Sunday, March 27, 2022

Swept Up in El Nino: Spinning Through My 20s in Mismatched Mayhem

(About 3-4 years ago, I launched a quarterly, themed magazine series with the first issue revolving around singlehood. This story was published in that magazine edition. But as I revised it for this blog post, I'm remembering more details and events so I'm seriously considering rewriting this as a proper memoir. Stay tuned, my friends.)

I stared at Antonio* because I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. Or what he had just said. He looked at me.

“Get the rope!” he demanded.

I remained motionless.

“Get the gun!” he added.

Gun?! What gun?

I continued to stand there paralyzed, suddenly fearful that there was a weapon in the apartment.

Antonio saw that I wasn’t moving so he fled down the hallway into the bedroom. I finally turned my attention to that of Marco, the injured guest. He still sat in the chair. I wanted to dial 9-1-1 but I was seriously afraid. I didn’t even have a cell phone back then so I couldn’t grab one, run and call. But I was scared of getting shot, too. I was scared of getting interrogated. I was scared of testifying. I was scared of retaliation. I wasn’t accustomed to any of this mess; it wasn’t a life I had envisioned. But there I was.

Still full of excuses.

And wondering how the fuck I got here even after every screeching red flag that I dismissed.

I turned towards the door deciding if I should just escape right then and leave everything behind but my keys were in my purse in the bedroom. But then where could I go with no keys to my car? It was clear the neighbors feigned ignorance and minded their own business because no one peeked out their windows or doors. Neither the neighbors nor the other guests called the police. The mall and the shopping centers surrounding the complex were all closed. The whole world was mute or asleep. Or afraid.

I tiptoed down the hallway to see what Antonio was doing. He was inside the walk-in closet and I could hear items falling from the shelf and hitting the floor as his arms flailed in search of this gun.

“I can’t find it,” he said.

The shelves were empty. On the floor were sweaters, shirts and baseball caps covering neat rows of shoes. There was no lockbox. No shoebox. No thud of heavy steel meeting carpet. He didn’t have a gun. I walked back out front to check on the guest. He was alert, maybe plotting his own escape.

“You better go,” I told him. “Do what you need to do.”

I had hoped he’d be the one to report the incident.

I never really got some of these shared points-of-view on what makes a lasting relationship. I’m confused by social media memes that cape for ride-or-die status, confuse crazy with passion or perpetuate some flawed reasoning that accepting turmoil creates a stronger relationship. I know firsthand that it doesn’t.

Living in drama, chaos and dysfunction isn’t a relationship litmus test, although it does sound like an audition for TV One’s For My Man or Fatal Attraction.

Or Oxygen’s Snapped.

But I do understand unwittingly getting stuck in the middle of madness like you’re the eye of a hurricane, calm and oblivious to the turbulence swirling around you until travesty occurs and you finally realize that despite the warnings, you still didn’t run for cover before and during the storm.

I thought I was exempt from drama, though, because I was quiet and compromising. Surely those weren’t precursors to conflict. And if any issues just happened to arise, they’d be minor enough for me to “resolve” them the way I’d always done with anyone else: pretend the incident never occurred. I’d ignore it, suppress my true feelings and pretend to move on.

But for the most part I figured drama would elude me because I’d attract someone just like me and we’d lead pretty predictable and maybe even mundane lives. That theory actually left me unprepared to handle the normality of what constitutes a healthy relationship, though, so I definitely wasn’t built for the escalating foolery that ensued after getting involved with Antonio over two decades ago. 

I was about 23 or 24 when he approached me one evening in the mall parking lot while I loaded purchases onto the back seat of my car. I was heading back to my hometown for a baby shower that weekend so in my mind, I was running down a list of things I needed to pack in addition to what I had just bought. As I stacked my bags, Antonio interrupted my inattention with some joke that I can no longer remember.

Normally I didn’t engage with strangers in fairly secluded spaces – well I still don’t – especially since I was a young woman living alone for the first time in a metropolitan area several hundred miles away from my rural hometown. I was privy to the stranger-danger warnings and men cornering women in vast, lesser populated areas like parking decks between big white cargo vans and cars so while I didn’t see him coming, I was still hyper-aware of his presence.

