The Winter in Black and White
I remember that winter in black and white. The walls of the flophouse room in Buffalo were newly painted white, as if the previous tenant was a mistake that was now blotted out, while the sheets of the barely-adult-sized bed were a stain-camouflaging black. Outside the window, beneath a perpetually darkling sky, an ever-present blanket of lake effect snow steadily rippled and readjusted atop the sleeping city. It was a world of bleached-out plane geometry, like an unpainted stage set. Neighboring houses seemed like they were miles away, so I hardly ever left the house, a sort of self-imposed purgatory where I’d been marooned by the beginning of my marriage’s slow-motion collapse. I would eventually rank it the second-worst year of my life, but since the worst came next, it was the worst thus far.
The house was two stories high and probably built right after the Second World War. Buffalo’s heyday was in the first half of the twentieth century, so much of its architecture dates from that era and the industrial wealth of the time bought the city some truly gorgeous buildings, more designs by Frank Lloyd Wright than any other city in America, and the largest James Joyce collection in the world. Like most of the Rust Belt, Buffalo went through a long period of decline, really starting when Bethlehem Steel fled town in 1982, so the homes are somewhat elderly, but still structurally sound. It’s strange how cities and homes seem more beastly in their periods of growth and grow more beautiful as they ebb. It’s not usually the same with people.
This home was wedged on a street of student dwellings. The neighbors were frat brothers who eventually got kicked out, but not before smashing a toilet off the wall upstairs and using the resulting hole in the plaster as a makeshift urinal for three months. The rent for my black and white room was $225 per month all inclusive. The young man who was renting his father’s former house out was about twenty-five and seemed pleasant in a slightly placid way that suggested to me that he smoked marijuana often. My roommates in the upstairs floor were a quiet Korean med student and an equally quiet Nigerian grad student; both of them just wanted to work and we made a nice coalition of disconnected things. It seemed ideal for holing up in my room, staring at the white ceiling and trying to hold together the crumbling pieces of my life, while waiting for all things to pass.
“Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.”
Many, and maybe most, marriages reach a sort of reckoning point, in which the participants suddenly realize that everything that was right and true up until then no longer fully works and the old marriage is effectively null and void. Maybe one of them loses their job and finds they have no interest in gainful employment ever again, or the other realizes that a sexual interest they had allowed to lie dormant is actually central to their personality, or someone has an affair that suddenly turns serious; sometimes, a once lighthearted relationship with God can go the same way. Whatever the matter, making the switch is something like realizing mid-step that that icy sidewalk beneath you is frozen solid and moving sideways much more quickly than expected. Something has to be done. Sometimes a new, stronger marriage comes out of it. Often, one partner will move out for a time in order to “work things out.” Or things will end more quickly and decisively and someone’s private possessions will find their way to the bottom of a swimming pool or a roadside curb. In the worst events, one partner decides in deranged despair that the new future is not livable and puts an end to their life and that of their partner; these murder-suicides are usually the prerogative of the husband or boyfriend.
In our case, we hit some sort of marital jackpot: my wife discovered her spiritual nature and a whole new branch of her sexuality around the same time as a casual dalliance grew into a deep and significant love. We didn’t stand a chance. For some time, Renée had been “exploring her sexuality” with her close friend Jill*, something that was hardly a problem in our marriage, as we’d never really excelled at monogamy, when she located a new continent of bisexuality and deep feelings for Jill that she could only characterize as “being in love”. Coincidentally, Jill was helping my wife become an adept in fairly serious (and apparently queer-positive) spiritual practices that struck her as being right, true, and nothing like the polite, bourgeois Canadian godlessness in which she’d been raised. I was trying to make this new bisexual, spiritual, polyamorous image of Renée overlap with the old one when Jill decided to leverage the unsure position in which my wife had found herself into a whole new “spiritual path” in which Renée would quit her job, sell her house, divorce me, and come take care of her friend, at least until Jill found a husband of her own. I later came to the conclusion that Jill was probably personality disordered, but at the time her competitive lesbianism had focused my opinions about her to a simple idea: she was a selfish, simple-minded, pig-faced, psychic vampire bitch.
So, after a few screaming matches that left us both battered, bitter, and bruised, my wife and I came to the conclusion in the cat food aisle of the grocery store that it would be best for one of us to move out so she could make some sense of all of this. I kept vigil over a thimbleful of hope, but was fairly certain the situation would end with a trip to the courthouse. My best friend, Emily, reassured me over the phone that, “she’ll come back to you once she gets out of the orbit of that psychic vampire,” leaving out the selfish, simple-minded, pig-faced bitch part because Emily is more of a feminist, or less of a poet, than I am. But I was not at all sure Emily was right, especially after five months of simmering contempt from Renée and a growing feeling that I should be getting more from an open marriage than dumped for a spiritual asshole, and was starting to think that a place of my own might be a hostel in a new country of bachelorhood.
