We had never planned it that way. My ex-husband and I living together under the same roof for two years after our divorce. Well, at least, children aren’t involved, my family and friends lectured me, as if that would have lightened up the inevitable burden of living together. It’s not that we didn’t want to go our separate ways. A depressed, almost non-existent housing market forced us to put our lives on hold since we desperately needed the house money to move on. Even Suze Orman had no answers for our pathetic lifestyle.
Our modest, upstate New York raised ranch became a rooming house for two people and two cats. Six steps separated our designated living spaces. We hardly spoke and if we did, it consisted of a sentence, or a simple “yes” or “no.” Our muted state of co-habitation made us seem like freaks to the outside world after the initial shock wore off. So much so, that no one really wanted to see us. If my sister came over, Robbie, my ex, would give her a half-wave on his way to the hallway bathroom. Or my Dad, always the guy to have a beer with, would sit on the living room couch, fidgeting, looking about, and hoping he wouldn’t have to face his ex son-in-law. My mother refused to visit, saying that our arrangement was too weird. It was even awkward explaining the situation to my colleagues at work, who had front row seats to our uncoupling. From a blissful state of married life to my college sweetheart to a marriage of living hell — all revealed by my tearful episodes in my office’s communal lunch room.
Robbie and I communicated by leaving notes for one another. Taped to the fridge was a collage of pastel colored Post-its, shouting out orders, reminders. You forgot to pay home insurance; cats vet app’t; open house this Saturday. And an occasional “F” you, in blunt Sharpie capital letters, when a particular note pissed either of us off. There were a few of those.
Dinner together? Never. We cooked separately, ate separately. Robbie had his meals in the downstairs den where he also slept while I sequestered myself in the upper level bedroom. Since I paid most of the bills, I held rank in choosing a place to sleep. It was as if I was back in college, marooned in a room, my bed a breeding ground for soggy French fries and Doritos. And dating material? Try explaining to a potential lover that your roommate is your ex. Skid marks.
Occasionally, if I needed to talk to anyone, I’d brave to call a close friend and almost always get asked the same question. Are you having sex with him?
No one was taking our divorce seriously.
I just accepted my fate that first year, but saw a glimmer of hope the second year, when the market improved a bit. Two families seemed interested in buying our house, plus one builder, the latter making an offer that would have only made it possible for one of us to buy a trailer home on the outskirts of Albany. Finally, one of the couples came through after we sweetened the deal with our cross-country skis and my batch of home-grown canned tomatoes stored in the pantry.
I was ecstatic. Robbie, seemed relieved too, spending a lot of time in his den/bedroom talking on the phone and typing away on his laptop, making his plans for the future, I assumed. We could finally move on. Our limited conversations focused on the packing and the move. We had already split our belongings over the two-year wait it took to sell the house. He got the beer mugs and I got the tall-stemmed wine glasses. Scrabble for me, Warriors for him. Russian blue Darcy for me and tabby Trevor for him.
But then things got really weird. He rarely cooked dinner anymore made evident by the used ramen noodle cups in the trash and he hardly left the den. I noticed his car parked outside on some mornings when I left, and, since he usually left for his part-time job at CVS an hour earlier than me, I surmised he was also missing work. We had kept our private lives off-limits after the divorce so I just brushed asking questions aside. Our closing would take place in a couple of weeks’ time, I gleefully reminded myself, and we would both be free of our forced living arrangement.
But one night, after coming home from work earlier than usual, I heard shouting from the den.
“You’re lying. After all this time. Why did you do this?”
The door to the den was half-opened. “Robbie?” I called out. I didn’t want him to think I was eavesdropping.
“I don’t understand. You were supposed to meet me after I wired the money. You know, I can go to the cops.”
I’m not a particularly anxious person but when I heard him say “cops,” my antennae shot up like rabbit ears. Robbie was slouched on the couch, his face beet red, his hand across his forehead as he spoke into the phone. He was so entrenched in the conversation he didn’t even notice me at the door.
“Why did you lie? I don’t understand. After all these months.” He looked up, finally seeing me at the door.
“I have to go. I’ll call you back.” He quickly put his cell phone into the pocket of his running pants.
“I didn’t know you were home,” he said. He got up from the couch and brushed past me. “I’ll clean the kitchen.”
“Robbie, what is going on? I heard part of that conversation.”
“You shouldn’t listen in.” He kicked the laundry basket in the hallway out of the way. His dirty clothes spilling onto the floor.
I was used to this behavior. The childish Robbie who would ignore me when things got too complicated.
“Are you in trouble?” I followed him into the kitchen. “I mean, why do you need to call the cops?”
“I can’t talk about this now,” he said turning his back, his hands pressed flat on the kitchen countertop, his body taut, legs pinned to the floor.
“OK. I just thought you might want to.” I knew from our years of arguing that I needed to just walk away, avoiding our once epic screaming matches. As I made my way up the stairs, he called out.
“I’ve done something really stupid.”
I wasn’t too sure I wanted to hear the stupid thing he’d done. I had a morning meeting and needed to get some sleep. All I wanted to do was to get out of my clothes, pull on my fuzzy loungers and numbly watch a crappy movie on Netflix.
I turned around and saw his body hunched over by the stairs, a man defeated, ruined. I sat on the steps.
“I lent someone some money and she lied.” He looked up at me, slurring his words.
“Lied? About what?” I dreaded hearing what would come out of his mouth next.
“I really fucked up this time, I’m sorry, Sarah….” Robbie was drunk. I could tell by how he put his hands in his pockets to keep his balance, as if the weight of them against his hips could keep him in a vertical position. “I got chatting with this woman. Online. She was so interesting. Sounded so nice. So we exchanged phone numbers. We talked for hours. About everything. It seemed she liked me, talking about her family, her job. I mean, she seemed like a good person...”
