A Love Story. Complicated.

wedding-pictureFor those of you who thought there might be a love story.

I met Bertie one evening in the waiting room at Group Labs, a therapy outfit on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The waiting room was comfy, upholstered, and carpeted, with soft lights. People chatted easily, at least those who were experienced with the drill, those who weren’t (and even some who were) were terrified. They were waiting to go into sound-proofed rooms to expose their innermost secrets to what were, at least at the beginning of the process, a bunch of complete strangers, and they were going to be encouraged to do this as loudly as possible.

Bertie and her group were going to go out for Chinese after their session and she invited me to come along. My group would get out at about the same time, so that would work out well. I was delighted. I hadn’t noticed her before, but she was slender, with a beautiful face and lovely blue eyes. I was flattered that she had asked me to tag along.

After dinner, five of us went back to her place, talked for a while, and then somehow started singing freedom songs. It was an enchanting evening. A long, long way from home. At the end of the evening Bertie offered me her phone number, which I happily accepted.

From there on our courtship was a disaster. I couldn’t stop working against myself. I lost her number two or three times—only her persistence saved us. And then my accent got in the way. Clearly she was interested in me, and I in her, but when I finally got it together enough to ask her out for what I thought was a really cool date, she turned me down. Not until long after we were married did I find out why.

This is what I thought I said, “Would you like to come out with me and beat down walls on our center?” Out at Sheepshead Bay we were doing our own remodeling at the nascent youth center. I loved remodeling, especially taking a sledge hammer to things and demolishing them.

Bertie knew that my accent came from Georgia and that I had been brought up religious. That was about all, except that I now believed in the civil rights movement, was opposed to the war in Vietnam, had some left-wing sympathies, had been beaten by the cops, and was a former jock. She also thought I was brave because she saw me step in and stop a dog fight. My combination, so different from the urban intellectual boys she had known, intrigued her.

On my side, she was an exotic flower. Naturally beautiful in an elegant unforced way that put my high school beauty queens to shame, she was also not shy about her intelligence or opinions. Culturally Jewish but not religious, and congenitally far left—her father, open and proud of being a big C Communist, went to jail for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee—she introduced me to a world I knew nothing about.

Most importantly, she was direct, forthright, and generally said what she meant. She had not been trained in the way of many southern girls, who were often taught that the only means of getting what they wanted was to be coy and manipulative.

But this is what she heard when I asked her out, “Would you like to come out with me and help beat down walls on our sinner?” When she carefully enunciated this to me long after we left the city I couldn’t hear the difference. Finally, I got it and assumed she thought it was some weird religious rite I was involved in. She says no, she just didn’t understand, and, unusual for her, didn’t want to ask. Southerners are, at best, careless with consonants and vowels. In our deepest dialects, you’ll need a translator. Somehow Bertie and I managed to dig our way out of this misunderstanding at the time without actually sorting it out.

That was possible because Bertie took the initiative. She invited me over to dinner at her place. Honestly, her place was a dump. The neighborhood was sketchy; abandoned cars and winos abounded, and the neighboring building was an SRO—single room occupancy hotel—which meant that it was a low-rent dive filled with screaming punctuated by crashing bottles. Her apartment itself was a cramped, harshly-lit flat where all the rooms opened off one narrow linear hallway. It smelled a little off, both because of the neighborhood and because of the resident monkey, her roommate’s pet.

The evening was doomed from the start. Group Labs hadn’t worked its magic on me yet. I learned my way around the groups, but I was still an emotional stone. Inwardly I was a cauldron. Externally, forget about it.

My friend Ratterman had committed suicide in the wee hours of that morning. Jumped off the roof, from right over my head as I slept by the street-side window of my shared top-floor apartment.

Ten stories later, he was dead on the sidewalk below. He was living with his new wife three floors below mine and two apartments down the hall in my old apartment. I had given it to him and moved in with friends upstairs when I heard he was getting married. Compared to that place on an airshaft, Bertie’s place was lovely.

I had been at his wedding just six blocks away in St. Paul’s chapel on the Columbia campus. Ratterman met his bride-to-be in the psych ward, the same one my acid-tripping friend wound up in, and Ratterman and the young trumpet student fell in love. Ratterman was a frequent flyer there. He had paranoid schizophrenia, which he and his doctors kept reasonably under control with Thorazine, chloral hydrate (the ingredient for a Mickey Finn knockout drop), and counseling.

The drugs could barely contain him. He was a funny, hyper, brilliant guy. The best writer I knew. His closest friend was my roommate in that former apartment, and I was jealous of their shared genius and out-of-control hilarity. Ratterman’s story of the Lone Ranger and Tonto around a campfire in a mall parking lot on a smoky blue evening awes me still.

When Ratterman told his therapist that he was getting married, the therapist abandoned him. “Bob, you can’t get married, you’re a paranoid schizophrenic and you can’t handle it. If you marry her, I won’t see you again.” And he didn’t.