But I was also single and intrigued. 

I initially saw confidence and charisma behind Antonio’s borderline display of creepiness and corniness. And since I appreciated the fact that he didn’t use some canned pickup line as his leading introduction, I entertained his intrusion.

During pleasantries, we realized our destinations were west of the mall. Antonio proclaimed to be a chef and – probably in an effort to portray some culinary prowess – he suggested we meet at Copeland’s, a restaurant recognized for its New Orleans-style cuisine and en route to our respective residences. And since I already knew the restaurant’s location and its proximity to the interstate, I felt safe following him there.

He promptly introduced me to the waiter, who also happened to be his friend. His friend gave us the day’s specials and while I was still processing the promotional entrees and perusing the menu, Antonio described the dishes and proceeded to order for the both of us. Although the mashed sweet potato was delectable and the mahi-mahi was fantastically moist and flavorful, I was at the very least annoyed – essentially telling me what I was going to eat didn’t impress me at all. In fact, I saw it as a prelude to telling me where I could go and how I could dress.

Still I enjoyed dinner and the conversation. He told me that his friends called him Nino, like the name of the drug lord played by Wesley Snipes in New Jack City. I found that odd yet I told him he reminded me of actor Bill Bellamy with his appearance and humor. Antonio shook his head in modesty. He continued to tell me stories about his parents, his gig as a chef at one of the regional Italian chains and his friendships. But in the back of my mind, something was amiss with all of his candor and forwardness. 

I understand transparency and getting to know someone. I also understand monopolizing the conversation and TMI, especially without me asking many questions. What I couldn’t determine was whether Antonio’s openness was a sign of a severe problem or just a minor infraction. My intuition told me his forthcoming nature was probably indicative of questionable behavior or a sign of covering something up so I wouldn’t ask any questions. The idea made me a little uncomfortable so I decided that I might not want to pursue anything serious with him after all.

After dinner I walked him to his truck so that he could leave first. I didn’t want to risk the possibility of him following me to my apartment. I peeked inside and saw pictures of a cheerful little girl decorating his dashboard.

“Who is she?” I asked.

He seemed confused at first, having to glance at the pictures before answering.

“Oh that’s my niece,” he replied.

I shrugged, wished him a good night and headed home.

The next morning I got up for work, headed to my hometown that evening and distanced myself from the man who wanted to eagerly prove he was this ambitious, standup, take-charge, cultured kind of guy.

I didn’t know how to cordially reject someone so I screened my phone calls to avoid conversing with him. I didn’t even patronize Copeland’s or the local Italian restaurant because I didn’t want to run into him. 

But I did run into him nearly a year later. 

In the back of my mind, I still had my reasons for not wanting to get to know him but a part of me felt maybe they weren’t concrete enough. They were based more on opinion rather than fact, like if he had a live-in girlfriend or a wife that I knew about then that would’ve been a different story. Or actually, I was swayed by all of that you-are-too-picky-just-go-with-the-flow chatter swishing in my ear.

Deciding I was too skeptical, I went against my gut-feeling. I convinced my still single self that I was acting irrationally, being overly cautious from watching too much Unsolved Mysteries and other shows of the sort. (Lifetime Movie Network wasn’t one of my pastimes yet.) I figured we must’ve reconnected for a reason so I decided to give him a chance.

This time I was living with my cousin, her husband and their two kids. I was unenthusiastically building a career in the insurance industry as a claims adjuster and while the salary was decent, it wasn’t exactly a livable wage for someone who had to unexpectedly purchase a new car because the old one still had a note plus a cracked head gasket and an engine full of antifreeze. So I temporarily lived with family while I saved up some cash and rebounded from the added monthly expense.

Antonio’s SUV had disappeared at this point so he caught rides from work with one of his friends who coincidentally lived a few cul-de-sacs down from my cousin. Antonio would hang around for a bit and then we’d head over to his apartment in the neighboring county.

