Neighborhood: Washington Heights

In the midst of a particularly grueling winter, I met Wren on OK Cupid. 

Unlike my slim, brown-skinned fiancé who had deserted me the week before Christmas, Wren was bulky, with a ruddy complexion and pale blue eyes like my father’s. The day after my third date with Wren, my father died of congestive heart failure. That man had battered me when I was a child and berated me emotionally as an adult, and in my forties I had given up even trying to have a relationship with him. Ten years later, not knowing how to mourn, I proceeded numbly through the wake, funeral service, and burial.

Wren’s and my relationship really accelerated after that. We exchanged vows of love and apartment keys, but spent most of our time at my place in Washington Heights. He’d also endured a pre-Christmas breakup, so we were both kind of on the rebound, but I still thought it could work out. Wren’s numerous health problems troubled my friends, though. I lived at the foot of a steep hill that Wren could barely scale without whipping out his inhaler to calm what I thought was an asthma attack, but was actually emphysema and COPD. Deep vein thrombosis painted his calves a winy purple, and he began every day with the phrase “It’s a wonderful day to die.”

When summer came, we swam at John Jay Pool on East 78th Street and the FDR Drive. It took work getting ready—putting on our bathing suits, finding snacks and clean towels, and then dragging them uphill. We rode the A from 181st Street, switched to the local at 125th and got off on West 81st Street where we’d wait for the crosstown bus at the stop in front of the Natural History Museum. We waited for so long sometimes that the water in our plastic bottles almost boiled, not to mention our tempers. Once we were immersed in the pool though, the mask of pain dropped from Wren’s face, and perhaps from mine, too. When I floated on my back and squinted up at the sky, I noted with fascination how it merged with the East River to form a single horizon line, as if they were the same immense body of water. Weightless, this unfamiliar blue had its own music. Wren and I took turns lifting, carrying, and throwing each other.

In the evenings we’d boil lobsters I’d ordered from Fresh Direct, or we’d have rotisserie chicken, prepared deli salads, and margaritas that I made by pulping whole fruit in my high-speed blender. Wren’s arthritis was so advanced I had to help him dress. But one bone wasn’t affected because, as he said, it wasn’t really a bone. We’d make love, and cook, and drink, and groom each other’s nails.

On summer nights, we went to free concerts or karaoke bars where Wren entertained an admiring crowd with a set of oldies from the 50s and 60s. Or, we stayed home and watched television. We had different tastes in programs—he liked Duck Dynasty, while I was a Mad Men addict—so we compromised and watched old cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Star Trek reruns. Wren would not give up sports, and insisted that I pay rapt attention even to the most excruciating golf games, blowing up at me when I got bored and took out a crossword puzzle.

One evening, he came to my place in tears. He’d lost his job as a drug counselor and thought that would be the end of us. I wouldn’t hear it. I had a steady income and good benefits; I could support us both. He kept his place but spent more time at mine, cooking and cleaning, and I actually saved money.

I have to admit that our petty squabbles began to escalate after the firing. His irritability seemed to have no end. He especially hated when I wanted to spend time with women friends, whom he collectively referred to as “bitches.” These quarrels were my fault, Wren accused. “It’s because I look like your father, and your ex doesn’t,” he said. “You’re always going to be mad at me.” I dismissed his analysis because, aside from a superficial description, Wren didn’t look at all like my father. I had to remind myself, when his verbal abuse frightened me, that big as he was, he was so frail that if the argument came to blows, I could take him. We usually reconciled when Wren cried. I think I kind of enjoyed his tears.

One day in early September, he told me that a record producer had offered him a contract. He’d be flown to Beverly Hills! While I enjoyed looking at his three hundred well-groomed and sexy pounds and listening to his still strong voice, I wondered why a producer would tap someone older than 60 who had never been a star. I confided my doubts to my sister, who asked, “Could he maybe not know he’s lying?” It was true that he had told me once that he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Yet, I desperately wanted to believe it could happen for him. In the weeks that followed, he’d sporadically update me, casually dropping the details of his upcoming gig. The flights had been scheduled and a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel reserved; he was getting nervous.

On the day he left for California, Wren called me at my office at 1:00 in the afternoon to say his 9:30 morning flight had landed. Once you accounted for time zones, this meant it had taken only an hour and a half to fly to Los Angeles. He had misread his itinerary, which noted arrivals and departures in local time. Worried that he’d experienced a psychotic break, I didn’t confront him. Instead, I called 911 and sent the EMTs to his address. Surely, they’d find him on the brink of something disastrous and insist he get help. They responded shortly after that nobody was home.

That night, I called Wren on his cell phone.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Hotel Beverly Hills,” he said.

“I called. They have no record of your name.”

He’d given me the wrong times and hotel name as a test, he said, because he knew I was jealous. Furthermore, the Hollywood beauties made me look like a troll, and they waited on him hand and foot. He’d send me a copy of his album when it dropped.

He flew home, supposedly a few hours later, emailing from the plane that the record producer had taken one look at him, pronounced him fat, and walked away. He had not fired the harem, however, and they’d made Wren’s LA trip worthwhile. Minutes later, he wrote that his ass was spewing blood that wasn’t red. Then, the plane had landed and he was back in the City. He asked me to accompany him to the ER. I said no. Less than a half hour passed before he called to report that he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer. “So fast?” I questioned. “Don’t you need at least a day to prepare for colonoscopy?” He’d shown the doctor his bloody shorts, he said, and the doctor had confirmed: cancer of the ass. “Amazing,” I told my bitches. “The first ever underwear diagnosis!” Wren begged me to take him back, but I’d already changed my locks and scheduled tests for STDs.

By Christmas, I had patched things up with my ex, and Wren, probably, with his. We checked on each other in early November, after Hurricane Sandy, and I do think of him now and then. I remember back to that summer, how easy it was to hold an abusive man’s weight in the water, and then let him go.


Jeanne Dickey’s stories and poems have appeared in Passages North, Karamu, and Poet Lore


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