I was married once before. It’s something that most people don’t know about me. It’s something that I never told David, the man who is my husband now, even though we’ve been together for eight years. My first marriage only lasted for three months, when I was living in Kingston, New York. Growing up, Kingston was where I went with my mother when we needed to go to a mall or a Sears or somewhere with real shopping, where there were checkout lines and scanners at the cash registers. Kingston was the big town that I moved to the summer after graduating high school. From where I had been living, on Newcomb Trailer Park Road just outside of Delhi, it was going somewhere, or so it seemed for that brief amount of time.
My mother had told me for years that “her hand was going to be on the steering wheel” of whatever car she owned at the time heading for Florida, the minute that I had my hand on my high school diploma. That was her plan even though my graduation was a few months short of my eighteenth birthday.
I went to stay with her cousin, Jayne, “my aunt”, who lived on the top floor of a two-family house. There were other apartments where Jayne had lived before; she had what I now see as a scattered life. The Kingston apartment was not the one I ever associated with Jayne at all. The apartment I remember when I think of her was in Troy where she lived with her first or second husband, Marv. They had cats, three all the same grey-striped color. A litter of kittens they found in a garage and could not bring themselves to part with. Marv was rarely at home when we visited Jayne. She would say that he had business and that was why he was away, but my mother would tell me on our ride back towards Delhi that Marv drove a truck and everyone knew it and what was Jayne trying to prove to us.
When I did see Marv, he was doting on the cats. Warming milk attentively so that it was not too hot for them. Rubbing their bellies. That’s what I remembered about him the most. He was kind and he adored Jayne and she probably should have stayed married to him, probably would have had she not met Richard who became her next husband. She told me that Richard was like a night full of fireflies. Those nights just felt different than nights when there was no sparkle of lights in the trees. You just felt more special, she said, sitting on a lawn chair in the yard with a wine cooler looking at the star-like bugs putting on a show just for you. That’s what meeting Richard was like for Jayne, what she described to me when I first spoke to her about Kingston. This was also the first that I learned that Marv had not been a part of Jayne’s move out of Troy, something that my mother had not bothered to mention to me on those few occasions when we still had conversations. The news sunk through me like a stone of regret, finding out that Marv would not be waiting for me with his beloved cats and a certain amount of tenderness that I hoped he might spare.
She and Richard were now living on the top floor of the two-family house in Kingston, which was still the city as far as it compared to Delhi. Jayne had been a secretary in Troy but now she was a waitress in a bar that served hamburgers with slices of real pickles that the owner brined himself. That and a view of the Hudson from the row of windows in the back distinguished the restaurant. Inside it looked and felt as if you were on an actual barge, as if you were in a vessel that was capable of transporting you, that you would be going somewhere. But Petey’s Barge was not a ship, not a vessel that would go anywhere at all, it just looked like one from inside. Jayne got me a job working lunches on Mondays and Tuesdays, which were the slowest days.
Eugene came in for lunch on my second week of work. He was younger than most of the other customers. He sat at the counter and ran his hands over the sugar dispenser nervously, his short nails rimmed by black grease that also lined the creases on his fingers.
“I guess you want the burger,” I said. That was a special on Tuesday. Two dollars off the usual price. Plus a soda from the fountain although most of the customers ordered beers so that was just a throw in to make it look like you were getting something more.
“Okay. How um, do you want it cooked?”
Eugene ordered a hamburger cooked medium with tomato but no lettuce and a side of mayonnaise and that was how I met the man that I would marry a month and a half later.
Eugene and Richard intersected seamlessly, laced together in a way that no one could have predicted. Not at seventeen did I see anything at all. They formed a cross-stitch of my time spent in Kingston. An intricate weave of some unknown pattern on a pillow that I would leave behind in my Aunt Jayne’s apartment.
We went to the movies for our first date. Eugene drove a Honda Civic. I thought of his nails and the black grease as I got into the car, Eugene holding the passenger door open for me, how surprised I was that there were no empty paper cups on the floor. No unopened ketchup packets from Burger King, no crumpled receipts, no towel that had been left there, brought into the car for some reason, maybe to dry off the seat because a window had been left open. Things that collected and formed evidence of the life you were leading, of the person who you were, all of it on the floor of your car. There was nothing like that in the wiped-down Honda Civic. We drove through the damp streets of Kingston together towards the Multiplex theatre on the outskirts of town.
“Did you see the first one?” I asked. We were on our way to see Batman Returns.
“The first Batman movie.”
“Oh? What was that one called?”
“Batman,” I told him.
“Batman?” Eugene sounded surprised.
“Yeah. Just Batman. Not Batman, I don’t know, The First One. Not anything special. Just Batman.”
“Huh.” Eugene seemed to be thinking as we sat at a light, a few raindrops on his windshield.
“No,” he answered. He didn’t think he had seen it.