Against my better judgment, I tried to mesh my two words, allowing everyone to get to know one another, maybe eventually hanging out outside of home. I had told everyone that Antonio was a chef. And if I didn’t, he made sure he did. As long as I’ve known my cousin’s ex-husband, he’s been on this stringent health regimen – exercising and eating organic foods before it even became a trend. He usually bought already prepared or frozen meals but wanted tasty chicken and fish recipes so who better to ask about pantry staples than the chef.

“What kind of quick, tasty meals can I make at home with those ingredients,” he asked. “And what ingredients should I have on-hand?”

Antonio made a strange face, a cross between surprise and annoyance. Then he finally replied.

“You know, I work with food every day, all day,” Antonio gruffly said. “I just don’t like to talk about it when I’m off work.”

Nucca, what?

My cousin’s husband and I stared at him, most likely sharing the same thoughts: First of all, it’s food, not privileged or confidential information like a pending criminal investigation held close by a prosecuting attorney! Second of all, Antonio was the one who often boasted about his job so naturally someone would eventually ask him a pointed question about his cooking expertise just as my friends and family would occasionally ask me about my insurance knowledge. As much as I disliked my job, I didn’t flip out over a question about it.

But I was more embarrassed than stunned so I cued Antonio that it was time for us to leave – when I probably should’ve shown him the door to walk through by himself – and I minimized his presence at my family’s apartment going forward. I spent more time at Antonio’s place until he announced he was moving back home.

I visited what was supposed to have been his parents’ house a few times. The middle-aged, wrinkled white woman who was usually there always greeted me with an icy “Hi.” She never smiled or made me feel welcomed whenever I entered the home. Antonio told me to ignore her. He said it was his mother’s best friend, Marilyn, and she always hung around even when his mom wasn’t at home. He claimed Marilyn had no life, that his mother’s life was all she knew. Antonio said Marilyn got on his nerves because she didn’t know how to go home.

Of course I found this strange, too. What best friend constantly lounges at her bestie’s house while she isn’t home, especially if that best friend has a home of her own? Antonio never said Marilyn lived there, too. But, hey, who was I to question the nuances of anyone’s friendship? I didn’t even question Antonio’s peculiar behavior.

One evening Marilyn skipped the “Hi.” Instead she averted her gaze to Antonio.

“I need to talk to you,” she said to him.

He directed me to his room so I couldn’t hear what was said. It was the last time I visited that home.

Within the next week, Antonio said he had been approved for an apartment at a luxury complex. The grounds were beautiful with the gigantic fountain, duck pond and floral shrubbery, not to mention the amenities: a swimming pool, clubhouse and tennis courts. I really liked the place.

At the same time, my cousin and husband were about to close on their first house. I was at a crossroads. Part of me didn’t want to impose and move into their new home with them because this was a moment for them to enjoy it as a unit. The other part of me wasn’t ready to financially sustain a residence again so soon.

I was still recovering from the outlay of expenses from the repairs to the old car and the balance rollover of the old car to the new car’s note. And as a true finance major, I also wanted to see a certain figure back in my savings account so I’d be better prepared for future surprises.

But since I spent a lot of time at Antonio’s – until he went to his so-called parents’ house – I decided that I’d move into the new apartment with him. It turned out to simultaneously be the best and worst decision I’d ever made.

I’m not nosy. I believe everyone is entitled to a tad bit of privacy, even a romantic partner. However, one afternoon I noticed a partially folded paycheck stub lying atop the dresser. I heard how much he made – because it was another bragging point of his – but I had a feeling he earned significantly less only because although he qualified for this lavish apartment on his alleged moderate salary, he still couldn’t afford something as basic as a combination meal.

It was a Saturday when he asked me about dinner plans and I suggested we go to Chick-fil-A for a then-number one: an original chicken sandwich, a side of waffle fries and a cup of lemonade. It was about $5 back then.

However he oddly started talking about how eating out was too expensive especially with rent and added utilities although he only paid half across the board. I thought the preface was unnecessary for a few bucks when he worked full-time. I’m thinking he must not want to buy my food, which was a moot point when I could buy my own food. But when we pulled up to the mall entrance so I could get out to get my food, he proceeded to tell me what he wanted.

