At Temple Bar with T, discussing experiences. She looked out the window, not meeting my gaze. Turning her cocktail on its napkin. She told me her roommate had shown her a profile picture on a gay website of someone they thought looked like my husband, Robert. Barrel chest and a blond beard. Enough of the man’s torso and face above the penis was in the picture to recognize him or at least make them wonder.
“Is that happening?” she asked.
My heart landed in the pit of my stomach with an almost audible thud.
I remembered a conversation with Robert from the day before yesterday as I sat cross-legged on our bed. He stood in the doorway to the closet, inching toward the door. We were discussing his upcoming tryst with a woman he met online. He had a date planned to meet her at a bar. Her husband would be there, also.
“So her husband is coming, too?” I queried.
“Yeah, I guess they check out her partners together first,” he responded uneasily.
“Does the husband join in? Is this going to be a threesome?” I pushed.
“I don’t know, actually,” Robert admitted, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“What if he does? What are you going to do?” I asked, an edge of panic tinging inside my head. “Are you okay with that?”
Please say no, please say you’ll walk away if her husband wants to touch you. Please, please draw that line, I begged internally, my stomach knotted. Please just want the woman.
“Oh, well you know, it doesn’t matter who’s down there if you close your eyes,” Robert blushed bright red, waving his hand at me as he turned and fled into his office and shut the door. I didn’t have the courage to follow, sat glued to the bed, paralyzed by what his evasiveness might mean.
I watched T’s expression in the reflection of the bar window as she gazed solemnly out at the dark street, avoiding eye contact with me. I could hardly breathe, knowing in my gut it was Robert. He was on gay websites. Behind my back. After all my asking. How many times had I opened the door to that conversation? How many times had I said the words, offering him the opportunity to be honest, to tell me his truth, to break me gently? He knew how my father’s betrayal of my mother had ransacked my family. The one lie I couldn’t handle, the thing that would destroy me, the one thing that would end us. He had to know that.
“I don’t know if he’s doing that or not,” I shrugged and downed my Salty Dog. “I better get home for dinner.”
My heart thudded in my chest as I drove. My heart was the only thing I could hear. I moved through the house, numb. Dinner made it to the table, the kids chattered around me, ate and dispersed, as if in a dream once removed. I stood at the kitchen sink, hands in hot, soapy dishwater. Robert sat at the table, watching.
“T said they saw someone who looks like you on a website her roommate cruises,” I ventured carefully. “Was it you?”
Robert knew T’s roommate was gay; he understood the implication.
“Ahhhh… I don’t know. What site?” he shrugged, feigning nonchalance.
I held his gaze a moment.
“I don’t know which one,” I turned away to wipe down the counters.
Well, that wasn’t a no. Again, I didn’t have the courage to ask the follow-up question. The next question could only be what gay websites are you on? I couldn’t ask about it. Silence pounded. Robert vanished into his office.
Later still, kids asleep, Robert and I carefully crawled into bed on our respective sides, the same sides we had slept on for twenty-two years as if a motion trigger bomb sat in the middle of the mattress. I lay on the edge of the bed with my back to Robert, body tense in the darkened room, only filtered moonlight gleamed off the brass bedposts.
“Was it you?” I whispered.
“Yes,” he answered.
As if controlled by an outside force, my body whirled around, my right hand raised and smacked Robert as hard as possible in the face. He didn’t see it coming in the dark. When I came back to my body, the screaming had already started. I re-entered myself, mid-shriek. Screams from my lungs, my words hurled through the room.
“You’re fucking gay? You lied, you lied, YOU LIED! HOW DARE YOU LIE TO ME ABOUT THAT? I want a divorce. I want my twenty years back,” I howled.
I was up, we were up, grabbing for robes. Lights on, twenty years of rejection, confusion, and fear spewed out in uncontrolled ten-decibel rage. Twenty years of being shut out, of timidly knocking on the door to his heart, to his body, denied access. Twenty years of asking, of questioning myself, of wondering what was wrong, what was wrong with me. How could he do this to me?
