I was never sure she was telling me the whole truth.
by LIBBY GOLDMAN
Elaine* had a key. Actually, she had a number of keys. Each dangled from the purple paisley lanyard around her neck. It draped over her collar bone and rested on her middle. Her hair was short and silvery-grey, bangs-length all the way around her head. She picked up two keys. “These two keys get me into my bedroom. Two deadbolt locks.” She picked up another two keys. “These two get me into my craft room, right across the hall from me. There are padlocks inside the closets. There are padlocks on the storage room. I have a padlock on the garage. No, I never really feel safe. The knives are now locked up inside of another deadbolt lock in the closet in my bedroom. Two deadbolt locks. And a padlock on the other side.”
We were sitting around a foldout table at WISE, the Upper Valley’s center for victims of sexual and domestic violence. There were eight of us. Elaine sat across from me a few chairs away. She wore a long-sleeved collared polo with pastel stripes and a white collar. No makeup on her small, round face. Wrinkles traced the line from the bridge of her nose to the sides of her chin. She’d be 66 in May.
Each of the women at the table, except for me, had taken part in a performance that month called Unedited Voices, a series of monologues, survivors of abuse telling their stories. Now, they reflected on their experiences on stage, what it had felt like to perform some of the most difficult moments of their lives in front of an audience, what had brought them to WISE in the first place, what it’s like to live in the wake of abuse.
“I still smell alcohol in rooms where there’s been no drinking,” one woman said. “I still can hear motorcycles outside my bedroom window.” She had survived a gang rape.
“I can’t hear dogs bark, I can’t hear children crying,” another woman added.
“I can’t wear turtlenecks,” said a third. “Too close to my neck. You will never see me in a turtleneck.”
Elaine didn’t speak for the first forty minutes. She just listened and nodded, eyes sometimes shut in agreement. Another woman, Jen, noticed her silence. The women complimented Elaine’s performance of the poem she’d written and read, called “The Destroyer.” She ducked her head and thanked them quietly. She suppressed a smile.
“I don’t consider myself a writer, or a performer, just an ordinary person,” Elaine said. Her voice bobbed up and down in pitch and tended to trail off at the ends of sentences. “I considered myself a strong, young woman, and I did a lot of things, but, um.” Elaine sighed. Her head cocked back and forth as she talked, eyebrows raising and sinking, giving certain words emphasis. Her eyes mostly focused on the table, occasionally flitting around the room. “I’ve been married to this man, Ron, for 32 years as of March 3rd, but I’ve known him since 1985, August, where I was hired into the same firm where he was working in Pittsburgh, and we had the same job. Of course, I was the only female in the position, but there were only six of us analysts, public opinion analysts, all the other six guys were all PhD candidates. They’d all finished their coursework. And Ron was one of them.” Elaine spoke in circles, retracing her life story, trying to get to the details that were most pertinent for us to understand what she had gone through. And was still going through. She tended to start sentences, rethink them a couple of words in, and then change course.
“Ron was married and I was seeing somebody else. And I never thought of anything more of him than a colleague. And a friend. He and his wife would come over and I’d have dinner parties and stuff like that. And then, anyways, I left the company and moved back to my hometown, and was married, and had a child and blah, blah, blah. I started working for the city and blah, blah, blah. So anyways, so then I was divorced and Ron was divorced. And he called me. We’d been keeping track of each other over the years. And he was always such a nice guy, never heard him say a mean word to anybody, never raised his voice, was always very calm and cool and collected, and Mr. Natural so to speak.”
Even so, right from the beginning of their relationship, there were signs of trouble. Signs Elaine ignored. “I was at his apartment in Pittsburgh and I asked him, because it was an old toaster, I turned to him and said ‘How do you work the toaster, Ron?’ Where upon his face turned beet red, the veins were bulging out of his head, he stood up and screamed at me, ‘Don’t you ever call me that! Only my mother calls me Ronald!’ I said, ‘How do you turn on the toaster, Ron?’ I thought for a second, well this guy’s got mother and anger issues.” She chuckled, eyes down at the table. “So it occurred to me to turn around and never see him again, never return a call. But no, no, he apologized. So, okay.”