“Get a brother a sandwich,” he said.

“Does a brother have money?” I retorted.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have hesitated to treat him to a sandwich and he wouldn’t have been forced to take advantage of the free meal perk at his job on his day off. But Antonio habitually overspent just for appearances and tried to rely on me to supplement and replenish behind the scenes. It was a major turn off and I wasn’t about to enable him.

I had befriended Kennedy, one of my coworkers at the insurance company, and she’d sometimes come to the new apartment on weekends to keep me company. And sane. Antonio wanted Kennedy to meet one of his friends, which I highly discouraged because of the birds of a feather thing, and would invite them both to Copeland’s with us as sort of a double date. He’d constantly keep their glasses filled with some sort of libation while Kennedy and I knowingly exchanged glances. I cringed whenever the tab arrived although Antonio promptly pulled out his crisp bills to cover it and refused the money his friend or Kennedy offered.

By then he’d purchased a BMW, a vehicle less practical than my brand new Honda Civic – which he had the nerve to call a piece of shit – because the Beamer came with a higher gas and maintenance price. Since he often overspent on drinks and dinner on the weekends, he had difficulty filling his high-priced 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.

Something in me clicked. 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 confronted him about it.

“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. I can tolerate nails scratching a chalkboard if I had to. I also think I can watch a person eat with her mouth full, food squishing and churning like clothes in a front-loading washer. Well, maybe not.

But I can’t stand for a man to not claim his kids and then Antonio lied about it. I wasn’t “people.” We shared, obviously 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 won’t let me see my daughter and she took me to court for child support.”

I didn’t respond.

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

I hadn’t even lived with him for two months. I wanted out but I felt trapped mainly because I was too proud to say I fucked up and moved in with this practical stranger who mismanaged money and compulsively lied. So I hid behind a slew of other excuses: Shelling out $500 per month plus utilities tremendously diminished the amount I was able to save. I was also still determined to not crash my cousin’s new home. Plus apartments usually took weeks to become available and I wanted all of my belongings when I left because I knew I wouldn’t return later to retrieve them. And I had to figure out how to sneak them out because I’d already mistakenly told him I was leaving, to which he begged me to stay with the promise that he would be honest and 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’d 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. That was one boundary I solidly built. Fortunately for him, the judge didn’t need outside testimony.

I also know that was God’s protection.

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 more dire situation than I had originally considered.

Of course it was once again his daughter’s mother’s fault. She supposedly kept taking him to court on bogus charges as his punishment for ending their relationship. He wanted to prove it to me and my girl 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 because she thought he now had more disposable income.

“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 told us.

Kennedy and I looked at the summons, cut our eyes 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 read, which was the entire document and not just what he wanted us to view.

“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 part of it. It was not his daughter’s mother’s name. Kennedy couldn’t see it from where she stood, 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 mofo had at least two children.

But I continued to play dumb and let him think he tricked me while I strategized an exit plan. Meanwhile I didn’t even confront him with his paternity or paycheck discrepancies until much later because I still lacked that argumentative gene so I completely shut down. And since I was still unable to tap into that place of confrontation, I seemingly let things slide.

I still remained in that apartment with him amidst foolishness and disorder.

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 p.m. just so I could be “asleep” when he came home from work. I became distant and moody. But I also 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 much sooner. 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?”

Even if it were an innocent question, everything he said and did aggravated me, which only intensified things.

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. I hated my work-from-home days while I lived with Antonio, though.

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! It was like he just needed to be heard.

When I wanted to run out to grab lunch and bring it back right 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.

My new manager!

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 he were a client with a corporate inquiry. As if it’s protocol to call someone’s manager, not to tell her that her employee has been hospitalized or is deceased but to ask her to ask her employee if he has the means to dry his hands at home.

“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.

