On the tenth of March in 2008 I took the train from Penn Station to Boston. I was going there for a professional conference. I was excited; this would be my first professional conference since finishing grad school and starting my job in higher ed (both at Temple University in Philadelphia). During graduate school, I hadn't felt like I was growing up; at least not professionally speaking. Despite being 25, then 26, then 27, I continued to feel like a child. But now that I had my own office, and was earning a yearly salary, wearing business pants and talking about urgent emails and important documents, I was starting to feel old. I was beginning to feel like a real adult. Going to this conference felt legitimate; it felt like something adults did. To add to this official sense of business: the hotel bill, the train ticket, and the conference fees were all covered by my department.
When the train stopped in Back Bay, I got off and walked towards the Westin, rolling my suitcase behind me. I thought: this feels right.
It was still early afternoon when I got to Boston, and I decided to spend the afternoon walking around the city, perusing a used book store, reading a political magazine on a bench in the sun, buying snacks and a bottle of wine at a little corner store. The manager of the store, a silver-haired man, with a lag to his step, handed me a bouquet of flowers as I walked out. “How much are they?” I asked. “For you,” he said, “they cost nothing.” I stopped at a tailor and asked if they could possibly hem a pair of pants for me by 9 a.m. the next day. The woman behind the counter smiled and said: they’ll be ready at 8:30. After ambling along an avenue of warmly lit restaurants, I practically skipped back to my hotel. I was in some kind of la-la paradise where old men handed you flowers gratis, people smiled at your inconvenient demands, and beautiful bottles of wine lined the shelves of quaint boutiques (this is particularly relevant for residents of Philadelphia. If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit the state stores of PA, you don’t know what a novelty a delicately appointed wine shop is).
In my hotel room that night I called my ex, David. He was living in Boston now, getting his MFA at Emerson and dating someone in his program. David and I had been together for two years, before either of us had moved to the east coast. We met when we were still living in Minneapolis/St. Paul--where we were born and raised. We broke up in 2005, shortly before I left Minnesota for Philadelphia. It was a painful ending. I didn’t want it to end. I loved him. I knew and felt that he loved me. But, at that time, I was not ready to commit to a life together. I just wasn’t. It’s been seven years, and so many things wane as time marches on, but this still hurts to think about.
We made plans to meet the next day, after the conference. I’d take a bus or train out to his neighborhood, Allston, and we’d have dinner.
Before I went to bed I called my boyfriend. Oh, yes, that’s right. I had a boyfriend. You might be thinking: why have you just mentioned him now? Why did you call him last, after a day full of diversions and a furtive call to an ex-lover? Well, because I didn’t. I didn't call him last at all. I’d called him several times throughout the day in fact. To check in, say hello, and for several other reasons (e.g., I was calling him to see what he was doing, who he was with, what he was thinking. I was calling to see if he was cheating on me. I was calling to see if I could discern evidence--concrete evidence that my fears were valid and he was indeed no longer in love with me, that he was actually in love with one of his young girls, one of the pierced and plucked graduates of the Philadelphia school system). He'd actually answered one of my calls. Early, about 2 p.m. He asked if I got in all right. I said yes and told him all about the James Wright book of poetry I’d found. I told him how amazing it was to be out of the office, just walking the city, reading and thinking. I told him how fortunate he was to be a Ph.D. candidate and not an office slave, like me. I remember he was distracted during the phone call, distant, and this made me feel enraged. But I wouldn’t show it. I wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of me losing my temper, giving him an excuse to say: you are out of your fucking mind. I wouldn’t insist that I could tell he wanted to get off the phone. I wouldn’t give the out or the ammunition to accuse me of being possessive and needy. No. I’d play it cool as a cucumber. I would just keep him on the phone, keep him hooked on a meandering conversation about Boston’s park system, the imagery of James Wright v. Robert Bly, and the Public Library which was located across the street from my hotel--how beautiful the building was, how grand the lions, how they were having an exhibition of historic and contemporary maps of the city. The conversation lasted nearly an hour and when it was over he promised—-he promised—-he’d call as soon as he was done teaching his night class.
But the thing was, he didn’t call. It was 10:30 p.m. and he hadn’t called, nor texted. I held the phone in my hand and flirted with the idea of calling, but no. I wasn’t going to strike first. If I did, and he didn't answer, I knew how I’d feel: worse. I patiently ate the cheese and bread I’d bought from the corner shop. I wasn’t hungry (I was rarely hungry during the entire relationship) but I knew I needed to eat. I sat on the bed, choking down bites of cornichon and mustard, and watched something on television--a treat, as in our apartment back home television was verboten. I watched the TV with one eye, and with the other I watched my phone. After a while I shoved the snacks and my journal off the bed and burrowed under the covers. My God, I swear to you that as I write this, I feel the very same anxiety I felt during that period. It was like bile perpetually rising in my throat. It was like a vague shaking sensation, like I’d just gotten off a ship. It was like, I didn’t even know who I was or what attachments I had to this world. And it all seemed to rest on the fact that he hadn’t called to say goodnight. But it must be something else, I'd say to myself (often out loud). After all this time, how could it be? How could it be that he and I were coming up on our two and half year anniversary and I should still be needing a sign from him? How could it be that I was living with him and yet so unsure? Was it me, some internal flaw, or was it environmental? Was it that I was living with a man who made me feel deeply unloved and deeply ashamed and deeply absurd? Indeed, I felt, at that time, that my living presence was an absurdity. At best. An inconvenience, or disappointment, or perhaps a disgrace, at worst. (Let me put it to you this way: if you are reading this and relate to any of the above – pack your things and move in with a friend for a month while you find another place to live.)