Robbie prattled on.
“How much money did you lend her?”
“I lent her some.” Robbie looked up at me. He knew I knew he was hiding something. “Okay. Ten thousand. I gave her fucking ten thousand dollars!”
“Jesus Christ almighty, Robbie! Ten grand?” I yelled out. “Well, where does she live? Can you go to her house?” I knew he had some reserve put away for the move and his new life, inheritance money from an aunt. My head pounded with the thought of fleeting dollar signs meant to help pay our moving costs and the lawyer for closing costs.
“I never met her. We just talked on the phone. And texted.”
“You never met her? Wait…wait…you lent ten thousand dollars to a woman you never met and only spoke with on the phone?”
I took some deep breaths. Robbie was silent.
“First of all, why would you do such a fucking stupid thing?” I sat on the steps feeling lightheaded. It was as if Robbie had slugged one last hook in the boxing ring.
“I wired money. She gave me the details. We were planning to meet at Christmas time after she rescued some dogs in Alabama.”
I was speechless. Dogs. Alabama. The man whom I’d known for five years had obviously undergone a frontal lobotomy.
“I told you I did a stupid thing.”
“I have to go to bed.” I got up from the stairs and headed up again. I was trying hard to distance myself from Robbie’s problem, something I had learned to do the last few years. “We’ll talk about this in the morning on my drive into work.” I closed my bedroom door and entered my little piece of heaven.
Only that it wasn’t heaven. It was hell. I flopped on my bed and stared at the ceiling. The one Robbie and I taped glow-in-the-dark stars to when we first got married so we could look up and imagine that we were outside during those sub-zero northeastern winters. How we cuddled closely under the covers of our goose down comforter, gazing up to a make-believe sky in those first months of marriage. We called it our starry night sky.
But the stars were never real. What was real was us never having enough money to pay our bills. And my silly notion that I could change a person, a partner, from a dreamer to a responsible individual. I couldn’t call my parents again for a loan because Robbie and I were divorced and they had already paid a price for his pie-in-the-sky ventures gone south while we were married.
Like his dream of growing oyster mushrooms in our basement for gourmet markets which, at first, sounded like a pretty cool idea to me. I even helped set up the crates, damp moss and straw on the cement floor, making it look more Jurassic Park than Robbie’s video gaming room. But the mice had eaten the mushroom stems before they fully sprouted and our basement never recovered. That investment cost us two mortgage payments, which my parents helped cover.
I tossed around the bed until the sheets lay twisted around my legs. My mind raced all night thinking that this woman could be dangerous. Was it even a woman? A home invader? Jesus. Would Robbie have been so stupid to have given her our address? I buried my head into my pillow, letting out successive cries until my body gave in and fell into a restless sleep.
On my drive to work the next morning, I called Robbie who was still in bed.
“Did you ever trace her name from her phone number. Can you text it to me?”
“I know her name. Becky Rinawski.” He answered half-asleep.
“Okay, well, did you google her?”
“I couldn’t find her.”
No shit. Of course, I already knew that answer. No one would find Becky fucking Rinawski anywhere near Albany. I told him I would go to my bank to try to get more info about money transfers.
“How did you transfer the money?” I asked him.
That night I sat with Robbie in the kitchen. I poured myself a Jack Daniels. A double. Robbie had already poured his. I had spoken to someone at my bank who gave me information that I’d already surmised. Robbie had made the ultimate mistake of sending monies via Western Union, making it nearly impossible to track down the recipient. From the long look on his face, he’d already received the same depressing news.
Scam artists are just too good at the game.
“I called her number. It’s no longer in service.” Robbie gazed down at his glass.
I wanted to shake him, smack him into reality, but just sat there. His “Becky” was, no doubt, sitting somewhere in Las Vegas, slurping on an umbrellaed Pina-colada, pouring Robbie’s ten g’s into a slot machine.
Robbie had alerted the dating site’s management and they told him they would investigate the matter. However, since most of her scheming had been done on a private cell line and not on the site, and since she’d used a fake name to open her account, there was no way to trace her.
That night, when I’d first discovered Robbie yelling into his cell phone, was the last time he had spoken to “Becky.”
“Why the hell did she call you, she got what she wanted?” I asked.
His mouth drooped and I could see his eyes welling up. He buried his head into his hands.
“I called her. She told me that she couldn’t meet me. That she would call me when she had the money to repay me. I don’t know, Sa, I loved her. She said she loved me. It was the first time I really loved anyone like that. We had so much in common. We talked every day for six months. She believed in me. We even talked about getting a farm and raising therapy rabbits.”
Therapy rabbits? That I could laugh off.
But, the first time I really loved anyone like that, that stung.
“Robbie, you never even met her.”
I got up from the table and gathered the glasses, loading them into the dishwasher. I did feel somewhat sorry for him watching him cry into our kitchen towel, our divorced state finally becoming a reality, and he having lost another dream. I tried to remember, for a second, why I’d fallen in love with him in the first place. Maybe it was his bohemian naïveté about life, his relentless search for the idea that would make us rich, or that he always told me, when we first met, that I was the love of his life.
He handed me a plate from his late breakfast, never saying anything more about the money, the woman, never even realizing how his words had hurt me. How our life together, I realized, was a complete sham. A mock starry night from start to finish.
In my bedroom, I balanced myself on the soft mattress, stretching my arms to reach the fake, greenish stars, peeling them off one by one until the ceiling was as bare as the first day we moved into our raised ranch. I gathered the plastic stars and put them in a used manila envelope, crossed out the address written on it, and wrote in the remaining blank space:
Here’s your starry night, I’m going for the real one.
I placed the envelope on the dresser, turned the light off and stared into complete, uninterrupted darkness. And fell asleep.