Tuesday, August 24, 2004

PART 36 - The Damage Done

He needs a haircut, he seems like a loon otherwise, but I adore Neil Young. His voice is haunting, and his lyrics are spare, but full of meaning.

Needle and the Damage Done
Neil Young

I caught you knockin' at my cellar door
I love you, baby, can I have some more?
The damage done.

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done.

I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don't understand
Milk-blood to keep from running out.

I've seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie's like a settin' sun . . .

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It wasn't kind, but the next morning, I called every one of my friends and regaled them with the story of the previous night's antics. Even after telling the story for the 5th time, I was STILL laughing. Ahh, sweet revenge . . .

There was no doubt that it was fun to watch his face fall as Don doled out the verbal knockout punch that night. I had dreamed of exacting my revenge on him for the hurt, humiliation and loss that I had suffered, but in the days following (believe it or not), I began to suffer some remorse.

Breaking my loyalty to him was much, much harder than I ever imagined it would be. Even though my love for him had died a slow painful death, my allegiance to him was still there. It made me angry with myself to feel so torn. I desperately wanted to start over and put him behind me, but I also still valued him, his family, and what we had built together over all of those years.

I fought my tendency to rationalize his actions away, but I found myself spending more and more time wondering why he had done it, why he had snapped, what it was that tipped the scales THAT day, versus any other. It was a mystery that I couldn't seem to let rest; it tumbled over and over in my mind as I would lay waiting for sleep to overtake me.

Was it just the money? I know that we were under some financial pressure, but it wasn't insurmountable. Was it because the kids were leaving? I didn't think that he was nearly as attached to those kids as I was, and besides, he saw their leaving as a way for us to return to our normal lives. Was it my unwillingness to have sex with him? That seemed to be the most sensible answer, but to tell the truth, for every time I denied him, there were two more times I didn't. He wasn't leading a life of celibacy with me, and I was more than half sure he had stepped beyond the bounds of our marital vows, so that seemed more and more unlikely a reason for violence. Why, then, had he attacked me so savagely that Saturday morning? What was it that had detonated the timebomb?

Sometimes I thought he had snapped for no real discernible reason. That he had just basically flipped out. Knowing him as long as I did, I couldn't really point to any OTHER time that he had acted that way. He had a history of violence, to be sure. He was well-known for his willingness to fight a man at the drop of a hat. I had never seen nor had I ever heard that he had started fights, but as he always liked to say, "I don't know much about starting fights, but I sure as hell know how to FINISH them."

I think if I had been able to make more sense of the violent way we ended, I could have put it aside and moved on. As it was, it nagged at me. After close to a year apart, it still occupied my thoughts, and I was growing impatient with my inability to either make my peace with it or push for more information. Was there something that I had missed about that morning or the days that had proceeded it? Admittedly, I was so preoccupied with the kids that it could be that I had missed some important occurrence, but try as I might, I couldn't put my finger on anything significant.

Where had he been earlier that morning, before the earthquake had shaken our house to its foundation? He was always up with the sun on weekends, and true to form, he had been out most of that morning before he had returned to pace in and out of the house and began his manic jabbering for me to get off the phone. He was always up with the sun on weekends, and he generally went to his mother's for join them for early breakfast and a visit. Other than that, I couldn't recall anything particularly significant about the day. I just had to resign myself to the fact that I would probably never know why.

After the Nashville Sound Showdown (as my friends dubbed it), I didn't see him darken the doorstep of that place. Nor did I see him pop up at any of the other places that he usually did. It was nice to enjoy my time out without his presence, for sure. After more than a month had passed without an "Elvis sighting" (my pet name for the shocking experience of running into him in public), I figured I was in the clear.

Late one Saturday afternoon, I was cleaning the apartment and catching up on mundane chores. Don was gone for the weekend, and I had decided to settle in for the evening. The phone rang while I was putting some clothes away, and figuring it was Don, I answered quickly, "Hey sexy!"

"Well hey there . . ." a familiar voice answered back with surprise and amusement.

"Oh, hmm, sorry about that, I thought you were . . ." I backtracked as I realized that it wasn't Don. It was far from Don.

"So, how IS Don?" he began with a saccharin sweet lilt in his voice. "You two still lovey dovey?" he asked, with a hint of sarcasm.

