Linden, New Jersey, is a shit place to die. Not that I’d know. Well, let me clarify: Linden, I know about; dying there, or anywhere else, not as much. Unless you count the rooming house we lived in back in the late eighties. It was like a halfway house, without the recovery aspect – without the halfway. It was an all-way house, or a no-way house, depending how you looked at it. A small, cold, dingy room with a bed and a dresser, maybe a lamp and chair, and a shared bathroom on the floor. You never knew who, or what, you were going to run into in there. It was, in essence, the end of the line.
But it began rather more rosily: I was nineteen. Richard was a thirty-seven-year-old Vietnam vet I met in a factory I worked at in New Jersey after a failed attempt at moving out west. (A friend of a friend was driving his VW van cross-country and looking for someone to ride with him. I left with five hundred dollars and a suitcase – my second big chance to get the hell out of Pennsylvania. I ended up starving in a bungalow outside Phoenix for a good couple of months before I landed a job at a shirt factory in town. But Phoenix was just another shit hole with a lot of rednecks, and six months later I was on a Greyhound headed home – a three- or four-day journey during which one could not really wash. On layovers, you could brush your teeth and wash your face in the ladies’ room sink, but not a whole lot more. The buses were inhabited by losers and users (who were always looking for company) and haunted by drifters (who seemed like they couldn’t even tolerate their own).)
When I got to Jersey, I stayed with my mom for a while and looked for factory work. It was the only thing I’d done since quitting school, save tending bar (under age) and working at the Bingo. Minimum wage back then was three dollars and change, and when I saw the ad that this place was paying well over four, I was jazzed. My mother drove me over there to fill out the application, and by the time we got home there was a message on the answering machine offering me the job. They probably ran down the aisle yelling “we got a white one!,” joked my mother. In fact there were plenty of us white folk working at the cup factory. My mother hadn’t yet adjusted to the vibrant cultural mix of the environs outside her home town, in the low-lying industrial wonder that is Central Jersey.
At the factory, I packed cups: sealed sleeves of Styrofoam cups that came flying toward me on a conveyor belt and landed in a wooden bin, whereupon I packed them into a box, sealed the box with tape, and placed it on the conveyor belt behind me. In your down time you assembled the boxes so you’d have something to pack the cups in. That was my job. It was easier than dress factory work, except you had to be on your feet twelve hours at a time. Boring for a person with an IQ, but I was doing wonders keeping my IQ at bay through sheer will power and a stiff regimen of drugs and alcohol.
Richard hadn’t been my first lover since moving to Jersey. First, there’d been Vernon: a guy with solid drug connections and a five-year-old son. The gist of Vernon was this: though he was a weasely little dude, he was the first person to give me an orgasm – there on a sunny winter Sunday morning, under a brown wool poor boy’s blanket, listening to Blood on the Tracks. I fell in love with Bob Dylan that day and have never fallen out. I never fell in love with Vernon. The other thing about Vernon was that when I broke up with him, the fucker stole my car – my ‘72 Challenger with the 318 engine that just … would … not … die. And when my girlfriend Cleo and I saw him driving it onto the factory lot one day and started chasing him on foot, the little shit hauled ass out of there like Mary Fucking Sunshine.
And there was the inimitable Louie, though Louie and I weren’t an item – just drug buddies – so I don’t remember a ton about Louie. I do remember drinking Louie’s methadone (way before I ever tried heroine). And I remember bending down in my chair to fasten the clasps of my white sandals … and waking up a good bit later.
Ready to go.
I remember his black convertible Corvette spinning out on the wet, slippery highway – round and round so many times I wondered if it would ever stop, how we’d survive – traveling far from the asphalt into the wet grass of a sprawling green clearing. Hitting a tree. I don’t remember driving away or how we got out of there, somehow not arrested.
I have a vague recollection of Louie at the racetrack – not the same day, not in the rain.
And I recall having the general sense of Louie wanting people to think I was his girlfriend, but I’m not sure if that was true. In fact, I’m not sure Louie cared.
I do remember Louie having one eye. Just the one eye.
Richard came after Louie, when I was supplying half the factory with crystal meth (and shooting speedballs in the ladies’ room on my break). Except we called it crank; nobody called the shit crystal meth. We worked twelve-hour shifts, three and a half days a week, so a body had to stay awake somehow. Movin’. Groovin’. Not wanting to kill yourself because you just worked six hours, watched the sun rise, and still had six to go. I think I sold Richard a bag or two, though never much, before we got together.
He was the only man in the place who presented as a gentleman – not too readily familiar. By then I had graduated to driving forklift, unloading trucks, and doing general maintenance. And I guess the fact that I wore cutoff shorts with a tiger-striped, open-backed, one-piece swimsuit with a zipper down the front must have given the impression that one could be prematurely familiar. My take was: it was hot as balls in there in the summertime – no air whatsoever, and the machines pushed the thermometer up fifteen to twenty degrees more. And though I was one of the few eligible females in the place, my entire life had been lived as a tomboy – one of the guys – so … look the other way if you fucking must. Semis would roll up to the loading dock, and the drivers would nearly shit their pants when I trounced over to let them know I’d be unloading their rig. “No, honey, I need someone to unload the truck,” they’d try to make clear. “Yeah, I’m your guy,” I’d smile.
Richard was somewhat of an island: quietly wild and ruggedly handsome, an intelligent soul who seemed remote and unreachable. He was a man while the others (no matter their age) were yet boys. As far as the life of a courtier went inside a cup factory in New Jersey, he was a reluctant, gentle prince. We had one date and he wound up on my doorstep in the pouring rain the next night, ringing and ringing and ringing the buzzer, soaked to the skin when I answered. He said something sweet about maybe having fallen in love with me, and I let him in. After that, he never really left.
