Author of Heaven's Tale

Final Straws

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After Susie was gone, I needed a place to stay. I moved into a house in the suburbs with four other guys, two of whom were students at Jefferson. It was a nice split-level about halfway between school and the hospital where I was working. My house mates and I got along all right, and I didn’t mind the commute, but I was drinking heavily and sliding into depression despite instigating some excellent party weekends.


One of my housemates drove a hearse, so we built a coffin, sealed it tight, and used it as a beer cooler. Thus equipped, a road trip was in order, so over Thanksgiving we drove north to my family’s cottage at Lanes Cove. When we arrived, Mom was there. She was great in party situations, and soon, the guys were comfortable as well as high.


Over the next few days, we made several trips to the village center, and on one of those I bumped into my old love Hawley Harwood. She still had her childlike enthusiasm and beautiful smile. She was living just a few miles away in a hippie commune that had taken over an old church. The connection between us was immediate and the attraction intense. By the time the weekend was over, the guys drove the hearse back to Philly without me. Hawley and I were holed up in the extra bedroom of my sister Caryl’s apartment where we stayed in bed for three days. Finally on Wednesday, she drove me into Boston, and I took the train back to Philly. We were still deeply in love.


My performance at school was still erratic, and before long, I was struggling with depression. One night I decided to kill myself. I had filched a gallon of 100% alcohol from the lab, and I mixed up about half in a potent pot which I placed beside the lovely Bowdoin rocking chair my mother had given as a wedding present. I donned one of the black, hooded robes that I had from Chi Psi and hung a sign on the wall behind the rocker. “Here lies the body of Robert Widdowson. He was a good man, but he was his own god. May god forgive him.” I figured if I drank fast enough, I could get enough in me to pass over the toxicity threshold and die of alcohol poisoning. Instead, I woke early the next morning on the bathroom floor covered in vomit. I also had the worst hangover of my life.


A few days later I spoke to Hawley on the phone. I told her I was pretty unhappy.  She was extremely sympathetic and made me feel a little better. A few days later at about 3 PM, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, a young man stood on the porch dressed in a messenger uniform, like from Philip Morris commercials. He said, “Package for Robert Widdowson.”


When I said, “That’s me”, he handed me a clipboard with a form on it. “Sign here please”, and handed me a pen. After which, he thanked me, tipped his cap, and disappeared toward the street. I shut the door and stared at the package, a blank manila envelope. Inside was a 64-page booklet, “Designed to boost the flagging spirits of one Robert Widdowson who is dearly loved”. Every page was covered in drawings, poems, quotations, and collages, every bit intended to cheer me up. Hawley had spent days putting it together, then made the costume for her twelve-year-old brother Ross. They had driven seven hours to Philly from Boston, dropped the package, and turned around and drove back. We had always done elaborate art projects together, but this was a whole new level.

A few weeks later, I had a chance to return the favor. Hawley had driven to Washington DC to visit a friend of hers John who was in training to become a Carmelite Priest. She was staying at the sanctuary there. I took an early train from Philly to Washington, found the seminary in the phone book, and took a cab to the neighborhood. For the next hour, I prowled the streets and finally stopped in a stationary store and bought some note paper. I wrote out ten clues to neighborhood landmarks – a florist shop, a statue, a grammar school, etc., and placed them so that one clue led to the other. The final clue led to me.


Hawley had mentioned that John had a motor scooter, so I crept into the seminary parking lot and tucked the first envelope under the seat. Then I went back to the bar and called the seminary. It took a while for Hawley to come to the phone, but when she did, I said, “This is a treasure hunt. Your first clue is on John’s motor scooter” and hung up. I heard her shriek in glee before the line went dead. I had arranged the clues so she would have to pass in front of the bar a few times, and sure enough a few minutes later Hawley hurried past with two young priests in tow. It took them about an hour to find me, and we all laughed excitedly through a few rounds of drinks. The boys discretely left us after an hour or two. We spent a few more hours together and I gave her a Christmas present. Then I kissed her goodbye, took a cab to the station, and caught the train back to Philly. We were having fun, playing like children up and down the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, I was supposed to be learning to be a doctor.


