This is the penultimate post in this series because I’ll follow up on what happened in my friendship with Sam after all of these events took place. If you’ve missed out on the story so far, here are parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine.
There are mentions of rape in this installment.
Cathy being out of our lives was like a fifty-pound lead vest being taken off all of our shoulders. She remained in touch through phone calls, which I took out of a sort of morbid curiosity. She’d moved in with her MySpace boyfriend, Wallace, in Colorado and they’d made all sorts of plans. He would take her on ski weekends with his family, she wouldn’t have to work because he made plenty of money, and she could devote all of her time to her poetry, which he printed in his zine. I asked what he did for a living, that he could afford to support her, and she was cagey about it, finally admitting that he got disability benefits supplemented under the table by generous cash support from his wealthy mother.
As her calls became more infrequent, Cathy’s story about what was happening in Colorado was more difficult to follow. Though she was still dating Wallace, she’d moved out of his apartment and in with some of his friends. She was also suddenly in need of a job. I began to suspect that Mother Wallace had been unwilling to subsidize Cathy’s writing career. There were no more ecstatic boasts of luxury ski trips to be taken, either. Sometime later, she informed me that she’d applied for a job as a nanny. One of the requirements was that she must be fluent in Spanish, as the family did not speak English in the home.
“…you don’t speak Spanish,” I reminded her.
She laughed. “I know, but I took two years of college-level French. It’s basically the same thing. They’re not going to notice.”
Not surprisingly, she did not get the job.
Her next try at employment was working at a rape crisis call center. Allegedly, she was counseling people over the phone. I physically recoiled at that; I’d heard Cathy complain more than once about how ridiculous it was that so many of our friends had been raped and she hadn’t. “I don’t believe her. I’m prettier than her and I’ve never been raped,” she’d said of one acquaintance. She was the absolute last person anyone should have encountered when they called a rape crisis line.
Shortly after she began to work there, she called me and told me that Sam had repeatedly raped her during their marriage. Every boast she’d made about loving to be choked during sex, loving all of the kinky things she’d bragged about had just been a cover for when I’d asked questions about her bruises and the handprints around her throat. I had never once seen a bruise or a handprint. I’d never asked her anything that would have led to her zealous sharing of details I’d never wanted to hear about their sex life in the first place. But no matter how horrible she might have been to all of us in the past, I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You’re lying.” Because I didn’t know. Because it sounded plausible to me, not that Sam would rape someone, but that if someone was being abused like that, they might frame it as a consensual kink to survive. I was absolutely shocked to hear this about Sam. I questioned everything about their divorce and Cathy’s leaving. Had I been unsupportive of a truly good friend going through something terrible, something that had made her behavior understandably erratic?
Then she went on to say, “Yeah, I was doing my training for this job and I was reading about rape trauma syndrome and I kept seeing all of these symptoms that applied to me. Then I realized, I have rape trauma syndrome. I kept trying to think of who could have raped me, and I decided it was Sam.”
Those words gave me instant doubt, and I hated myself for it. I wasn’t supposed to doubt women who had been raped. Only bad people did that, right?
She went on to tell me an incredibly vivid, detailed story of one of the many times he raped her. It was horrific. It was brutal.
The story of the rape was true. It had happened.
But it never happened to Cathy.
Everything, from the very specific events leading up to the rape to the things “Sam” had allegedly screamed at her and the weapon “he’d” used, right down to the exact phrases she’d used to describe the incident, were taken from a story that had been told by another friend in confidence as part of a healing ritual in our Pagan group. Someone had shared their incredibly harrowing personal story of sexual violence at the hands of a former partner, had done so as an attempt at spiritual healing and cleansing, and now Cathy had parroted it back to me as her own experience, as though I wouldn’t remember or would just go along with it.
