Friday, December 2, 2016

Table for One preview: "Swept up in El Nino," a memoir

Below is an excerpt from the inaugural issue of our new magazine series titled Table for One, launching June 1, 2017. For more information about Table for One and future Pencil and Chalk publications, click here.

...By then he’d purchased a BMW, a vehicle less practical than my Honda Civic – which he dubbed a piece of shit – because it came with a higher gas and maintenance price. Since he often overspent on drinks and dinner on the weekends, he had difficulty filling his tank at the beginning of the following week. I told him it was a good thing he worked at that Italian restaurant directly across the street from the apartment.

So it was this restaurant’s paycheck stub that I picked up while he was out. I unfolded it and looked first at his net pay and second at his per period gross earnings. Both resembled that of a part-time job, not a chef’s income or one that could afford a luxury apartment on his own. Plus my discerning accountant’s eye saw a gap that couldn’t have been attributed to just taxes. I looked closer at the deductions and found it: garnishment. Child support.

That bubbly little girl grinning from the dashboard of the SUV that he used to drive wasn’t his niece; it was his daughter.

“I don’t like to tell people it’s my daughter because I don’t really get to see her,” he later explained.

I called Kennedy to vent. Few things grate my nerves more than a man who disowns his children regardless of the reason, and then he lied about it. I wasn’t “people.” We shared, not a functional relationship, but too intimate of a living space to be harboring such grand secrets. Additionally, a judge had to force him to take care of his own child, but Antonio tried to blame that on his daughter’s mother.

“She’s just mad that I moved on,” he said, “so she took me to court for child support.”

He sounded so lame.

“And she took my truck, too,” he added. But I believe it was her truck all along.

I hadn’t even lived with him two months. I wanted out, but I felt trapped mainly because I was too proud to say I messed up and moved in with this practical stranger who mismanaged money and compulsively lied. But I hid behind a slew of other excuses: Shelling out $500 per month plus electric diminished the amount I was able to save. I was also still determined to not crash my cousin’s new home, not to mention apartments usually took weeks to become available. Plus I wanted all of my belongings when I left because I knew I wouldn’t return later to retrieve them. I had to figure out how to sneak them out because I’d mistakenly told him I was leaving, to which he begged me to stay with the promise that he would walk a straight and narrow path.

However, Antonio’s idea of straight and narrow was perjury. He wanted me to testify on his behalf and say we were engaged so that he’d have a better chance of regularly seeing his daughter and keeping her overnight. I refused, and on the court date I told him he better rethink his plan because even if he told the judge the lie hoping I’d feel compelled to corroborate it, I still wasn’t going to break the law for him or anyone else for that matter. Fortunately for him, the judge didn’t need outside testimony.

Antonio was granted several hours of unsupervised visitation on Saturdays. Somewhere along the way, I had missed the supervised phase, a decision I thought courts only made in cases of domestic, sexual, substance, or child abuse, or when a parent had been diagnosed with having a mental health issue. Suddenly I grew concerned that I was living in a much direr situation that I had originally realized.

Of course it was once again his daughter’s mother’s fault. She kept taking him to court on bogus charges as his punishment for ending their relationship. He wanted to prove it to me and Kennedy a few weeks after the visitation hearing.

He pulled out a summons that he received at work to show us how his daughter’s mother was demanding more money from him.

“When she saw me in court, she walked past me and said, ‘Hugo Boss, huh. I guess your child support needs to go up,’” he said.

Kennedy and I looked at the summons, glanced at him, then at each other while he kept talking. We offered weak “mm hmms” whenever appropriate to make it appear that we were listening, but truthfully we weren’t. We were processing what we saw.

“Girl,” Kennedy said to me once Antonio left. “Does he think we’re stupid?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “trying to hide the custodial parent’s name.”

Antonio held the summons with his thumb covering that particular field, but from the angle where I stood, I could still read it. It was not his daughter’s mother’s name. Kennedy couldn’t see it, however, but she could read the other fields as clearly as I could: the absentee parent, which reflected Antonio’s name; the sex of the minor child, which was “male” and not “female;” and the child’s birthdate, which would make him about 13 and not 6.

This man had at least two children.

But I continued to play dumb and let him think he tricked us. I didn’t even confront him with his paternity or paycheck discrepancies until much later because I had completely shut down and arguing wasn’t my strength. I was unable to tap into that place of confrontation, so I seemingly let things slide.

And I still remained in that apartment.

Yet I didn’t want to pretend to be a couple or play house anymore. I avoided him as much as I could, even going to bed at 7 pm just so I could be “asleep” when he came home from work. I became distant, moody, and officially single. I learned how to move in silence – plotting my future and remaining mute about it. I had even started a new job, which paid a higher salary, and I could then afford to move. But it became trickier since my attitude suggested I had a serious problem with him, and consequently, he grew extremely erratic and paranoid.

I liked my new job and my coworkers, and since the schedule was pretty flexible, we’d often go out for lunch and have a sit-down meal. I’d bring back my leftovers to eat for dinner.

“Who’d you go to lunch with?” Antonio would ask whenever he’d open the refrigerator and spot the carryout trays.

“What?” I’d retort. “Why?”

Everything he said and did aggravated me.

The schedule was so flexible that we were able to telecommute every other day: One week, I’d go into the office on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the following week, I’d go in on Tuesday and Thursday. Months later, I would love my work-from-home days, but while I was still living with Antonio, I hated them.

He’d hang around the apartment, which particularly bothered me on the mornings I had weekly team meetings via conference calls because he would then talk to me in the background as if I weren’t working!

When I wanted to run out to grab lunch and bring it back to the apartment, he wanted to go, too, and when I was in the office, he’d find stupid reasons to call me.

I had just switched to a new manager, who had recently begun working for the company. We swapped cubicles, which were actually adjacent, shortly after she started, and she acquired my old desk number while I assumed a new one. But instead of Antonio leaving a voice message on my new number, he’d either press 0 to speak with the receptionist at the front desk – who practically knew him because he called that often to have me paged – or he’d dial my old number and ask my new manager if I were available.

One afternoon, my manager yelled across the cubicle wall, “Antonio wants to know if y’all have any paper towels.”

“What!” I was mortified. “Could you transfer him, please?”

When I answered my line, he repeated the question as if it were a corporate inquiry.

“Don’t you fucking ever call me at work again,” I whispered before slamming the phone down.

I was fuming. This was a basic look-in-the-pantry type problem, but he was so bent on keeping tabs on me that he was willing to jeopardize my reputation and my job to find out what I was doing. After my tongue-lashing, he still wasn’t done with his shenanigans, though, and it wasn’t long before he showed me why he once had to see his daughter under the careful eye of another adult...

To read the rest of the 8,000-word saga, subscribe to the magazine.

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