked up his computer in his office showing him how to get on the Internet. He immediately found chat rooms where in front of us he pretended to be a 22-year-old woman, attracting men. It was so explicit we left the room.

We gave many dinner parties for his friends. Never mine. The house was perfection but his behavior was more erratic. And he was spending day and night online with men, women, anyone. I found a cruel scrawled note from him in my office to get out. I did. A friend found a house for me. I took only my clothes. So, on top of a cardboard box, I wrote a screenplay titled Chat about a man who destroys his marriage by online relationships. I should read that again.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. Find work back in New York? I kept writing because that’s who I am. I’d hear from him from time to time. Neither of us was ready to let go.

One night I ridiculously poked myself in the eye and it was bloody. I was having trouble seeing so whom did I call? He came to take me to the emergency room where he developed urgent stomach cramps and they nearly admitted him.  

One evening I agreed to go get a bite to eat with him. Some of you might recognize that absurd hope that someone will itemize their bad behavior and say magical things. Nothing magical was said. He was sullen and drove me home in the rain. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. I opened the door and he put his foot on the gas so I fell on the blacktop scrapping my leg. He kept going.

He talked to mutual friends about how much he missed me, how wonderful and how beautiful I was and how much he wanted me back. Naturally they thought he was wonderful, with limitations. To me he was rude and abusive.  

After about nine months he coaxed me back to the house we had built together. For a while he was attentive. I was enjoying the many gardens we had installed. When I’d get angry with the man I’m not naming, I pulled weeds. My gardens were weed free.

He found yet another therapist. A man. I was gently invited in for a session. Yippee, progress. He’ll explain just what I’m living with. Only it was an ambush. They were telling me how all of the drinking was my fault. There it was again. That numbness. I heard, but could not speak.

Someone who had known my work in New York approached me about different jobs at her company. So I learned how to be a publisher. I put in long hours and often came home late to a man watching television in his bathrobe who wouldn’t even look up to acknowledge my presence. In fact the night after my first day on the job he made me a special dinner. But he left me there to eat it alone. By then he seemed to be actually meeting up with the people he met online. I was in a terrible place. I was just beginning to earn a good living again and he took the first check I was paid.

He started smoking too; the man who wouldn’t let contractors smoke during construction. He was smoking, drinking and I could see the phone light up at 2,3,4am. He was talking to women all over the country. I was in the guest room much of the time. One time I dialed one of the numbers he was calling, I think it was Las Vegas, and asked the woman who answered if she knew he wasn’t single. That’s as gutsy as it got for me. I was shutting down. I didn’t exist at home.

I existed at the office and worked long hours. He had been fired from his only big client for losing his temper. So he was living in sweat pants or his bathrobe. One day I was in our neighborhood on business and stopped by the house. I usually pulled into the garage so when he’d hear the garage door open he’d turn up the TV or he’d leave the room. I was just running in to get a bite so parked outside. When I came in he was literally running into the bedroom, in his robe.

He had his decent times too. One Christmas, he must have given me 60 presents. It was overwhelming. To keep me around he’d get nice just long enough to go back to the bad behavior.

One night he was having dinner with a son. When I came home I was going through our bedroom to the dressing room. But the bed I had made that morning was a mess, and on my nightstand were used condoms and a blank envelope. I didn’t know what to do. I considered packing, but giving up my ground was unthinkable. I waited in the living room. When he came home I took him into the bedroom where he saw the evidence. He immediately picked it up and took it into the bathroom. It was a while before he came back and this is all he said. “That’s not mine.”

We sat in the living room where without eye contact he told an interesting tale. He said he had a friend who was having an affair and he let them come to our house. I sarcastically asked why they couldn’t use the guest room. He stuck by his story and bought new sheets and a comforter.

He was terrified that I would tell people what had happened. But that’s the kind of story that’s too humiliating to tell. He gave me a huge 50th birthday party also celebrating a promotion at work. Except it was my 51st birthday. He ignored the 50th. I decided to let him give the party and to see my friends.

I started looking for apartments.

I came home one night after working late and he was incoherent, not from drinking but from a fever. I called his doctor because there were signs I knew to watch for from a botched surgery a decade earlier. I had to get him to the emergency room right away. A son showed up quickly. The emergency room doctor assured me that if had I come home just minutes later, he would not have lived. Since we were not married, I had no rights at the hospital: both good and bad by then.

The hospital here kept him stable for about ten days, but I had to get him to Baltimore for serious surgery. I had many trips back and forth. I was bitter because I was ready to leave him. Now how could I leave a man with a tube and a bag in his side?