On another Saturday afternoon, Antonio decided to host a get-together at the apartment and invite all of our friends. The only girlfriend I asked to the party was Kennedy because I refused to introduce him to anyone else including Kourtney, my friend at my new job who’d become another confidante. I had also stopped hanging out at my cousin’s apartment after the recipe and pantry staples incident and I definitely didn’t visit her after she moved because I knew her house would be sort of a refuge in my escape and I didn’t want Antonio to know where she lived. It was bad enough that he knew where I worked.

As the party progressed and more of his friends arrived, I started to feel less social. I didn’t like Antonio so I didn’t have the strength to muster and maintain cordiality towards his friends, at least not all night. I turned into the rude hostess and went to bed, even leaving Kennedy, who actually seemed to like hanging out with Antonio’s friend. As I dozed off, I could hear the guests teaming up to play Spades, a strategic card game with the intent to end relationships and fracture kinships.

I must’ve been asleep for two to three hours when I thought I was dreaming. There seemed to be loud screams and heavy footsteps running past the bedroom window. I sat up to see if I still heard commotion. I did and it moved to pounding at the door.

I got up and walked down the hallway toward the door, glancing to my left at the sliding glass door as I heard more trampling go by. The door opened before I could reach it.

“Come quick!” a young woman said. “It’s Antonio.”

I just knew something had happened to him. He was struck by a moving vehicle in the parking deck. Or a guest beat his ass because he reneged in Spades. Or he was arrested for acting a damn fool in a majority-white neighborhood after midnight. But I didn’t feel a pressing need to go see. I wanted to get back under the covers to go back to sleep. I thought it was the relief I sought. I was going to have peace! And an uninterrupted conference call the following week.

But before I could turn to walk back down the hallway to bask in the bliss, Antonio barged through the door with a guest who must’ve arrived after I had gone to bed because I didn’t recognize him, in more ways than one. They initially appeared to be in an embrace, like he was near unconsciousness from intoxication, but it only took me a few seconds to see that Antonio was simultaneously dragging and holding up his guest.

His guest was battered: His face was bloody and he was essentially motionless. He looked like he had been in an automobile accident.

Antonio sat him in a chair that was at the card table. I wondered if an ambulance was on the way. It wasn’t.

The other guests scattered as Antonio struck his guest on the side of his face, a sound reminiscent of two colliding rocks. The man’s face shifted to the side and sprung back forward. I was shocked that Antonio was responsible for this man’s appearance. Antonio launched into a rant about how the man had been telling people where he and his family rested their heads at night as if we were celebrities or dignitaries or members of the witness protection program. Antonio paced the living room floor with his nonsensical rambling about a rope and a gun.

This was the night that Antonio physically assaulted Marco and I’d hoped that Marco would call the police. While I didn’t want to be the one to report it and be initially interrogated, I would’ve been okay if officers arrived on the scene. I would’ve been satisfied if Antonio ended up in handcuffs and placed in a jail cell for the remainder of the weekend. 

At least if the police came out, they wouldn’t find a firearm but rather overflowing trash of empty plates, bottles and cans and a broken shower curtain rod that someone pulled down in his drunken state. I could provide a “better” explanation of what happened with no gun on the premises: Officer, the party grew out-of-hand. But the badly beaten guest didn’t call anyone because no uniformed men knocked on the door.

I then half-expected the young man to come back with his crew for revenge.

The young man did return later that Sunday after lunch, though. His eye was badly swollen. His light-complexioned face was bruised in deep shades of blue and green. I couldn’t look at him. I shifted my gaze to his girlfriend who accompanied him.

He introduced her to both of us and they sat down on the couch like we were all great friends.

He then apologized for mentioning Antonio to anyone. He explained he was new to the area but met Antonio and thought that he had also met some mutual friends when he dropped Antonio’s name. The guest spoke like he deserved to get beat. He and Antonio even made a joke about it. 

“Yeah, man, your face hurt my fist,” Antonio responded.

The girlfriend chuckled. I did not.

I gave Kourtney the replay the next day at work. I was just dumbfounded by not only the weekend’s events, but also by the whole exchange a few hours after that.

“Antonio has to be a drug dealer,” she said.

