The rain beat metronomically on the roof of my mother’s Palm Beach home. It was mid-July of 2015, some weeks after my husband had disappeared from a South Florida psych ward after the expiration of a seventy-two-hour Baker Act—a state-mandated involuntary commitment. Ten years of his sobriety gone in a flash. Luckily, while Mark was hospitalized, I secured full emergency custody of our two boys. But after he went missing, I discovered the extent of the damage. Financial fraud. Bounced checks. Bogus LLCs. A million dollar void. A handful of victims. A constellation of lies that had existed since the first month of our relationship. My husband had no money, had never had any money. The life I thought I had was a fiction.
He left behind the lingering designation: conman.
Recently, I had taken to lying in an empty bathtub, fully clothed. Without the protective hard edges of the tub, I feared I would fall through the Earth’s strata of clay and sand into the cratered Florida aquifer that occasionally swallowed entire households. The bathtub’s porcelain hull pressed firmly into my skin; it was a boat I could not tumble from, unlike love, unlike marriage, unlike this falling out with truth and memory. In the adjacent bedroom, my oldest son slept uninterrupted in the queen-sized bed we shared. James was four years old and had slept with me since the day I moved in with my mother.
I don’t believe in redemption stories. A redemption story chronicles the fallen and the rescued; it is a teleological examination of grace and suffering and ultimately a parable. If my story were a redemption story, it might be relevant to an anthropology of culture; of gender; of class; and certainly, of greed. Call it an anthropology of sin if you will, a narrative divided by virtues and transgressions, ends and beginnings. But what if we perceive this story as a study of surfaces and undersides? What if trauma—the under-skin stuff—allows us to connect with each other like underground river systems? My trauma pours into another’s; it may even be its cause.
I am both victim and perpetrator, complicit not in my ex-husband’s crimes but in his desires, in the greed that held the con together. There are irreducible parts that remain true no matter which way you rotate the story. Wealthy, privileged girl—stupid in love, stupid in life—gets rolled. And because of this idiocy, the biggest collateral: two children still with the handprints of babies. I was easily conned because I wanted what he was selling: his version of the American dream built upon a fake inheritance, a fraudulent paper trail, and staged investment meetings. I wanted the clean debt ledger, the house overlooking the Intracoastal waters, the modern light fixtures and faucets. How much more could we extract from our lives? It is a dream that people like me—white, educated, privileged—believe is our due. But for every dream attained, another one is broken. Greed operates that way; it requires fuel.
Without me, there is no Mark in Palm Beach.
I am Ground Zero for how he hurt the world. I am the tinder. I am the ignition.
Sebastian, not yet two, slept in a crib in the bedroom across the hall. His cries still pierced the night, the unsettled sleep of early childhood. I paced half-asleep, in and out of the bathtub, between his nightmares and my midnight snacks. If I calmed him, then perhaps I could settle myself. Neither proved very successful.
Finally, I returned to bed and lay beside James. The air conditioning blew glacial above the bed; the outdoor heat was leaden and asphyxiating at this time of year. There was something I did not want to face, lest all the pieces fit, lest the problem be named and, thus, become what it already was: immoveable.
By the midnight glow of my laptop screen, I googled, “pathological liar” and followed the trail back to a love I still hoped had not been entirely false. Our five-year marriage still needed to mean something. Why was I still in denial? If Mark was not Mark—if his love of us was only the means to an end—then all we had endured in order to create a family became rubbled in un-orchestrated demolition. In this scenario, my children and I lost all value.
Imagine finding out your husband was a secret agent and that the tender promises, the nights spent echoing each other’s hearts, were all lies under the thumb of some greater good—the good of the State, the good of the Motherland. Then imagine less than that—imagine your husband did it just for himself, for the money, or for the simple reason that he knew no other way.
I looked up other things too. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Sociopath. Psychopath.
I did not know which of these labels, if any, were accurate. A mental disorder is not a fixed set but a fluctuating arrangement of chords being struck at different moments, in different patterns.