I continued to struggle at school. In mid-February I went to a Friday night party and met a wonderful woman named Michelle DeCoste. She was beautiful and sexy, wry and brilliant. She had been accepted at Philadelphia Women’s Medical College and was working to have money for school. We spent a terrific weekend together that held the promise of more great times ahead. On the next Wednesday she had already made arrangements to travel to Florida to spend ten days with Peter, a pilot and an old family friend. He had romance on his mind; she did not, especially after meeting me. But she had already agreed, so she went leaving me the keys to her apartment. The day she left, the Dean called me into his office and told me that my performance at Jefferson had not improved and that they were expelling me. I was out. I asked if there was anything that I could do, any way I could get back in. He said that if I received psychotherapy for at least a year and if the shrink would write a strong letter of recommendation, the Admissions Committee would consider my reapplication – a glimmer of hope.


The next night, I worked my usual shift at the hospital lab. In the morning, the director called me into the office. Since I was no longer a medical student, I was ineligible for work in the lab. My housemate had called him with the news. When I got home, the entire contents of my room, all my worldly possessions, were sitting in the snow in the front yard. A good friend of theirs had already moved in. I was stunned.


I packed up my things and moved into Michelle’s apartment. The next day, I went to see the psychiatrist at Jefferson that Susie and I had gone to see. I had had sessions with him every two weeks for about ten months, and he felt we were making progress. I told him what the Dean had said and asked if he would work with me towards readmission. He thought it over and finally agreed. But just one thing: since I was no longer a student at Jefferson, he would have to charge me retail rates – $300 per hour. I was reeling.


A few days later, Michelle returned. I had fixed the apartment up beautifully, and she was a little surprised but basically happy that we were suddenly living together. Her visit with Peter had gone pleasantly for her, but unfortunately he had fallen head-over-heels for her. We settled in.


In a few weeks, I found a decent-paying job in a private medical lab where my main job was operating a complicated machine the SMA-12 that did several different tests on the same sample of blood. The lab was located north of Philadelphia so I had a short commute by train. We had contracts with some private clinics to do their blood-work, but our bread-and-butter was a long term contract with a pharmaceutical company that was testing its products on prisoners at Lancaster State Prison. The experimental protocols were complicated and precise.


Not long after I started working, I went out there with the head researcher. It was a huge, old concrete structure surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. I had huge barred gates and wide corridors with twenty-food ceilings. We carried our gear to the barber shop, and just as we got set up, more than 100 hardened criminals arrived. They had blue uniforms, lots of tattoos, and big muscles. They spoke roughly but not unpleasantly, but I was still terrified. In a few hours, we had drawn all the blood samples, and the next day, I ran them through my machine. Everyone seemed pleased with my work.


In the meantime, I was still seeing the shrink at Jefferson even though paying his fee was killing me financially. When I complained about it, he told me that he charged a lot so that I could show my commitment to getting better. If I hadn’t been living with Michelle, I couldn’t have done. She was wonderful to be with – smart, happy, sexy, and she loved to drink and party. We went out most weekends, and it was a standing joke between us that in the morning, neither of us could remember where we had parked the car. She’d go one way, and I’d go the other looking for the car.


Susie and I remained friendly, and she often called me at Michelle’s. Our conversations were generally pleasant except when she said that she was lonely and that nobody wanted to go out with her because she was a divorced woman. Michelle didn’t mind the calls; she could hear my end of the conversation.


One of the reasons that we got along so well was the fact that she was going to med school in September. We spent a lot of time talking about school and what she could expect. Her friend Peter from Florida kept calling her. He knew about me, but he was unwilling to give up. Finally, one night he called and said he’d been accepted as a pilot for American Airlines and that he’d arranged for a week’s training in Philadelphia starting Memorial Day weekend and that he couldn’t wait to see her. Poor Michelle was stuck.