I had snapped. My mind was blank. I hardly knew what was spewing out of my mouth.
The kids were up, seventeen-year-old Jane stood between us. “There are children in the house!” she yelled, not counting herself. Brutus, the Yorkie-poo, ran around the room, whining. Fifteen-year-old Marie and eleven-year-old Oliver stood sobbing in the hall.
I stopped screaming and looked around at my traumatized children. I heard the terrified dog. What had I done? I stepped toward Marie.
“No, no,” she said. Stay away from me is what she meant. I’m scared of you is what she meant.
Somehow, we all made it downstairs, carefully arranged on the couches and chairs. Robert protected himself and lied, even then, even in that stark reality, feeling vindicated that I had lost my temper while he remained calm. It wasn’t his fault; it was mine. An uneasy calm descended; there was nothing left to say. Robert and the kids went back upstairs to bed. I stretched out on the couch for a sleepless night, staring at the darkened family room until I could get up and escape.
I continued to go to work every day, as usual, in a blur of clarity and fury. The kids wanted me to move out of the house since I had broken the spell of our family. All blame directed at me. The crushing vice of guilt twisted my gut.
The house across the alley was available, the rent more than I could possibly afford, but perhaps I could find a roommate. I walked back home, lease in hand, to discuss the arrangement with Robert. I found him in the kitchen.
“I’m moving back to California. I can’t stay here,” he announced, from his end of the island in the kitchen.
“What are you talking about? I just rented the house across the alley,” I responded angrily, from my end.
“We can’t both leave,” I snapped. “You told me to move out, remember?”
I backed out of the rental agreement, but then Robert didn’t leave. He stayed.
“When are you leaving?” I asked a week later, as I saw no indication that he was preparing to move.
“Well, I can’t go yet,” he whined, “I can’t afford to.”
“Then you have to move out,” I insisted with as much calm as I could muster. “I gave up the rental house because you said you were leaving, so leave.”
“I’m going to stay here until I can afford to go. The house is big enough for us both to live here,” he rationalized. “I’m not going to move twice.”
“Oh yes, you are,” I snapped. “We cannot keep living together.”
“Fine,” he snapped back.
Friends of his offered a spare room for free, temporarily. He called it “the closet under the stairs” a la Harry Potter and Oliver stayed there with him more often than not.
With Robert out of the house, I moved back into our bedroom. My skin crawled to be in that room again. I spent the summer months getting the house ready to list, selling extra furniture, hauling van loads to Goodwill and the dump. Clearing out the house, closets, and storage spaces was heartbreaking work. Toys from the lives of four children, detritus from a family life together. I listed pieces on Craigslist every morning before going to work and arranged to meet buyers after. The weekends were spent digging into the recesses of the house and pulling our history into the light. Robert did not help.
Selling the house was not optional. We couldn’t afford the mortgage and rent on a second place. There was, of course, no money.
When Robert’s free room was no longer available, he moved back home and it was time for me to move out and list the house. The old place was as ready as I could make it by myself. I had been looking all along for something to rent, anything that would suffice. Nothing affordable on our side of town was big enough for the kids and me. I wasn’t willing to move away from their schools or to a place with no room for them. Marie and Jane were planning to move in with me.
I finally found a three bedroom apartment in the affordable range and right area. It was clearly going to be a gloomy and depressing place to live, but a definite step up from the minivan, which was starting to look like my only other choice. I put in an application and was accepted, a miracle in itself. And yet, ugh. The only other option would be to find a smaller, two bedroom apartment. I asked Jane and Marie if they wanted a dank three bedroom apartment or a nicer two bedroom. They said they would prefer to share a bedroom to live in a nicer place. I kept looking, frantically now. An apartment ad took me to a stretch of road along Bellingham Bay. I hadn’t realized there was anything even remotely affordable with a water view. Water views were my favorite rental fantasy.