I thought this was the cruelest, most irresponsible choice a therapist could make. But he stuck by it, and it was just a few weeks later that Ratterman took his last flight.

I didn’t tell Bertie about it that evening. Acted as if nothing had happened. But that didn’t work out well, and there were other things going on, too.

My mom’s cooking wasn’t good, but it was plain. I grew up on the standard southern fare of the time, fry everything that’s not a vegetable, and some of those, too. Over-boil everything else desperately and deliciously, preferably with fatback, bacon, or some other dead pig product. White bread, ketchup, and baloney sandwiches are a solid lunch. You don’t really even need the baloney.

I swear Mom’s recipe for spaghetti went like this. Fry up the ground beef in a cast iron fry pan. Add the ketchup. Simmer. Throw in spaghetti out of the box. Simmer. Chop the spaghetti in the pan. Add more ketchup. Simmer. Serve. Caroline insists that she did cook the spaghetti first. I stand by my version. It was good.

So, I am not a foodie. Bertie served me spaghetti. A nice, special dinner—white sauce, green spaghetti, simple salad. (Bertie says that the sauce was red. We both agree about the spaghetti. I had never seen green spaghetti, or white sauce with spaghetti.) I was intimidated. I knew the spaghetti wasn’t green from mold, and recognized it as being glamorous.

But I panic at the sight of new food. The expectations are too high, and the risk of offense too great. I failed at both. You can’t hide it, when you’re just pushing food around the plate and taking very little bites.

I wasn’t done with making a hash of Bertie’s attempt to jump start our sputtering relationship. Caroline called. I had a brand new niece. Caroline and Bill’s first child. I’d given them Bertie’s number (the one I lost twice) because I knew the birth date was close. I never dreamed it would actually happen that night.

So after spending half an hour not eating I spent another half-hour talking to my family. Bertie didn’t kick me out, which was kind, to say the least.

We chatted for a while in the living room after dinner, but I was bad company. Ratterman was dead. I’d made a fool of myself with my picky eating and poor manners, and my sister had a new baby. And Bertie hadn’t shown me the door even after I’d made such a hash of everything. It was too, too much. I needed to get away and hide, maybe even cry. Pull the covers over my head.

I had had a long dry spell since my college girl-friend found someone else. And I didn’t handle it well. I became desperate and needy, the very model, I thought, of the kind of loser who sends out waves of sad, pitiful anti-pheromones. And here I was anxious to run away from the best thing that had happened to me in years. And I was mad about it. Mad at her. Mad at her for putting me in this situation. It still makes sense to me, but I admit it was weird, and a sign of just how screwed-up I was then.

Back then, I didn’t have the capability of admitting that I was angry. And that night, it seemed such a peculiarly wrong way to feel. So unjustified, so unfair since I could count the ways I had insulted Bertie, and she had been nothing but beautiful, pleasant, and interested. So I couldn’t be angry. That wasn’t what I was feeling. I wasn’t feeling anything. I hadn’t learned that feelings aren’t right or wrong, they’re just feelings.

Seventeen months later we were married. Twice. Once in City Hall to make it legal, again the day after on the beach at Fire Island to make it fun and the way we wanted to do it. I was no way healed enough to invite Mom, who had met Bertie once, and, knowing nothing about her except that she might be Jewish, served her ham. Mom knew better.

Bertie didn’t care about the dietary rule, but I knew Mom was just turning the knife. Not inviting Mom, meant not inviting Mary Win either. Mary Win loved weddings. I felt really bad about that. But not bad enough or grown-up enough to behave better.

The crowd we were running with at the time, and Group Labs generally, was pretty liberal, pro women’s rights, and slightly anti-marriage. There were lots of bad marriages, bad divorces, and several variations of “marriage is just a property contract” sentiments.

A common question for us was, “Why do you want to get married?” Even Bertie’s mom asked her that. When they asked me in my therapy group, I surprised myself when I popped out with this, “Because it’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual commitment.”

Their eyes actually rolled, and their jaws actually dropped, and there were several pulses of dead silence. But it was possibly the most spontaneously honest thing I’d ever said in that little lead-lined room, or anywhere else.

In the early days of our relationship (and longer after than I care to admit to) when I would go silent, Bertie would march around me beating on pots and pans until I’d eventually say something. An amazingly creative and effective tactic, but something I hated. (Maybe because it worked.) More amazing is that she saw something in me worth fighting for that hard.

We were married on September eighteenth and nineteenth, 1971. We celebrate the second one, the one on the beach. You can do the math. We’re still married. Living far from New York and far from Georgia on the edge of Idaho, in Washington state. We’re happy here with varied and delightful friends and a little known but often photographed and painted ever-changing landscape.

To me, our twin cities, Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho, both college towns and only eight miles apart, are like being home—only without the baggage.

And Bertie hasn’t had to beat the pots and pans in years.

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