December 15, 1989

Driving in a blizzard at night

Twenty-five years ago today, I drove from Utica to Rome, NY in a snowstorm to commit the mistake that would define and dominate my life. But let’s back up.

Summer 1989. I was 19 years old. I worked as manager of the Marcy Drive-In Theater. The owner’s sister worked there, too. She was 29, divorced, and lived at home with her widowed mother. She ran her family’s stage lighting business. We slept together out of boredom, in the late-August weeknight doldrums. I was 19 years old.

In September she told me she was pregnant. I was a good Christian boy – of course I’d do the right thing. (At 19, I thought the right thing was well-defined.) I proposed marriage. But I dragged my feet, and soon realized she wasn’t pregnant. For a good Christian boy, this presented a dilemma. Although she wasn’t, she might have been, and didn’t that mean I was essentially still on the hook? Was doing the right thing contingent on actual pregnancy, or was I responsible for my actions regardless? I was 19 years old.

She used to carry a Thermos filled with wine coolers. I felt sorry for her. Her first husband had left her for someone else; she’d had to delay college when her father became sick; she’d had to run the lighting business to provide for her mother. Throughout that fall, I attended classes at Mohawk Valley Community College, continued working the drive-in, and helped her on shows when I could. The drive-in closed, I worked more and more shows, and attended fewer and fewer classes.

I wish I could say the sex was great. It was dispiriting. She was jealous – if I spent a day out of contact, I was accused of cheating. We fought, vicious and exhausting confrontations that should have been forewarning. But I enjoyed the stage work.

On December 15, 1989, we set up a dance recital at Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, in their old studio in the St. Francis de Sales building. I will paraphrase the argument and the action:

“You’re never going to marry me. You’re just like your father, and you’ll leave me the first chance you get.”

“I am NOT like my father – I’ll show you!” (Dials phone, Utica City Hall.) “Does the mayor perform weddings? Is he free this afternoon?” (Sorry, there is a 24-hour waiting policy. Hangs up, dials phone, Rome City Hall. Same question.) “Great, we’ll be there before 5.”

And that’s how these things can happen. Lou Lapolla tried to save me, but Carl Eilenberg and four-wheel drive conspired to see me married by close of business. Two witnesses were found in the office pool. Dinner was fried mozzarella sticks. We drank Pepsi – I couldn’t order anything else. And it snowed.

I woke the next morning feeling hung over and terrified. What had I done? The hangover lasted almost seven years. I didn’t tell my friends I’d gotten married; when they got my number and tried to call, she told them I wasn’t there and threw away the messages – I discovered years later. We didn’t socialize because she thought I’d meet someone else and leave. When my best friend from high school got married she told me I couldn’t be his best man. When I tried to back out, he told me to “grow a pair” and be there; she said if I went to the wedding not to bother coming home. But I did, leaving in the middle of the reception because I was a good Christian boy and no way was I anything like my father. The fight when I got home, after driving two hours, was apocalyptic.

There were more fights, and little joy. We slept in the basement or on the pull-out in the living room of her mother’s double-wide. I was cut off from friends, I’d quit school, and my livelihood was tied up in a business that barely scraped by. We sold my records and comic books (including a numbered Beatles White Album and The Uncanny X-Men issues 94-150.) We bought lighting equipment on credit.

We had three children. Many have said to me, “If you were so unhappy, why did you have kids?” Truthfully, I never thought I’d get divorced. I thought I was on the hook until death-do-us-part, and although I used to fantasize about car accidents I thought I was doing the right thing by starting a family. I thought I could be a great father because my own had failed so badly. I thought things would get better with kids. (As I said, when I was young I thought the right thing was well-defined.)

The story of my split and eventual divorce is pretty spectacular, and has the benefit of being darkly funny, to boot. But that’s for another time. My first marriage lasted 6-1/2 years, felt like 30. It began 25 years ago, and I thought the occasion deserved commemoration. As I look out my window into the twilight, I’m thankful it’s not snowing.