“But he has no damn money,” I replied. 

He was no Nino Brown or even Gee Money at that. More like Pookie if I had to pick one. I told her how he couldn’t even give me his full portion of the rent earlier in the month. I was annoyed by the fact that not only did he hand me a bunch of rolled up bills that I had to unroll and count but that the bundles were also $20 short. 

“That’s what drug dealers do,” she explained. “They roll their money like that.”

I didn’t believe her, although it would mean his nickname “Nino” sounded more logical. But if he were indeed a drug dealer, I would’ve seen some drugs. I might’ve been gullible but I wasn’t literally blind. And he would’ve been able to come up with $1,000 for rent. Yet he couldn’t even scrape together $500 just as he couldn’t renew his annual registration on his BMW. 

Yep, he was Pookie. 

I wouldn’t help him pay for it. My money was mine. It was another boundary I successfully established. But the apartment management was a stickler for improperly licensed vehicles. Cars with expired tags were subject to be towed at the owner’s expense. Antonio was worried about that fee plus any associated storage fees. I wasn’t going to pay those, either, but I also didn’t want to hear about it.

He pleaded for me to temporarily remove the front license plate from my “piece-of-shit” car and place it on the front of his car. He’d back his car into a parking space in the meanwhile and return my tag as soon as he was able to go to the DMV.

I’d been driving with only a back plate for barely a week when one of my colleagues approached me in the parking lot one afternoon after our break.

“Where’s your tag?” she asked.

The question struck me as unusual because unless you work for the motor vehicle department, the police department or another department within the county, you’re really not going to notice that a driver is missing a license plate on the front of her bumper as much as you would if it were a back tag.

“Long story,” I said.

This particular colleague transferred to my department shortly after I started working for the company. She usually hung out with me and Kourtney for lunch. We’d dine out or we’d shop and make seasonal trips to the MAC cosmetics counter for makeovers and return to work glammed up. Eventually she told us that she didn’t want to drive her car whenever we went out. In retrospect, she didn’t want me in her car as if I constantly turned her preset radio stations without her permission or I puffed a Newport, burned a hole in the center console and blew figurative smoke rings in her face the way she and Antonio did to me.

I found her in one of Antonio’s photo albums under the living room coffee table one evening. He claimed she was a crazy ex but clearly they still conversed because she knew a little bit too much about me to not have been in communication with him – like what item was missing from my vehicle. Only she and I stopped speaking on a personal level – because it’s always the other woman’s fault and never the man’s – and soon that drama bled into our professional relationship.

I got to work early one morning and passed her in the hallway immediately upon exiting the elevator. She was headed to the bathroom and I was heading towards an empty cubicle because my usual desk was taken for the day. This was during the alternating telecommuting schedule, which meant that employees were sharing workspaces. I was carrying my laptop bag on my right shoulder. She was to my left as I walked by.

I felt her make a U-turn behind me and follow me to my seat.

“What, you trying to knock me down?” she huffed.

I sat my laptop bag down on the desk but I didn’t sit down. She was picking a fight. We never made contact in the hallway but we were going to make some contact in that cubicle. And it wasn't because I wanted to fight over Antonio because I didn’t. I didn’t want him. But I was exasperated and I didn’t like for people to invade my personal space or attack me for no valid reason, which he was not one.

The argument escalated. The receptionist contemplated calling security. The only other coworker in our department who came to work early emerged from the next row of cubicles and intervened.

“It’s not worth it,” she said.

Our angry colleague turned back around and continued to the bathroom, I presumed. I thought the drama was over.

Later in the day, the coworker who calmed us down advised me that our immediate manager’s manager wanted to see me in his office. He shook his head and smiled when I entered. He told me to have a seat.

The colleague who initiated the altercation called human resources on me. She accused me of pushing her into the wall. Our superior had to take recorded statements from all three of us.

During the procedure I found out my colleague further lied and said I also followed her home one evening – a rush hour commute that could’ve easily taken two hours down I-95 to her town – and started riding by her house at night. I did neither. He also told me that she had already complained about me harassing her prior to the incident but he didn’t believe her because I never gave him the impression that I’d do something like that. But he had to do something at that moment because human resources was involved.

