This is Otto’s, a bar situated along the railroad tracks in Lombard, between the downtown area and the forest preserve in which I used to get drunk on Boone’s Farm and Mad Dog 20-20, and also where I instigated and perpetuated an affair with The Wannabe Physicist’s best friend, who was thirty-one to my nineteen (and should have known better). Once, when I was twenty, I worked a bachelor party for The Wannabe Physicist’s friends — a party he (wisely) chose not to attend. I got naked (for money), we ate a pizza with mushrooms (which only later I realized were the “funny” sort), I threw on some clothes, and then we went to Otto’s. I got silly sloppy drunk, and then I had sex with the bridegroom. He was the brother of The Wannabe Physicist’s high school friend, and it only took a few hours for what I’d done to get back to my husband. My not coming home that night might have been the first clue.
All in all, though, this was our typical life — one filled to the brim with drama, chaos that followed us around every turn. We were children, teenagers who got married for cheaper car insurance and a bigger tax refund. Words such as fidelity and trust and respect were essentially meaningless. At every party, we ended up drunk and hitting each other — or having sex in the bathroom, but since we fought so much everyone assumed the noises were from punches. He called me cunt and bitch and told me I’d never be good enough for anyone, least of all him. I thought he had his head in the clouds and would never amount to anything, which translated into screaming asshole when I was angry. When I suspected an affair on his part, he convinced my therapist I was having paranoid delusions, and out came the antipsychotic medication. Months later, when I walked in on him having sex with the woman in question, he admitted he’d been screwing with my head. Gaslighting doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The Wannabe Physicist was the first man I ever slept with overnight and naked, my first live-in lover, my first husband, the father of the first child I ever lost, the first man to convince me I was flawed beyond repair (or, if not, that only he could save me). Being with him normalized every dysfunctional relationship for years to come and set the standard for the threshold of drama and chaos I needed to feel wanted, and loved, and complete — though I was always profoundly aware that if I were anything, it was definitely not wanted, loved, or complete.
These are the things I remember when I drive through the suburbs which, along North Avenue from Elmwood Park all the way to St. Charles, I have left my own trail of tears. There was always too much pain, too many broken hearts and wounded spirits, too many people (including me) trying to escape from something they couldn’t name but also didn’t know how to live without. It would be less draining if I could say it was all just a stage, a few crazy things I’d done for a couple of years before I straightened up and settled down, but it took seventeen years of unmanageability to bring me to my knees. I could feel regret or anger or remorse or even a rueful longing for the past, but instead I am deeply grateful for having had a spiritual transformation. I am not that person anymore, I think, and I know I am being honest.