Despite the situation at home, I was finding ways to thrive. English degree in hand, I started a new job as an administrative assistant at a synagogue. I knew I was capable of doing more than the job required, but I also knew that I wanted to work in a non-profit where I would be surrounded by other humans who valued something—anything—more than they valued themselves.
I wasn’t Jewish by blood or by conversion, but neither were a handful of the synagogue’s other employees. I had three bosses, and they were three of the best I’d known in the decade I’d been working. On my first day one of them, the director of the religious school, called me into his office for an orientation of sorts. “There are some strong personalities here,” he said. “We’re not immune to drama and interpersonal conflict, but I do wake up every day knowing that anyone here would take a bullet for me, and I’d do the same for them.”
He gave me a book on the basic tenets of Judaism and the significance of life cycle events. I’d tell you the title and the author, but I’ve endured too many mental and physical traumas to access the part of my brain that remembers. The important things I took away from the book, though, those things are still with me. It wasn’t a thump over the head telling me “Believe or else!”, and it wasn’t a lesson in Jewish apologetics, either. It was a no-pressure invitation simply to understand. It was a gift.
Another of my bosses, she directed the synagogue’s early childhood center, was preparing for the preschool’s opening in a couple of weeks. “We need the bulletin boards at the school entrance decorated before school starts,” she said. She told me the theme for the upcoming school year and pointed me to a book full of clip art and stacks of brightly colored paper. “It should say ‘shalom’ on one side and ‘welcome’ on the other,” she added, leaving me to it.
From 9 to 5 Monday through Thursday and 9 to 3-ish on Friday, I helped that congregation fill the world—or at least greater Indianapolis—with peace and love and interfaith cooperation. Work became my sanctuary. “They’re paying me to go to my safe space five days a week,” I told Liz. “It almost keeps the emotional abuse at home from crushing me.”
One evening after scarfing half a box of Kraft dinner, I escaped to the master bedroom—my bedroom. (I’d taken to hiding out there again almost every evening after work to avoid Rodney who, despite several promises otherwise, still had not moved out. The mere sight of him physically repulsed me.) I sat on the unmade bed chatting on the phone with Dan while the tinny sounds of Jim trolling Dwight played on my laptop in the background. Taubensee snored contentedly in his own bed.
Dan was a blogger too, and we’d been reading and commenting on each other’s stuff for years, back when AOL Journals was still a thing and John Scalzi, the sci-fi writer, was paid to blog for them. By the time my divorce became final, AOL Journals was defunct, but I and a small fraction of its users, Dan included, had moved our blogs to new homes on the World Wide Web. Our merry band of misfits linked our blogs to our Facebook profiles and connected there, where we published benign status updates and played Farmville.
One evening I came home from work at the synagogue to find Dan had gifted one hundred goats to my farm. Battle goats, he called them. I needed them for protection. I clicked one hundred separate times to collect the gifted goats and then lined them up on my farm so he could see the ridiculousness the next time he paid my farm a virtual visit. I sent him a message in Facebook’s chat window, the first real-time message I’d ever sent to him. I said, “What the hell is wrong with you? LOL!” Coincidentally? If you asked Dan today when he knew I was the love of his life, he’d tell you this Farmville story.
Dan lived in Milwaukee, and though we hadn’t yet met in real life, we had exchanged phone numbers. We could talk for hours about anything. He was (and is) hilarious, and—huge bonus—he liked to swear. Rodney, by contrast, rarely cussed and had taken to pointing out what a terrible Christian I was because I did. Decent men, he said, wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I’d heard this so frequently by the time I was 28 that I reflexively distrusted people who didn’t lob the occasional f-bomb. I made certain exceptions for my parents (and persons old enough to be my parents) and for people I never communicated with outside of work. But even most co-workers would let loose an exasperated, if hushed, “shit” when circumstances warranted. Cussing was honest and emotional, and I figured that’s why Rodney couldn’t do it right.
Anyway, Dan and I reached the part of our evening conversation where he did everything he could to make me throw up from laughter. He ran down the list of No Arms, No Legs jokes when he discovered I’d never heard them before. Though I hadn’t tossed my macaroni and cheese, I was laughing so hard my abs hurt. “What do you call a guy with no arms and no legs lying on the floor?” he asked. I couldn’t even breathe, so he had to deliver the punchline without my prodding. “Matt!” he said, the “duh” implied. “What do you call a guy with no arms and no legs floating in the ocean?” I still couldn’t speak. “Bob!”
“Stop!” I cried. “I need to catch my breath.”