“I’d hate for the two of you to cross each other in an alley at night,” our senior manager joked at the end of the meeting.

Ultimately she was scheduled to transfer back out of the group and I was forbidden to come into the office on the days I was scheduled to work from home until she left the department.

Fortunately, this was the only confrontation I had with another woman because of him. I felt rather stupid having to relive a fight amongst my professional peers over a man who wasn’t even my spouse, not that the latter would make a physical encounter acceptable. I might’ve lived in chaos at the time but I was working hard to keep it undercover. It was to remain behind the closed apartment door along with the presence of the other women who suddenly manifested out of thin air.

A new tenant with four small children moved into an apartment a few buildings from ours. Out of the hundreds of residents in the complex, she had to become friendly with Antonio. Or vice versa. Antonio acted quite charitable when it came to her, claiming it was because she was a single mother who was trying to establish a better life for herself and her children with no familial support.

When the new neighbor needed to go to work, Antonio felt obligated to get her there. But while his BMW was not-in-service because of his dead tags, he had the audacity to ask me for my keys to my “piece-of-shit” Civic so he could drive her to her shift on time. I wasn’t as giving, especially since his track record was shady, she wasn’t my friend and their interaction was relatively disrespectful.

The neighbor came over entirely too much, most times in the evenings when she wasn’t working. I was still maintaining a 7 p.m. sleep schedule so I wouldn’t even be out front when she arrived. But I got up one night and silently walked down the hallway into the living room because it was too quiet and I knew Antonio was still in the apartment somewhere. The neighbor was sitting on the couch and he was sitting in a chair to her right. I swore I caught him snatching his leg back from her foot while I was in the bedroom supposedly asleep.

“She, like you, needs to find her own way to work,” I told him. And since my backbone was made of cartilage and not bone, I added, “My family pays my auto insurance just for me. No one else can drive my car.”

I went into denial over the footsy thing, though. It happened so fast that I began to doubt what I saw. Maybe my mind was on high-alert because Antonio was always up to something. I couldn’t prove what I presumed had happened because I didn’t see their feet connect. But mainly I refused to believe that he’d be that bold to do something so discourteous with me some feet away in the next room. At least be like the men who hover in corridors and stairwells on their cell phones with their secret lovers. At least have the courtesy to do it at her place or outside where I couldn’t see them.

Or hear them.

He tried to be on the same page in that aspect but he still wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.

Antonio claimed he was going to the restaurant one evening because one of his colleagues owed him some money and the coworker was supposed to repay him that day. While he was across the street, I tried to log on to my job’s network and do a little work while I could concentrate. We were still in the days of AOL dial-up and I noticed that I couldn’t get a dial tone through my laptop on my first two attempts. On the third attempt, I heard a voice.

I thought I had left a webpage opened and assumed it was automatically playing but after a few seconds, it stopped. I then noticed I’d never connected to the web. On the fourth attempt, I realized I had tapped into a phone conversation.

“I don’t love her,” I heard a male voice say.

The laptop disconnected as a female voice started to reply.

On the fifth attempt, the man heard a click. 

“Hello?” the male voice said.

I promptly shut down, closed the lid of the laptop and put it away. I ran to the kitchen to see if the phone was there; then I returned to the living room and pretended to be watching TV when Antonio re-entered the apartment moments later.

“Did you get your money?” I asked.

“No, he wasn’t there,” he replied.

I turned my head knowing he was going to sneak the cordless phone back onto its cradle. Oddly, this was the nudge I needed to make a real move. I didn’t end the charade when he lied about his finances and his offspring. I didn’t walk away when his actions affected my livelihood. And I didn’t really heed the fool-get-out warning when I found out he needed to be watched while he talked to his own child or sense the urgency when he wanted to commit murder. Yet the minute I actually caught him admittedly trying to play me to another woman, I executed my plan. I was one of those people who didn’t believe shit was shit because it stank; I needed it smeared across my face and swiped across my lips, too. That was nasty, I know, but my priorities and values were all screwed up by pride and benefit of the doubt but at five months in that space my common sense had finally activated.

