Who You Gonna Believe

Chapter 1: Triggered

I can’t deny marrying the guy. It’s a matter of public record. But recalling the moments I genuinely liked Rodney for the sake of telling this story is hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.

Rodney and I did not grow apart, discovering after many years that we were no longer compatible. We didn’t look at each other over coffee, eggs, and the morning paper and mutually agree that it was time to move on. He did garbage things to me, and I fought like hell for a couple of years to completely extricate him from my life. But I’ll get to all of that.

First, you need to know how things began, and I want you to know that I know how emotionally detached I am from The Beginning. 
Some might say I’ve failed as a memoir writer to convey the truth as it was. I don’t know. Maybe I have. But just so we’re clear, it’s not my present disdain for Rodney that gets in the way of this retelling. It’s my knack for repressing memories—specifically the memories I would need to write more genuinely about the early days. 

It’s a disability borne of an instinctive need to protect and preserve my own mental health, and I submit that if it weren’t for this disability-slash-superpower, I wouldn’t be here writing so awkwardly about my life circa 2003. 

In fact, I probably wouldn’t be here writing at all.

***

The thing that first attracted me to Rodney wasn’t his smile, it wasn’t his sense of humor, it wasn’t his brown eyes, and it wasn’t his education. No, the thing that really drew me to Rodney’s eHarmony profile was that he lived in Indianapolis—three whole hours away from the small-time Ohio River town where I’d grown up.

At 23, I was a college dropout living in Indiana and working in Kentucky as the secretary for the City of Henderson’s Parks, Recreation, and Cemeteries Department. It was a decent job, but renting shelter houses for family reunions and hunting for the graves of long-dead local celebrities with the president of the county’s historical society wasn’t really doing it for me. Back then I had two hands on the IBM electric typewriter and two eyes on the office door.

My first date with Rodney was dinner followed by a free concert in the park. (I don’t remember the name of the local band, but I do remember there was a fair amount of cringing.) 

I suggested we meet at my favorite restaurant, O’Charley’s, for a meal before the concert started. That way, if the company turned out to be horrible—and I figured there was at least an 85% chance that it would—I could at least enjoy warm dinner rolls dunked in cheesy loaded potato soup.
Rodney rolled into the O’Charley’s lot in a 1999 red Dodge Dakota with a growling aftermarket exhaust system. (Present-day me wanted to throw in a joke here, but realized she didn’t need to.) I’d only been waiting at the restaurant entrance for a few minutes when he walked up and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Rodney,” he said, flashing a wide smile just like the one in his eHarmony profile. He stood maybe an inch taller than me at about 5’7”.

He wasn’t overdressed for the venue, but he was better dressed than just about everyone else. His sky-blue dress shirt was starched and ironed. The top two buttons were undone, revealing the collar of a white crew-neck T-shirt underneath. Not only did his dress shirt have a place for those little plastic stays in the collar, he was actually using some.

Rodney wasn’t overweight yet, but at 31 years old it was apparent that overweight was in his near future. His hair was blond and straight, reddish at the temples, and thinning in back. His eyelashes were thick and light, and they grew up and away from his round eyelids in near perfect curls. Despite the hair line, his features teamed up with his round face for an overall effect that was something resembling a grown-up Campbell’s Soup kid.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Let’s get a table.” I have no recollection what I wore for that first date, but I do remember my wardrobe at the time, and it would have given off that working-Baptist-girl-from-the-Midwest vibe. So it was without a doubt clean, plain, and totally unremarkable in every way.
The hostess dropped us off in a cozy corner booth. I asked Rodney about his drive and we chatted about work. “You’re a journalist?” I asked swirling my spoon in a piping hot bowl of soup.

“Was,” he corrected. He pointed to the back of his neck. “You see that?” he asked, pointing to a deep, leathery crater of scar tissue on the back of his neck.

“Whoa. What happened?” I asked, careful not to wrinkle my nose too insensitively.

He buttered a dinner roll under the dim pendant light. “Wrong place, wrong time.” He shrugged like it was no big deal, but continued with his story. “I was in the middle of writing a piece for the Kokomo Gazette about a bank robbery one weekend. A few thousand dollars was stolen. Not much of a heist, really. The Kokomo police suspected some local kids were looking to score some extra cash to fund their drug habit or something. Anyway, I was out doing some research so I could wrap up the article on it for the morning edition when I noticed I needed gas. I filled up and went inside to grab a doughnut, and the Circle K was being robbed at gunpoint.”

