Chapter 12

Hurt People

I started my very first blog around the same time Rodney started one of his own.  Ironically, I created the diary-like website at his suggestion because he “thought I’d like it.” In retrospect, I believe he encouraged me to blog because he was looking for a way to squash my dreams of being a writer. He needed the cover being an anonymous commenter provided, though, because I’d stopped asking for his opinion.

That was his own damn fault.

“Rodney, can you look over this paper for typos and stuff?” I asked the night before my paper on Rules for Radicals was due. It was my first assignment since starting school full-time, and the professor who’d be reading it the next day sat on the committee that had awarded (and could revoke) my scholarship. I was reasonably nervous.

“Sure,” Rodney said from a wingback living room chair, taking a red pen from his shirt pocket.

I was not a confident writer in my twenties and my feelings were sometimes hurt by valid criticism, but my rising offense was not uncalled for that night. The color of his ink was the least condescending thing about him. Rodney wasn’t keeping an eye out for typos and misspellings to save someone he loved from embarrassment, he was smugly bloodletting with a BIC.

I argued from over his shoulder. “It makes no sense to start a new paragraph there.

“That’s not wrong, it’s just not how you’d do it.

“You know what? Forget I asked.” I took the assignment from him. “Were your newspaper editors like this too? No wonder you quit.” (Actually, I think he left journalism for public relations because writing bullshit came more naturally to him than reporting facts.)

“What?” he asked. “Why won’t you let me help you?”

In the early days of blogging, I wrote mostly about hating my job as an elementary school secretary, about life in Indianapolis, and the funny-cutesy stuff that came with being a newlywed. Later I wrote about going back to college full-time and about my three part-time jobs. I worked Tuesdays and Thursdays at The Saturday Evening Post, assisted John Green on Wednesdays, and attended the front desk of a psychiatrist’s clinic on Fridays.

With so much going on it was easy to keep the darker truths, things like Ruth’s suicide, Rodney’s infidelity, my grandmother’s passing, out of the public eye and still find something to blog about. I did write publicly about personal heartbreaks once or twice, but almost immediately set those posts back to private drafts.

At first.

On October 18, 2018, a month after our divorce had been finalized by the judge, Rodney still hadn’t moved out. “There’s no such thing as closure, Emily,” he told me.

“There is for me,” I said before sitting down to tell my readers for the first time that I was divorced.

Did I Change My Name for This?

Since the divorce—yeah, I know, maybe more on that later, but probably minus the really gory details, sorry—I’ve been saying repeatedly that I’m never changing my name again. It usually comes out something like this: “I’m, not saying that I’ll never get married again. And I’m not saying that I definitely will get married again. I’m just saying there’s no way in hell I’m ever changing my name again.”

Then someone (usually a guy) says, “Don’t you think…I mean if you love someone…well what if he wants you to change your name?” I think about this for a brief moment. I imagine myself in the check-out lane at Target with my credit card. “That’ll be $43.65,” the cashier says. And I hesitate, staring into that little blank rectangle on the card reader. I think twice about what my last name is. I think twice about which name to sign. I think twice about who I am. I imagine hours on hold with credit card companies, utility companies, insurance companies, banks, doctors. I imagine all of that, and then I repeat, “There’s no way in hell I’m ever changing my name again.”

***

It was, I think, self-fulfilled prophecy—the idea that going back to my maiden name was going to be a pain in the ass. I mean, I wasn’t saying this stuff to my friends because I had already experienced the irritation of a second name change, I was simply anticipating the hardship.

When I tried to update my last name on my driver’s license, I was turned away because I hadn’t changed my name with the Social Security Administration yet. When the DMV worker turned me away, I was immediately discouraged. I tried mailing in the Social Security application like I did when I got married. They sent it back saying I needed more documentation. The letter said to see the list of acceptable documents on the reverse side of the page. Of course, the back side of the letter was blank.

I put off my trip to the Social Security office until this past Tuesday. And Tuesday I went with my marriage certificate, my old Social Security card, my blood type, my immunization records, and my pre-immigration-to-the-U.S. family history. (OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. I don’t even know what my blood type is.)

***

I walked into the office, and I was immediately greeted by a security officer. “It’s going to be at least an hour wait,” he said while putting a hand on his gun. No beating around the bush for him. He said it to me as if he were paid extra for the ones he got to leave. I looked around at all the people sitting in chairs, then looked back at him.

“That’s fine.” I said. I took a seat on the front row and waited. For the next hour and a half, I tried to keep my mind occupied. I looked over to the right. The waiting area TV was turned down so low I couldn’t hear it. But I could tell by the cheesy expressions on the actors’ faces it was a soap opera. So I read all of the signs hanging up on the walls. Ten times at least.

NO FOOD OR DRINK

NO CELL PHONES

PLEASE COVER YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU COUGH

FOR THE SAFETY OF YOUR CHILD, PLEASE DO NOT LET YOUR CHILD SIT OR STAND ON THE COUNTERS

DO NOT THROW PERSONAL PAPERS IN PUBLIC TRASH CANS

I even read the signs written in Spanish. When I finished with that, I noticed some demon kid with wild eyes and an obnoxious grin staring at me from across the room. He was 30 feet away, silently daring me to be the first to blink. I looked away quickly, then cursed under my breath when my eyes landed on 8×10 photos of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They were both smirking. There was another bald guy’s photo next to them. I assumed Unknown Bald Dude was the head of the SSA. I was sure—by virtue of their Y-chromosomes—that none of them ever waited in the SSA office to change their names.

The woman seated behind me hacked up a lung, and the forceful breeze created by her disturbance moved the hair on the back of my head. I curled my lip, wrinkled my nose and thought to myself, Oh
my God, that is so gross.
(She obviously didn’t read the signs like I did.) Then I watched in horror as a pregnant woman hiked up her maternity shirt and pulled up her polyester pants. She hooked her thumbs just inside the waistband—one on each side of the zipper—and gave them a good yank. Nothing was graceful about the way she bent from her knees for momentum.

“A-98,” someone yelled from the back of the room. I looked down at my self-check in ticket and said a prayer of thanks. “What do you need today?”

I need to get a card with my new, old, uh…maiden name on it,” I told her. “And after this I’m never changing my name again.”

“Great,” she said. “Looks like you have everything you need. Let’s get started.”

It was simultaneously the best and the worst time for me to find my voice as a writer. It was healing to have a public record of the truth in the face of Rodney’s incessant gaslighting, but my growing confidence was only and always met with retribution.

See, Rodney couldn’t feel good about himself without an unjustified comparison. He couldn’t just think, “Wow, I am really good at this thing. I matter.” He had to feel better than someone. Better than everyone. Better than me. I’m sure that’s why he couldn’t buy me birthday presents without buying something of equal value for himself.

And here is where I acknowledge how sad and damaging Rodney’s childhood must have been, growing up as he did in a small Indiana town with an abusive, drunk father, a frequently despondent mother, and a prominent physical disability.

Although I never intentionally failed at a thing for Rodney’s sake, I do admit to minimizing my successes to give little Rodney—if he was still in there—room to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. I was a well-intentioned wife, if a misguided one.

Anyway, when someone praised my writing, noted my strength, or attempted to support me in any way, Rodney doubled down on the emotional abuse. I found ways to succeed despite it—which to this day occasionally makes me wonder whether I’ve exaggerated my own trauma—but I fought hard not to let myself forget that the harm of his abuse was not diminished by, let alone excused by, my ability to cope.

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