Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I came home from work tonight, after picking up my stepdaughter from afterschool, ate dinner and fell asleep hard. I didn't know why I was so tired-- work wasn't particularly bad-- I was missing some "key players" due to suspensions and otherwise, and so my day was relatively easy. I thought maybe it was the change of seasons, with the lack of sunlight.

My wife came home, had dinner with my stepdaughter and woke me up to tell me that she was going out in search of a shirt for her class pictures tomorrrow. I woke up at a little after 7, and got up to run some errands.

On the way to Target to pick up dishwashing soap, Christmas wrapping paper and some other things, driving down Western Avenue, I passed the dance studio I opened up with my ex-wife Cynthia.

Cynthia and I had met on a Sunday afternoon in early 1992 at the Gingerman tavern, on Clark Street. I was working at the Smokehouse, a very popular northside rib joint. I was also working as a substitute teacher. Since I speak Spanish pretty well, a predominantly latino school had asked me to fill in a Special Ed position that they were having trouble filling. She and I were sitting next to one another drinking beers, grading papers, and it occurred to us that we were both teachers. We started chatting. It was the beginning of a long history.

We were friends for a long time before we dated. She turned me on to the band King Missle, who did one of my favorite-ever songs "Jesus Was Cool."

"He could have played guitar better than Hendrix
He could have told the future
He could have baked the most delicious cake in the world
He could have scored more goals than Wayne Gretzky"

On Easter Sunday, 1992, right before we started dating, she took me to see King Missle. We were hanging out, drinking a few beers, listening to King Missle when it dawned on me-- I was going to hear King Missle play "Jesus Was Cool" on Easter Sunday! That was so cool! I knew that night that we were going to be a couple.

We had dated for two long stretches. We dated and split; I lived with and had a child with someone else, dated her again, split with her, married someone else, split with her, and then one night she and I had run into each other at the Hopleaf. We started dating again. I had finished my teaching certification. She'd been teaching in Evanston for about five years.

I ended up getting a job on the West Side of Chicago teaching seventh grade social studies. She began to get cold feet about our relationship. I was afraid she'd leave, and in the frozen foods aisle of Jewel, I told her I'd marry her if it would keep her from leaving. Not the most romantic thing I've done, but funny in retrospect.

We moved in together, and on May 1, 1999, got married at the Live Bait Theater. My friend Dan deejayed. My friends Mark, Larry, Jim and Andreas from college stood up. Mark, to my shock, ended up meeting and dating Cynthia's best friend Julia, whom I hated, for a long time after that. It was an epic wedding; her family had a tradition of playing Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #'s 12 & 35" (the one where he bellows "everybody must get stoned") at family gatherings. This one was no exception-- a conga line formed, and went out onto Clark Street.

That summer, Cynthia and I were sitting out on the back porch one evening and she was lamenting the fact that all her friends-- Mira, Diane and others-- were off around the world taking flamenco lessons. She'd developed a serious passion for flamenco during our last period apart. Somehow we started talking about opening a dance studio. The next day, we started looking at spaces.

About a week later, we found our space. We were going to meet my in-laws for my father-in-law's birthday at Pete's Pizza. We were walking down Western Avenue and we saw a storefront for rent. We peeked in the window and the owner happened to be there doing some work. We talked to him, and went on to have dinner with my in-laws.

The next day we were talking about the place. I was trying to guess at some of the physical dimensions of the place, and we decided to take a walk down and peek in the window again. And once again, the owner was there working. We had a talk with him, and finally he quoted a price. It was within the price we'd discussed. In fact it was a lot lower. With a couple of handshakes we agreed to meet the next day to sign a lease.

The next few days were spent buying tools and ordering construction material. One afternoon, we were there waiting for the wood to build the dance floor. The truck pulled up; we ran the 2 x 4's and 3/4 inch oak plywood into the studio. The door closed and suddenly we were there with this enormous pile of lumber. Cynthia erupted into tears; "Nobody has ever supported me in anything this way," she explained.

When Cynthia was ten years old, her mother had walked away from the family, leaving her father, a truck driver, alone with two little girls. I got along well with with my father-in-law. He was the son of a Filipino father and a German-American mother; a lot of people assumed with his Spanish name and dark looks, that he was latino (as they did with Cynthia). His lifelong nickname was "Chico." I greatly admired how he'd raised two kids alone. When Cynthia was in high school, he'd met and married someone about my age. It was grist for a sitcom-- my mother-in-law was my age and had grown up about two blocks from me. They had one child-- my son, who was 5, had an "uncle" who was 9 years old.

