This installment features more talk of self harm and suicide.
Despite the pleas of basically everyone who knew him, Sam went to couple’s therapy with Cathy. Though he offered to let her continue staying with him, she cast around for better options. The issue she ran into time and again was that no one in our circle was willing to let Cathy move in and live rent free, and she was still unwilling to get a full-time job. Tutoring at the college’s learning center kept her in money for cigarettes, but she depended on the support of her friends to get her through. Though none of us really wanted to be burdened with Cathy, revelations about her physical and emotional abuse of Sam made us want to keep her away from him as much as possible in the hopes that he would come to his senses.
One weekend when she was staying with us, Sam called and asked to speak to Cathy. There was no protocol in place as to what would happen if he called, and earlier that day I’d seen them part on pleasant terms, so I didn’t think anything of saying, “Hang on,” and handing the phone over. But Cathy refused to take it out of my hand.
“He already knows you’re here,” I pointed out, still holding the phone. She crossed her arms over her chest, turned her head away, and closed her eyes. I lost my patience. “Stop it. He knows you’re here, you’re being childish. If you don’t want to talk to him, tell him yourself.” She covered her ears, scrunched up her face, and drummed her feet on my couch, shaking her head furiously. I dropped the phone in her lap and she kicked it away, then jumped up and ran into my office. I told Sam she didn’t want to talk and that he should call her on her cell phone from then on. If she didn’t answer, getting to her through me wasn’t an option.
When I hung up, I went to my office to confront Cathy about her behavior. I opened the door and she screamed, “Get the fuck out of my face!”
I stood where I was. “Excuse me? This is my office, in my house, where I am allowing you to stay during your divorce. If you don’t like it, go home.”
Her expression crumpled as though she were going to cry, but tears never came. She dug her hands into her hair and said, “Please, I…I can’t.” It was a perfect impression of Sarah Michelle Gellar on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, from the words to the intonation to the expression. And it was all bullshit.
“Get your shit. I’m taking you back,” I said, and walked out.
As I angrily got my keys and shoes, she emerged from my office dry-eyed and perfectly calm. “I’m sorry,” she began in a reasonable tone. “But when I’m upset like that, I’m not responsible for my actions. You made me lash out. If you don’t want me to do that, respect me when I tell you to give me space.” It wasn’t her fault she’d thrown a tantrum instead of simply telling Sam she didn’t want to talk to him. It was mine, for expecting a thirty-year-old woman to behave like an adult.
I followed through and took her back to Sam’s house; that was the last time I offered to let her stay with us. The next day, I received an angry call from Sam, taking me to task for Cathy’s latest bought of self-harm. In a rage at me, she’d held her breath until she passed out. I laughed; there was really nothing else I could do. If she hadn’t been sitting on the bed, he warned me, she might have really gotten hurt, so I shouldn’t have made her so upset and none of this was funny. Especially considering I’d verbally abused her into a suicide attempt.
As I listened to him parrot lines about how I made Cathy do something by not catering to her demands and moods, warning that anything she might do to herself was ultimately my fault, I realized he’d been brainwashed by years of Cathy’s abuse and manipulation. Had he heard “I’m sorry, but you know I’m not responsible for my actions,” after being hit by her? It seems incredibly likely. And though I felt like a terrible person for abandoning a friend in a time of need, especially now that the pieces were beginning to fall into place with regards to what he’d suffered during their relationship, I had to distance myself as much as possible. “You’re my friend and I love you,” I told him. “But as long as you’re going to try to make this marriage with Cathy work, I can’t be around you.” He admitted that they’d only gone to two counseling sessions before they’d quit. At the final one, the therapist had asked them to participate in an exercise where they both held either end of a piece of rope. The therapist asked Sam to pull on the rope as hard as he wanted to try to salvage the marriage. He pulled hard. When Cathy was asked, she looked Sam in the eye and let go of the rope completely.
That should have been enough, I thought, to make him want to get away from her. Their lease ended, and Sam made arrangements to rent a house from a friend of his who’d gotten into the business of flipping homes and who wanted to help Sam out of his bad situation. It was a single bedroom house, so everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Cathy would have to find other accommodations and living on his own, away from her, Sam might be able to see how bad the situation really had been.