But suddenly I had a brainstorm. The next time Susie called me, I asked her how she’d feel if I fixed her up with somebody. She said she’d be grateful, so I told her to save Memorial Day. Peter was a little more difficult, but Michelle told him that she was in love with me, and she described Susie as wonderful and beautiful. He finally agreed, and we decided that all four of us would go out Saturday night, two weeks away.


Work was still going well, and the boss was giving me more and more responsibility. In just a few months, I was supervising a whole selection of the lab and had taken over quality control. A few days before Memorial Day, he called me into the office and said that he had a special job for me. Blood samples needed to be drawn from the prisoners at Lancaster on Sunday. The protocol called for blood sugar test which had to be drawn before they ate breakfast. The guys would be waiting for me at 5:00am. I tried to beg off, told him that I already had plans, but he was adamant. It was my big chance.


When I got home, Michelle and I talked it over. It was too late to change our plans. I would have to tough it out. Saturday night came, and we all met at a local bistro. Susie arrived first, and she looked stunning. She and Michelle were relaxed and warm with one another. The three of us agreed not to tell Peter about Susie and I being married. We left it to her to tell him later if everything worked out. When Peter came in, Susie and he were smitten right away. In fact, we all had a great time. There was lots of heavy drinking, a terrific dinner, and more drinking. At 1:00am, Peter had his arm around Susie, she had her hand on his thigh and offered to give him a ride back to his hotel. Mission accomplished.


Michelle and I finally made it back home about 2 AM, she stumbled off to bed, and I brewed a pot of coffee. I had to leave for Lancaster at 3:30 AM. Waiting for the coffee, I sat down in the rocking chair and promptly passed out. When I woke, it was 10am.


I called the boss immediately, and he fired me immediately. The five-year study was ruined. The protocol was breached. A few days later, I had another appointment with the psychiatrist at Jefferson. I called him and told him that I didn’t have to money to pay for my session because I’d been fired but that I really felt like I needed to see him. I needed help. He replied that he was too busy and not to bother calling him again. There was nothing that he could do. The rejection hurt, and I sulked for a few days but I was determined to find out what was wrong, fix it, and get back into school. I thought about Richard LaBel, a psychologist from Salem MA who I had seen a few times during my year off from Bowdoin at my mother’s urging. I called him and explained what I needed. He agreed to accept me as a patient, and he would charge $60 an hour twice a week, paid in advance. I was to call him when I had moved back home and had a job.


Michelle was crushed but I was too self-absorbed at that point at pay much attention. About a week later, I packed my clothes into the old Chevy, leaving all the furniture for Michelle. The last thing she said to me was, “damn you, Widdowson.”


I drove straight to the beach house in Lanes Cove, Gloucester not knowing what to expect, lo and behold, my mother was there. She had just returned from the Turks and Caicos Islands where she had been living one of those romantic adventures: living in a little cottage at the edge of the sea with wild burros in the yard. She had dated a burly sergeant in the British army and driven a jeep with no windshield. She had taken over a small bed and breakfast but suddenly dropped everything and returned home.


I told her my situation and my plan. She approved, but when I asked to stay in the cottage, she refused. Instead she informed me that my dad had broken up with his second wife and was looking for a place to live. Maybe he and I should get a place together and re-establish a relationship. Over the next few weeks, he and I spoke a few times and half-heartedly agreed to try. We found a a nice apartment on the outskirts of Gloucester. I had found a job in a hospital lab in Peabody, A nearby town, but the rent was way over my budget. Dad insisted, so I finally gave in and signed the lease. We moved in together.


Three weeks later, he moved back in with his wife leaving me to pay the whole rent. My mother suddenly rented the family cottage to strangers and disappeared again. I called Richard LaBel and went back into therapy.   Soon after we started meeting, my old Chevy died. Even though I had long commutes to his office and to work, I managed to get around with a combination of walking, hitch-hiking and public transportation. Somehow, I had managed some savings, so I finally bought another car. I fell in love with it the minute I saw it in the lot – a 1961 Mercedes Benz 190 SL, the two-seat convertible roadster charcoal gray with blood-red interior. I was not in perfect condition, and I got a good deal on it. It was beautiful, and I loved driving it. It was the last car I ever owned.