During the day, I worked an ill-paying academic job teaching the children of the bourgeoisie about Marx and Engels. At night, I would sit up and watch Italian sex films from the 70s and drink a lot of alcohol. My favorite series, readily available on the internet, stars an Indonesian actress named Laura Gemser as a roving New York reporter who travels the world, not excelling at monogamy, and sleeping with every man or woman who crosses her path. “Emanuelle” or “the black Emanuelle” was an Italian counterpart to the more famous libertine from France, Emmanuelle. Secretly, the Italian version- a globetrotting reporter who sees no need to settle down into monogamy- made more sense to me than the French version- a housewife who tries an open marriage at the coaching of her husband. The Italian Emanuelle took control of sexual events, while I seemed to let them pass by me. I don’t think I masturbated once that winter, nor shed any tears. I was completely dry. And holed up in a frigid city and icy season of marriage, I think I needed the vision of a world in which travel is sun-soaked and sex is joyous and uncomplicated, like it seldom ever is in this one.
Bam! I was awoken by the sound of a beefy fist like hot play doh slapping the wall of our shared bathroom. “Ouch! Goddammit!” our new roommate wailed in animal pain. “What the hell am I going to do?!!” Bam! The fist against the sink. He was up trying to cut his hair with a pair of clippers at three a.m. and presumably had failed to achieve a certain level of coiffed elegance, not to mention he was bleeding all over the bathroom after nicking his ear. Plus he was drunk. So he was screaming in pain at the mirror. He was forty-nine years old and used to work at an auto plant before cancer and alcohol intervened. He moved in a few weeks after I did. Now it was four disconnected things sharing the top floor of the house and the newest one was cutting his hair at three a.m. on a Tuesday night so that he would look good for his round of treatments on Wednesday. I would be teaching a class the next morning, but I can’t say I was sleeping either. Mostly, I was staring up at the white ceiling listening to our new roommate bellowing, and waiting for these things to pass by.
I didn’t know much about being a husband, frankly. Nobody really has a clue about being married when they first do it, and most of us feel like we’ve been thrust onto a stage with no idea of the script and told to improvise our way through the play. So, we try to fumble through the role the way we’ve seen our parents do it, usually still vowing to kill ourselves if we turn out like them, and it seldom works out as planned. Soon you’re on stage with no idea what you’re doing, trying to remember someone else’s lines in spite of their role differing entirely from your own, and it’s even worse when there are members of the audience in the darkness trying to tie your shoelaces together and trip you up. Not to mention the fact that my own parents were an old vaudeville team, Angry and Bitterstein, whose divorce left them resentful for decades. Maybe plot is for suckers. For me and my wife, marriage was usually an unsolvable problem. Maybe we were meant to be solitary things and all connection is illusory.
So, one day, I discovered an old forgotten phone message under my flophouse bed. “Sarah Fitzsimons called asking for information about the Church. Contact her at (phone number) or (home address).” To amuse myself, I wrote up a pamphlet for Sarah Fitzsimons about “the teachings of “Thoggoth, the beast who lives within the pyramid” in my room. “Once we accept the commandment never to teach squirrels to perform Waiting for Godot, our lives are transformed forever…” etc. I never got around to sending it to Sarah Fitzsimons. Probably chickened out. I noticed the first floor of the house was now occupied by several young men who also seemed pleasant in a slightly placid way. After a month or two, they started coming upstairs to talk to the new roommate about their church with DVDs we could all watch together. Tom Cruise is a member you see, and if the new roommate came to meetings and followed the program, they could help him to realize his full potential. He seemed unsure. I stayed in my room and waited for them to pass.
The new roommate soon became the focus of the house, like a tiny blotch in a painting that eventually becomes all you can see. I remember him as a hulking mass with a perpetually shaved head and drooping running shorts lying awkwardly on the dirty plaid couch in the living room, forever trying to get me to drive him to the grocery store two blocks away so that he wouldn’t have to carry all the groceries. In return, he would make great panfuls of hamburger helper and noodles for us to eat while we drank together. The Korean med student usually sat in his room eating ramen bowls and doing online tutorials, and was apparently unperturbed by the screaming. The Nigerian just wanted to work on his dissertation and tried to enlist me in a united front against the troubled roommate and our placid landlord.
“How can we do any work when he’s screaming every night?”
It was true. Each night, the new roommate would sit up drinking and watching his television set until the local station left the air. By that point he was drunk and experienced the end of the broadcast day as a sort of personal betrayal. White noise following the National Anthem, and then followed by screaming: “Why are you doing this to me?! Goddamn you!” The fists pounding against the walls. Once he was tired, it stopped.
I remember: Lying on my back in the blackness. Lying on the black sheets staring at a white ceiling now shrouded, with the voice in the darkness screaming “Why?! Come back!” Was it his voice or was it mine? Was it addressed to the television or to my wife? Both were as unresponsive as the darkness. Still, hope responds.
