Copyright 2014 by Kay Harper
Photo by Ambitious Creative Co. - Rick Barrett.
New York, New York – 1980-1983
When the sidewalk melts under your feet and your brain gets foggy from the grimy steam that rises up out of New York's inhabited underworld, it’s a fairly safe bet that another dog day in August is under way.
* * *
I was minding my own business, walking, talking and smiling as the hostess-with-the-mostest at a swank eatery across from Lincoln Center when he showed up. I saw the silver hair first, followed by the salt-and-pepper beard that covered his I've-been-there face.
My eyes swiped over his arms, revealed by a casual t-shirt with rolled up sleeves—50's style. Danger, I thought, yea this guy’s got the look. He was smoking Camels—taking long drags and releasing them slowly as his sable eyes shot around the room. They were street smart eyes with crinkled corners where life had left its mark.
Despite my aversion to smoke, I took a step closer. Suddenly, his eyes shifted my way. He smiled and held his glass up high, toasting the air between us. Never one to be shy, I waltzed up. "So," I paused for effect. "Who are you?"
He peered out over his martini glass then cracked a smooth smile. "Art. And who are you?"
I leaned in and whispered, “It’s the letter that comes between J and L,” then waited for him to run the ABC song in his head.
“K? Oh, Kay!” His eyes began to travel downward—too obvious, yet intriguing.
To break up his once over I asked, “Working in the neighborhood?"
"Yes, I'm across the street editing a documentary for ABC Close-Up."BINGO. Here's a man who must have his life together. He's got a great job, a great smile and the look!
There were red flags, but I’d always been good at ignored them. For example, his alcohol consumption never seemed to affect him—no slurred speech or loss of balance. Oh no, he was smooth. Little did I know how much of him was wrapped up in those martinis.
We fell hard and fast, and after two blissful months decided that it was for keeps. So we made it official, and set the wedding for the following May in a grand garden tucked away in an upscale Manhattan neighborhood. The up in our lives kept getting higher!
In December, I packed up my tiny rent-controlled apartment on the West Side, and in a move considered by most New Yorkers completely insane, gave up my lease. We settled into our new home, a spacious apartment on Riverside, just in time for Christmas.
Our blissful relationship went along fine for a few months. We were crazy in love in that oh-you-couldn't-possibly-do-ANYTHING-wrong stage. But things started to take a turn when winter’s bitter cold set in. I began to see another side of Art.
One night in February I came home late after seeing a movie with some friends. Art shuffled toward me. “Where were you?” His slurred words put me in a chill.
“I was at the movies. Remember, I told you I was going?”
“Who were you with?” He came at me—his eyes red wild, then pushed me up against the wall. Moments later he lost his balance, hit the floor and passed out. I ran to the bedroom and locked the door.
By morning, I had decided to postpone the wedding indefinitely. It was a decision that brought out the good guy in Art. He shaped up like a dream, drinking little during the next few months. Sometimes he’d call me in late afternoon to say, “Hello,” He knew I would melt at the sound of that silky-smooth voice. “Why don’t you get yourself all dolled up and we’ll go out on the town tonight.”
During that phase, we hop-scotched around Manhattan, dining in China Town, Little Italy, uptown and down, eastside, westside, and at every stop he would look at me sheepishly and say, “I’m sorry for that night. It's all behind us, right?”
He was very persuasive. I’d say to myself, this is who he truly is. The other was just a freak accident. On the upside once more, we set the date for a late-summer wedding.
The Missouri sun was shining bright on August 8, 1981 as we walked up to the top of a hill to say our vows. Well, it wasn't actually a hill. The Mississippi River Valley of my homeland has a shortage of hills, but my father had a good suggestion. Why don’t you go out the old levee road to Indian Mound? It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to a hill around here.”
So, surrounded by late summer fields of corn, we marched up that hill, spoke vows that we made up on the spot and believed that our life together would be one big happy ride.
Our honeymoon was a meandering drive to New Orleans, then around the Gulf Coast to Florida and up the East Coast. It could have been wonderful, but the downslide hitched a ride. We were in the French Quarter when I got what I thought was a bright idea. “Hey! There’s a barbeque stand over there. We’ve had so many fancy dinners, let’s eat there tonight. What do you think?”
Art’s eyes narrowed as he spit out his words. “You know, you’re really something. I have eight o’clock reservations at Brennan’s. Have you heard of it? It’s only one of THE best restaurants—world renowned. But no, you want barbeque—what’s the matter with you?”
I was beginning to think there might be something wrong with me. Each day we would drive about three hundred miles, and without fail Art would find fault with me. “We have to stop every hour for you to go to the bathroom. Is there something you’re not telling me about your plumbing? You’re not normal.”
That night we did end up at the Brennan’s—lots of Creole food which wasn’t high on my favorite foods list. The barbeque would have suited me fine. As we entered the restaurant I wondered, why does it matter so much to you what kind of food we eat? Martinis are your main course.
When we got back to New York, Art continued to drift downward—a binge that would be more on than off for the next few months. He was still going to work every day, but returning home later and later.
A master at magnifying any mishap to disastrous proportions, anything that went wrong was always my fault. I felt caged, frantic and fearful. Like Art I was spiraling further and further down.
In desperation, I went to see a psychiatrist who specialized in alcoholism.
The doctor listened to what I thought was a unique case, but when I finally stopped he set aside his notebook, looked out over the top of his glasses and said, “Your husband is an alcoholic. Your marriage will not get better unless he seeks help. That, by the way, is a choice only he can make. You cannot do it for him. If he doesn’t choose to get help, things will only get worse.”
