Chapter 16

The Golden Years

I only saw Rodney once more after the night he picked up his pots and pans. He “accidentally” forwarded all my mail to his new address. To hear him tell it, filing a family change of address with the Post Office instead of an individual change of address wasn’t intentional. Oops.

He apologized by hand delivering a single personal letter addressed to me with a yellow sticker covering the handwritten address. The envelope already opened, naturally. He had used his finger to open it, leaving the top edge of the envelope a jagged mess. Not even attempting to conceal he’d read the letter. There must have been junk mail too, but he didn’t bother to bring a single catalog or oil change reminder.

Once I cleared up the mail delivery issues with the USPS, Rodney started driving up and down my street a couple times a week. That I know of. Almost a full week passed that I hadn’t heard the distinctive growl of those aftermarket mufflers. That’s about the time he used his job with a self-publishing company to launch a targeted internet harassment campaign against me—soliciting book reviews from me by pretending to be the books’ authors.

A better person would’ve simply stopped reviewing submissions when she found out who was behind it. I decided, however, that it’d be more fun to flay Rodney on my blog. While uncovering and disclosing the company’s penchant for ripping off hopeful writers, I discovered Rodney’s boss had a leadership role at Fellowship Point—the church that had a few months earlier promised to “protect me.”

While I was relentlessly driven to expose the self-publishing company’s shady business practices, Rodney—or maybe someone else working for the self-publisher—was leaving bigoted comments on LGBT websites using my name and avatar. When their smear campaign didn’t stop me from digging further and warning would-be customers away, I got signed up to receive “more information” from area funeral directors offering pre-planning services.

Full-color brochures on how to prepare for my death greeted me when I opened my mailbox every day for a solid month. Sometimes I’d even get a phone call.

“Hi, Emily. This is Steve at Flanner Buchanan Funeral Home, I got your request—”

“Hi, Steve. I’m going to stop you right there. My ex-husband thought filling out the form on your website with my contact information would be hilarious. I’m not actually interested in pre-planning.”

Steve let out an awkward laugh. “Uh, well, this is definitely a first for me. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

“No, I’m sorry he wasted your time. Maybe delete my entry from your CRM software or make a note or something?”

“Sure,” he said kindly. “Have a good day.”

“Thanks, you too.”

“Oh, and if you ever are in the market for funeral pre-planning services?”

“Yep, I will keep you guys in mind.”

Dan, who doesn’t get enough credit for being a wonderful human being, was rightfully irritated that I was devoting so much time to the man we both now referred to as The Ass Hamster. But the closest thing he ever gave me to an ultimatum was, “Can we just not deal with that shit for a minute?”

I adored him.

Dan made his first trip to Indianapolis in April 2009. For our first date, we went to Holliday Park to walk the trails and people watch. He took photos of The Ruins while I wondered irrationally whether my hair looked unkempt or my mascara had given me raccoon eyes. After the park, we went to Buffalo Wild Wings for a late lunch. Our waiter came out with sodas and told us our food would be ready soon. A minute or two later, the power went out, and the ceiling fans slowed to a halt.

“I asked the waiter to dim the light for me, not cut the power,” Dan joked. “I was going for ‘romantic mood lighting’, not ‘portent of doom.’”

Using a soft-top Jeep Wrangler, Dan did his best to wear out the interstate between Milwaukee and Indianapolis. Once, just as he was preparing to return to Milwaukee and the responsibilities that waited for him there, I thought to myself, “He’s really great. This is good. You know, as long as I don’t have to tell him I love him.” Naturally, those were the next three words out of his mouth.

I blogged about it.

March 21, 2010

Say the Words

One time when I was a kid I drank a glass of milk, and then I threw up. Now, it wasn’t that the milk was bad, it was just that I had some icky tummy bug. However, because the two events occurred with little time between them, the thought of tasting milk made me want to barf again. And for the next month I winced every time my mother put a glass of milk in front of me.

Love is kind of like that too. Once upon a time someone told me that he loved me. He said it a lot. He’d say, “I love you,” and then yell at me for not making the bed. Or he’d say, “I love you,” and then leave his wedding ring on the bathroom counter. Or he’d say, “I love you,” and I’d catch a glimpse of the email he was writing: “Dear PersonForWhomITakeOffMyRing…”

For months after that, every time people said the word “love” I wanted to puke on their shoes and dunk their heads in dirty toilet water. Lots of people thought I was bitter. Hell, even I thought I was bitter. But I think the “bitter” label put a little too much of the onus on me. Remember, it only took one glass of milk and one good puke to put me off the moo juice for a month. For nearly two years I had been conditioned that “love” was always followed by a violent, emotional retching. So…point taken? Good.

Enter Dan, stage left.

When we started seeing each other, I made it pretty clear to Dan that there would be none of this “L” word crap for a good while. He told me he was fine with that. We had fun together. He drove down from Milwaukee and stayed in Indy for weeks at a time and it was awesome. But when he went back home, the goodbye was always awkward, at least for me. One time, Dan stood at the front door. Taubensee and I were silent. He reached down to scruff up Taub’s ears, and he said, “I really don’t want to go.” Then he nuzzled up to Taub and said, “But it’s just because I’m going to miss this dog. It has nothing to do with you, Suess.”

Dan came back a while later. The time flew, and suddenly we found ourselves standing under a looming goodbye cloud again. It was raining softly as Dan stood on my deck, looking across the yard and taking long drags from his cigarette. He had a charcoal gray sweatshirt on, with the hood pulled over his head. He looked back across the threshold at me where I was standing just inside the doorway, keeping dry and warm. Then he mouthed the words, “I love you.” I gave him a confused look. And he mouthed it again. The second time, I scrunched my face up in a show of irritation. That shit was off limits. I wouldn’t say it back.