She kept talking. She moved to the Upper Valley, where she found a new job, and Ron followed. She spoke for over thirty minutes straight. Her hands moved about in round, quick motions, elbows kept close to her sides.
Ron, she said, had developed Alzheimer’s in the past few years. She was sure he had other, albeit undiagnosed, psychiatric issues, too. “Which I was warned about by a number of people fifteen years ago,” she said. “When he first hurt me. He’d sprained my wrist so badly, doing an Indian sunburn kind of thing, that I was all black and blue.” She rubbed her right arm with her left hand. “I had to see my gynecologist that day for a uterine biopsy because they thought I had uterine cancer, which thank God I didn’t have, but anyway. So I asked him to please come with me. It started that morning when I had a visit with my general practitioner. We always went to each other’s appointments. We’d been married at that point for, hmm, eleven years. So I said, no, I want to go in and see her alone today. Because I was having digestive issues and I felt embarrassed and I didn’t want to talk about it in front of him. Well, his face turned beet red in the waiting room and as soon as we got outside he starts yelling. ‘If I had known that the appointment was just for you I wouldn’t have taken the day off work!’”
Elaine’s voice dropped low imitating Ron. She sneered, making the words grumble as they left her lips. Her eyebrows furrowed.
Still she wanted him to go with her for the uterine biopsy. She said she grabbed the collar of this polo shirt, begging him to come. “That’s when he grabbed my arms and twisted them.” Ron left her there. But the nurse practitioner, Elaine said, noticed her bruised arms. “I said ‘um, well, um, my husband did this.’” The nurse practitioner told her to call the police. “I said, ‘I can’t. I mean, he must just have been really stressed.’ She said, ‘Elaine, you have to call the police. You have to go to fast track as soon as you get out of this office and then you’re going to go home and you’re going to call the police.’ So I went home and I called my friend Marcia. I said ‘Marcia, Ron just did this.’ She’d known him practically as long as I did, and she said ‘Elaine, call the police!’ And I said, ‘but I can’t, I can’t.’ And she said, ‘Elaine, call the police.’ So I called the police. I had my arm in a removable cast, but I really couldn’t use it.
“The police officer came to the house and I told him my story. I thought he would just tell Ron he can’t do things like that. He said, ‘What time does your husband get home, Ma’am?’ ‘Well, he’s usually home by seven.’ And he said, ‘Okay, just be sure there’s $40 on the table and don’t be around.’ Well, sure enough, Ron pulls into the driveway, right behind him comes a cruiser. They arrested him. The $40 was to help him post bond, and then they had a restraining order, then after they processed him and whatnot, they escorted him home to get a few essentials because he was out of the house for, I guess it was six weeks or so.”
That was when Elaine first called WISE. Then she went to visit her friend Marcia in Maine for a couple of weeks. Elaine and Ron talked on the phone, despite the restraining order.
Elaine sighed. “You know, I didn’t know things. There was so little that I knew that was going on.”
* * *
Elaine and I were in the car headed to Walmart. We drove with the windows down, past strip malls and gas stations, as she told me about the medical complications she’d been going through the past few years – since Ron had retired. “I had developed this startle reflex, just a pin would drop and I was jumping.” She told me about how she’d found yoga. She’d learned, through workshops at WISE and counseling and doctor’s visits, “how to listen to the body.”
We pulled into the Walmart parking lot. Elaine kept talking as she grabbed a pet-carrier for her shih-tzu that she needed to return. “I was referred to rheumatology by the podiatrist because my toes were blue. They thought I might have lupus, well it was not lupus. Scleroderma, my skin was falling off. I was referred to dermatology. I was referred to neurology for the pain in my hands and arms, and who else? Gastroenterology told me I had stress ulcers in my stomach and there was blood pooling in my stomach. And then I had another colonoscopy. This was a year ago. A year-and-a-half ago that I was in gastroenterology.”
We walked through the automatic doors. We got behind the one woman in line at the return desk.
