At the end of 1976, we packed up and headed for Florida. We left our dogs at home in the care of a friend to whom I loaned my beloved Chevy Malibu, the one whose trunk was tied down by a rope. I was never as much into cars as Michael – having my own clunker was good enough for me. We were nervous about going because his sister and a friend of hers, brought along as a kind of bodyguard, were going too, in an effort to bring the family together.
Having learned that time with Michael’s parents generally required that I would be moderating battles, I was somewhat apprehensive. The beauty of the white beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast was irresistible though, so the psychological demands seemed worth it in the cost-benefit analysis. We spent Christmas and New Year’s with the family, getting away for a side trip on our own to Disney World.
Back on Longboat Key there was a boat in the mix which provided for picnic opportunities on small islands, water-skiing for Michael, dolphins schooling along in the water, and arriving at restaurants by tying off at a dock. Heady stuff for a young woman like me, definitely cast in the “wrong side of the tracks” social milieu. I was embarrassed by the wealth – Michael looked and acted like he’d come from the same place as me, much to his mother’s dismay.
The trip was a blend of great times and hassles. I wasn’t yet used to the idea that being present in your moment was an important life lesson. Still, in a sense, that concept was subtly beginning to creep into my consciousness. First I recognized that despite the fact that both Michael and I had lots of issues to resolve in our relationship, outside adversity clearly brought us closer together to face those tough times down. The months of friendship we shared before we became lovers surged up when difficulties arose. Having a solid safe zone which perhaps at certain points sometimes felt unsteady, was now more frequently becoming stable. That went a long way in helping me cope with fear of abandonment that was my key struggle. I was learning to lean into that space. In addition, back then, when you were away from home you really had more distance from the harsh realities that might be lurking after your vacation was over. No cell phones or internet to intrude on your away time. I learned what a great thing that was after this trip.
We returned home in January to a miserable disaster. Our house had an old-fashioned oil furnace. The friend who was watching our house hadn’t realized that the oil had run out of the furnace in the midst of brutally cold weather. The inside temperature was frigid. There was a crack in the bathtub and more frozen pipes. Our dogs had to be boarded in a kennel during which time, my Ribeye had contracted some dreadful respiratory infection. She was hospitalized for two weeks while I lived in terror that she’d die. I think one of my saddest moments was staring at an incredible philodendron that we’d had for years, which had vined up the living room walls and curled over the big picture window that overlooked the front yard. It was brown, brittle and crumbling. Welcome home.
We had a lot to manage. Fortunately our landlord agreed to make repairs without making us pay for everything that was broken and who said we could move back in when things were back to normal. I realized that the patriarch of my employers was wintering in Naples, Florida until late spring. Throwing myself on his mercy, he agreed to let us stay in his fancy home. He was a plant lover who had an indoor under-the-carpeting sprinkler system so we could maintain his interior garden and keep an eye on the house. We were grateful, albeit nervous and uncomfortable. Our lifestyle wasn’t exactly comparable to these people’s who lived more like Michael’s parents. But we went ahead and moved in to the house on Greencroft.
Winter was brutal that year. We snuggled in with our dogs after work and kept faucets dripping to preempt frozen pipes. I was trying to quit smoking, a bad habit I picked up from my first boyfriend. Trudging out in the snow to buy cigarettes felt awful and ridiculous. Michael was still getting his new business venture together while I continued managing the apartments. Eventually, we got back into our house with the promise that I’d continue to look after what we called “the manse.”Unfortunately, soon after we left, disaster struck. On a particularly cold snowy night, the under carpet sprinkler system burst. Arriving at the manse for the promised check, I found myself walking through the house, sinking into a spongy, sodden, smelly rug. I rented huge fans for all the rooms in an attempt to dry everything, rented a shop vac and found someone to repair the leak. That was incredibly stressful. I was in contact with the boss, explaining everything that I was doing. He approved, and eventually I felt like things were under control and moved on. He and his wife, whose name was Birdie, so ridiculous that I always remember it, returned from Florida in early May. Within hours of arriving, he contacted me in a rage. He hadn’t realized we had dogs. When he went to use his vacuum cleaner, it wasn’t working well so he decided to change the bag. There weren’t any bagless vacuums in those days. When he saw the dog hair, he went ballistic. Both he and his two eldest sons were heavy drinkers. They showed up at the office to berate me. I was humiliated, scared and angry. I was guilty about the dogs but I thought after how long I’d worked for them, they might’ve gleaned from our conversations that we had pets. They departed together, leaving a heavy ominous atmosphere in their wake. All my radar was jangling-I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Miraculously, a close friend of mine had recently been elected assessor of the more liberal town where we’d always lived. She was taking office in January, 1978 and as she had no experience with commercial property, she offered me a job as her deputy, specializing in those kinds of assessments. I eagerly accepted. That weekend, I went into work and cleaned up every loose end that needed to be completed. I just knew I was going to be fired. When I was done, I wrote myself my last paycheck and left a note with my resignation on my desk. When the bank drive-through opened early Monday morning, I was first in line to cash my check. I found out later from the other office workers, that the whole family had come in to fire me. They were too late. During my time with them they made me fire their head maintenance man who was old enough to be my dad. They also failed to complete apartments by the fall for which they’d already collected rent, leaving me to face furious parents and bewildered students who had no place to live at the beginning of their school year. I was glad to be rid of them. So on May 31st, 1977, I was unemployed which would last until January 1st, 1978, when my friend took her office. That would be my last real block of free time until I retired and the longest time I’d had no employment in the previous 10 years.