"Who wants to know?" I challenged him. I wasn't really in the mood for any bullshit from him.

"OK, OK, I didn't call to piss you off," he offered.

"Well, why DID you call?" I countered.

"Well, just to say hello and see how you were," he said cryptically.

"Oh, well, thanks. We are just fine," I answered smugly. "Nice of you to ask."

He began to chit chat about mundane things as I continued folding clothes. His babble was just beginning to become white noise for me as I watched the muted television when I was snapped back to reality with his out-of-the-blue comment:

"So, that night at the club, when Don said all that smartass shit to me, which by the way he was lucky I didn't kick his ass for. What did he mean?" he asked.

What the hell? "Uh, I'm not sure how to answer that," I began.

"Just answer it straight. I can take it," he said matter-of-factly. As I took a deep breath to dive in, he continued, "I mean, I always knew that you didn't . . . you know. I just . . .wondered . . . why?"

Why? WHY? He was asking me WHY? As I was considering a thousand comebacks, he continued his filibuster. "I mean, look, I've been with other women before AND after you, and I have never had ANY complaints, if you know what I mean."

Rolling my eyes, I kept folding my laundry. "Congratulations," I said dryly.

"No, that's not what I meant . . . I meant . . ." he floundered, searching in vain for the right words. "I meant, why him? Why were you able to with him and not me?" I was shocked to hear the choked words followed by quiet sobbing. I was floored. He was crying. Was he crying over the insult? Was he crying from remorse? Was it because I was having sex with another man? I was dumbstruck; I had no idea what to say. I put the laundry aside - this was unbelieveable.

Sniffling and regaining some of his composure, he cleared his throat and continued, "You were the best. No one makes me feel the way you do - no other woman has ever pleased me the way you did. I miss us. I know this is over, but I still miss us, I dream about us together, and knowing that it meant nothing to you is killing me." I had to read through the manspeak. If a woman had said that, I would have known just what she was saying. For a man to say the same, it took a little deciphering, but I got the point - it was all about him missing his servant, basically.

"So, you are saying that you are upset that I am enjoying sex with another man, even though you have had "no complaints" and have evidently had enjoyable sex with many women, and you miss having sex with me, even though I clearly didn't enjoy it," I said slowly, clarifying the message.

"You are so fucking cold, why do you have to be so cold?" he said quietly.

"Tell you what, why don't you let ME ask a couple of questions. How does that grab you?" I was being cold, and I was trying to keep my anger to a low simmer. I wanted a couple of answers, and this might be my only chance. "Tell me about our last morning together," I said. "What happened that morning?"

Initially, he went through the same old routine - he was exasperated that my housekeeping didn't measure up, he was busy and I was talking on the phone, I was disrespectful to him. Cutting him off, I said, "Yeah, you know what? This isn't really going anywhere. I thought that you might have had some time to think about all of this and what your part was in it, but I can see that you are still playing the old broken record. I gotta go . . . "

"No, wait . . ." he said quickly. "It wasn't all your fault, I know that. I was under alot of pressure, I had dealt with Pat's dumb ass all morning . . . " he began, than stopped abruptly. Pat, the brother that no one really mentioned much, was the drug addict that split his time in and out of jail, in and out of rehab, back and forth from Chicago. What did he have to do with this?

"What do you mean, dealt with Pat? He doesn't even live in the state!" I argued. I personally hadn't laid eyes on Pat for the pervious 3 years, and no one had said a word about him.
He was silent on the other end of the phone. I could hear him breathing, clearing his throat, and he began to speak. "It's just that Mama had called me that moring to go pick up Pat from a motel near the bus terminal. He is back in town."

"Yeah, so, okay, what's so hard about that?" I said, pushing him for more information.
Still sidestepping the issue, he said, "Oh, you know, when he shows up, things get nutty. He's living with Mama now. He's not doing so good."

I sat quietly and waited for him to continue. He seemed to feel compelled to fill in the silence, and slowly the story unfolded.

His mother had indeed told him to pick Pat up, but the request was made the week before Pat's arrival. His mother had called he and his other siblings to her house for a pow-wow with specific instructions not to bring spouses or children. She swore them all to secrecy, and as they all wondered among themselves what kind of trouble Pat had gotten himself into now, she broke the news.