The next morning I drove 10 miles to my old apartment complex and completed a new application. The rental manager told me it would be two weeks before a unit would be available. But I didn’t have two weeks to spare. I couldn’t even bear to stay in the apartment for two more days.

I called my college roommate, who lived 160 miles away and had no clue of my current situation because I didn’t really talk to her during that time period, either. She was eager to make room for me. I also made arrangements with my immediate manager to telecommute from Newport News for the entire two weeks that my new place would be unavailable.

The following morning I anxiously waited for Antonio to get up for work. It seemed as if he sensed that I was up to something and considered taking the day off because he didn’t rise at his usual time. But I tried my hardest to appear calm. I didn’t ask him if he realized the time or if he was going to work. Thirty minutes later, he finally got ready.

I waited 10 minutes after his departure just to be sure he wouldn’t return to retrieve something or catch me in action. I jumped out of bed and hustled to pack. I didn’t even put my clothing neatly inside my luggage; I stuffed them into garbage bags.

I tossed larger items into my Civic and sped 30 minutes one-way – three trips each – to my cousin’s new house to store them in her garage.

Finally I called the electric company to disconnect the power. As I took a last look around the apartment to be sure there were no lingering belongings, I got the evil urge to do Antonio’s laundry. So I washed his clothing – even some of the clean pieces – in capfuls of powdered detergent because I knew it irritated his skin.

About 11 years ago, I was sitting in the bar area of a contemporary restaurant that my newest work friends and I liked to frequent after work. I was enjoying a spoonful of lobster bisque when I heard my entire government name called from somewhere behind me.

I flinched.

I slowly turned around and confirmed the voice. Antonio was in black and white uniform so I assumed he worked there and not as the chef, either. We exchanged the normal pleasantries – me mainly because I was in professional public – and he told me that he worked at Booz-Allen Hamilton during the day. I ignored the fake charm and nodded but reciprocated no information. I felt my friends’ eyes on my back but I offered no mutual introductions. Antonio got the hint.

“Well, good seeing you,” he said as he walked towards the restrooms and kitchen.

I resumed eating my soup and sushi and sipping my mango martini. Naturally, my friends did not get the hint.

“Who was that?” my manager-friend asked.

“Nobody,” I replied.

I called my girl Meka later that night.

“So did y’all exchange numbers?” she asked.

I took a split-second to wonder why she’d ask me that question. Then I realized that’s the routine we follow when we singles run into exes after many years. We normally reconnect and rekindle some spark. But Antonio and I existed before Meka and I and she didn’t know the utter turmoil I lived in before I acknowledged I was in a horrible space and managed to flee.

She didn’t know that Antonio was a pretender who lied about the smallest of details, like being a chef when he was really the person who garnished the plates with parsley and like allegedly living in the house with his parents, who really lived in an apartment in Southeast Washington, DC. I’m willing to bet the home I visited really belonged to the fake best friend, Marilyn, who was probably his landlord and she kicked his ass out.

 Meka didn’t know that after I moved out, the new single neighbor who hung over so much to play footsy ended up pregnant again, most likely by Antonio. She didn’t know how Antonio left so many menacing messages on my work voice mail after  that, that I had to alert security.

“I knew you were leaving that day,” he said ominously. “I know where you live.”

Negro, please.

Meka also didn’t know how many times I scolded myself for not only getting involved with someone like Antonio but for also staying involved with someone like Antonio for so long as if I were subconsciously fascinated by his antics or only allotted one man in my lifetime and he was my assigned helpmate.

I rebuked that one.

He didn’t even deserve my old number or permission to disrupt my renewed spirit.

“Hell, no,” I replied to Meka.

I was comfortable in my single status even if I were past 35 at that point. I’m not about that tumultuous life. I need something a little bit milder like a tropical breeze on a sunlit cloudy day. No sudden gales, no sustained gusts. 

Besides, whirlwinds should never precede romance, anyway.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

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