At 3 a.m., my son snoring gently beside me, I read Kindle books and articles on famous con artists, on toxic relationships, on how to find a missing person.
The pieces fell in place. The red flags in the beginning of the relationship. Past behaviors that he had explained away by his previous alcoholism and subsequent sobriety, but which would have made me question anyone else. All the uncomfortable feelings in my gut. All the times I questioned his logic only to have it thrown back in my face. Verbal abuse. Check. Lowered self-esteem. Check. Gaslighting. Check. Crazy-making. Check. What was a lie if not a layer of paint superimposed on reality? The psychology of the lie: overlapping realities that merged into unrecognizable forms. In order to see clearly again, the victim must reform their vision. To believe a world of lies was to undo the traditional boundaries of what was known.
A friend once told me she thought Mark had Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but early on, I only noticed the OCD and paranoia: Mark peering through the blinds in the middle of the day, afraid someone was out there. At night, when the feral cats mewled, he jolted from bed and stormed down the stairs, and I heard the rattling of locks. I noticed his inability to quit smoking, his eight cups of coffee a day, his spending problems. But in late 2014, after Mark bounced the down payment on the purchase of a two-million-dollar home and checking fraud was mentioned, the doctor diagnosed him with Bipolar II. He was treated with lithium. A few weeks before he was involuntarily committed—when we found out not who he was but rather who he was not—he was put on an additional cocktail of antipsychotics. My therapist now wondered: Had I considered schizophrenia, had I considered a slew of other personality disorders? Knowledge does not necessarily solve the problem. Facts exist like tensile strength on the lip of water, and I had not yet acquired the right dictionary for Mark’s lies or pathology.
In lying, Mark had transfigured the knowable into an unidentifiable outline: this foreign body I had run hands over, whose love I had raked over me, who had covered me in passion, transformed me into the shape of motherhood, opening the gate to his only true generosity. The middle-of-the-night question lingered: How much of this man could I still hold on to? Which parts were I still willing to believe? How long would it take for every remaining scrap of illusion to fall away?
The following morning, I stared at my wild-haired reflection in the mirror and cried out, “I will not let this define me. I will not let him break me.” I pretended to be a warrior: a glamorous denial bolstered by self-help books, as if I could stave off trauma by erecting walls between the world and me.
My friends said things like, “God, you’re so strong.”
But I wanted to scream; burn a car down to its blackened carcass; pour kerosene around the perimeter of a long field; spark a controlled burn, flames wisping to the clouds like palm fronds.
I wanted to collapse. Other people got to be helpless little things. But not me. I had two boys under five. Where was there room for helplessness? Where was there room for weakness?
I wanted to run away.
Tip of the world.
Tierra del Fuego.
Instead, I grew solid like a tree. Impenetrable.
I wandered to the bedroom with no intention of getting dressed. Sweatpants like second skin. The children ran amok in some other part of the house, still in their diapers and underwear. Their voices came to me in echoes, like the short shadows of morning.
Later that summer, my mother and I returned to my marital home to collect some personal items. When we pulled into the driveway, a shirtless man on a colorful bicycle rode up to the car. He was a middle-aged white man, with a deep purple tan and steroided muscles. He called himself a debt collector. Mark had stolen eighty-thousand dollars from a Riviera Beach check-cashing joint. Pay up or else. He told us he knew where we lived in Palm Beach. That night, we asked for extra police security on my mother’s house.
I received extortion threats threatening to expose me to the press or to involve Child Protective Services. I was served with a lawsuit, and my marital house had two liens slapped on it. I hired an expensive lawyer. People were simply seeking what was stolen from them, in whatever way they knew how, and I was the only remaining link to the disappeared man.
On the lam, Mark still called my cellphone, sometimes eighty times a day, from blocked numbers. He needed me. He needed to speak with his kids. He missed us. He was sorry.
I changed my phone number.
