#73 Separate Letters

While living in Milwaukee (#11 The Air Vent Conversation) we met a couple two doors down in our condo complex. They were about to kill one another trying to wallpaper a bathroom together. They were funny and fun. She had always worked, but gave that up to be home with their baby.

They were from the same town in Illinois as my mother and he worked summers as a teen at a park that had been left in the Will of my mother’s eccentric uncle. She had boasted about the uncle’s money. He never married and traveled the world without a suitcase. He’d buy one cheap shirt at a time as needed. But I never knew about the park. Our new neighbor told me that if alcohol was ever consumed in the park, the land reverted back to the family. I wondered why my mother hadn’t littered the place with whisky bottles. She probably didn’t know.

We all lived through a siege of robberies in the complex. Police finally discovered the culprits occupying an empty unit. They had a bird’s eye view and knew when the coast was clear. During that siege, at the neighbors, she and I saw feet kicking in the basement windows. They ran when we screamed.

We did some things as couples but when my relationship began to deteriorate and her husband traveled I’d stop by to visit her and the baby. We were becoming great friends.

When my relationship shattered I decided to return to New York Radio. The neighbor was transferred to his company’s Manhattan office at the same time. He went ahead to find a temporary rental for them. I wanted a house rather than another Manhattan apartment, so we agreed to share the rental while we looked for houses in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. She and I helped each other pack. My company arranged movers for me, his company for them. Everything went into storage.

He found a rental in Connecticut on the water. When I arrived at that house, she and I agreed that he must have seen it only at night because it was pretty dreary. But it was a fascinating place, belonging to a long-time book illustrator. Every room was filled with bowing shelves holding far too many books. She discovered that it was swarming with termites and had to have them do whatever you do with termites before the place fell down. I had a room in the front of the rambling house. It was still winter, so when we weren’t house hunting, we all sat by the fire playing Scrabble.

They were toilet training their daughter. The method they used was to reward her whenever she was successful, with M&M’s. Every time she got a treat we consumed the entire bag with a bottle of wine.

Their daughter also shared the flu with us. I had to find a doctor and was shocked by the weight I had gained. He talked to me about over-thirty metabolism, a line I had just crossed. But once I got busy with my job in Manhattan the extra pounds fell away.

They were new to New York so I was their only friend. On weekends we all separated to look for houses. I found a dream house in New Jersey, but learned about its previous floods. There was a special temporary mortgage rate in Connecticut for first time buyers. So, I bought my first house. They found a house about five minutes away. We were neighbors again. They helped me paint my house. I helped them paint theirs.

She was remarkably practical and organized with time on her hands and missed working. She did my errands with hers in the early days while I got settled in the job. She called me at my office to say she gave my refrigerator a scan and knew it wouldn’t do. She shopped for a new one and not only arranged for it’s delivery but was there when it arrived. She was there for phone and cable connections too. They were still sensitive to my pain about the end of my relationship and were great company. For a time they were my social life and I theirs. She was the most no nonsense determined person I had ever met and a caring friend. She also carried grudges

When we were still in Milwaukee she showed me a photo that was taken of him on leave during his tour in Viet Nam. I think it was before they were married. For some bizarre reason he sent her the picture of him partying with beautiful women in Tokyo. She quit her job and flew to meet him for his next leave. She was determined that would never happen again. She could never let it go.

In Connecticut, for their wedding anniversary I wanted to surprise them with balloons and champagne and leave it inside their front door. Balloon delivery was just starting in Manhattan. What was delivered to my office was one giant red weather balloon, not what I was expecting. I charged through Grand Central rush hour with something that belonged in the Macy’s parade and no one noticed. On the train I stood near the doors and every time they opened, the wind blasted the balloon. When I got to my car at the train station, I had to let it fly outside the sunroof. I drove to their house with a big red balloon following me.

They lived through the beginning, the middle and the end of my relationship with #5 So I Bought Him A Humidifier. When he disappeared, she was bitter and wanted to hunt him down. They were completely supportive when I was with the wrong man.

He and I often took the train from the same station in the mornings. It cut the boredom of the ride.

In 1983, I left my job in New York. They had already been transferred to Eastern Pennsylvania. I helped them paint that house too.

By the end of the same year I started a business in South Central PA.. When they took their first trip to Europe, I drove two hours every afternoon to pick up their daughter at school and stay with her in their house, then returned to my office in the morning while she was back in school. She was in a play about the Knights of the Round Table, so I made her one of those cone hats with yards of gauzy material. It was so heavy I’m surprised she could hold up her head. She was sometimes a stubborn only child but was always good with me. I remember how she cried when it was time to put her on a plane to join her parents on their trip.

They moved back to Connecticut and he bought a sailboat. His wife wasn’t thrilled about that, but was a good sport. When my nephew came out from Washington State to visit, their daughter stayed with us for a while. Then we all went north to sail Long Island Sound. Except for my young nephew and my aunt, they were my family.