It just worked out that I began “seeing” Eugene two weeks after I moved into the extra bedroom in Jayne and Richard’s apartment.
“He seems like a very nice boy,” Jayne said when we were having dinner together, which was rare, given Jayne’s shift at the restaurant.
Richard was especially attentive to Jayne, I noticed, the three of us sitting at that small table. He took her hand with his left hand, after he had cut all of his meat so he could eat and still rub the knuckles of her fingers with his thumb. The table was small, almost café size, barely able to accommodate the four foam-padded chairs. I shifted slightly because his knee kept pressing against mine throughout dinner.
“Richard,” Jayne protested after a while, retrieving her hand so that she could scoop potato salad onto our plates from the Corelle bowl. Richard smiled at her, his knee against mine all the while.
“Is this from Gormann’s?” Richard asked.
“They make the best potato salad,” Jayne said.
Chunks of seasoned potatoes and celery gleamed on my plate.
“Eugene’s originally from Schenectady too,” I told Jayne.
“Schenectady? Whose from Schenectady?” Jayne asked.
“I thought Richard was. I thought that was how you two met. When you were living in Troy. Isn’t that where you’re from? Schenectady?”
Richard moved his head from side to side. His moustache moved as he chewed.
“Richard’s from here and there. Like me. But he was living there for a while,” Jayne said.
“Does Eugene have family there? Where’s his family?” One of them asked.
I had thought I would just move in with Eugene after we had been seeing each other for a month. His apartment was in Kingston proper. Right on top of Metro Bowl, which was a store that sold trophies and bowling equipment. But he wanted to get married.
“We should get married if you’re moving in,” he said.
That was what we spoke of on a Sunday afternoon hike. We were halfway up a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. It was not a view like inside Petey’s Barge but a real view. Of blue, rippled water and cliffs on the other side, which was Dutchess County, with trees that seemed fuller and more interesting. Eugene and I had had a few beers already. But I knew what I heard. Married.
“Okay,” I said.
Jayne helped me pack the few things that I had in drawers in the guest room. She had called my mother to tell her for me. I told Jayne I was too nervous to speak with her, but I just didn’t feel like having that conversation.
“This is exciting! So exciting,” Jayne breathed into the phone. “Oh? Too bad you can’t take the day off.” Despite all of her threats, my mother had not actually left yet for anywhere. Her years of planning had failed to include financial arrangements.
After a minute pause, Jayne added, “Well, Okay, Teri. We’ll talk soon.” And so my mother had the news.
“What do you think you’ll wear?” Jayne turned to me. She was beaming. Her coral-colored lips were pressed into a wide smile. Weddings were fun, Jayne’s eyes seemed to say. Even weddings at city hall with probably just a lunch at the cheapest restaurant with a liquor license afterwards.
I hadn’t thought about the actual ceremony. I was preoccupied with the formalities, like getting a license, how long we would have to wait before the actual marriage, which seemed less significant than the act of moving out of my current room and into an apartment with Eugene.
I had my last dinner with Richard while Jayne worked her usual night shift on a Thursday. Between placing the chicken cutlets and string beans onto serving dishes and setting the table, I made a point to look at my watch several times. Richard was already sitting in the kitchen, waiting.
“Eugene’s coming over,” I told him. It seemed important that he know that. Time was suddenly large and looming, a presence over me in unconnected but then randomly connected strands. The time that I would have left before Eugene got there, the time that I had before we were actually married. The time that Richard had before I fully moved out and then that would be done and there would be nothing he could do, no longer any open opportunities.
“Eugene should be here any minute,” I said as I peeled off my watch and gave it one last look before I plunged my hands into the soapy water that had filled the sink.
“I’ll dry,” Richard said. He stood close to me in the kitchen. His shirtsleeves rolled up, a mossy colored dishtowel in his hands as he slowly rubbed the face of the plate I handed him. It was a deliberate motion, much like he had rubbed Jayne’s fingers a few weeks earlier. I had realized some time ago that Richard was not like Marv at all, not someone you could expect to be nice to you in the same way as when he fed milk to stray kittens. I strained to hear the doorbell. Maybe the running water was muddling the sound.
Eugene eventually showed up exactly when I had told him to. I took the towel from Richard and dried my arms and said goodbye and marveled at the good fortune I had that Richard had not said the thing that he had said to me some weeks earlier.
“Too bad you found Eugene so quickly,” he had told me. “Too bad. I could have made your summer not so dull.”
Kingston had an old city hall that was grand and beautiful, with bands of buff colored brick trim and carved sandstone panels framing the outside so that it looked like a carefully wrapped gift. It had been closed since 1972. The four of us, Eugene and I and Aunt Jayne and Richard, found our way to the new government offices near the Kingston waterfront that had been built for the city’s nonexistent economic revitalization. There were no high arched doorways to pass through, nothing to mark a passage at all, just some doors with their funny institutional colored glass panels. Jayne, by then, was an expert in navigating the minute details of a civil ceremony. Flowers, a bouquet of zinnias and stock, had been purchased at a farm stand on Route 28 the day before so that we could ignore the vendors outside the courthouse selling their carnations dipped in blue dye with plastic lace wraps.
