Forced to go through boxes and boxes of stuff in order to move into a small apartment, forced me to go down memory lane. The move was in anticipation of tearing down my 89-year-old home to make way for a new one that I hoped to build and move back into. A process that of this writing is closing in on TWO YEARS.
The boxes contained hundreds of photographs, mementos and videos of relationships I forged, fucked up or got fucked by. More precisely, memories of the two men I married and divorced.
The first time we met?
The first time we met was (fill in the blank):
The first time we met? That answer has forever etched itself into the mind of the teller.
No one ever forgets the first time they met that someone special. Even after suffering a severe stroke damaging much of his memory, my father could tell you what he felt the first time he laid eyes on my mother as she walked down that long curved staircase a lifetime ago.
When you’re in love, that “how we met” story gets told and retold a lot. First it may be just you telling it, but eventually your lover joins in too – adding their unique spin. And you find yourself glowing in their remembrance, even though you’ve told or heard it a hundred times before.
The story eventually becomes communal and no longer yours, but the way in which a friend introduces you both to a stranger or fodder for drunk disagreements when someone in the crowd remembers it differently. It becomes legend.
You move on in love – whether it lasts forever or doesn’t. And depending on where you are between those two points, your story and the way you feel about it shifts over time.
What do you do when the legend, the story no longer strikes the same glowing chord it once did? Do you drop it from your repertoire completely? Do you secretly recall it with feelings of desire or disgust? Do you tell it to yourself when feeling sentimental? If only you could feel sentimental.
The first time we met is happiness relived or memories reviled. The first time we met may come with music and scent, longing or regret. The first time we met doesn’t change in its origin, but can change in its reminisce. The first time we met has a cozy place in your heart or produces a shiver up your spine, like dirty water making its way down a dark alley.
What do you do with the first time we met story? Do you shove it in a shoebox when it no longer has meaning? Or do you hold it up against future first time we met stories with lovers yet to be?
What do you do with all the old stuff when you’re done with it? Or when it’s done with you?
There are photos and letters and matchbooks and stubs; texts, Instagrams, tattoos and books; TV shows, artwork, cars and bars; vacation spots, family and friends. There are moments and memories and music, sometimes kids.
Do you keep it or get rid of it? Is it important as documentation of your life? Surely, it has a place in who you’ve come to be? Do you hang on to the dregs of former mistakes or make a final, clean break with the past?
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?
Husband Number One. The first time we met?
It was in a crowded bar in San Antonio, Texas. I didn’t want to go there, having recently extracted myself from a rather complicated relationship, but was talked into it by several women who worked in the same office that I did.
I got a tap on the shoulder and turned around. “Do you want to dance?” he asked me. Giving him the once over, I said no. A few minutes later, another tap. Turning around to again say no to this persistent man, I looked up and instead saw a handsome guy. This time I said yes and we took to the dance floor.
He had just started medical school at UTHSC in San Antonio. I was on my way to live in Austin where I eventually earned a degree at The University of Texas.
We commuted on weekends, where most of our time was spent in the library as studying was just about the only thing he did. I know this was one reason I graduated with Honors. It wasn’t a fun relationship. It wasn’t an easy relationship. It wasn’t even a romantic or incredibly sexual relationship.
During this time, my father had a severe stroke. I went back to Houston to care for him that first summer he was released from the VA Hospital. My former boyfriend (the "complicated relationship one") ended up at UT…studying film as I was…even in the same classes as me. I felt confused, conflicted and stranded, floating in an emotional ocean, seasick most of the time, waking up just long enough to puke outside the little dingy I was clinging onto.
I’ve got pictures of my courtship and marriage to my first husband at our wedding reception, me in a very inexpensive dress I bought alone on my own; he, in a dark coat all jet-black eyes and white teeth glistening against milk chocolate skin.
I woke up the next day, looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and said out loud, “You’ve made a terrible mistake.” Not the way you want to start out your first day of marriage.
The reason I married him was all wrong. I did it out of guilt, He failed a year of medical school and blamed it on the distractions made by that former boyfriend who stalked the two of us off and on during my years of college and his years of medical school.
Although he had issues himself all through medical school – ran miles through dark streets to alleviate his stress, drank too much and smoked pot, he blamed the failure of that year on me. And I was more than willing to accept 100% of the blame.
You’d think I’d have known better (a theme I find running through my life as I write for Mother Tucker’s Lounge), but nevertheless, we married in a Catholic ceremony in San Antonio by a holier than thou, uncompromising priest. A human harbinger of things to come.
We moved back to his hometown of El Paso for his residency and faster than the dreaded head doctor could scream at him on early morning rounds, “Skut puppy, what is this bed-ridden man suffering from?!” my interning doctor-husband bofs a nurse.
I remained completely oblivious. If I hadn’t been so dense or wounded by the guilt I was carrying, I would have figured out that leaving him would have been the perfect solution – for the both of us. Maybe he felt trapped, too?
But like a patient under sedation, I let the good Doctor do to me as he pleased.
Arriving in El Paso was like landing on the moon. He was always at the hospital and I had a difficult time finding work. I was alone alot and took to driving through the mountains.
With time, those mountains and cactus-laden arroyos revealed themselves to me. I met wonderful, creative, quirky people there and became a bit of a cause célébrité in my own right, winning awards for a live radio program I co-produced and hosted, "The Everywomon Show". And like the fresh scent of mesquite coming off the New Mexico desert cleansing the earth when it rained, I too was renewed and eventually found my footing. Even though it meant doing it alone and without the support of a loving husband at my side.
