Chapter 15

The Leave-Behind

I had to spend close to $7,000 of my folks’ money on attorney’s fees and get Rodney to sign more legal documents, but he finally moved out a few weeks before my 29th birthday. Michael, Rodney’s brother-in-law, and a friend of Rodney’s from graduate school were coming Saturday to load his pickup.

“Why don’t we go to Evansville for the weekend?” Liz said when I called to tell her the good news. “If you’re there, you know you’ll end up carrying boxes when you should be celebrating! We’ll go to Hacienda and G.D. Ritzy’s and Shyler’s and Turoni’s…”

“What if he packs up my stuff? We both know he can’t be trusted.” I pictured him looting the china and the TV when I saw myself as the owner of a small store in a coastal town with Hurricane Rodney about to make landfall. I could choose not to evacuate, to stay and defend the merchandise, but my chances of being impaled by the post of a stop sign would be a lot higher. “You know what? Nevermind. Let’s do it!” I bubbled. “Baskets of chips and salsa and a wet burrito are just what I need.”

“A margarita won’t hurt either,” she quipped.

The weekend of shopping, movie-going, and nostalgic eats was good for me. When Liz pulled into my driveway at the end of the trip, I was that weird mix of tired and rejuvenated you feel at the end of a vacation. I was also bloated and carrying three extra pounds of water weight from all the rich, salty food I’d consumed in the previous thirty-six hours. Liz turned down the radio. We’d been listening to the Dixie Chicks “Goodbye Earl” on a loop for the last forty-five minutes of the drive, laughing every time they sang “Those black-eyed peas? / Tasted all right to me!”

“You want me to go in with you for a minute?” Liz asked. The bangles on her right wrist clinked as she moved the gear shift into park. She knew better than I did what to expect inside. She’d done something like this a couple of years ago, only with the added agony of custody hearings.

“No, but thank you. I want to experience the ecstasy of being alone in my own home.” I hoped my chipper tone hid my uneasiness. Truthfully, I was pretty sure the ghost of my failed marriage lurked somewhere inside, waiting to eat me alive. It was better for everyone if I didn’t keep it waiting.

I opened the back passenger side door and Taubensee jumped out, running straight up the front steps. I grabbed my purse and backpack from behind the front seat, thanked Liz, and told her goodbye. She waved with her hand out the sunroof as she pulled away, piercing the quiet Sunday afternoon with the staccato honks of her Honda Civic.

Four o’clock sun poured in through the patio door, collecting in a pool by the dining room table. I dropped my backpack by the front door, then sunk into shavasana inside the sunlit rhomboid, like I’d seen Taubensee do a hundred times before. The carpet was warm and it worked like a heating pad on my back, relaxing away the tightness that had settled there during the past three hours on the road.

After a few minutes savoring the peace, my stomach rumbled. The sun was hidden by clouds anyway, so I got up and tossed a Healthy Choice frozen dinner in the microwave. While it cooked, I grabbed my backpack from the entryway and carried it to the bedroom closet. A different bag on the closet floor taunting me from the corner.

I was reminded of an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine bought George a ridiculous sable hat, and then George went on a date with Heather, the employee who sold the hat. Their date ended at Heather’s apartment, where she made it perfectly clear to George she wasn’t interested in a second date. He’d prepared for this possibility in advance, telling Jerry earlier in the episode that if a second date seemed unlikely, he’d pull a “leave-behind”—meaning he’d leave something of his at Heather’s place as an excuse to see her again. “Boom. Second date,” he said after laying out his master plan.

Coincidentally, this is also the episode where the Kenny Rogers Roasters neon chicken sign beams into Kramer’s apartment, keeping him awake all hours of the night. One of my all-time favorite episodes. That is, it was a favorite until I noticed the soft-sided travel bag once belonging to Rodney’s grandfather sitting in the closet. The travel bag Rodney hadn’t taken with him on moving day.

Season 8, Episode 8 lost a lot of its shine that day. Coming at it with a fresh perspective, I realized that George was a manipulative prick and he needed to accept that Heather’s “no” meant “fuck off” not “force your way back into my apartment.”

The microwave dinged, alerting me to the smell of steamed broccoli and teriyaki sauce, but I wasn’t hungry anymore. I let the sad little tray of food sit, opting to dig through the bag’s contents instead. It contained family documents and heirlooms. Rodney’s family’s heirlooms. Things we hadn’t looked at since Ruth died.