I drove down State Street, feeling as desperate as I’ve ever felt in my life. I saw the For Rent sign on a shitty building by Boulevard Park, right by the water and pulled in beside the rental agent’s car. I followed her around the side of the building and into the unit. It smelled like an old hotel. The ceilings were low and dingy. There was a view, but, oh god, a million years of cigarette smoke permeated the very bones of the place. It would work, though, if we could handle the depression that seemed to come with the apartment, like a move-in bonus from hell. There was plenty of light and two decent sized bedrooms.
As I was pulling away, application in the passenger’s seat, I noticed another For Rent sign two buildings down. It was a modest place, to be sure, but not slummy looking like the first. Somehow, in seventeen years of living in Bellingham, I had never once noticed it.I called the number immediately. The owner of the building answered and agreed to meet me right away.
He led me in, down a long hallway (nice carpet, great paint, no smells) into a spacious living/dining room that overlooked Bellingham Bay in the crystal sunlight. I could practically hear choirs of angels singing. I signed papers on the spot. My deposit check bounced in my brand new single mom account, but I was in.
On my way out of the old house, I had scooped up the only things I couldn’t bear to leave behind: pictures of the kids, a wooden giraffe, a fish-print painting, and a crystal chandelier. My desk and antique farm table. They all fit perfectly into my new space.
I didn’t have a bed, just our old couch that had become remarkably uncomfortable over the years. The first night fourteen-year-old Marie laid on the couch with her head in my lap and cried. Jane had decided to stay with Robert and Oliver.
“It’s hard to leave your siblings, isn’t it?” I asked, stroking her hair.
She nodded into my leg. We stayed there a long time.
Before the week was over, I found a navy blue leather loveseat and armchair on Craigslist. The picture was blurry, but I had a feeling about it and went to see. It was gorgeous and cheap. The woman selling it was getting divorced. Said it had sat in their master bedroom unused for years (just like me). I said, “Well, I’m getting divorced, too, and need furniture.” We laughed. Divorce musical chairs. I also found a like-new mattress set on Craigslist. The seller was nice enough to tie it to the top of my minivan, and I drove it home on Interstate 5 in the rain, praying it would stay put. I hauled that thing into the apartment by myself with minimal damage to it and me and finally had my very own bed.
The first Saturday in the apartment I slept in until 8:00 am. I hadn’t had that much sleep in 20 years.
Dropping Oliver off at the old house after soccer practice, his eleven-year-old body looked small as he stood in the headlights and said, “You don’t live here anymore.”
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry,” I said.
He turned and went inside. Even now, those words turn my heart to lead. There is no forgiveness for breaking your child’s heart. Nor should there be. I desperately wished I could go back and plan a calm separation of some sort without the drama that followed if it would spare my children what they endured. I cannot. The knowledge that I did this to them, wrecked their family in a thoughtless way with little regard for their pain… I will always live with that. They have no reason to forgive me for it. Had I known that my own happiness was a relevant factor in my life; that I was under no obligation to live in misery or mystery… perhaps I would have found the courage to make different choices along the way. The truth is, I willingly gave away my power, looked to Robert to define my life; hid behind my children. I told myself that our struggles weren’t any different from those of other people. That our relationship was mostly good and worth keeping. And I decided to stay, over and over again, when I really should have gone.
The next months were a blur. Marie and I carved out a life together. Jane didn’t come over much and Oliver, not at all. There was work, scraping together enough money for groceries, never quite enough. The emotional and financial stress took its toll. The constant juggling of each child’s state of crisis and my own was exhausting. Someone was always falling apart, so I could not. Friends vanished at this point. People don’t hang around when you aren’t able to buy yourself a beer and pretend like everything is fine. I couldn’t care.