Instead, Sam moved her into his new house and let her have the bedroom while he slept on the couch.
“She has a really bad back,” he explained to me. “She needs the bed. Plus, there’s more privacy.” I tried to point out the number of nights she’d happily spent on couches in the previous months, and that she could easily have her privacy if she got an apartment of her own, but he felt anyone objecting to the situation was being heartless and short-sighted. He was invested in protecting Cathy above all else, exactly as she had programmed him to.
Once installed in the new house, Cathy quit her tutoring jobs. She spent all her time on MySpace, filling out surveys and taking quizzes to tell her which amazing historical woman she resembled or who her Harry Potter soulmate was. She posted endless photos comparing herself to Waterhouse models and wrote poem after poem about nebulous abuse she had suffered at the hands of an unnamed (but clearly Sam) ex-lover. Her poetry attracted the attention of a man in Colorado, and they began chatting. When he told her about a six-month low-residency writing program in Vermont, she enrolled–and applied for financial aid to attend, neatly closing the loophole and allowing her to put off paying back the loans she’d been living on for nearly a decade.
Things with the man in Colorado escalated quickly. So quickly, I can’t remember his name. I hope it’s not Wallace because that’s the name I’m giving him, due to his strong resemblance to the beloved claymation character. After a couple of weeks of chatting, Cathy revealed that she would move to Denver to be with him. Sam, still holding out hope that their marriage would be repaired, was despondent. Almost overnight, Cathy’s personality and interests completely altered. She was still a “fully time writer,” a MySpace typo that my friends and I still use to this day to mock her, but she no longer cared for musical theater, which was all she usually listened to and was seriously re-examining her paganism, as Wallace was an atheist. Wallace liked The Clash, so now Cathy was a Clash superfan. She’d never been skiing in her life, hated the outdoors, and had those pesky, blood gushing knees, but Wallace liked skiing, so she couldn’t wait to get to Colorado and hit the slopes. When asked what she planned to do for work in Denver, she informed us that Wallace had plenty of money, so he would take care of her. She talked non-stop about the famous writers she would be interviewing as a journalist for Wallace’s zine and rhapsodized about how much more sophisticated and romantic he was than Sam. She would be moving in a month, and would finally be free. All we had to do was wait it out, as it was becoming clear that she had lost interest in most of us.
Meanwhile, she still had an obligation to her son, Martin. Sam had grown frustrated with Martin’s visits and didn’t know how to broach the subject with Martin’s father. When I asked what, exactly, was going on, Sam told me that when Martin was dropped off at three p.m. on school days, Cathy would make a plate of pizza rolls, put on a movie, then go into the bedroom and leave Sam in charge, only emerging ten minutes before Martin’s father arrived to pick him up. “She only has him eight hours a week now,” Sam said, “and she can’t even handle that.” He mentioned that Martin would be with his mother the next Sunday, and wondered if I could stop in and see what was going on, as he would be out of town.
As it turned out, Cathy ended up asking me if I would want to go get coffee on Sunday night. “I haven’t seen you in so long! We need to catch up before I leave for Denver!” She told me that Martin’s father would pick him up at seven, and we could go after that. I made a plan to arrive early and told Sam not to be there.
At twenty minutes to seven, I knocked on the door. Even outside, I could hear Cathy’s music cranked up to maximum volume and her voice singing loudly over it. I knocked again and the door opened. It was Martin. I’d seen this child maybe three times in his entire life. He didn’t know who I was. But he opened the door and let me in without asking who I was or alerting his mother first. When he went to the bedroom door and shouted, “Mommy, there’s a lady here!” he received no response, but confirmed my suspicion: he had no idea who I was and had just let a stranger into the house.
Cathy didn’t answer. Her loud singing didn’t pause. From outside the door, the acrid smell of stale cigarette smoke was almost overpowering. I called through the door, “Cathy, I’m here!” but there was no answer. I slapped the door as hard as I could to be heard over the music. “Cathy! I’m here!” When she didn’t answer, I pushed the door open a crack. A cloud of cigarette smoke immediately escaped and filled the entire house.