I functioned on the basics.
Bare bones parenting.
Showers, not as often as needed. Baths, too often.
Food, barely. Taste of rubber in my mouth. Cardboard.
Sensory organs unwired. Skin too sensitive. I jumped out of my chair when my children surprised me from behind. I recoiled from their hugs. I dug my fingernails into my forearms in the middle of the night. I warned myself against more desperate measures of relief.
My friends still said, “God, you are so strong.”
Sometimes I did not hear my sons’ voices calling me across the room, but in my bed at night, the street noises were deafening. A lonesome car on a residential street sounded like a turbine engine. The wind blew sideways and unfairly in the summer storms, especially out near the beach.
What is the truth about female rage? My anger was a buoy. My anger was sustenance. That summer, I knew I was capable of killing Mark. The shirtless man. The extortionist. Not just for the children’s safety, but for all of us. I was animal, beyond enculturation, beyond mind, beyond ego. I could do it without a second thought, without need for the baseless justice of men, with only the highest order in mind. Turn a woman primal and there is no such thing as mercy.
I was the tinder. I was the ignition.
James and Sebastian are eight and six now, both with long blond-brown hair, their father’s slightly slanted eyes, and golden skin. Sebastian has my thin, bowed lips. Otherwise, they both look like Mark. They are strong, smart, and kind. They are growing up like every other child around them. But still, I see how James had repackaged his father’s absence into an untouchable melancholy. I hear Sebastian’s anger, his defiance, like my own. Since Mark left, I have felt torn between these two poles, each child pulling me in different direction. They will never get enough from me; their insufficient memory of him rattles around in the gap left behind.
I have heard from an acquaintance in Alcoholics Anonymous that Mark is homeless out on the West Coast. I have heard whispers about his continued deceptions.
I have moved into a rental not far from my mother’s house. None of the furniture is mine, but the house is painted white stucco and tropical trees frame the small yard. At night, I smell the night-blooming jasmine from the neighbor’s bush and hear the croaking of frogs. Every morning at 4 a.m., the neighbor’s dog barks and wakes me for a few minutes. We are safe. More than safe, we are happy. It is a beginning.
One morning before the boys wake up, I hear a tinny, annoying sound at my bedroom’s sliding door and gaze up to see a red male cardinal pecking on the glass. Its beak is bloodied; its tiny claws scratch at the window. Behind him is a canopy of areca palms, ficus, and vanda orchids hanging from the guava trees. The bird spies my shape and flickers away for a moment, but returns in another aggressive swoop. I once read that male cardinals attack windows and side-view mirrors when seeking new territory to nest their families. They see their own reflection and believe themselves to be the intruders of their own domestic sphere.
But they are the intruders, I think. Narcissuses attacking their own reflections, instead of falling in love. Both versions end the same.
For three years, the thought of another man’s touch made me recoil. I have watched my friends bounce back from divorce, dating someone new just weeks later, married again within the year. But it has taken this long to overcome the desire to hide, to not question masculinity itself as something inherently parasitic. No offense to the good men, wherever they may be.
I also want to believe that I will not succumb again to the illusory weight of the American dream. But the promise rings false. I am not built to withstand renunciation, and still I sometimes dream of fancy faucets and that house on the water with its view on the Intracoastal waters—the slow circle of turkey vultures, the sea eagles, egrets, and manatees.
What fatal flaw built us to be simple skin operators, blind and deaf to the underside? Since my divorce, I have lent an ear to countless stories of domestic abuse, a topography of damage, shame, and hope. It is a quiet whooshing. We are connected like underground river systems, each molecule in careful causality. Whereas redemption implies the unknown becoming visible, becoming concrete, what emerges here is not so different that what existed before. It is all that has ever existed: Trauma and love, not so very different, are the unseen streams. So I continue this imperfect version of all that I know.
I bang on the glass to scare off the cardinal before it knocks itself out and wander into my children’s shared room to wake them up for the school day.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.