A long, long time ago in the Nixon era, I had a relationship with Sean, the bearded man with long gray hair who put out the Long Beach Free Press. We drank a lot and had wonderful conversations far into the night about everything from the political climate to the legend of Atlantis. He told me stories of his impoverished childhood in Boston with a drunken father right out of Angela’s Ashes, a mother who died when he was ten, and a cruel, abusive aunt who raised him. He believed he was descended directly from Atlanteans who colonized Ireland thousands of years back and became the first druids. “I come from a long line of druid shamans,” he would say when he got really drunk. We took long walks. He knew the names of all the flowers in people’s gardens. He fed seagulls at the beach. He had a little mop dog named Ragamuffin that he stole from some people who gave her drugs. He walked Ragamuffin every day but never bathed or brushed her. Her dishwater-colored fur was filthy and matted.
We moved into an apartment with another couple, Glen and Yvonne. I bought a dog brush and pet shampoo, cornered Ragamuffin, and bathed her in the sink. I scissored out all the mats and brushed out the fur that was left. That dog hated me after that and took to leaving hard, constipated little turds on my pillow. Not Sean’s pillow. Only mine.
We didn’t stay in that apartment very long. Glen and Yvonne moved out and I had no more money. I had been the one paying the rent. I discovered that Sean did not believe in paying rent. Instead, he would bring in a bag of groceries, cook up big stews, and sweep the floor. Around the same time, he was kicked out of the Free Press office because the rent was long overdue; he was running out of Free Press supporters. He had some friends, Don and Diane, up in North Long Beach who had a Venetian Blinds warehouse in Compton. At that time, Compton had the highest crime rate in the United States, and they invited Sean to live in the warehouse as a “night watchman.”
We moved into the warehouse and slept on a mattress in a dark alcove. The warehouse was a long building with an office and showroom in front. Behind the showroom was a huge warehouse with tables where Diane put new blinds together and giant sinks for the filthy, tobacco-stained blinds that people brought in for cleaning. We set up my stereo in the showroom and Diane would play Neil Diamond records. She would push her lank blonde hair away from her flushed, sweaty face and sigh. “He wrote those songs,” she would say, “he composed that music all by himself. Just beautiful…” When we weren’t listening to the stereo, a radio in the warehouse area played rock music. “Brandy, you’re a fine girl” played again and again, at least every hour. It was sticky hot in the warehouse. There was no shower, just a tiny half bath with a toilet and washbasin.
My period didn’t come… I was pregnant. Sean was ecstatic. We were going to have a child. He said he didn’t have any other children, mine would be his only one.
Diane was excited. She found an apartment down the street for us; now that I was having a baby, I couldn’t keep on living in that warehouse. Sean refused. The rent-free warehouse was plenty good enough as far as he was concerned.
Even more alarming, the wine and beer everybody drank now made me throw up. My relationship with Sean fell apart as soon as I had to stop drinking. Sean didn’t want to be around anyone who wasn’t drunk. Our wonderful conversations when we traded stories back and forth dried up. All of a sudden we had nothing in common. Now he talked about the Black Panthers, about Bobby Seale coming to kick some serious ass, and how the town was going to blow. He said I’d better go back to my parents; there would be no place for me, or for Don and Diane in what was coming down. I was stunned. Scared.
Don was gone most of the time, picking up blinds and making deliveries. Sean repaired and restored antique pool tables for a living. A giant table with lion’s heads on the legs stood on the cement floor in an open space, but most of the time, he was gone, I had no idea where. Diane had four kids and told me all the details of each pregnancy.
Sean now refused to call me by my name. Whenever any of his old friends stopped by, he would say, “This is Ray… Ray, this is my woman.” Then Ray, or whoever it was, would give him a weird, confused look, turn to me and say, “Uh… what’s your name?” He started calling me “Woman” instead of “Kate.” “I don’t like the name Kate,” he said. “I can’t bring myself to use it.” Most of the time, he acted as if I wasn’t there.
I thought hard about my situation and about my baby. I was trapped in a dark, creepy warehouse where it wasn’t safe to go outdoors. I couldn’t even take a shower. I’d made a mistake–Sean didn’t love me; I’d just been a drinking partner. Still, he was the baby’s father. I had friends in Seattle and decided to move there and start a new life far away from Compton. I wanted a decent home for the baby and if Sean wouldn’t help, I’d do it myself. I told Sean we were moving to Seattle. This did not go over well. Sean said he could not live in Seattle. He said he wanted to stay right there in the warehouse, and if that wasn’t good enough for me, so be it.
My plane reservation was in two weeks. It was a bittersweet time; now that I was leaving, Sean spent lots of time with me again. We took walks together. He took me out to eat. Had he changed his mind? Did he want me to stay? Not enough to get us a decent place to live.
I loved it in Seattle. I had friends. I took long walks. Metro Transit buses took me everywhere, and I discovered the huge library and the Public Market downtown. I had to go on welfare in order to have a doctor for prenatal care and the birth.
During my pregnancy, Sean came once to visit me in my small basement apartment. He was visiting Seattle, though, not me; he left my place early in the morning and didn’t return until late at night. He would tell me about the delicious seafood he had eaten, without me. I spent my evenings alone reading library books, writing in my journal, and listening to the radio. He remembered me once, though, and came home carrying a blue vase with peacock feathers in it instead of flowers. I never did figure that out.
I asked him for extra money to get a phone hooked up; I needed it in case of emergency. He refused. “We don’t need a phone.”
Later, Christmas presents arrived: A box of Pampers and a yellow plastic infant seat, things he should have bought anyway.
He didn’t come to be with me when I gave birth. The next time I saw him, our daughter Eithne was eight weeks old. The visit was a repeat of the last one except that now he came home staggering and crashing into the walls. He’d found a bar that he loved, The Mirror Tavern just up the street from the Public Market.
It took a long time, but the reality of being a single mother finally sank in.
He left a day early. “I fucked up. I’m sorry,” he said. He told me it was the last I’d ever see of him.
I moved. I left no forwarding address.
Eithne grew up and had a son and daughter of her own. She found her dad and they got back in touch. Sean stayed in Compton for many more years until his brother persuaded him to move to the Midwest. He lived in Wisconsin when he and Eithne got to know each other. His name was Norm, not Sean. He didn’t use his real name with me.
Yesterday, Eithne got the news that her dad had died. A very sad box with his keepsakes came in the mail, containing his glasses, lots of prayer cards from the funerals of dead friends–and every letter I had ever written to him. He saved them all these years and carried them with him wherever he moved.
What in the world? I’m reeling. Did his childhood leave him so damaged he couldn’t be in a relationship, or even go through life, without everyone being drunk? Alcohol makes everything smoother. It provides a slick, easy camaraderie that isn’t real. But those are just words. He saved all my letters. He must have cared, though he was unable to show it, and I never knew until he died. Nothing makes sense right now.
I burned a candle and prayed the Rosary for him. I’ve heard that the dead know when you pray them a Rosary and that it helps them on their way. I wish him well on his long journey.