“Martin! I said mommy needs some me time!” she snarled, never looking up from her laptop. Cathy had fully dug herself into the bedroom of the house that Sam was renting and solely responsible for. Within just a few weeks, the fresh paint job was yellow from smoke. The blinds were coated in a gray residue. Everything reeked of cigarettes and rotten food left in bowls and on plates on the floor, which was covered in trash and dirty clothes. Cigarette butts surrounded the bed; she hadn’t bothered to use an ashtray and had taken to flicking them directly onto the carpet, which now sported burn holes. She’d been picking her nose and wiping it on the side of the mattress.
“It’s me,” I said, and she looked up as though absolutely nothing was wrong. “Oh! You’re early. I’ll be out in a second. I have to finish this song.” And then she started singing again, as loudly as she could.
I closed the door. Martin stood beside me and proudly pointed to the television. “You know what? I watched this movie twice today! I watched it once and then it was over and my mom didn’t come out so I watched it again!”
The movie was The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. The extended cut. It was already half finished.
Then he climbed onto a chair and hit me in the face with a plastic sword. I grabbed it and took it from him and he swung at me with his fists. I put on my most stern mom voice and said, “Martin, no! You will not hit me. Hitting is not okay.”
Cathy emerged from her room in an instant. “Did I ask you to parent my child?”
I did not say, “Someone has to.” Instead, I said, “I’m not parenting. That’s your job. I’m telling another human that he doesn’t have the right to hit me.”
“He’s just violent because he’s been watching The Lord Of The Rings all day,” she snapped, as though the situation had been completely out of her hands.
Meanwhile, Martin’s violent outburst had passed, and he jumped up and down, tugging on my shirt. “You know what? You know what? Hey! Hey! This isn’t a real sword, but I’m going to bring, next week I’m going to bring my dad’s sword which is a real sword and I’m going to cut off my mom’s head and kill her!”
I stood there, my mouth agape. There was a knock. It was Martin’s father, right on time to pick him up. Cathy immediately became a doting and attentive mother, helping Martin gather up his things and talking about how well he behaved. When they left, Cathy apologized for snapping at me, citing how exhausting “mommy mode” made her. She also thanked me for arriving early, since Martin’s father had also been a bit early and she was glad he hadn’t arrived when she was in her bedroom. “If I wasn’t right on top of Martin twenty-four-seven, he’d be claiming I abused him or something.”
Cathy hadn’t spent a full twenty-four hours with her son since his infancy when she’d left his father for Sam.
On the drive to the coffee shop, Cathy casually mentioned that she’d arranged to meet a guy there and that I wouldn’t have to worry about driving her home. She still was really into Wallace, but they weren’t exclusive; she didn’t even live with him yet, and she planned on sleeping with this coffee guy. When the new guy arrived, he laughed nervously and said, “Uh, I thought you said there was going to be this big group of people.” She played it off as though everyone else had canceled, but she’d never mentioned a big group to me. When she went to the bathroom, he and I compared notes. He was a student she’d tutored, and she’d invited him out to a study group. Then, she’d invited me to go out with her. It was clear that she’d asked him there in the hopes of getting him alone, and asked me there simply to get a ride. She’d intended on ditching me all along.
“Look, I don’t mean to stick you with her, but I’m going,” he said and left. When she came back from the bathroom I told her why he’d gone.
“He thinks you lied to him to get him out here for a date,” I said, too exhausted to sugar coat it. She demanded I take her home immediately so that she could call Wallace, and I did so, gladly.
The next day, I spoke to Sam. “I wanted you to know that I’m calling protective services about Martin,” I warned him. “I know she’s going to blame you for it and I’m sorry, but she’s endangering a child.”
At that point, Sam had hit a wall and was, like the rest of us, just waiting out Cathy’s moving day. “I don’t care. If she wants to blame someone, let her blame me.” But he suggested I call Martin’s father first. “He’s a good dad and he doesn’t know this is going on. Talk to him and if you think he’s not going to do anything, then get ahold of CPS.”