Having transportation made life a little easier, but I had to pick up some extra shifts to make ends meet. My sessions with LeBel were going all right when we met, but I didn’t feel much different. I still drank heavily and felt like life was happening to me. I didn’t feel in control, I stayed in touch with Michelle for a while, but she had started medical school and was soon distracted. Susie and Peter had fallen deeply in love. They eventually married and had a family. Life goes on.


One day as I got into my car, I was approached by a man who introduced himself as David Stein. He said he collected 190 SLs and did I want to see mine. I turned him down of course, but he was an interesting guy, and we became friends. He introduced me to a great character named Bobby Ventola, but he preferred Bobby Vee. He was a tough Italian kid from the streets of Boston, and he was a real hustler. He made a good living selling insurance. He had worked out a scheme to target medical students. He would get them to buy million dollar policies and then lend them the money to pay the premiums. While they were students, they only had to pay interest on the loans. Bobby was fearless, and he knew everybody in Boston. Once he took me to the Playboy Club when we were both broke (neither of us ever had any money). He knew a middle-level Mafiosa who had dinner there every Friday night. We were stopped at the door – it was members only – but he talked us inside. Upstairs he found the mafiosa and introduced me as Dr. Redmond, a heart surgeon. We were invited to sit down, and Bobby told them that I was doing some cutting-edge research and asked me to describe it. I managed to explain my research based on the job I had at Jefferson years before the Mafioso and his friends just sat there. Two hours later after several drinks and dinner, we thanked our host and left.


Bobby rented a gorgeous penthouse apartment on Beacon Hill with a view of the Commons. It had its private elevator, but it had no furniture except a waterbed with no frame. He kept it for the address. One night we met a friend of his named Pat Buonopane, another street hustler. Pat lived in a fourth floor walk up deep in the north end of Boston, the Italian section, he had attended Suffolk law school at night and had somehow emerged after eight years with a degree. For the last five years, he’d been defending mainly prostitutes and petty thieves. Pat had decided to enter politics; he was running for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Bobby was his campaign manager, and I became the assistant. For about two months we all prowled the streets of the North End. Pat would give speeches; Bobby would hustle; all three of us drank. Often we’d drink home-made wine from big casks that families kept in their basements. We were wined and dined everywhere.


One night I mentioned to Bobby that an old rockn’ roll star named Screaming Jay Hawkins was playing at a club in Boston. Off we went even though we didn’t have ten dollars between us. At the door, Bobby said we were campaign managers for Pat, passed out a few bumper stickers, and said that we wanted to check out the club as a potential site for a fund-raising rally. They let us in the door and bought the first round of drinks. Hawkins was on-stage, I saw Bobby scurry after him. Nearly an hour later, they emerged together for Jay’s last set. Bobby found me dancing up a storm with a pretty blond and winked. When the show was over, he jumped on the stage and had a short conversation with Hawkins. Then he found me, and we stumbled outside. He gave me an address and off we went. Sure enough, it was a private party for Screaming Jay who arrived about an hour later. Bobby and I ate and drank till dawn.


As Pat’s campaign wound down to election day, we got a little more serious. We arranged a couple of radio interviews, but unfortunately Pat didn’t have many well-thought our programs to present except to legalize prostitution. On election day, he got 85 votes, all family members and clients. We sure had fun though.


In the meantime, I was still seeing Dr. LaBel twice a week. Our sessions seemed a bit rote to me. I couldn’t see that we were making much headway even though we’d been at it for months. But every time I asked, he said that he felt sure that he’d be able to write a glowing recommendation for Jefferson by June. I hung in there. I had also starting seeing Hawley again. She was staying with an aunt and uncle in Cambridge but started spending most weekends with me in Gloucester. We were still wonderful together.