Then I was married to Eugene. The layers of decisions, all of them mine, pressed on my chest and the fault was overwhelmingly mine. I had made two moves, one of them involving a marriage, in the few months since graduating high school. I had no other moves to make. My decisions had led me, rapidly, to a place I did not want to be. I wasn’t brave or mature and I just wanted, ached, for deliverance, for a decision to be made for me. For a force that was stronger than I was, to set me in some direction, any direction, other than the one that I had selected for myself.
I called Richard. I told him that the sink was leaking. It was all that I could think of. Would it have taken anything more than that? I could have said that I had a cockroach that needed to be stepped on. He would have come running. It was just a reason for me to call. We both knew that.
Richard didn’t turn around when Eugene opened the door. I made sure that we stayed in the living room, so that there would be no doubt about Eugene finding us. He didn’t turn around at all, not when Eugene slammed the door after a few minutes. It seemed to take Eugene a while to absorb what he was witnessing.
Eugene never actually came back to the apartment. He left a note for me with one of the busboys at Petey’s Barge, asking if I could move out before Thanksgiving because he needed his stuff back. Jayne had a client who dined at her station faithfully on Thursday nights after his Rotary Meetings and he arranged an annulment for me so that it had never happened at all.
“Well,” Jayne said. “I never realized that Eugene had such a temper.”
“It was kind of my fault too,” I told her. “It was just a really big fight. I guess we never really knew each other too well.” A description of what had actually occurred, the truth, wasn’t necessary for Jayne’s understanding of why a seventeen-year old might leave her husband.
I had no money, only a waitressing job on the two slowest shifts in the restaurant. But Richard had money. We made a deal so he lent me enough to get out of Eugene’s apartment, and I was nice to him until I left.
I crossed the Kingston-Rhinecliffe Bridge and found that Poughkeepsie had bars where you could waitress and cheap rooms above places not unlike Metro Bowl although in Poughkeepsie it was Pedro and Sally’s Organic Grocery because it was a college town. And I could do everything I did in Kingston and breathe, without looking over my shoulder because the people that I was relying on weren’t leaning on me, pressing me for the things that they needed, wanted, desired. When I was in Kingston and wanted something from someone I always ended up giving more in the end.
I told Richard to leave me alone once I was in Poughkeepsie, but it was already too late, something had been planted in him and he could not just move on as I intended him to. When Jayne came to visit and see “my new digs” her eyes were a hollow grey color that I had not seen before and she told me that Richard had left her, she thought he had met someone else.
After I had been living in Poughkeepsie for a few years, made some friends, worked not only at a decent restaurant on a decent shift, but also did some laundry on the side for the guys at Vassar, I saw the movie Dead Man Walking. I really didn’t like that movie, I didn’t like Sean Penn’s character and I didn’t think that the nun should be so fast to forgive him. I didn’t know why she wanted to forgive him, why he even deserved to be forgiven when lots of other people had done terrible things that haunted them and they were left to fend for themselves.
One of my laundry clients gave me a copy of the college paper with a movie review in it.
“Read this,” Jerome said. “It explains the whole cycle of forgiveness, I think, really well.” He handed me a newspaper folded to the page he thought I should read. “It’s a movie about redemption, so the characters, they’re just like the conduits for the morality of the story.”
“But they were real people. They weren’t just conduits. They were real. It said so, it said that they were real.”
“Maybe you’ll like the movie better after you read this.” He pointed to the paragraph that was supposed to explain all one would ever need to know about redemption, if only I would just read it. Jerome seemed to take my dislike of the movie personally. He had told me that he was kind of an actor, “a member of the Philaletheis Society”, so I guessed that had something to do with it.
Jerome took his folded laundry and left the review for me.
The real subject here is compassion. “Dead Man Walking” asks whether a man who has caused inhuman suffering and who appears without either remorse or conscience—who appears to lack even the minimal requisites of a human being—deserves to be treated like one. The answer is yes.
A few years later, I went to visit Jayne, to help her pack up an apartment in Newburgh. We found the peach suit that I had worn for my first wedding. The suit was faded and Jayne had probably worn it a lot after I borrowed it. She was on her fourth or fifth husband by then. Something in its worn fabric made me cry unexpectedly.
“You shouldn’t feel bad. Things happen when you’re young. It’s not like you meant to hurt Eugene, or anyone. Really. You were just too young.”
Jayne’s voice stayed with me, as soft and faded as her old peach suit.
Jerome, the Philaletheis Society, that nun; they didn’t have a clue.
* * * * *