Making the call to Martin’s dad was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. As much as I knew Cathy was a monster, and as much as I knew I had a duty to report child neglect, I was terrified of her. But somehow, I did manage to contact him and prayed he wouldn’t simply blow me off. To my relief, he didn’t. He was outraged when he learned what Martin’s visits entailed, angry with himself to the point of tears that he hadn’t realized what was going on, and told me that he had only allowed the visits to continue because he worried about Martin’s mental health. Martin had been seeing a counselor over the fact that he’d concocted many plans to kill Cathy, some of which were sophisticated, alarming, and fully possible. Martin’s dad and stepmom had hoped that spending more time with Cathy might help; instead, her neglect had exacerbated the issue. They called Sam to corroborate what I’d told them, and Sam admitted it had been going on for a long time but that he hadn’t known how to approach the subject. Martin’s father and stepmother contacted their caseworker with these accounts. Within a week, they had an emergency hearing in family court where they were awarded sole custody and Cathy lost her visitation rights.
I received a call in the middle of the night shortly after. It was Cathy.
“Did you call CPS on me?” I had never heard her sound the way she sounded on that call. I know now it was because I was talking to the true Cathy, not the front she constructed to manipulate people.
“I didn’t.” That wasn’t a lie. I’d called Martin’s father.
“Someone did.” She waited for me to admit to it.
“Well, nobody’s said anything about it to me.”
“I’m going to tell you this just once,” she went on. I can’t even begin to describe how chilling her voice was. Flat, emotionless but somehow threatening at the same time. “My son is my life. If I ever found out someone tried to keep me from him, if I ever find out who did this, I will kill them. You better pray that it wasn’t you.”
I laughed. I laughed so she would know that I wasn’t scared of her. That she wasn’t going to intimidate me. I made sure our gun and ammo was in our bedroom closet, just in case. I made a plan to send my son to stay with my mother for a week. And then I called Sam to warn him.
I don’t know what went down after that. I do know that within days, Sam had kicked Cathy out. At some point he bought a gun. He may have gotten a restraining order, but I can’t remember if it was something he went through with or something he just talked about because it was such a weird time. I scoured internet sites about abusive relationships and applied some of what I learned from them to the situation. I wasn’t going to cut off my friendship with Cathy, knowing she would be leaving in a matter of weeks. I didn’t want her behavior to escalate. But I didn’t contact her.
She did, however, contact me, relentlessly. As if she hadn’t threatened to kill me, as though everything was just fine, she called me to tell me she might be living with us until she moved to Denver. “Don’t worry. I know you said it wouldn’t work out if I stayed with you, so you’re at the bottom of the list.”
“Well, take me off the list,” I said. “Because with my kid is starting school, our schedules are going to be sacrosanct and it’s not going to work out if we have a roommate.”
“I know, that’s why I was thinking I would live with you for half the week, and then I would live at Cristin’s house for the other half,” she said, as though it were all decided and possible, with or without my consent.
“No.” I was absolutely firm and clear in my reason not to allow her to move in. “For one thing, you don’t have a car. I have a job and a family, so I don’t have time to drive you around. Even if I had the time, inclination, and gas money to do that, I would still say no. You can’t live with us.”
“Oh, believe me, I know. I was thinking you could drive me to work when you drop him off at school,” (and this point she’d gone back to tutoring), “and then you guys can hang around in town until I get done at four–”
“I am saying no, Cathy,” I said again. “You cannot come and live with me. I will not drive you anywhere. I will not pick my son up from school at noon and try to entertain him in the car all day while you work. You are not my responsibility and you very recently threatened to kill me.”
She laughed. “Oh my gosh, I wasn’t threatening to kill you. Where is everyone getting this from? Like I was saying, you could–”
“I know. That’s why you’re on the bottom of the list. Even if I’m just staying with you on weekends.”
“No. You won’t be here on weekends. You will not be here. You cannot stay with us under any circumstance.”
“Right, right. That’s why you’re at the bottom of the list.”
I hung up.
Later that day, I was at Cristin’s house when Cathy called her. Cristin took her phone into the other room, but I heard her say over and over, “No…no way…no. No.” Finally, she said, “Because I don’t want you in my life, and I certainly don’t want you in my house.” She came out of the bedroom and said, “Um…Cathy just called me to ask if she could stay with me during the week because she’s going to be staying with you on the weekends.” I informed her that no, that absolutely would not be happening. But when I got home, there was a message on my voicemail.
It was Cathy, asking when she, Cristin, and I could sit down and work out the schedule for which days she would be staying with us and who would be driving her to work. And she left the message after we’d both turned her down.
Next time: “The Parting Gifts”