I was still paying Dr. LeBel for my twice-weekly sessions.  He thought that we were making progress.  I did not feel much different – still drinking hard, still careless with money – basically self-destructive.  I saw a lot of Hawley.  She was living with an aunt and uncle and had started work at Raytheon.  She flirted with the idea of going to school.  I worked hard at the hospital, taking extra shifts but fell further and further behind financially.


Months later my mother called, and said that she was back and needed a place to stay.   She moved in for about a week.  For the last seven months she had been living in a trailer on the beach in the Florida Keys.  The owner was a retired engineer with plenty of money.  They had a little seashell business together and had a lot of fun.


So I finally asked her why she came back.  This marked the third time she had left; started living a romantic adventure, then cut it short and come back home. Why?  She started to cry.  Then she told me that for the last twelve years she had been having an affair with Neal.  They had been in love all these years, but he could not divorce his invalid wife.  Three times she had gone away to end it, but each time she came back.  This time she had written him a love letter, and his daughter who was now in high school had intercepted it and shown it to her invalid mother.  A scene had ensued.  Mom was living a soap opera.


I was stunned.  All these years, Neal, the man that I had loved like a father, had been sleeping with my mother.  She had not only deceived us, she had taken Dad to the cleaners for infidelity while she carried on with Neal.  That was why she had criticized the town gossip so harshly and so often: the woman had seen them together.  This was too much.  I had already noticed that visits with my family seemed to trigger bouts of self-destructive behavior.  I decided that I needed to stay away from her.  With one exception, I never saw my mother again.


Thinking about what Mom had said later made me realize something else.  She and Neal were lovers when he told me that Marianne was a porn star.  Mom and Marianne were best friends.  My mother must have known what was going on when she sent me to Marianne and Donald in Salem.  I realize now that she set me up to be introduced to sex by a professional.  Marianne was probably reporting back to Mom after each encounter.


I do not think that she expected Marianne to go after Dad, though.  How manipulative of her to take me with her to catch them parking and hold the showdown meeting the next day.  At least she got rid of Dad, so she could have a free hand with Neal.  During those years, my mother had three men in her life: Dad, Neal and me.  She wound up alienating all of us.


I was still seeing Dr. LeBel, but I never told him any of this.  He had made a diagnosis, and we had worked on it, but my life was not better.  Still, it was time to deal with Jefferson.  I made an appointment to see the then Dean in June.  Dr. LeBel told me that he had sent a glowing letter of recommendation.  I went to Philly and met with the Dean.  When he asked me about my year of therapy, I mentioned the letter.  He was puzzled – “what letter?” I tried to explain, to describe what I thought Dr. LeBel had written, but I fell apart.  About a month later, I received a formal letter from the Dean closing the door to Jefferson.


A few days later, I was driving my 190SL in Peabody.  An 80-year-old woman neglected to stop at an intersection, and my beautiful car was totaled.  Unfortunately, the check to pay the insurance had bounced, so I lost everything.


I was unwilling to give up.  I got literature on medical schools in Europe.  Surely one of them would give me credit for my years at Jefferson. When I told Hawley, she was stricken but stoic.  At the end of August, she stayed with me for a weekend then left early in the morning to register for classes in Boston.  That night about 7:00 PM, she called to say goodbye.  She was in a motel room and had just washed down about 30 tablets of Secanol with a lot of Scotch.  She refused to say where she was, told me she loved me, and hung up.  Luckily, a few minutes later, she called somebody else.  Just before passing out, she revealed her location.  They got her to the hospital just in time.  I was forbidden to see her.


In the space of a few months, I had discovered that my mother had betrayed me, Jefferson had rejected me, and now I had driven my soul mate to attempt suicide.  I sold what I could in the next two days, packed a small bag, bought the cheapest ticket I could find, and got on a plane to Brussels.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.  When I arrived, I had $65.





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