At last he was able to come home. For a guy with so many phobias he was very competent at dealing with these surgeries. And with a tube and a bag on his side, he was still chasing women.

His sons took over hospital runs. I started quietly looking at apartments again.

One day he asked me to come into the living room. He stood there nervously and said that he had instructed his lawyer to leave me the house in his will. I said, “You can change a will.” He stormed out of the room.

I finally understood how careful he was a few years earlier when he asked me to be “betrothed.” I had thought it was sweet and old fashioned. Once in a while in our travels we looked at wedding bands. But look up the word “betrothed.” He was never going to marry.

I had a closer relationship with my 17-year-old Peugeot. But it wasn’t going to pass inspection either. I didn’t have the energy to store it so I could have it restored one day. I bought a solid safe new car and moved out. Safety mattered then more than anything.  

We were civilized enough that he helped me move a few things. But I took nothing but the piano, a chair, and my clothes. He didn’t believe I’d stay away. It was stupid that I didn’t take more. I just wanted out.

I rented furniture.

Years earlier I had organized a playwright group and we had committed new one act plays that summer for a festival. I owed my very first one act play in two weeks. I’d come back to my new apartment after a long day, and at night wrote my first one act play on a rented desk. I wrote about the end of a relationship, backwards. The first scene is the day she leaves. The last scene is the lunch of their first date. All the signs were there at that lunch. The challenge of writing that play saved me in those first weeks.

I was without skills navigating some political shenanigans at the company. And at just that moment I got the exciting invitation to my nephew’s wedding. But if I left my office for even one day the CFO messed with my division’s budget. Suddenly the man I’m not naming pounced on this, wanting to take me to the wedding. He was pressuring me as if he were going to make everything up to me. His scheme finally was too much and tragically I did not go out for the wedding.

It became clear to him, the man I’m not naming, that I wasn’t going back. But I still had things in the attic at the house. He went from wanting to escort me to the wedding to refusing me my belongings. A detective helped me hire an official to oversee getting my few things.

That’s about the time a friend who’s mighty experienced around the edges told me what I didn’t want to hear. He said, “It takes two to be in a crazy relationship.” I was furious at how right he was.

There’s so much more I could write about those years: Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve for 40. But in the end I was not their family. That was the deepest pain and loss. And then whatever do we do with Elizabeth?

I know he didn’t/couldn’t love me. I believed I loved him. I was not cherished.

So I learned two things from him. In part to complete what he thought was lacking in my “breeding”, he showed me how to properly open the binding of a new book.

Second, for day trips he showed me what a difference it makes to bring a change of shoes for the trip home. It’s instant energy. That was good advice. Nearly eight years and that was it.

The dear friend who introduced us has apologized more than once.

I hadn’t run into the man I’m not naming for years. I drove way out of my way to different grocery stores. Then a few summers ago a friend was here visiting. We were shopping and there he was. It was the first sighting I’d had in years. So I went up to him and gave him a little sort of a hug. Well, eight years. I introduced him to my friend. Afterwards she was shocked that I was nice.

A year or so later, I was with another friend and ran into him. I was pleasant enough to him that she was shocked. Married and divorced three times, she said she’d cross a street rather than be polite to any one of them. And she’s the kindest person I know.

When I see him now, I smile but keep going.

If I see any of his grandchildren, we chat and I’m delighted.

I just learned who bought the house a few years ago, and am gratified that they love and take good care of the gardens.




2 Comments on “#56 It Takes Two”

  1. Sylvia says:

    Brilliantly told, Elizabeth – now I know how you can understand “why & how” one could get caught up with someone who has so little regard for their well-being. The conclusion of this story is the obvious lead into your counter list, which needs a name (something like Forever Healing from Stupendously Stupid). We want to hear “why & how” you broke away, stayed away and struggled with successful rebuilding. And it is successful self talk that has gotten you to here. You leave all of your readers just wanting more and more!

  2. RIVERRHO1@aol.com says:

    Hi… I am exhausted after reading this… I went out with a man who had serious emotional problems…he’s still in therapy, after thirty years of it…but he was never abusive…he always just would withdraw…and after reading your account, I am doubly grateful that he did… I can understand your staying…up to a point…and then I say …Elizabeth! why have you sold yourself so short? Then I can answer, because I can empathize, and understand…but also up to a point.. Good for you for getting past that…and him…it shows on your face now…all for the better… A friend…as a matter of fact, the thirty year therapy guy…said, “Once someone is important in your life, they will always be important.” I guess we just have to learn to keep them at a very safe distance. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for getting way beyond the nameless one… Much love, love

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