Since there hasn’t been an update to this story since last year (ha ha, get it, because it’s January now?), you can refresh your memory or jump in for the first time with part one, part two, part three, and part four.
I also apologize in advance for my horrible poetry from 2007, which you will be subjected to in this installment. Please still respect me once you know how terrible I am at it.
After Cathy and Sam’s wedding, things went pretty much back to normal. I was able to focus on my (much smaller and easier to plan) wedding, and when the excitement was over, I got sent out to a sales conference in Colorado Springs to meet with Harlequin staff. I think that was the first time it occurred to Cathy that while she might downplay my success to everyone, she couldn’t change reality. I had written two books at that point and they were both fairly well received and I was profiting.
Obviously, Cathy needed to become a writer.
With her graduation from college approaching, things really kicked into high gear. Cathy had, as I mentioned before, been attending a two-year college for about as long as it takes most people to become doctors. There’s nothing wrong with people taking longer than the traditional amount of time to finish a degree, of course, but Cathy didn’t have a job. She didn’t have full custody of her son. She had very few responsibilities and spent most of her time chain-smoking, reading, and listening to music. So, what was causing the delay?
Laziness and greed.
Cathy had a system. While Sam worked two and often three jobs, she got by on federal student loans. She could navigate a FAFSA form so deftly, she could have made a decent living just helping other people fill them out. Instead, she applied for and received loan after loan, taking just enough credit hours to defer payment. “All I have to do is take six credit hours a semester,” she said, bewildered that no one had found this loophole before. “They can’t ask you to repay them if you’re still in college.” As for what would happen when she did finally graduate, she said she would just declare bankruptcy. The loans were, as she described them, “free money.”
When I pointed out that federal student loans can’t be discharged in a chapter seven bankruptcy, she went pale and still and said nothing.
Eventually, she reached a point where she had to graduate, and so she announced that in the spring, she would receive her associate’s degree in English. She only had a couple more credits to complete. One of the classes was “Minority American Literature,” different from classic American literature classes in that none of the authors read were white men. Since “anyone but white men” is a lot to cram into a single class, the final assignment was a paper about a marginalized figure in American literature who was not covered by the syllabus, including why the student believed that author should have been included. Cathy was outraged that one very important, obvious figure had not been included.
“I’m writing my paper on Virginia Woolf,” she said shaking her head sadly. “One of my favorite writers and, once again, she’s not valued because of her sex.”
“She might not have been covered because she was from England,” I suggested.
Cathy paused. “Was she?”
I nodded. “Yup.”
Cathy decided she would write the paper on Virginia Woolf, anyway, because, “It’s not like [the professor] is going to know that.” I don’t know how the paper went down, but she did somehow pass the class.
The other class she took was some sort of creative writing course. This is where a large part of Cathy’s ego drives completely off the rails. Because now, not only am I writing just Harlequins, she is writing serious, academic-level fiction and poetry that will surely change the world. She became enamored with the idea of microfiction, stories contained in a few sentences like the famous “baby shoes, never worn.” When explaining it to me (patiently, of course, since my plebian brain couldn’t possibly grasp the intricacies of something so profound), she showed me one of her own pieces. I don’t remember the exact wording from memory, but it was something like:
The courtyard lights blaze auras in the mist while the shadows make a lunar landscape of the snowy ground.
“That’s not really a story, though,” I said, rereading the single line. “The baby shoes thing is a full story because you know it’s a story about people who either wanted a baby and couldn’t have one or about a baby that died. There’s a plot there. This is just a description of the courtyard at your school.” It wasn’t even fiction, really, as she told me she’d written it while actually looking at the snowy courtyard. But I didn’t get it. There was nuance, she told me, and someone at my level of education couldn’t just pick up “real, literary” writing.
While her microfiction was the bane of my existence, her poetry was the bane of her professor and classmates. The man who taught the class was in his late thirties and happily married. So, Cathy set her sights on having an affair with him. Obviously, she didn’t declare this intention, but anyone who knew her at all could see her end goal from the moment she talked about how much he enjoyed her poetry, which always had something to do with her body and sexuality. He left perfunctory comments on a piece comparing her vulva to a flower and her legs to flower stems; clearly, this meant he wanted to have sex with her. He said the imagery in the poem describing an orgasm was colorful, so the only conclusion was that it had turned him on. She read his comments aloud to me and her other friends, even to Sam, analyzing them from every angle until she could tease out some proof of the professor’s desire for her. Every piece of poetry and microfiction she wrote became more and more sexual, until finally after she brought in a poem rhapsodizing over her own queenly pubic hair and decrying women who shave as “little girls who wish they had a crown,” the professor told her to stop.