* * *
“No one’s STOPPING YOU! from reading.” She remembered him saying that, wild-eyed. It was, in fact, completely untrue. Stopping her from reading was precisely what he was doing, though bringing that to his attention would have led at best to the beating of her life, at worst to a near-fatal outcome. It shook out somewhere in between.
He was angry because she’d found him out. Angry with her for being angry at him – which situation never led anywhere. Never anywhere good. But being angry was better than feeling guilty – or whatever emotion approximating guilt he might have been capable of mustering.
That ended up being the night he dragged her out of bed by the feet, (accidentally) hit her head against the bathtub, and while holding her down on the bathroom floor (accidentally) burned her cheek with the ember of his cigarette, branding her with a legend that years later would be virtually undetectable. (In fact, I can recall only from my spatial memory of that night that it was the left cheek.)
Accidentally. An interesting, creative, and ballsy claim.
On more than one occasion, she tried to leave. Usually she was detained physically, but once she managed to deliver a left-hook to his jaw, and another time she got out of the apartment and ran – furious, sobbing, wearing a light-grey, Flashdance-knockoff sweatshirt with pink sleeves – and got as far as the cash machine. Inserting her card into the slot, knowing she didn’t have enough money to go anywhere really, she heard the hum of the engine: the silver Honda that was sorry consolation for the pristine, vintage Dart he had to have put down after an engine fire. He pulled up alongside her and asked flatly, with cruel, calculated transparency: where was she going to go? He knew she had no answer, no place, no one – because she had been so completely and stereotypically cut off from her family, too ashamed to go to her friends.
Time and again, she went back: he was sorry; it would never happen again; he loved her. Of those three claims, I knew the last was true. It was indisputable that he loved me – loved me in an all-encompassing way no one ever had, not even my parents. Loved me. He loved me like it was me and him and the rest of the world didn’t matter – didn’t exist. But whenever something went wrong in that hermetically sealed world … well, let me tell you there was some hell to pay.
I paid for a lotta hell.
She never knew when that moment was going to come. It could be at the grocery store. It could happen at the airport. Or it could be one night when you walk through the door…
… and the place is dark, except for some flickering candlelight.
And you’re choking on the incense
and the music’s playing just a little too loud (even for a Friday night)—
and you find him lying on the floor….
So you ask him what is he doing there—
lying on the floor in the dark
with those candles and that music and that incense.
He looks at you and grins.
And all you can see are his canine teeth, gleaming in the candlelight
his eyes dancing
and the madman beneath them.
He says he’s going a little crazy.
Then he pulls up his shirt for you to see: four long, bloody gashes running down the length of his chest. He says he provoked some guy at a bar, some biker … because he felt like getting hurt.
You want so badly to flee, to run out the door and save yourself, because you know you’re in for a doozy no matter what. No matter that you weren’t there. No matter that you did nothing. Nothing but come home.
The last time I tried to leave, I found him hanging over the edge of the bathtub, the bloody pulp from his open wrists like chunks of fetus, in clumps on the chalky porcelain surface.
I mean, how’re you supposed to go after that?
But one night something inside of her cracked. And she made love to him the way she’d wanted to make love those past three years – free and wild and beautiful and hungry.
And he was mortified. All at once he saw the cage, and the pain, and the violence. And he finally … just … let me go.
* * *
For the uninitiated, I’m here to tell you it wasn’t all beatings and horror. In fact, it was an enormous surprise – that first time, him overturning the couch and coming after me. Because he was a witty, sensitive, artistic, caring, but very very angry man – though you could tell it wasn’t in his soul. It was something that happened to him. That he came back from Vietnam all fucked up and felt he had nowhere to turn. Even this me, now – the one who feels like those things happened to someone else – to “her” – the one who thinks a woman is crazy for staying with an abuser – I know how much he loved me, what a good man he was. He showered me with kindness and gifts of love. Even if he destroyed them during one of his rages, he’d do the best he could to fix them. Once he tore the guts out of a stuffed doggie he’d bought me – ripped it to shreds – and when I came home the next day little Sammy had been put back together – all sewn up, good as new … if you didn’t look too closely at the uneven, tattered seams holding him together.
After I left for good, after our one night of passion, I ran into some old friends, a couple we used to hang out with. I asked after Richard. “Well, you know, he’s bearing up.” And a silence fell between us, while they looked at me as though I were a monster. As if I’d ruined his life. As if I’d brutally wounded him. And not vice versa. Weren’t they aware he’d been abusive all those years? Didn’t they realize that leaving him was the hardest thing I’d ever done? Didn’t they know he’d let me go? They only knew about his broken heart.
Over the years, I wondered if I’d ever run into him again, what his life was like now, if he’d ever gotten any real help. Where and how he ended up. Sometimes I’d dream about him – that he was a changed man, and we were going to take another shot at it. We already knew one another so well…. But it was a situation out of which one could only move forward. A connection that is either live and crackling or indelibly severed.
I learned recently that Richard died six years ago, at the age of fifty-nine, in Linden, New Jersey. And I pictured him in some crummy rooming house (Jesus, please, not the same place) drinking himself to death, completely unreachable. Even after all these years, I was floored – overcome with a visceral sadness, like part of me had died too. Maybe it was the broken part of me that loved being loved and didn’t care what else came with it. Or maybe it was the part of me I buried away so no one could ever find it. So it was safe. Sound. Unreachable.