Jane turned eighteen and moved in with Marie and me. Oliver still wouldn’t come over. The old house sold, miraculously, and divorce was finally underway.
During the course of the divorce proceedings, Robert was obligated to turn over his financials and revealed $50,000 in credit card debt, all kept secret from me. All of the accounts but one had already defaulted to collections. There was no protection from these debts for me under the law because the money had been used to support the family, even though I didn’t know about it. Hope of financial survival dimmed. I sat on my balcony, watching the late afternoon sun glitter on the water, wondering if there was any way I could avoid bankruptcy. Probably not, I thought. Bankruptcy doesn’t kill people, though. Deep breath. What will come, will come. The sun sank low as a train roared by, yards away.
In addition to working full time, I began to clean the office building I worked in on weekends for a few sorely needed extra dollars. After a few months, I took on another building to clean and my car payment was made every month, for sure.
The apartment next door connected to mine through a shared laundry room which our neighbor, Perry, rarely had the opportunity to use. Marie, Jane and I monopolized those appliances with absolute sovereignty. Perry rarely left the apartment except to go to Costco and had a quality that made me want to be careful. Rumors floated around about his confrontations with other neighbors, but he was always nice to me. One day, he poked his head out of his door as I got home from work.
“Hey, Ronna, come here,” he motioned.
“Uh, hi, sure,” I agreed, surprised at the contact.
I walked slowly to his door, uncertain what he could want.
“I’ve moved out of my apartment. I’m living in a hotel over on Samish Way,” he said.
“Oh, wow! I didn’t realize,” I responded. Samish Way was Bellingham’s own Skid Row.
“Yeah, I was wondering if you would be willing to help me. I need to get the apartment cleaned out before the end of the month or those freaking landlords will charge me for another months’ rent. Do you know those people have made over $50,000 off of me since I’ve lived here?”
That’s how rent works, I thought.
“Sure, I’ll help you, Perry,” I offered.
“Well, before you say yes, take a look inside here. I have a lot of stuff. You can keep or sell anything that you find. You should be able to make some money,” he said.
“Ok, I’ll take a look. I don’t mind helping you out,” I said.
“I want it to be worth it for you. I want you to help you out, too. Anyway, tell me what you think. Here are my keys. I’m leaving right now to go back to the hotel. Just text me and let me know,” Perry said, handing me his keyring with hesitation.
“I’m embarrassed at how I’ve let the place get,” he mumbled. “I’m embarrassed for you to see it.”
“Hey, it’s ok. Don’t worry about it,” I reassured. “I’ll take a look tonight and leave your keys in the mailbox,” I said, turning to open my door.
“NO! Don’t do that!” Perry sounded alarmed. “Leave the keys over in that planter. There’s a plastic bag under the leaves in the dirt.”
“Oh! Good idea! Will do,” I agreed and went inside for dinner, unsure what I was getting myself into.
After he was gone, I went to check out Perry’s apartment. Marie and Oliver, who was finally visiting, followed me over. I opened the door and slowly entered the dim light of the hallway. A surveillance camera watched from the corner above the door. On closer inspection, the camera wasn’t connected to anything. The dirty beige carpet of the hall was lined with thick, heavy duty floor mats, the kind you might find in a mechanics’ garage or a warehouse. Those weren’t cheap, I thought. The air was pungent with the sour stink of smoke and abandonment, with an underlying whiff of filth.
We tentatively entered the open door of the first bedroom to the left. It wasn’t so bad. There was no furniture. No bed. A narrow pathway wound around boxes and random piles of stuff, as though a load meant for the dump had detoured into the bedroom and flopped on the floor. A broken electric bicycle leaned against the wall. The closet was crammed with ancient men’s clothes. I thumbed through the hangers for a minute, wondering if I might find a super valuable classic rock tee shirt. No such luck.