I immediately called the friend whose story had been stolen and told her what had happened. She was furious at the betrayal of her trust. She’d been one of the people who’d taken Cathy in after Cristin and I had turned our backs on her. Now, this friend had found that one of the most painful times in her life had not only been shared as Cathy’s story but that Cathy had also written about it on MySpace and was currently soaking up sympathy and attention from her new Colorado circle. I’m not sure if the friend ever followed through on reporting Cathy to the rape crisis hotline she worked for, but within a week, she no longer worked there.
When I told Sam about the things Cathy had been accusing him of, he just shrugged. His shoulders sagged. “What am I going to do about it?” He just didn’t have any fight left when it came to Cathy.
One thing he did stand firm on was that he would not ship her remaining clothing to her if she didn’t send him a money order, first. She complained to me that she couldn’t trust him to not just keep the money if she sent it and that she would be more comfortable if he shipped it first and let her pay him back later. Luckily, Sam wouldn’t back down. Unfortunately, this meant that Cathy––and Wallace––would come back to Michigan to pick up her things. She called Sam and told him when they would be arriving by Greyhound, asked for a ride from the bus station to their hotel, and of course, that he drop off her boxes. I volunteered to save him from having to see her again.
“We should all get together and go for dinner,” Cathy suggested, and by all, she meant me, Cristin, and the woman whose rape story she’d stolen. All three of us were totally in, again, out of morbid curiosity. We wanted to see if Cathy would be able to look our friend in the eye after such indefensible actions. We wanted to know who this mysterious Wallace was. Our lives had become a soap opera and we had a sick desire to see how it played out.
With Cathy’s things in tow, I met her and Wallace at the bus station. Cathy hugged me like we were great friends who’d parted on good terms. Like she’d never threatened to kill me. She threw her arms open and did a little spin in the bus station parking lot. “When I left, Kalamazoo completely stopped existing. But I come back and it’s all right here waiting for me.”
Because none of us, our lives, our families, the physical places where we lived and worked every single day, not of it existed without Cathy’s presence. Cathy saw herself as the force that animated the world.
As I drove her to the hotel, she described “the most racist thing I’ve ever seen.” At the bus station in St. Louis, police had taken aside and searched only black passengers before they boarded the bus.
“It was awful,” she said, shaking her head.
“Did you speak up?” I asked. “Did you say anything about it?”
She pressed her hand to her chest, as though she had been personally traumatized by the racism of those police. “No. But for the first time in my life, I thought, thank God I’m not black. I mean, that could have been me. If I had been born black, that would have happened to me.”
“You’re in your thirties, and this was the first time you noticed that it’s easier to be white than black?” I asked.
Very quietly, she said, “I think you’re being very racist toward me right now.”
It was going to be a long evening.
Wallace was overall a very quiet guy. We dropped off Cathy’s things at the hotel and I drove us over to a local pizza place to meet with Cristin and the friend whose story Cathy had stolen. There was a plan in place: I would get a phone call halfway through dinner that would require me to leave, so I couldn’t drive them back to the hotel. When that happened, the other friend would volunteer. This would give her privacy to call out Cathy about using such a painful personal memory for her own gain.
While we ate, we learned enough about Wallace to finally make sense of what was actually going on in Colorado, versus what Cathy had told us. Wallace was on disability because of a closed head injury sustained in a skiing accident a few years back. The ensuing brain damage had left him able to live on his own, but not hold down a job. When Cathy had moved in with him, his mother (“the bitch”) stopped giving him money and refused to give him anymore unless he broke things off with Cathy and never spoke to her again. Occasionally, Wallace would say something that didn’t quite fit with the conversation we were having and Cathy would be quick to shush him or laugh loudly and tell us he was joking. She talked incessantly about how intelligent he was, in a way that was incredibly patronizing because Wallace was intelligent. He just had some brain damage. It became clear very quickly that Cathy had seen Wallace as a source of income and had no trouble exploiting him, but was embarrassed to be seen with him due to his disability. It was no wonder that his mother had cut him off in an attempt to get him away from Cathy.
True to his word, my husband called me halfway through the dinner. “Oh, shoot. His car broke down and I have to go. It was good seeing you guys,” I said, and left as fast as I could.