The first few months of my unemployment felt very strange. Laziness and lolling around felt fun for a short time but that didn’t last long. I tried getting more serious about my writing, swapping journaling for a number of attempts at both short and long fiction and even poetry. I headed to the Student Union on campus where I’d often studied and written in the past but I felt old and out of place, finding the lack of familiar faces odd and somehow unsettling. Meanwhile, Michael was getting ready for opening day at his new store in DeKalb. When the day finally arrived he drove north to meet his partner for a soft opening to gear up before the grand one. When he arrived and put his key in the lock, he couldn’t get the door open. Utterly bewildered, he tried tracking down his partner who seemed to have totally vanished. After a few days, he realized that with no capital investment in the store other than his labor and organizational skills, he’d been totally duped by this sleazy guy who’d locked him out of the business. He was crushed. What a brutal lesson in the unreliability of people, coupled with a sense of utter failure in his own judgment. That was a dreadful time. For a few weeks he laid on the couch, silent and staring into space. After a time, I convinced him to swallow his pride and return to the Record Service where at least there were people who were friends and most certainly not crooks.
After navigating our dual work traumas, that August our landlord came over to tell us that he wanted to sell our house and that unless we wanted to buy it, we needed to move. We’d hoped that our next move would be into a house that we’d own but we weren’t quite ready for that. We had to hustle to find a place at that time of year and wound up moving into a one and a half story house on Park Street, still in the wrong town for us. We weren’t thrilled but sometimes you just do what you have to do.
We were still learning to deal with each other’s differences while under a significant amount of external stressors. Madly in love but so opposite in styles, the Park house saw its share of tempestuous conflicts. I continued to be relentlessly confrontational, wanting to resolve every issue on the spot. Michael continued to attempt eluding me, often getting so angry that he’d storm around the house, packing a bag, saying he was leaving, with me in hot pursuit, trying to force him to stay put and work things out. I hated how I felt, chasing him around, my abandonment fears jangling while also furious at myself for being so pathetic. One day I packed a duffel for him, put it near the front door and told him that next time, he should just pick it up and leave because I was done with that miserable repetitive drama. If I’d known that would end the threatened departures, I’d have done it months earlier. Michael admitted that my attempts to solve our problems all sounded like the same criticism his parents had spent dumping on him for years. He felt insecure and inadequate, afraid I was going to leave him so he thought he’d leave first. An exhausting but ultimately positive exercise for us both. Growing up and staying together was hard.
I remember a lot about living in that house. Lying in bed upstairs reading The Shining in absolute terror, holding on to my dog and jumping in terror when Michael’s feet made the stairs creak. Michael getting between his dog and another and having his thumb bitten so badly that it and his nail were warped for the rest of his life. He built beautiful oak cases for our vinyl records and the stereo as well as a our first real platform bed which he broke in half during one of his titanic and visceral fits of temper. I still can’t believe he had the strength to lift and crack the frame. He fixed it and I am still sleeping on it, 44 years later. His father and grandfather had similar explosive moments. Yet in all our years together, I was never afraid that he would strike me or our children. That would have been a dealbreaker for me. But it was never in his realm. Pity the inanimate objects that were trashed. The mix of that volatility with such a soft gentle soul remains one of life’s great mysteries.
The worst trauma that happened while living on Park was that my younger sister was diagnosed with an ovarian growth. At the time, my parents were on an extended visit with my sister’s family in California. My mother wanted her to see a specialist in Chicago. My job was to get her up there to meet with the doctor to get a second opinion. I felt the weight of responsibility which was inappropriate for a sibling. But off we went. I had to borrow her boyfriend’s car for the trip as my car wasn’t roadworthy. He drove a small Volkswagon Karmann Ghia.
Michael had taught me to drive a stick shift on his Chevy Blazer. But the difference in size between the gear boxes was huge and it took me ages just to pull away from the curb. The highway drive was okay but my inexperience on a rush hour expressway in Chicago and in the Loop, during which I kept killing the engine while shifting, and caused traffic jams while irate people honked at me was traumatic. And that was before meeting with the doctor. My sister needed surgery. My parents finally came home and I wasn’t alone for that intense experience.
A few months later in winter, Michael and I had an argument. I don’t remember the subject but all the pent-up emotions of a challenging year caught up with me and for a change it was me who walked out the front door into a snowy night in a bathrobe, barefoot. Michael came after me, stunned, and brought me back inside where I proceeded to cry and essentially disintegrate while curled up on the bathroom floor in a ball. He was standing over me and I could literally hear him trying to decide if I needed professional help. I looked up at him and said, “don’t call anyone-this will be over soon,” and then went back to allowing all my pain from a crummy year to come out of me. Sometimes a huge catharsis is the only way to go.
And so 1977 came to a close. An incredible year. We’d start 1978 on Park Street with me beginning my new job on the first of the year. Michael was settled back into the Record Service. If anyone had told me that job was going to be my last until retirement, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was 26 years old. Ahead was the settling of our lives.