Pat had AIDS.

His mother had received the call a couple weeks prior from a volunteer at an AIDS clinic in Chicago. Pat had been roaming around Chicago when a men's shelter had taken him in and helped him seek treatment. The clinic confirmed his diagnosis, contacted his family and coordinated busfare for him to return to Georgia - Illinois had enough of its own to care for.

The devastation of this news cannot be overstated. His little home town had had NO instances of AIDS at that time. None. National news stories were reporting that entire towns were turning on children that were HIV infected, and his family was terrified of the repercussions if anyone found out that their family was "infected". To them, it was worse than typhoid, or leprosy.

That morning, he went to the motel to pick Pat up, as instructed. The sight of him was a shocker. Pat had always been a healthy looking man, but the man that stood before him in the doorway of the cheap motel was pale, sickly, pitifully thin, bruised, with hollow eyes and raspy breath. He helped Pat gather his things, and was mortified to see the remains of Pat's last hit on the bedside table - the needle, a lighter, a length of thin rubber hose, and a scorched spoon. Just then, he heard a noise coming from the bathroom. A young woman exited, saw him, and self-consciously began to straighten her clothing. She couldn't have been more than 18, and from the track marks on her arm, she was just as big a junkie as Pat was. He felt waves of nausea wash over him as Pat kissed the girl goodbye, wished her luck on her travels, and got into the car to go to his mother's.

Driving in silence, he asked Pat one simple question, "Did she know?"

Looking out the window, Pat said in a faraway voice, "She didn't ask. I didn't ask, and nobody told ME, and I got it. She's a druggie too, she knows the game, so fuck her."

As soon as he had dropped Pat and his things at his mother's, he had returned home to me.

When he concluded the story, we both sat in silence, not knowing what to say. Finally he spoke, "You HAVE to understand, Rita. We all could lose EVERYTHING if anyone knew. I might lose my job if people were scared of exposure. My sister would lose all of her cleaning and nanny jobs, no questions asked. This isn't a joke; when people hear AIDS, it is a witchhunt." Suddenly, it was clear to me. No amount of financial success or backbreaking work or volunteer effort would be able to wipe the black smear from his family name this time. His world literally crashed when the news hit him.

Admittedly, Pat was the first person I had ever heard of to contract the disease. He wasn't gay, which at that time seemed to be the first requirement to contract it. This was 1992, and information was scarce and unreliable, everybody was running scared.

"I wish you had told me," I said quietly. "I wish you could have trusted me."

Crying again, he said, "I can't trust anybody anymore. I've lost everything, I have fucked it all up."

My heart ached. I didn't love him now, but I had once. There was a time that I would have laid my life down for him, and now, here we sat, him in agony, and me not able or willing to do any more than simply listen.

This was one of the most intimate conversations that he and I had ever had, and partly to relieve his conscience, and partly to make my own offering to him, I revealed to him that I had kept a deep secret from him, too.

I had never revealed to anyone what had happened between me and LP (speaking of junkie brothers) years before. Sitting in that apartment, my bedroom became my confessional as I poured out the story of my sexual abuse for the first time, and how it had all come back to haunt me when Daniel came. I told him that I couldn't bear the shame of telling anyone, including him, and I wasn't able to block the memories that surfaced when I allowed him to have his way with me, so I had turned away from him.

We talked throughout the evening and into the wee morning hours, he and I. We shared our stories and our secrets in a way that we were never able to face to face, as man and wife. Both of us were dealing with our own brand of shame and pain, and with nowhere else to turn, we finally turned to one another.

He encouraged me to try to forgive LP, while at the same time admitting how angry he was that I had endured it and it had ended up affecting us. More than once, he asked me, "Why didn't you ever TELL me?" and it was at that moment that I was able to fully understand the incredible power that secrecy has, how it can control and manipulate us and drive us to unspeakable acts.

Hanging up the phone, I felt that I had received something precious; not from him, but from me. For the first time, I had voiced my own pain and fear to another person, and I felt stronger for it. I had also been able to extend comfort to him, despite his transgressions. If I could do that for him, perhaps I could find some compassion for myself.

The weight of anger and hate began to lift, and taking a deep breath, I settled comfortably into bed and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

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