Back in the hall, I pushed open the door to the storage closet off to the right. The bottom shelf and floor were covered with brown sticky goo. Undeterminable. Other shelves contained rows and rows of bulk-bought cleaning supplies and toilet paper. I would never have to buy toilet bowl cleaner again. A shop vac and vacuum cleaner stood in the corner. So far, so good for value.
Marie and Oliver walked nervously ahead of me into the second bedroom. Teetering towers of empty Amazon boxes left just enough room to squeeze the door open. The room was impassable; any light from the window was completely obscured by the stacks of boxes, which immediately began to topple, the packaging floating to the floor.
“Oh my God, I can’t even get to the light switch,” Oliver said, trying reach behind a pile without knocking it over.
“If we’re gonna find bodies, they’re gonna be in here,” Marie whispered.
As Marie stepped into the room, her foot came down on an air pillow packing bubble, which popped with a loud bang, as if from a gunshot. The kids screamed and dissolved into nervous giggles. I peered past their heads into the room at the rows of silver shelving racks lined with plastic storage bins that filled the room. The back wall was impossible to see.
“Be careful, you guys,” I warned with a laugh. “There could definitely be bodies.”
Back across the hall, the bathroom was beyond filthy. The outside of the toilet was a mass of pubic hair stuck to grime, dust, and pee. Somehow, the inside of the toilet was cleaner than the outside, just mold, and the requisite ring. The bathtub was covered with a layer of pink slime.
“God, I hope there are some rubber gloves in all those cleaning supplies,” I said with a grimace as the kids made puking noises and hurried toward the living room. While they continued to explore, I entered the kitchen.
“Mom, Mom,” Marie shouted, rattling a clinking container. “This peanut tin is full of QUARTERS!”
“Cool! Keep it!” I called from the kitchen. “If you’ll help me, you can keep all the change you find.”
“SWEET!” she yelled and began ripping lids off the peanut tins that lined yet another shelving unit. Some had change and some had empty capsule parts, tiny baggies and plastic droppers.
The kitchen countertops were solid sheets of stickiness. I tried to pick up a blender, an expensive one, but it was glued to its spot on the counter in a ring of that brown goo. I tried to move other appliances, utensils, anything laying on the counter. Everything stuck. The cupboards were full of filthy, high-end cookware, all of it melted and wrecked. I inched around the backside of the kitchen, scooting between filing cabinets and a table piled with papers, and into the living room. A 52-inch television covered one window, blocking the view of Bellingham Bay. Banks of computers with slick monitors sat on a Geek desk. More metal shelving units piled with boxes and peanut tins formed a barricade around the computer and TV area, the only open space in the apartment. This was where Perry hung out.
“This desk is SO COOL,” Oliver exclaimed, pushing the hydraulic controls.
“Look at all these cases of Monster drinks under here! Can I have them?”
“You can have one pack,” I agreed. “That much Monster would kill you.”
“Aww, Mommm,” he complained, but quickly forgot as Marie pulled a half gallon jar of personal lube out of a box.
“AAHHHH!” she yelled, dropping it back in.
“Oh, my God,” I moaned. “Sweetie, just go wash your hands, ok? Oliver, don’t touch anything else.” She ran back to our apartment through the laundry room to scrub, taking her peanut tin full of money.
Perry’s computers, monitors, desk, and television had to be worth several thousand dollars. I googled Geek desks. Yep, big bucks. Nothing in the kitchen was salvageable, but there could easily be valuable items tucked away in the scary second bedroom. I needed the money and I knew exactly how to tackle this project. I had been here before.
“When do you want me to start?” I texted Perry. I went to work in Perry’s apartment the next night and every night after work and all weekend, every weekend, for a solid month.