I’m sketchy about the timing but we planned a weekend ski trip to Lake Placid. I would provide ski lessons. Their daughter was bringing a friend. He booked the inn. When we arrived his wife and I were expecting a suite but we were all in the same odd cavern of a room. I was glad I had packed my bathrobe and slept in it. This was just too close.

On the slope he was falling all over the place in more ways than one. While I helped him out of a snow bank he told me how much it meant that I came on the trip and that he loved me. In my usual robot manner of responding to surprising proclamations, I said something about loving him as a “friend” too. I may have worn my parka over my bathrobe that night. She didn’t ski. I spent time with her in the lodge the next day hoping his comment would evaporate.

He had clients in my part of Pennsylvania, or said he did. Sometimes he brought their daughter for a visit. One time he showed up with a birthday present. I introduced him to my neighbor and he had apparently had enough to drink to declare that he was in love with me in front of her. Again, I was startled. My neighbor who had just met him was frank telling him he shouldn’t say such things.

His wife and I talked often. Sometimes when he was traveling I’d go stay with her and their daughter to keep them company and to have a good visit. I said nothing about my growing discomfort. Surely it would pass.

In the summer of 1987 I lived on Long Island for a while after my travels to Russia (#40 Russian Adventures). My friends had moved to central Connecticut so I didn’t see the family as much as I had, but we talked all the time. This was one of my more precarious life phases, with a temporary home, no income while throwing myself into helping Russian artists and uncertainty about returning to New York radio.

In those months they each increased complaints to me about one another. He found business reasons to be in my vicinity wanting to have lunch or dinner. She was calling to complain, increasingly upset about her life with him. They were so very unhappy and barely speaking.

I’ve always had an unfortunate or fortunate knack for hearing the troubles or secrets of friends, and safely tucking it all away. But constant venting was coming from both of them. I was the only person they would confide in and it was overwhelming troubling territory.

By then even I, the clueless one, could tell that he’d light up when he saw me. That’s a corny phrase but it’s exactly what I saw. I was still trying to convince myself that it was friendship I saw in his smile. He was stepping up his ovations and didn’t stop when I asked. When it was clear he hadn’t told her we were dining, something had to be done. I believed that she knew I was no threat. But his keeping a visit with me secret from her was too much.

Out of total frustration and caring, I went into letter writing mode. Yes I wrote separate letters, urging them each to talk with one another. I agonized over what to say and barged ahead suggesting that they see a counselor hoping they would preserve all the good in their marriage. While I attempted only to be helpful, the receipt of a typed letter makes it more impersonal and the words don’t go away.

I said that I cared about them both and knew they could rediscover one another. I suggested that they read both letters. This was hardly the most delicate move but it was something. In my stomach I knew that at least it would give them reason to talk with each other. I also knew the risk to me.

I heard from him, telling me that she would never speak to me again. Of all the disappointments in a life, nothing hurts so deeply and lasts so long as the loss of a good friend.

A couple of sad years later I was living again in Pennsylvania. I was on one of my trips to Ohio, house sitting for a friend who was leading art trips to Russia. Friends had introduced me to a woman in theatre there who urged me to convert my screenplay about the Russian Adventures into a stage play. I was breaking my brain taking 163 scenes and countless locations and distilling it all onto a stage.

I answered the phone where I was staying and was startled to hear his voice. He was in town on business and had impressively tracked me down one friend at a time to get the number. I had no idea if he had business in that Ohio town, or if he just came to try to see me. We agreed to meet for dinner. I didn’t want him to know where I was staying, but I did want to hear about the family.

I was guarded with a careful chill. He had been transferred to California and they lived in a beautiful area. My letters did at least have some worth by taking me out of the equation. He still drank a bit much and by that time, because of my crappy immune system, I didn’t drink at all. He then suggested coffee at a nearby diner, and that’s where the real conversation began. He told me that she never allowed my name to be spoken in their house again. I didn’t ask but guessed that he had told her some version of his feelings for me. Why not? I no longer mattered. I had had a lifetime of not mattering. He said that their daughter didn’t understand and missed me very much. He wanted us to stay in touch for her sake.

By “us” I sensed he meant he could stay in touch with me. Somehow my brain that usually needs 24 hours to say the right thing said, “Please give it some serious thought. If it really is for her sake, fine. I miss her. But if you’re using her as an excuse to be in contact, then no.”

I went to my car. He went to his. I never heard from him again. 

One Comment on “#73 Separate Letters”

  1. Sylvia says:

    Another WOW – the only stupendously stupid in all of these long years of friendship is the toll and loss it took on you. Lessons learned for the two of them, at your emotional expense, yet again. So well told. I’m so sad, for you.

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