My roommate fascinated me because he had his own code of ethics that conferred a certain dignity upon him. It was important, for instance, that we understand that he was not on welfare, which was something you received if you were too lazy to work. Instead, he got early social security payments, something the state had expanded while shrinking the welfare rolls. As he saw it, he was once involved in the criminal world, so when the Social Security payments were late, the government was pushing him further towards crime. Years ago, he made his money by cleanly and quietly disposing of other people’s guns and weapons (slightly used). “I could go back to that tomorrow, Dude. But I don’t want to! Why don’t they understand that?” I had no answer for him.
In general, he thought I was amusing, if lacking in a certain masculine energy, perhaps because my wife left me, although his had left him years before. For men like that, women are always leaving. Who was it that said “Wife is synonym for past”? He understood that. In general, he saw women as an unreliable natural force. But one night he was shocked when I told him that I deeply missed our cat, Lola. “Oh, come on, dude! You don’t miss a cat! You’re a man!” You’d have thought I was cleaning the living room in an evening gown.
He had a deeper animosity for the foreign-born grad students and the Hispanic Scientologist landlord because he believed that, if you were not white, you didn’t have to pay tuition for college. They argued with him for hours on that point, but he remained deaf to it. As he saw it, more reasonably I think, he had worked making cars for twenty years without help from anyone before cancer waylaid him and his ex-wife and kids cut off all contact. He seemed somehow superfluous now, like a vestigial organ screaming out for dignity and getting drunk alone. We now know the human appendix actually serves important functions in fetal development and during early adolescence. But perhaps it feels the same way afterwards, after its useful life is done. I definitely felt superfluous that winter, like my best days were now behind me. If this guy wanted to wring out a bit of dignity from his working past and his self-administered haircuts, why not? A man can live off very little dignity, but not none.
I nevertheless realized I would have to move out before long. The landlord was too occupied with the downtown Church meetings to fix the wooden steps that had collapsed into a pile of wood like a funeral pyre before the front door. One of the fraternity revelers had made a strange marble-sized dent in the hood of my car at their last party. Then there was the night that I was standing in the kitchen preparing ramen noodles and staring at the wrinkled vintage floral wallpaper while the landlord, who’d come upstairs with the Scientologists and their DVDs, was arguing with the roommate over the end of the world. If you remember, this was the year that the Mayan calendar supposedly ran out of years, something the roommate believed meant the world was soon to end.
“It’s not really the end of the world,” argued our landlord. “This is when the extraterrestrials will reveal themselves!”
“Come on, dude! How will they reveal themselves if we’re all dead?!”
For both of them, this was a very serious issue and they were starting to lose their tempers with each other. The roommate kept stomping back to his room and slamming the door and storming back to the kitchen. The landlord was no longer placid. Eventually, the roommate screamed at the landlord that it wasn’t fair that he didn’t have to pay tuition and, if his church really did such wonderful things to help people, why did they charge so much to do them? I still think that’s still the perfect question to ask a Scientologist. They never came up with the DVDs again.
One more disconnected memory: One night, towards the end of the winter, I was standing in line at the all-night grocery store near the house being irradiated by the fluorescent lights and listening to the elevator music and waiting for a cashier to show up and ring out my microwave dinners. It was probably close to four a.m. and there was only myself and another man in the store both standing guard for the absent cashier. I was in the front. As some point, I turned around to talk to the man and realized that he was not necessarily elderly, but was definitely wearing the latex mask of an elderly man over his head. I also got the very distinct impression that he was otherwise not well. His gait was slightly twisted. His breath was heavy. My words died in my mouth, so neither of us said anything and the cashier came soon enough and quietly checked us out. I never told anyone I knew this story because it felt like something from one of David Lynch’s nightmares.
Things pass and hope persists, even beyond dignity. After five months in the black and white house, I had almost no dignity, but still a little hope. After some serious blow out fights between the two of them, my wife decided her friend Jill was a personality-disordered psychic vampire and abandoned the idea of shacking up with her. She wanted me to come back home so we could be married again. I knew there was very little chance it would work, and perhaps none if I was going to be fully honest about it, but hope outlives honesty or dignity. In the Spring I returned to my old life. It was perhaps another year before our marriage finally collapsed for good.
The strangest thing about that winter is I actually remember it fondly now. Granted, it was tumultuous, enraging, heart-breaking, hellish, maybe even horrific, but I survived it. I didn’t know that I could, frankly, but simply by walking forward I didn’t fall down. The next year was even worse and I certainly came closer to the void, but in a weird way no break up ever hurt as deeply as the first time a girl broke my heart when I was barely out of high school. A divorce is more complicated, of course- nobody ever goes through a bad break up and thinks “This would be better if we had to get lawyers involved”- but even at its emptiest, something persists. Wasn’t that the Zen Buddhist idea, that all is empty (Mu)? I just read something recently: Tich Thien-An writes “this realization must be experiential, not merely intellectual. It is not enough to assert that everything is empty: one must see into the fact of emptiness in all one’s daily activity.” I can think of no better way to describe that winter.
*As one might expect, these names are fake.