“He said he loves his wife,” Cathy said with a knowing smile, flicking ash from the end of her cigarette. “But my poems were making it hard for him not to cheat.”
Everyone knew this wasn’t the truth. It just couldn’t have been. Another friend in the class, Amelia, who had been there for what she described as the “very awkward” conversation about Cathy’s poetry, told me what had really happened. The format of the class included group critiques. Every poem Cathy brought to class, from her crown of pubic hair to her orgasms like the sea, was read aloud in these smaller groups. Some classmates had complained that Cathy’s poems made them uncomfortable and that when they’d tried to suggest she bring in material of a less sexual nature, she’d denounced them as prudes and misogynists seeking to stifle a woman’s voice. The professor also said that he would be more comfortable if Cathy concentrated on other subjects, as he didn’t care to read about his students’ sex lives, either. Amelia said that after leaving the class, Cathy went on a lengthy tirade about the professor being an asshole, a misogynist, and very likely a rapist. She would complain. She would get him fired for harassing her. She would make him pay.
None of us were surprised that she’d lied. At that point, we all just accepted that Cathy was a liar, but for some reason, we couldn’t walk away.
During this time, she invited me to a weekly slam poetry contest at a local coffee shop. I’d never heard of slam poetry, but I ended up enjoying myself a lot. We went every week, and sometimes we joined in with poems of our own or to volunteer to judge the friendly competition. One week, a poem I wrote about my continued frustration with George W. Bush won the competition and the twenty dollars in prize money. The poem, “Leader” wasn’t even that great:
You are not a leader.
A leader doesn’t leave us
twisting in the wind
and against all advice
but that of your vice
your jones for power
as you sit in your tower
like the evil wizard in a fairytale
who is too power-greedy
to see his plans are doomed to fail.
I will not support
as the ribbons urge
for our troops
who’ve been duped
into believing they fight for me
poisoned with every MRE
while CNN, MSNBC and the BBC
are telling me
that it is not freedom
I’m not dumb
each life cashed in buys a drum of black gold
Please don’t tell me
that freedom isn’t free
You can keep your patriotism
my school zone is drug and bullshit-free.
See? Not great, but I was proud of myself. Cathy debuted a poem she wrote about how the birth of her son saved her from anorexia; I’ll include that in a later post, as it ties into the dynamic between Cathy and her son, and I found it inexplicably tucked away in an old journal. Cathy didn’t place that night and didn’t call me for several days.
The next week, Cathy arrived at poetry slam with a friend I’d never met before and announced that she wouldn’t be taking part in the slam. She had to study for her creative writing class. She never competed or engaged in the open mic again. Sam liked slam poetry, too, so he kept attending. One weekend, Cathy and her new friend, a professor from the college, wanted to go to a local brewery to see a band they liked. Cathy invited me, but I was fairly sure I was only asked because she needed a ride. Slam was held on Sunday nights, and Sam wanted to attend, so they asked me if I would leave slam early and give Cathy a ride. Why Sam couldn’t do this, I don’t know, but I was so conditioned at this point to believe I owed it to them to chauffeur her around that I reasoned that Sam rarely got time to socialize and it would be a nice gesture. But on Saturday night, Sam and Cathy came over to our house and we all had a bit too much to drink. The next day I was hung over, I didn’t want to go to the slam, and I certainly didn’t want to go to a loud bar. I didn’t want to completely bail on my friends and I couldn’t reach them by phone, so I went to the coffee shop and explained that I wasn’t feeling good and didn’t plan on seeing the band or staying for slam, after all. I asked if Sam could drive Cathy–I asked if Sam could drive his wife, the woman to whom he is married and who lives in the same house he does–to the bar, which was less than half a mile from the coffee shop where slam took place. Sam insisted that since I had agreed to drive her, I had an obligation to do so, despite not feeling well. They both lectured me on the importance of keeping promises and said that my friendship was very one-sided; all I ever did was take from them, giving them nothing in return. In a rage, Cathy called her friend and canceled the whole evening, despite the friend offering to pick her up from the coffee shop and drive her there. I had ruined everything. As Cathy and Sam left together (in the same car that could have easily delivered her to the bar in five minutes, round trip), he snapped, “Wine is awesome, right?”
To give context for that remark, I was, at the time, at the peak of my struggle with alcohol. I drank a six-pack of flavored malt liquor beverages a night, on top of several mixed drinks like Long Island Iced Tea or Jack and Coke. If we had friends over, which we frequently did, I drank even more because it was then “social drinking.” At a doctor’s appointment earlier in the week, I had tallied up the number of drinks I had in a single week; when the doctor had seen the total, she’d blanched and asked, “how would you describe your drinking?” I’d replied with a shrug and said, “Moderate?” She’d informed me that an average of eighty alcoholic beverages a week was not “moderate”. That Saturday night, I’d declared my intention to cut back on drinking and told Cathy and Sam this story and how much it had alarmed me, but they urged me to keep going. “We’re just hanging out, it’s okay to drink when it’s us.”