The next day, while waiting for my son’s preschool to get out, I went to the coffee shop down the street. I was working and eating a bagel when the door opened. In walked Cathy and Wallace. I considered abandoning my food and making a run for the other door, but she spotted me right away.
“Oh my god, what are you doing here?” she squealed, sitting across the table from me.
“This is where I come while I wait for [my son] to get out of school,” I reminded her.
“Oh right.” She laughed. “I forgot you had a kid.”
She’d forgotten. I had. A child.
I checked the clock. Luckily, I only had about twenty minutes before I had to leave, but oh, what a twenty minutes it was. She and Wallace launched into breathless praise for a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and medium who’d channeled the ghost of a time traveler to write a book explaining that the attacks were planned and carried out by aliens with the full support of “lizard people” who had infiltrated our government. I sat open-mouthed as they explained all of this to me. Both of them were fully invested, but I couldn’t help argue a few points with them. For example, their insistence that “only alien technology would be capable of melting those steel beams,” which I refuted with the simple fact that normal, terrestrial heat capabilities had been used to manufacture those beams in the first place. But the discussion grew tiring, so I finally asked, “So…if this ghost was a time traveler…why didn’t he time travel back and warn us the attacks were going to happen?”
They had no answer.
They also had no coffee. The barista told them they’d have to buy something or leave, and Cathy looked down sadly. “We don’t have any money left.”
They were meant to be in the city for several days. They had a hotel room. I had no idea how they planned to pay for it or where their next meal was coming from. They’d clearly arrived believing that Cathy’s “friends” would foot the bill for the pleasure of their company.
I said, “That’s a shame.”
“Could you maybe give us a ride back to the hotel?” Cathy asked. “It’s like, pouring rain out and we don’t have bus fare to get back.”
I pretended to feel sorry. “Ugh, I would, but I have to go pick up [my son]. But have a safe trip back to Colorado.”
The last time I ever saw Cathy, she was walking with Wallace, head down in the rain as I drove away from the coffee shop. I was so relieved, I cried. Please, just never, never let her come back, I prayed.
A few weeks later, my wish was granted, as per gossip from someone who had stayed in touch with her. Though her parental rights to her son had been terminated, she still owed unpaid child support payments from the previous custody agreement. Her federal income tax refund was seized as a result, so she made a furious call to Martin’s father, demanding that he return the money he’d “stolen.” She insisted that since she didn’t have a job, she was no longer responsible for the previous balance owed. The State Of Michigan disagreed and issued a bench warrant for her arrest, which I personally believe will effectively prevent her from ever returning to the state.
The last I heard of her was a couple of years later, from someone who followed her on Facebook and thought I’d find the news funny: she’d remarried, had another child and was pregnant with a second. But I don’t find it funny at all. Shortly after she’d moved to Colorado, she’d joined several online support groups for parents whose children had died, I assume in an attempt to convince her new Colorado friends that she wasn’t a bad mother, but a grieving one. At the time, I’d just rolled my eyes, glad that she couldn’t hurt her son anymore now that she’d passed him off as dead to everyone in her new life. But now, she has a new family to eventually abandon. New children to chase after her, sobbing as she runs off to “find herself.”
And that’s what people like Cathy do. They destroy and move on. It’s the people left behind who have to deal with the aftermath. I’d like to say that after ten years, the damage has healed. But my friendship with Sam was ultimately destroyed due to the upheaval she caused in his life. I still sometimes doubt my own mind when dealing with new people. I constantly look for signs that someone might “be a Cathy.” That will probably never go away.
I once brought Cathy up to a therapist, to ask her if she thought the years of constant gaslighting might still have a lingering effect (duh). She told me something I’ll never forget: it’s not just romantic relationships that can be abusive. Friendships can, too.
But still, to this day, I feel guilty that I cut Cathy off. I feel guilty that I left her in the rain. I feel guilty that I called Martin’s father. And the reason I feel all of this is because that’s exactly what Cathy wants me to feel.
Next time: Epilogue or “What happened to Sam?”