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November 07, 2005

Christmas 1977

The month before I turned 18 I moved in with Bette (pronounced Betty), in a two-bedroom apartment in Buffalo she shared with another woman. Bette and I had dated briefly a year before, and had weathered that to become friends. I'd helped her move into her new place, nursed her through a bad cold, and found that a renewed romance was apparently part of the healing process. We were basically newlyweds for about three weeks, cooking and putting up Christmas lights and shoveling a foot of snow off the rear balcony every couple days. Salvatore, our landlord, hired me to do some work to fix up the apartment. He talked about other jobs I could help him with when the ceiling was done.

One day Bette got a phone message from her mother. "Neal F_______ called." Bette called him back the next day, and they made plans to go out that evening. I was home when they got back. Bette took me aside. "Chris, I want to sleep with Neal tonight. Can you sleep on the couch?"

I sulked, then - to my immediate and so-far-eternal disgust - said yes.

And laid there, hearing them giggle and gasp through the walls for about two hours, feeling weak and angry and ashamed that I was lying there feeling worthless instead of arguing, or leaving, or both.

By two a.m. I'd had enough. I got up, put on my clothes, coat and boots, went to the door and started to undo the three locks on the apartment door, fumbling noisily. Bette came out to meet me, tying her robe shut.

"Where are you going?"
"Away from here."
"Chris, Neal and I are just talking, that's all, just talking" she said, smelling overpoweringly of sex.
I undid the last lock, and opened the door, and Bette started crying.

I shut the door. I spent the rest of the night on the couch not sleeping.

In about four hours, the other bedroom door creaked open and out came the housemate (whose name I've forgotten) and her visiting boyfriend. They had both heard the whole evening's drama through the walls. "I can't believe you stayed, man." Visiting boyfriend shook his head. He meant to commiserate, but his sympathy burned going down. Housemate chimed in. "I can't believe she did that to you. What a fucking bitch." Bette's bedroom door was open. She must have heard every word.

I got up, shook boyfriend's hand, kissed housemate, got my stuff, and headed for the door. In the hallway, there was Neal walking to the bathroom, fixing me with a contemptuous smirk.

Christmas 1977 passed without further incident. I walked around Buffalo in flat black Chinese canvas shoes, cadging enough money for a daily pack of Marlboros. Bill Stack invited me to move into his apartment on Buffalo's West Side, in a neighborhood with cheap Italian delis I couldn't afford.

Around New Years' I called Bette to see if I could come by and pick up my stuff. We made a date. I kept it. She wasn't there. I left a note on the door and went downstairs to visit with Mike, our - her - neighbor. Mike was a sweet blond guy whose sole piece of furniture was a weightlifter's bench. He poured me a beer. He mentioned the housemate had moved out after a screaming fight and that "that asshole Neal" had been around "a lot." Salvatore came by, scolded me paternally for not finishing the ceiling. I didn't bother to explain myself.

Finally Bette knocked on the door, an hour late, and we went upstairs. I collected two paper grocery bags full of my stuff. After some pleading from Bette I consented to stay long enough to drink a cup of coffee and smoke a couple of her cigarettes.

I don't remember what we talked about. I do remember that she smiled at me, patted my shoulder, kissed me warmly and told me she'd love me forever, gave me the Christmas present she'd been saving for me. I left. On the way home, I tossed the still-wrapped present into a supermarket dumpster.

In 1999, out of blind bored curiosity and not particularly thinking of the above-described incident, I ran a web search on her name. No records came up.

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 7, 2005 01:07 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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In a sailing ship .. walls are even thinner ... and when you are part of the crew, responsible for clients ... no way you can run away ... and when the only answer you get is:"Well, why don't you just do the same thing? _I_ wouldn't mind." ... feelings boil up, but you're not supposed to show them ... the rest of the people are there to enjoy their holidays ... not to be involved in a "squabble".. so you continue to work together, eat at the same table, for weeks, trying to smile and do lovely conversation ... while inside ... it hurts ...

I believe most of what you write ... but, sorry, not all of the last sentence ...until now, I have not run any search on his name ...

Posted by: Yubi at November 7, 2005 11:51 PM
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I keep coming back to this story and find myself sadly moved.... I wish I could have helped. I, alas, didn't move to Buffalo for another 5 months.

Unfortunately, I'm also painfully aware that at 18, like Bette, I wasn't very connected to how my actions might affect others. I spent my teen years losing my dad (who took 6 years to die from the time I was 13) and I was one big ball of loneliness.

I know that I did the same thing that Bette did and people were hurt by my "betrayal". In retrospect, this was a lot more people than ever expressed it. In my mind, there was absolutely no concept that I could have "betrayed" anyone, since that would have implied that I actually mattered to someone.

(On a related note, I announced to a roomful of people at age 19 that men didn't feel love, at least not in the same way women did. I was a bit shocked when *everyone*, women included, disagreed. I figured the men were lying, but the women?)

Damn. Can't stop crying now, and I'm at work....

Posted by: elissa at November 8, 2005 09:43 PM
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