Despite enthusiastically encouraging me to drink two full bottles of wine, numerous shots of hard liquor, and my nightly foundation of six Smirnoff Ices, Sam now felt victimized by my drinking. Because I had ruined his wife’s weekend.
The next week at slam, I read a new poem:
I drink too much.
I know it.
But getting stinking,
is not something I try
I never blame my behavior
make excuses for
what I do under the influence
of my problem.
And it is a problem
not yours, all mine
as long as I fall in line
all the time
and you aren’t annoyed
or inconvenienced by
what I do when I give in
to the temptation
you reserve for parties and weekends.
You’ll still call me friend.
You’ll say nothing except,
“That’s just Jen!”
I’m supposed to be cute
and drunk and funny
dispensing more with each cup
more more more
so you can enjoy the person I am
as I destroy myself
But if I’m too hungover
to take something off your shoulders
laugh at your jokes
listen to your stories that get staler and older
too drunk the next morning
to be the care-free, spend-freely
you want me to be
you come down on me
to say “You have a problem,”
to lay a guilt trip so long
and so thick
I need to sit on my suitcase
to get all your condescension in.
But I should still call you friend.
So I fill up another glass
knowing I can stop
anytime I want
and knowing you’ll be there
with your moral superiority
when my problem is no longer convenient to you.
It was clumsy, it was horrible, but it was pointed. I maintained eye contact with Sam and Cathy throughout the reading, shaking with my anger. When I left the stage, all Sam said was, “Well, at least you recognize how your actions are affecting other people.”
He was still angry that I hadn’t driven Cathy to the bar.
Maybe it was rude of me to change the plans so abruptly, but she hadn’t needed to skip the band. Her friend had offered to drive her when plans changed. And again, her husband had a car. Why was I more responsible for her than he was?
We stopped going to poetry slams after that.
Cathy’s creative writing class continued to give her some sorely needed leverage over me in an area of shared interest. That was very much the way a friendship with Cathy operated. You had common interests, but she had to be better at them or more knowledgeable about them than you were. I brushed the writing off; I was a USA TODAY bestselling author making a very nice living. If she needed to tear me down to validate herself, I didn’t lose anything by letting her believe she was a better writing than I was. But our most intense one-sided rivalry was still theater.
After several failed attempts to become a local star, Cathy had given up on community theater. I wasn’t doing much, myself, but I did still love singing and began taking classical voice lessons for fun. One week, my lesson was on the same night as a planned meetup with our friend, Cristin, who lived right down the road from the studio. “Why don’t you just pick me up and I’ll wait and read a book during the lesson?” Cathy suggested. “That way you don’t have to run back and forth across town.” I agreed that this was a good idea, and she sat in the hall outside the practice room while I had my lesson. That night happened to be the one and only time I’ve ever hit my all-time highest note: a G6. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to support it for the very brief second I’d managed it, and when the lesson was over I rushed out, exhilarated.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, laughing. “I hit a G6!”
Cathy was sullen. She stood without a word, slung her purse over her shoulder, jammed her book into it and finally snapped, “Yes. I heard it. It sounded painful.”
She was angry because I’d hit a higher note than she could, one time.
But she still loved listening to musicals and singing along with them with me. We spent a lot of time trading CDs and discovering new shows. “You need to listen to this one,” she said, giving me a copy of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. “I identify with this one so much.”
If you’re unfamiliar with The Last Five Years, it’s a show about a couple meeting, falling in love, getting married, and getting divorced within five years. The couple is on a split timeline; the show opens with the woman, a failed actress, devastated about the divorce, while the man, a brilliant young writer, has just gotten his first agent and met the girl of his dreams. It’s based on Brown’s real-life marriage and divorce (to the point that his ex-wife threatened him with legal action), painting the male writer as the helpless victim of his wife’s unrealistic expectations. At the time, I thought it was a poignant and incredible work. Now, for reasons unrelated to Cathy herself, I find the entire thing trite and self-aggrandizing, but the point of telling you all of this is that when I listened to it, and when Cathy (who I’ve named here after the heroine of The Last Five Years) told me she identified so strongly with the male lead, I told my husband, “I bet within five years, Cathy and Sam get divorced.”
My estimate was off by four years and three months; Cathy and Sam never made it to their first anniversary as a married couple.
Next time: Part 6, or “The Red Squirrel”