He ignored me. “What do you call a guy with no arms and no legs hanging on a wall?” He didn’t even pause this time. “Art!” Okay, okay. One more. What do you call—” My bedroom door opened. I sat up, instantly sober.
“What the fuck do you want?” I said to Rodney, phone still to my ear. God, I hated being reminded he still lived there, particularly when he didn’t knock.
“I’m on with Jennifer,” he pointed to his iPhone. “Grandma died.”
“Hey, Dan?” I said into my phone guessing he’d heard Rodney. “I’m going to call you back in a little bit, okay?”
“I’ll be here.” We both hung up.
After Ruth died and Mabel went to Kentucky to live with her sister Cora Mae, I hadn’t heard much about Grandma. But I did wonder about her. One time when I brought up how weird it was that Rodney hadn’t called to wish his grandmother a happy birthday, he told me Cora Mae had accused him and Jennifer of stealing Mabel’s life savings. That didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility for Rodney, so I just asked, “Well? Did you?”
Rodney got a few thousand dollars after his mom’s suicide because he and Jennifer were beneficiaries on a savings account or something. Cora Mae said it was actually Grandma’s savings managed by Ruth while she lived in South Carolina and reasoned that the money should be hers now that Ruth was gone and Mabel was her problem. I don’t know the truth about where the money came from; I can verify, however, that Ruth’s name was the only one on the account. But it hardly mattered to Cora Mae. The upshot of the whole dispute was Mabel ending up in a nursing home somewhere in Western Kentucky and Cora Mae refusing to allow Rodney and Jennifer to talk to her. She hadn’t allowed them any contact, in fact, going so far as to scrawl bitchy notes to her grand-nephew and tuck them inside an envelope with his Christmas card (or maybe it was Mother’s Day or something) unopened inside.
At one point there was also a threatening letter from Cora Mae’s attorney demanding the money. Of course the letter was all bluster. I wonder now if that attorney told Cora Mae she didn’t have a legal leg to stand on before agreeing to try to bully the money out of Rodney and his sister.
Whew! That family. If Jennifer hadn’t turned out reasonably well-adjusted, I might have felt sorry for Rodney for a couple extra years.
It wasn’t until I started writing this chapter that curiosity got the better of me and I Googled Mabel’s obituary. It is the shortest I’ve ever read—and I worked at a cemetery for two years where reading and filing obits was my job. Mabel’s, posted on the funeral home’s website, listed only Cora Mae and her husband as Mabel’s survivors, saying she was preceded in death by her parents. No mention of her only child, Ruth, or her two grandchildren.
Whether Cora Mae’s indignation was righteous or not, I couldn’t say. But I had my suspicions.
Rodney stood there, just inside the bedroom door. I was unsure what he wanted from me. Mabel wasn’t my family, not anymore. “Sorry for your loss,” I shrugged, knowing real sympathy was wasted on my ex-husband but still not wanting Jennifer, listening on the other end of his iPhone, to think I was the monster.
“We’re driving to Kentucky Saturday to visit her grave,” Rodney said. “You coming?” His overconfident posture confirmed what this was really about—he thought he had me cornered. He pushed the phone’s mic toward me to remind me Jennifer was also waiting for my answer.
Jesus H. Christ on a bike, I thought. Was he really using his grandmother’s death to manipulate me into some sick kind of emotional attachment?
The answer was that of course he was. What else would I expect from a dude who twice threatened his own suicide if I divorced him? I leaned in and enunciated as clearly as possible, “Fuck. No.” Nothing against Jennifer, but I needed Rodney to see my strength more than she needed to know that my heart broke for her. She had people. She had Michael. And I had…well, I had to get this sick motherfucker out of my goddamned house.
“I don’t know what her problem is,” Rodney said to Jennifer, his voice trailing as he walked away. I changed into my pajamas and brushed my teeth. The scent of peppermint cleared my sinuses, and I took in a deep breath. I studied my reflection in the mirror, wanting to remember how I looked the moment I recognized my own power—dressed in a Minnie Mouse pajama set with my hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. Toothpaste on my chin. I wiped my face with a towel, then went back to the bedroom closing and locking the door behind me. I picked up my phone as I climbed into bed, then I called Mom and Dad.
“Can I borrow some money?” I felt guilty asking, but I couldn’t think of any other way.
Of course they said yes. I told them the new job was going great, I was doing okay, and I’d call them back later in the week with details. When I hung up with my parents, I called Dan back like I promised. He picked up on the first ring and said, “Hey, Swiss, what do you call a guy with no arms and no legs soaking in a hot tub?”