He packed his things in his Jeep. “I’ll be back,” he told me.

“You always say that, but you never do come back,” I teased. “Can’t you stay? Is it the money?” I asked him, pulling a pound and a half of loose change from my pockets and holding it out to him in cupped palms. I’d been carrying the coins in my pocket for the last hour waiting to make the joke.

We laughed, and then he left.

The next time he came back to Indy it was more of the same. Fun, laughter, jokes, walks, secrets, cooking. And one night we were all snuggled up and had been chatting for hours when he teased me saying, “It’s just easier for you to hate, isn’t it Emily?”

“I don’t hate you, ya goof. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

And it was like someone had knocked the wind out of me with a duffel bag full of bricks. I couldn’t breathe and I wondered what in God’s name I had just done. Dan didn’t say anything. He stood up, grabbed his cigarettes and lighter, and headed for the deck.

“You love me, Suess!” he called back to me. “I heard you.”

Squeaky hallway floorboards.

“You said it.”

Creaky deck door.

“Three times!”

Later on, following a conversation with Liz, I’d come to see our story as the remarkable thing it was. “Wait a minute,” Liz called me after reading my blog post. “Exactly how much time passed between the time he first said it and when you finally said it?”

“I don’t know exactly,” I tried to do the math in my head. “Two, three months?”

“Dan waited three months for you to say ‘I love you’ back and nothing changed?”

“What do you mean? Changed how?”

“I don’t know, like, he got squirrelly? Distant? Called you less?”

“No, not even a little.”

“Jesus,” she said, “if I didn’t come back with an ‘I love you’ right after Jason said it, he’d flip out and start asking why I didn’t love him anymore. It was like he only said it so I’d have to say it back, you know? ‘I love you, Liz.’ But all I heard was ‘Tell me you love me, Liz. You have two seconds remaining.’ By three seconds, the guy would have opened up a vein.”

“No wonder you two aren’t a thing anymore. That’s so not healthy.”

“That’s what I’m saying. I’m also saying, Does Dan have a brother?”

“Six!” I crowed.

By the summer of 2010, I was doing OK financially and managed to squirrel away enough money for a week-long road trip–the first such adventure to take place outside my parents’ minivan in all my 30 years. Dan and I wanted to go west–to Flagstaff, to the Grand Canyon, to Pike’s Peak and the Continental Divide, to Seven Falls and Cheyenne Mountain.

A week before the trip, I was sitting cross-legged on the couch with my laptop in my lap plotting points of interest, mapping out what we’d see, what day we’d see it, and where we’d stay each night. Dan asked what had me so enthralled, so I told him.

“Good, God, woman! Haven’t you ever traveled before? That’s not how you do it!” He let me book a hotel for the end of our first leg, Indianapolis to Weatherford, Oklahoma, then took the laptop from me. “The rest is mystery, Swiss!” he said, intentionally botching the pronunciation of my last name. On the eve of our departure, I was afraid but also inspired and curious. Who were these people who needed skydiving and bungee jumping and heroin when they could just go on vacation without booking in advance?

We took turns driving across the plains, but when we reached the mountains it was all Dan. I was too chicken. Even from fifty miles away the ragged mountain peaks, still crested with snow in June, intimidated me. I was taken aback at the Pike’s Peak Highway tollgate sign. “Fifteen dollars per person? You mean we have to pay them? There’s like a 75% chance we’ll drive ourselves off a cliff!” Just before we began the ascent, Dan opened the driver’s side window and lit a Winston. For a second, I wished I smoked. 

Somewhere around mile 15 I caught myself gripping the door handle so tight I mistook my curled fingers for shrimp cocktail. I was leaning center-ward, left elbow on the console, because my reptilian brain was certain we’d pitch over the edge if I dared to look out my window again. I pulled my door inward with my right hand as I leaned. If there was one thing I’d learned so far in life, it’s that a woman can be too trusting. No free passes for door latches and locks.

“You’re missing it,” Dan said. He was right. I let go of the door and grabbed his Nikon D40 from the back seat. I pointed it out the passenger window, snapping the shutter every few feet without looking through the viewfinder, then flipping through the pictures a few at a time on the LCD screen. As compositions, the pictures were abominations, but I got to sort-of experience what lay beyond the skyway without risking an unwitting look down. When we reached the top of the mountain, my muscles released. Outside the Chevy Malibu, my Jell-o legs spun me 360 degrees. I smudged a tear with the back of my hand. Dan struggled to light his last cigarette in the parking lot. There was so little oxygen and so much wind the BIC just sparked and choked.

Breathtaking, literally—the mountain air is thin at 14,000 feet. I closed my eyes and inhaled. It was cool, clearing my sinuses as if I’d sucked in a noseful of peppermint. The current was wild up there, whipping my hair into a frenzy. I tried to keep my long bangs from stabbing my eyes, but I couldn’t gather more than a few strands at a time. A cloud floated above me no further from my head than my bedroom ceiling at home. I knew I couldn’t touch it, but I’d come so far, gotten so close that it seemed more foolish not to try than to reach up and miss it by a yard.

I returned to Indiana a changed woman. Not only did I trust Dan not to drive me off a cliff the next time we faced a mountain, but I’d had a conversion experience. Maybe itineraries were bad. I’d even considered starting to read a new book before finishing the first one and—gasp!—opening the blueberry Pop-Tarts when the box of strawberry wasn’t anywhere close to empty.

Pin It on Pinterest