I plugged away at the studio, hammering, sawing, drilling. I did some research and consulted with "flamencos" about what they looked for in a floor. I put down a frame of 2 x 4's and laid the oak plywood atop that, screwing it down to hold it into place. Flamenco dancers want a floor that is hard, but has some "give." They want it to boom. I also designed a website for it and got it up and running.

We finally got the studio done. The Flamenco Arts Center opened in early August, 1999. Cynthia's beloved grandmother had died a few months before. Cynthia had spent many a happy hour of her childhood gardening with her. We filled the front windows of the studio with her plants.

Opening night was one of the best nights of my life. My son Adam was there; he played all night with "Uncle Raymond." Cynthia and I became the Queen and King of Flamenco in Chicago. We had the only flamenco studio not only in Chicago, but the whole midwest. We brought in internationally-known flamenco people to give workshops. We held "Juergas"-- flamenco parties-- that were the place to be for flamenco people. People would come in from other states for workshops. I got a lot of compliments on the floor I'd consructed, and people loved us for putting together a place that people could practice this very difficult and esoteric art.

For our first anniversary, I secretly commissioned a stained-glass piece that incorporated the beautiful logo a friend had donated to us to use for the studio (the one at the top of this page). My friend Mark helped me hang it one night before we went out for a beer. I knew she was going to check on the studio the next morning. She called me from the studio that morning crying. It was a good husband moment.

And yet, with all that going on, the marriage was foundering. In order to keep shared custody of my son, I'd had to spend enormous amounts of money. The kind of money you can put a down-payment on a house with. Cynthia wanted children and a house. She'd grown up in a townhouse with a broken family. What she wanted was perfectly normal for a 31 year old woman to want. And I couldn't give it to her. My finances were irreparably shattered (I finally declared bankruptcy last year on the last day before they changed the bankruptcy law). And I saw things getting impossibly complicated with Adam if she and I also had kids.

It all finally came to a head one night. We got into a horrible fight, and I ended up sleeping in my car. I stayed with Mark for a week until she and I decided to try counseling.

The fact that 9/11 happened in the midst of the counseling did not seem like a good omen.

I asked for a separation. She moved out, buying a condo.

We signed divorce papers in early 2003, and the divorce became final in May of that year.

I've since remarried, We'll celebrate our first anniversary on Patti Smith's birthday, December 30 (we chose that date for that reason). Cynthia got remarried last year, and she and her husband had a baby girl in September.

I'd contacted Cynthia over the summer to let her know about my friend Mark's murder. She and he had always liked one another a lot. I'd always wondered if I weren't with her, and he wouldn't have been with her best friend, if the two of them had been happy together.

Last month I emailed her to let her know that Mark's killers had been caught. She sent me a picture of her new family. Her husband looks like a nice guy-- the "crunchy granola" type that she'd usually dated (except for me). Her daughter is beautiful, like she is.

A couple of weeks ago, they closed on a house. She now has the things she most wanted.

The studio that we opened is still there. Her friend Kathi took over management of it. Tonight, as I drove past it, I saw that the stained glass piece that Mark and I had hung that night was still right there where we'd put it. There was a group of women in there taking flamenco instruction.

I had the satellite radio playing. There was a Springsteen song playing that I'd never heard. I looked down to the satellite player to see the name of the song playing. To my surprise, it was called "Cynthia." It was a little eerie.

I realized that it was deeply satisfying to me to see people still enjoying the studio 7 years later-- it outlasted the marriage that spawned it. Her vision, along with my carpentry skills, had made something that people are still enjoying many years later.

As I took care of my errands, I was trying to figure it all out. I realized that I was relieved. I had some closure in this year of a terrible, terrible loss that I'd been trying to sleep off earlier this evening.

I'd always worried that I'd wasted Cynthia's time. When she sent me the pictures, there was one with her husband and newborn baby daughter. I could tell that beneath the exhaustion, she was happy. Four years after we split, she had the things she wanted. And I'm in a much happier marriage. My son and my step-daughter are happy and healthy.

And the studio is still alive and kicking. I can finally relax.

1 comment:

Beth said...

What a great, wonderful story -- and told so well, with a lot of heart. Isn't interesting when you've had a few years' perspective to learn what you originally considered a mistake was really a step to get to where you were meant to be? I'm glad both you and Cynthia are happy today.

And now for the squeals ...

Gawd, I love King Missile! I was bopping to "Cheesecake Truck" about an hour ago. I always put "Jesus Was Way Cool" on Christmas music CDs for my friends. I think it should be used in Sunday school for teens. So jealous that you saw them live!