“Oh my god,” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and put my glass of Mountain Dew back on the cocktail napkin. The straw never reached my lips. “You got shot? No way! Was it the same guys who robbed the bank? Why were they shooting at you?” A family at the next table looked our direction.

“Don’t know for sure if it was the same guys; they didn’t have much evidence to go on for the bank thing. Probably, though,” he added after the slightest pause. Our server came by with our entrees. I thanked her. If Rodney was aware of her presence, he didn’t let on. When he had my full attention again, he continued. “I was fortunate the bullet just grazed me. But it’s like I said—wrong place, wrong time.”

I covered my gaping mouth with my dinner napkin while my steak and potato got cold, either too nervous or too trusting to realize that if that scar had been from an actual bullet wound, he’d be dead. I still had plenty of questions, but I wasn’t sure it was polite to ask them. Did it hurt? Were you in the hospital long? Is the guy who shot you in jail now? How long ago was this? Is that why you flinched outside when we heard the car backfire? Finally, I managed to say, “Is that why you aren’t a reporter anymore? Is that why you moved back to Indy?”

Rodney nodded. We chewed silently while the Goo Goo Dolls played on Muzak and a middle-aged woman at the bar guffawed, margarita in hand. Because I didn’t have an interesting story to follow Rodney’s, the silence felt awkward. I silently scolded myself for being awkward and boring.
“I’m just kidding,” he wiped his mouth, flashing a toothy grin.

“Wait, what?” I left the conversation I was having inside my head and returned to the one he and I were having. I set my fork and knife on my plate, as if doing so would make it easier to study his expression.

“I’m just kidding,” he repeated. He looked at me almost hopefully. As if he was waiting for me to laugh, I think. I was too confused to get the joke.
“So you weren’t shot? Then what happened? With the scar, I mean.”
“I had a funny looking spot the doctor thought was skin cancer, so he cut out a pretty deep hole. Sutures didn’t hold, thing split open in my sleep, and it just never healed right.”

“Oh,” I chuckled at my own gullibility.

***

My second date with Rodney was an early October evening of fried festival food and sweet treats at the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival. As a rule, I hate crowds but I was willing to make an exception once a year for the event that blessed the world with carnival games, funnel cakes, and bake sale pies and peanut butter fudge from area non-profits.

We walked around for a bit, watching sticky, cotton candy-coated children beg their parents for ride tokens while we ate junk food. When we ate our fill, we made our way west down Franklin Street toward Rodney’s truck. The farther we got from the Tilt-O-Whirl and the roller coaster and the carnival game hosts yelling into their PAs, the more I appreciated how the cool crispness of the early fall evening dampened the sounds of chaos.
Rows of small businesses with their names hand painted on large windows gave way to rows of bungalows with screened-in porches and tiny front yards, many of them decorated for Halloween.

In front of one modest house with peeling white paint and orange pumpkin lights framing the front door, we passed a straw-stuffed scarecrow sitting in a lawn chair just a few feet back from the sidewalk. Only it wasn’t really a straw-stuffed scarecrow. It was a person pretending to be a straw-stuffed scarecrow.

The prankster waited quietly for the perfect moment, then jumped out of his lawn chair and shouted “Boo!” 

I jumped back and laughed, a little embarrassed. Rodney stood up straight and stiff and screamed for a good ten seconds. (Ten seconds might not seem like a long time, but I promise you it’s an eternity in certain situations—like when you’re riding out an earthquake or looking on in horror as your date screams like a banshee.)

When he finally stopped, the scarecrow and I stood still, embarrassed, but not for ourselves. I patted Rodney on the back in small circular motions. 
“Are you okay?” 

He bent over at the waist and drew in long, slow breaths. The scarecrow took off his mask, exposing the face of a remorseful young man, probably still in high school. He apologized. Repeatedly and profusely. 

“I am so sorry, man. Do you want to sit down?” He gestured toward the lawn chair with his mask. “Uh, can I get you some water or something?”
Rodney ignored the question, trying his best to laugh off what had happened. “You got me good! I had no idea someone was in there!” The scarecrow and I exchanged a look. Rodney’s exaggerated smile and forced laugh were painfully inauthentic, but it didn’t hurt us in the least to  let him have his lie, to save face in front the date he was trying to impress. The scarecrow figured he’d done enough damage, and I figured whatever trauma had turned a harmless Halloween prank into a full-fledged PTSD trigger wasn’t something either Rodney or I were eager to discuss during a borderline successful second date.

Our third date was so intentionally dull, I’ve forgotten what it was.