The storage bins in the second bedroom were full of empty plastic containers and glass jars. Perry had carefully washed his recycling and stored it in sturdy plastic bins with flip-top lids, instead of putting it in the cans by the street for pick-up. His recycling was worthless, but the bins were not, and they were clean. Behind the bins were shelves holding hundreds of dollars’ worth of tools. And a six foot tall red Craftsman tool cabinet on wheels, which had not been visible from the bedroom door. Fishing rods. Stacks of wooden cigar boxes, most still full of unwrapped cigars, rolling around loose. A newspaper with a headline of JFK’s murder from Perry’s hometown was stuffed in the bottom of a toolbox. And more clothes; old suits and yellowed dress shirts from his days as a university professor.
Craigslist took care of the tools and red cabinet, floor mats, electric bike, shop vac, furniture, and cigars. A restauranteur bought the shelving units. A school teacher bought the plastic storage bins. The JFK newspaper went to the library. Garbage bag after garbage bag went to the dump, the cans by the street long since stuffed. Marie and Oliver helped, squealing every time they stepped into the second bedroom and set off a BANG of bubble wrap, hauling their treasures through the laundry room to our apartment, like a real-life haunted scavenger hunt.
The gigantic TV went to my living room, where it still sits, the Geek desk and computer went to Oliver’s room at his dad’s house. Marie found several hundred dollars in loose change. It really was years before I had to buy cleaning supplies again.
After every garbage bag was gone and every surface scrubbed, I left the keys for the landlord. Last I heard, Perry had landed in Thailand to teach English. He emailed a picture of himself in a classroom with a thatch roof, surrounded by smiling young women. He looked very happy.
A month or so later, the kids sat on the floor in my apartment. Robert had a porn addiction and was not hiding it. Graphic pictures appeared on his phone, his computer, his iPad, in plain view all the time. He texted men in leather on his phone while driving, chatted on Grindr at soccer games, left gay porn open on his laptop when Oliver’s friends were over. The kids needed it to stop. We discussed how to approach the situation, as direct requests from us all had been ignored.
While we talked, I texted Robert and gave him an ultimatum: I would call Child Protective Services unless he ceased all porn activity when the kids were in the house and kept his computer in his room. He was furious. They will never know the viciousness of the messages flying back and forth while they huddled on my living room floor. Jane texted her grandmother to enlist her help. Robert might listen to his mother.
The kids came to the conclusion that an intervention was in order. They would sit down with Robert all together and demand a change in his behavior. If he was unwilling to agree, they would all move in with me. At the time, Marie and Oliver were living with Robert in his three-bedroom rental house, paid for by his mother, while Jane stayed with me. Our separate homes had developed revolving doors with kids moving back and forth depending on their moods.
As the kids made arrangements for their meeting, I began to prepare to move to a bigger place, in case Robert refused to step up. I had no reason to think he would. My current lease had six months to go, so I would have to find someone to sublet the apartment and find deposit money for a new place. My first thought was to go back to the apartment complex where I had originally found a three bedroom unit. None were available. Back to Craigslist. What did people do before Craigslist?
As my children were having an intervention with their father to convince him to stop watching gay porn in front of their faces, I looked at a reasonably priced three bedroom duplex a couple of streets away. It looked like a trash heap made of particle board on the outside, but the inside was lovely and clean, with gleaming hardwood floors, and a sparkling kitchen. The third bedroom was technically a closet with barely enough room to turn around, but I didn’t care. Marie and Oliver could have the real bedrooms. Jane could share with Marie. If I could come up with money for the deposit and simultaneously find someone to sublet my apartment, I could make it happen. Perhaps I could ask the planets to align for me, as well.
I drove home, sheer panic rising in my mind, as I mulled over ways to pull this move together. Despair rose like buzzing bees and I felt my tenuous grip of control starting to slip in earnest. I made it home and went straight to the balcony with a glass of cheap red wine.
Jane came home soon after. Robert had listened. He moved his computer into his bedroom and agreed to hide his activities. Marie and Oliver would give him another chance and no one had to move. My panic subsided. I stayed on the deck watching the movement of the water, relief moving through my body like the light on the waves. We would be okay for now.