Although the truth was devastating it was a relief, too. Finally, I was onto Art. He was an alcoholic. The Doctor had warned me not to confront him, but I ignored his advice. Instead I challenged him at every turn. “Don’t you know by now that you’re an alcoholic? The only way you can ever hope to get better is to stop drinking.”
Of course, he didn’t want to hear that. He’d look at me with disgust and say, “If you’re going to believe that BS, I don’t want you with me. We've got to get a divorce. You've got to leave.”
I would hear that phrase nearly every day in the bottom-feeding months that followed. Even as far down as we’d dug our pit, we slid even deeper until I feared we’d reached Hell itself.
I couldn't break through Art's denial no matter how hard I tried, but something finally did. He left the bar one night, went back to work and woke up hours later on his editing room floor—completely surrounded by reels of film—nearly a year’s worth of work that would set the post-production schedule back nearly as long.
At 5:00 the next morning, the phone’s ring woke me up. I soon realized that Art wasn’t home. Is it police? Are they calling to tell me something has happened to him? Then, I heard his voice. “I can’t go into it right now, but I’m going to an AA meeting. It starts in an hour.”
Art attended another AA meeting that day, two more the next, three after that, and continued—admitting each time that he was an alcoholic, and that he’d been drinking for thirty two years.
I started attended Al-Anon (the program for family members of alcoholics.) I learned that, as a result of living with an alcoholic, I had wounds of my own that needed attention. My new friends in the program assured me that although healing would come slowly, my life could change for the better.
The combination of attending meetings regularly, working through the proposed actions of the twelve steps and keeping the focus on myself, would bring me peace—no matter what happened to Art.
Our highs and lows were beginning to level off when, on a bitterly cold night in February, Art had a dry drunk. I was aware this might happen at any time. My Al-Anon sponsor, along with his in AA had warned me. “He’ll act like he’s drunk. He might even become violent.”
Dry drunks did come. Then, Art would scream, “We've got to get a divorce. You've got to leave.” One night, though I’d been in the program long enough to know better, I snapped.
I had taken one step out of the pit and had to keep going. So, I yelled, “Alright, you win. Let’s get that divorce that you want. I want it, too!”
“What did you say?” His voice bellowed back at me as he took a step toward me.
I wanted to run, but instead I hissed, “I've had it with you. I want out.” Then, I ran into our bedroom, locked the door and threw myself onto the bed.
Within seconds he broke down the door—his red-wild eyes fixed on me. “If you say that again I'll pull you off that bed, drag you down the hall and throw you out the front door.”
In a brief moment of resignation I realized that if I challenged him in any way he would do what he’d threatened, and if he did that I would have my ticket out. Although I was terrified, I was willing to face the consequences, so I said, “Do it.”
True to his word, he pulled me off the bed, hauled me down the hall and even though I was only wearing cotton pajamas, shoved me into the unheated hallway, locked the door and left me outside on the icy floor.
My sobs poured out over the black and white hexagonal tiles. Once, the next door neighbor’s door opened slightly, but it slammed immediately, and as the multiple chains slid back into place, I sat up and leaned against the wall.
When I finally stopped crying, I felt relieved, as if I’d been raised up and out of the pit. In time, Art unlocked the door and said softly, “You can come in. I won’t touch you.”
I sat on the couch for the rest of that night, refusing to sleep. In the morning Art walked slowly into the living room. “I’m sorry. What I did was so wrong. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting better, but then this…I’m still an alcoholic—sometimes I lose it. I know I’ve told you I want you to leave a thousand times before, but that’s not true. Please stay.”
I was silent for a long time. Then whispered, “I hear you, Art, and I know you mean what you’re saying. But we both know things like this might happen again. I don’t want to live wondering when you’ll drop your shoe again. I’m sorry, but I can’t see you through this. I don’t have it in me.”
I packed a small suitcase and went to stay with a friend for several weeks. From there, I moved down to a small place on Amsterdam Avenue to housesit for a month. With the funds in the magical checkbook about to run dry, free rent helped.
Then, I shared a beautiful apartment on 90th St. with a troubled couple who, quite suddenly, showed me to the door. So, I rented a room from a woman who was oblivious to the ever-increasing roach population. That was a short stay.
I hadn’t worked for about two years, but one day I got a call out of the blue. “Kay, this is Bob from Alexander Grant. Our mutual friend, Jerry, told me you might need a job.”
“Yes, I do.” I felt like I’d just jumped off a cliff.
The next day I met with Bob at his office in a sky-high tower across town. “Well, it’s tax season. We need HELP! Can you start tomorrow?”
* * *
A few months after the divorce, I was walking across Broadway as Art was crossing over from the other side. As we met on the island in the middle, he smiled his sweetest smile, reached out and grabbed me into a hug.
I felt numb, and as he released me, he said, “I’m still sober.”
Suddenly I felt like I was being sucked underwater, but I surfaced quickly and said, “You know, I had this dream about you last night, and when I woke up, I knew I was going to see you today, and I knew you were going to hug me and that was going to make me mad. And it did. I guess I haven’t forgiven you yet.”
As he let me go, he said, "Whoa, well, that's telling it like it is." I gave him a weak smile.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“To an audition up the street.”
“Mind if I walk you there?"
“No.” I lied.
A few minutes later we arrived at the audition sight—an old church with stairs rising high up to a brass door. I took a couple of steps up, twisted around and held out my hand. He stared at it for few seconds then took it in his.
“Goodbye, Art,” I said as I turned and climbed those stairs all the way to the top.
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