A black and white picture of Rodney’s step-grandfather sitting with two dozen other middle-aged white men around the outside a U-shaped table draped in a floor-length table cloth. The table was situated around the photo’s centerpiece—an inlaid swastika on the hall’s marble floor.

A coffee-stained copy of his mother’s birth certificate and a faded, fifty-year-old card she’d made of construction paper and dried dandelions for Mabel on Mother’s Day 1955.

A graduation photo of Mabel’s first husband and Ruth’s dad who died of suicide when Ruth was a child.

The bag in front of me was essentially Rodney’s inheritance, and he clearly meant to use it to weasel his way back inside my house.

I looked at the alarm clock. Thirty-six minutes. That’s how long the universe let me believe I was done with Rodney forever.

I considered my options. I could destroy the bag and everything in it, throw it in the fireplace and watch it burn, put it out with the garbage Wednesday night.

But no. It wasn’t fair to Jennifer and her kids that their family history—however fucking disturbing it was—be permanently lost. Jennifer! Bless her, she was my way out of this one. I emailed her immediately and asked if she wanted it. That way when Rodney wanted to come over and collect—and I knew he would—I wouldn’t have it.

Soon after Rodney moved out, my parents and brother came from St. Louis to visit. Dad changed the locks on the condo. Mom helped me repaint the rooms where Rodney had chosen the color. (If my job was divining names for colors on paint swatches, I think I’d have called the color Rodney picked for the bedroom Infant Diarrhea Green. I wonder now whether he actually like that color or he just hoped I’d hate it.) And Ryan helped move heavy stuff so it no longer looked like half of the furniture had been called up in the rapture.

Financially I was on the hook for the place, so it wasn’t exactly the fresh start my attorney had recommended. Still, with the exception of that bag in the closet, Rodney’s stink had mostly been neutralized.

When Rodney called, I answered the phone. I shouldn’t have answered, but I did because I wanted to say out loud how much I loathed him. I’d been conditioned to pursue the fight too. I skipped the “hello” and got straight to the point. “Jennifer has it,” I said. “Nice try leaving your Nazi grandfather’s shit in the closet, but I gave it to your sister.”

“What?” he said, then “Oh, that, I don’t want it anyway. Look, I need to come over tomorrow after work and get some pots and pans. I don’t have anything to cook with.”

“The divorce amendment says you forfeit anything not removed by 12 p.m. last Sunday.”

“Okay, you can keep them…” his tone was non-threatening, which made the threat that followed even more nefarious. “I mean, if you want to risk your tires being slashed in the synagogue parking lot or something.”

Rodney didn’t follow through on much of anything, especially his threats, but I wasn’t exactly eager to discover he’d made good on this threat one day when I was tired, hangry, and racing home from work to let the dog out. “Fine, but get them now. I’ve got plans tomorrow.” I hung up, then put his set of pots and pans in a box and carelessly dropped it on the front stoop. I flipped on the porch light and locked the deadbolt.

Within minutes I heard the ridiculous aftermarket mufflers on his Ranger. I surveilled him in the driveway from the office window. He saw the box on the front stoop and frowned, I suppose because he wanted me to personally hand them over. Pots and lids clanked as he dropped the box in the truck. Instead of climbing in and driving away, he took out his cell phone. My phone rang on the desk behind me.

“I need you to come out here,” he fumed. “Some of it’s missing.”

“Leave,” I spat. You’re not legally entitled to what I gave you.” I hung up. Then I heard the rumble of the garage door opening. Adrenaline coursed through me. My heart palpitated. My palms began to sweat. I’d changed the locks, but I’d forgotten about the second remote opener. He’d have to beat down the door that once displayed his emails to Lucy if he wanted to get inside the condo, which didn’t seem likely to me, but he could make good on slashing my tires pretty easily now.

I came out the front door and yelled at him from the front stoop, drawing him away from my car and making a scene for the neighbors. I wanted an audience for this fight, just in case. “Take your shit and leave!” I screamed. “You don’t live here anymore!” The words sliced my throat. It felt raw. I flashed the screen of my phone at him, 9-1-1 already punched in, my thumb hovering over the icon of a receiver inside a green circle. Then I started counting like my mom had done to me when I was little—up from one, not down from ten.

Counting up, I’d learned, was way more terrifying. If she counted down, you knew you had until “one” to make a decision. But if she counted up? Initiate internal chaos sequence. Would she stop at three? Five? Ten? NO ONE KNEW!

“One…”

He threw the remote garage door opener in the grass.

“Two…”

He got in his truck and drove off.

Heart still pounding, I dismantled the electric garage door opener before going back inside, even though I had both openers now.

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