He called, eventually, and before I could say a word he told me all about his class, his students, the room in which they learned--from him. And he talked and talked until his phone was dying and of course his charger was nowhere to be found, so before I could ask what he did after class and if he was going out later, that was it. The call was over. His stories that night were the usual stories, the “Stand and Deliver” type. He was single-handedly saving the dispossessed of West Philly. He was teaching them concepts they’d never otherwise learn. He was teaching them how the system was a piece of shit and Harper’s Magazine held the knowledge they needed to overcome systemic oppression, racism and classism. I can’t diminish his teaching or his intelligence--nor the righteousness of his aims. He was a good teacher and a smart man. But he was a conceited man, a self-important man, a deluded by grandeur man, and a faithless man -- and so his achievements and brilliance are tainted, somewhat. And that’s simply a fact.
The next morning I woke up early, jogged across town to the tailor, picked up the pants, tipped her generously and jogged back to my hotel. I showered and dressed and spent the amount of time on my hair and make-up that some people spend each day (which blows my mind). I slipped on the three inch heels that were necessary in order for the pants to fall just right and draped the little matching dark grey sport coat over the dark orange shell and plowed across the skyway towards the banquet hall where the conference was happening. I’ll spare the details of the conference and fast-forward here to the next segment of the day’s activities.
So it's around 3 p.m. when the conference lets out. I run into a coworker in the hotel matrix and we get lunch at a Cheesecake Factory nearby. I’ve never been to a Cheesecake Factory before and so I’m pretty psyched. We make small talk about work, eat our lunch and discuss her marriage. Near the end, she asks me how my boyfriend is doing. I lie and say, ”Oh, he’s fine.” Believe me, I was not keeping our relationship problems a secret from anyone (including mere acquaintances), nor was I hiding my suspicions that he was cheating on me. Many, many, people knew I was ill at ease in the relationship (to put it mildly). The reason I didn’t bring it up over lunch was I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel so I could change and head out to Allston to meet my ex for dinner, per our plan.
I mention that I have to be running, but she doesn’t seem to want to take my cue. She orders dessert and I feel obliged to do the same. When the dessert arrives I feel legitimately shocked and can’t even bring myself to pick at it. (I end up taking it To Go and putting it in the hotel fridge, where it remained for the duration.) While she’s finishing her ice cream she mentions “the young Jewish doctor.” I say, who? She says, “Doctor Josh! Oh my God, he’s so hot.” I realize who she’s talking about. The employee doctor at Temple. He’s young, early thirties and cute. He did my pre-employment exam. “Do you know about him?” she asks. “Not really. What’s his story?” I’m vaguely intrigued. I, sadly, can stand to listen stories about people I know--or don’t know--pretty much all day. She tells me that a group of them go out for happy hours every now and then, and brings out her camera to show me shots. The photos are of him and some other employees, including young-thirty-something women, who work at Temple. They were clearly taken at a downtown bar; they look fun, yet tense. Like, I can’t tell who he likes or who he’s simply supposed to be going home with. “A-ha,” I say, “so he’s making the most of his new position and youthful good looks--good for him. I hope he chose the girl with the dark hair.” She says something like, “She's not his type!" and adds, "Oh to be young!” as if we are two old ninnies, and I think, I’m only twenty-eight, but then the check comes and anyway I don’t feel twenty-eight so what does it matter.
Back in the hotel I change into jeans and call David. He’s away from his apartment, doing something that's taking longer than planned, and dinner gets pushed back an hour. But for some reason, we stay on the phone. We are friendly, like ex-lovers, and it feels nice. I miss him. I want to tell him about my demonic boyfriend, but I feel like that’s not fair. I also feel like it’s karma as David was the nicest, sweetest boyfriend, and I didn't appreciate it; I just cast him off in search of experience (which isn't true, but I could see how he'd feel that way). And I didn't end the relationship because I didn’t love him. I did love him. I just wasn’t ready to be someone’s, anyone’s, forever. Right as I'm settling into an old groove, David begins telling me about his girlfriend, Julie. I crawl out of the groove and onto a detached perch. Julie sounds wonderful and I admit, I’m vaguely jealous. I'm also relieved and happy for him. But, yes, slightly jealous. I get up off the bed and walk over to the mini-counter area between the room and the bathroom and open the bottle of wine I picked up the day before. I pour a glass and we keep talking. Half an hour later it’s time for me to get on public transportation and head over to meet him.
END PART ONE OF TWO