Although his entire family lived there, they wanted nothing to do with me. I didn't know why until years later when my mother-in-law finally confessed that a young niece told the family she overheard me call them a bad name the night before our wedding. They believed her - going as far as buying a dictionary on their drive back to El Paso - to look the word up. I said no such thing, but the damage had been done to my "reputation" before I even arrived to El Paso. I was thankful to at least understand the reason behind their disdain and refusal to befriend me the three years we lived there.
We moved to Allen, Texas where I set up and ran his private pediatric practice the first year. Later, I found out he started an affair with the woman who sold us insurance. I had enough. When he saw I was really leaving, he then blurted out his affair with the nurse during our very first year of marriage. FINALLY, like a Rorschach Inkblot Test, the pieces came together and at last I understood we had both been living with his silent and well-deserved shame.
I now understood he never really cared for me, in fact sort of detested me as I was ground zero for his guilt. But still, he made the divorce difficult. So, I left with the same shitty stuff in the same shitty car that I drove into that shitty marriage with. But I did take my (our?) carefully curated photo albums that I now held in my hands - wondering what I should do with them.
My first husband and the friends of El Paso are long gone from my life. Not all the memories are great, but lots of them are. I don't look back on those years as being "all bad". They were my formative years post college, the start of my career and true adulthood.
I remember leaving El Paso with husband number one, heading towards Allen for a new chapter in my life. In the rearview mirror, I glimpsed the last of that beautiful mountain range I had come to love dearly as home and cried.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?
Husband Number Two. The first time we met?
It was in a conference room in Houston, Texas. I glanced across the table and felt drawn to his voice and self-confidence. Later he told me he said to himself at that moment: “Casual appraisal of future wife.” We started off friends and then moved onto lovers. I was the one who suggested it. Unlike my first husband, at least he seemed to have a beating heart.
We worked for a company that produced travel documentaries. It was my dream job. And I fell into it serendipitously. After my divorce, I worked as a temporary secretary for a real estate company. On a whim, I left my resume with one of the VPs who held an interest in the production company.
That day, he happened to be having lunch with the production company’s CEO and gave my resume to him, who then gave it to the production manager who called me in for an interview. Faster than I could say, “Where the hell is Singapore?” I was sent off packing for a three-month shoot in the Lion City.
With only a DP and Grip at my side, I would be producing, writing and directing the most ambitious travel video the company had ever taken on. I had never done anything like this in my life. I was terrified. But, when it was all edited, I was awarded some of the best locations to shoot in: Bermuda, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Malaysia, Germany and Borneo where I would spend a lot of time in each location - really getting to know the country and the people who lived there.
It was after Singapore that I met my second husband to be in that conference room. Later, we sometimes travelled to shoot in foreign locales together. The castles of Ireland, the wine fields of Germany, the snowy mountain-tops of Switzerland.
After four years of living out of a suitcase, I got married again, only this time it was in a 1920’s movie theater where we hired James Coney Island to cater the event and opened up the candy counter. From the balcony, we watched on the big screen the black and white movie we made of our courtship: “It Had To Be You”.
Over the next fifteen years, he and I built a couple of film businesses together. Although I desired to make it as a documentary filmmaker, I was chosen (by process of elimination) to manage the business, the young, unseasoned, drama-driven employees and the books. I put my personal desires aside to promote his ascension as a film director. And dealt with, how should I put it? – our spurious partner for almost ten years.
But after all, my husband and I were in this marriage and business together, surely “my turn” would eventually come. (Clearly, I could not see the guilt-laden husband of my future, just as I hadn’t seen the guilt-laden husband of my past).
It was my own damn fault I didn’t look after my own interests. A practicing feminist (I marched for women’s rights in the ‘70s), published writer, award-winning producer and not someone you’d consider a wallflower, I didn’t follow my own instincts. I had no one to blame but myself.
The marriage suffered good times, and bad times, infidelities, angry drunken nights, bankruptcy, success and failures. But not even the thought of our son could keep it together for me. I told him to leave one Saturday morning. I gave it my all. But I was done. The end to my second marriage was doubly difficult. He kept the business. I kept the house. The umbilical cord has yet to be severed because we share a son.
And at fifty-six, I found myself a single mother of a tween with no secure income, starting all over again.
This time around, I couldn’t drive away in my car with only the shitty possessions I brought to the union. With almost twenty years into it, there were just too many toys, too many videos, too many paintings and too many photographs. Too many memories.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?
I’ve razed the house and with it the physical memories of that marriage – the front door we brought our son through, Christmas morning, one day after he was born; the “cocktail pool” we lounged in during hot summer months; the room where our baby slept in his crib; the curved staircase leading up to our bedroom. Fifteen years of memories swept away in two hours by a bulldozer.
That was the easy part.
Now, I stood photographs in hand unable to trash them. Why? I’m no longer that “bride of thirty-five” in my floor length gun-metal gray skirt, flowers entwined in my hair looking lovingly into the eyes of the man I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with.
I’ve moved on, the house is gone, the anger has long subsided, the love extinguished. I’m happy and building a new home and new memories with a man I love and who, this time I’m certain, genuinely loves me.
But I hesitate in throwing out these mementos. I forged my way professionally during those St Thomas Hospital residency years in El Paso. And the pediatric practice in Allen. Those times helped form who I am today.
I look at my son and wonder if one day he’ll be interested in his mother and father’s lives before he was born. Will these physical memories in all these boxes be worth something to him? Will they hold some sentimental meaning for our son, as they once did for me?
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?