‘This is a starter house,’ Karen was fond of saying.
I’d been living here for over a month now at 3629 Tilden Street, New Haven. Three months, give or take a week or so, from the day I saw the People magazine photograph of Michael with his new girlfriend—lovers arm-in-arm, his ear doubly pierced, a tiny gold hoop and diamond stud through it. It was one of the side photos on that week’s cover, and something of the vaguely familiar must have caught my eye as I waited in line at the register at the General Store.
The cover story was on “The New Glamour Couples,” or something similarly stupid. I could only glance at it furtively for the few minutes I had to wait while the man in front of me paid. I couldn’t buy the damn thing, people around here knew we used to be together; it would be too absurd to have it in my possession anyhow, to be carrying it around. (‘Come to purchase a little humiliation?’ ‘No, actually, it’s an impulse buy.’) But it didn’t matter, that image instantly seared itself into my consciousness. Even when I closed my eyes I saw it in front of me.
It wasn’t the fact that he was with someone else; I had no desire to keep tabs on him. I didn’t particularly care if his dates were pretty either; I had taken myself out of that game for the time being. But this person he was with . . . the latest starlet in an over-sized white mink jacket, the fur slipping off her one shoulder, covering her hands to the fingertips. Malnourished by reason of vanity rather than poverty; breasts on display, of course; all features in sync—the latest surgery just healed. Ah, so very much in love. So unbelievable. I didn’t know which was worse: that I couldn’t swallow his bad taste, that his choice of associate confirmed my worst suspicions about men. Or that he would screw around with someone who flaunted everything I fought against. When he saw that coat, did he think ‘Amy would hate this’? Did he think of the cruelty? Did he ever think at all?
I thought of him. I thought he cared; he never cared. I was a bad mistake. An amateur’s mistake. But one from which he had to extract himself with money—he learned that lesson; he only dealt with professionals now. Insecure in his manhood, he had gone and bought himself image protection—she was as finely tuned as modern science and ambition could make her. Her seeming success turned the knife deep in the pit of my self-esteem. Damn them; damn them both to hell. Did his people eventually tell him, you’re a big star now, you can move up to the top of the line? You can be morally careless. You no longer have to be yourself. You can afford not to care.
I paid for my things and drove home, ashamed for him, my face slammed and held against the ground by her high-heeled foot, pinioned, choking on the ashes. I had to free myself. I had to begin living. Finally, finally, I cut the asset cord. Got rid of the money. Gave up my stock certificates, mutual funds—contacted my broker and cashed them out. Kept a small sum and donated the remainder of my bank balance to the local animal shelter, the ASPCA, the Winn Foundation for FIP research. I made a lot of good people very happy. I had failed in my attempts to manipulate nature with Izzie and Ben, and so it seemed, all of us were likewise doomed to hold the opposite sex to impossible standards. Both genders generally fell short of what was mistakenly hoped for, an understanding that deviation from the norm was often part of the charm apparently all but lost. Sadder, scarred and wiser, I bundled up a good many of my possessions and donated them to the Salvation Army; other stuff I shipped home to my parents. I paid off the remainder of my lease and moved out. I visited Maureen and Gary, and Maureen and I, the two sisters, stood in the garden, the leaves turning their backs outwards in the hope of rain, and said a silent prayer in memory of our blighted dreams, I remember, looking up into the thunderhead-filled sky.
Thus self-purified and set free, the clouds temporarily parted and I propelled myself, phoenix-like, up into the resultant sunshaft, but I had no idea where I was going or how long I could stay aloft. I hit the ground hard. Determined to live on only what I myself could earn, I sold my car, applied to Yale University for a research/administrative position, and looked for a place to live in New Haven along a bus route. Time to get real. But real was not very palatable. I’d been a bit over-zealous in giving away my money, had cathartically but unthinkingly plunged myself into a painful indigence. (Oh, hi there. Would you mind if I took some of that money back?) Nothing materialized on the job front, and one could not generally claim unemployment for being an out-of-favor girlfriend. With scant references, no income, and bills still coming in from the past, I soon discovered I would not be able to afford the jacked-up rent on an apartment of my own, not even a marginally respectable studio near campus. What remained of my savings drained rapidly out of the bank through my unwilling fingers, and I realized the only solution was to roost humiliatingly but mercifully out of sight on the lowest rung until I could catch my breath—in other words, rent a room—rent a room in a group house like a kid just out of college—rent a room and take whatever assignments the temp agency would give me.