“They did another colonoscopy and endoscopy, and did biopsies all on the right, and they said that I had colitis. Oh, just my luck! So I started taking all these meds in January when I fell down the back stairwell and broke my leg.” Elaine glanced up at me. She raised her eyebrows.
The aisle next to us opened up and Elaine scurried over. She hoisted the pet-carrier with ripped packaging onto the counter. The attendant scanned the pet carrier and gave Elaine a receipt. She grabbed it and walked towards the front of the store again where shopping carts were parked in long lines. She pulled one out and I followed her to the pet aisle.
“It was 11 o’clock in the morning, I was going up the back stairwell, I don’t think you saw it, it’s near the kitchen, it goes up to the bedroom, the room that Ron is sleeping in, the green one, and I don’t know, I lost my balance. I fell all the way down, made a big crash at the bottom of the stairs. I was afraid for my knees because I had both knees replaced, so I never fall on my knees, yet I did. I was protecting my knees, I broke my femur about a quarter of an inch away from the screws, the screw where the artificial knee was.” Elaine paused. Her eyes scanned the rack. It was full from top to bottom with pet carriers and portable kennels. “Small, small,” she muttered. She needed a medium. She pulled one off the shelf and examined it, turning it over in her hands looking for the measurements.
I found a medium. “Perfect, that’s great,” she said. Next, she needed a crock pot. “So anyways, I broke my leg. Ron didn’t want to take me to urgent care because it was a Sunday, couldn’t be bothered to take me to the emergency room. He said, ‘Oh, it’s just a sprain. Want crutches? Want a walker?’ My mother had had a walker. He brought down the walker. ‘You get up yet?’ So I eventually was able to pull myself up. I was on the floor about half an hour. Somehow I got to the living room. Next day he goes to work.” By this point we had meandered over to the bedding aisle. “I’m looking for a twin sized mattress cover.” Elaine told me that she wanted to move her son’s old mattress into her room in preparation for the day that she’d sleep there again. She didn’t sleep upstairs anymore. Sleeping on the couch downstairs meant she was closer to the front door, just in case.
Elaine eventually led us to the baking aisle. She threw a 10-pound bag of sugar and muffin tins into the cart. She’d bake Ron cupcakes for his birthday.
“It was ten days later that I drove myself to the hospital. I was due to see my orthopedist for a mid-year check-up kind of thing, do X-Rays.” Elaine left to go look for a Swiffer, and I followed. She faced away from me, her voice muffled. “When I got to see my doctor, he said, ‘Elaine, your leg is broken.’ You mean it isn’t just a crack? ‘No, it’s broken straight through.’ So I went to see the orthopedic surgeon.” Her voice trailed off again. We gave up on the Swiffer.
Elaine headed towards the checkout. I pushed the overflowing cart. She bought three packs of cigarettes at the speedy checkout lane. In the car, I asked her if there was anything else she needed to do while we were out.
“Um, no. I don’t think so. I mean, I want to go to the police department and request some reports. But that might just take too long, I don’t know how much time you have and I don’t want to take all your day doing things like that. But if you don’t have an urgent, I mean.”
I told her I had no problem taking her to the police station – I wasn’t sure how she would have gotten there on her own without a car. On the way, she told me the reports were “all part of the gathering evidence.” She was collecting everything she could that dealt with her and Ron’s relationship: his and her old journal entries – the first day I’d met her she’d shown me a journal of his she’d found, in which he’d quoted from a journal of hers she said he’d stolen – police reports from their encounters with the cops, letters he’d written admitting to his controlling personality. She’d bring it all to her lawyer. One day, she was determined to get him committed. “On my terms.”
The police department was tucked into an inlet on a windy backroad lined with trees. Inside, it was quiet except for an officer explaining the definition of harassment to a man in dirty jeans and a neon yellow T-shirt. There was a vending machine in the corner and two service windows. Elaine went up to one to request the police reports. A woman behind the glass pane pointed to the forms fastened to a clipboard sitting in front of us. She grabbed them and sat down in a metal chair next to the window to fill them out. Name, date of incident, type, and description of events.
There were three reports which Elaine was requesting. One was from the day Ron sprained her wrists. Another was from when he broke down the door of the bedroom. And the last one was from when he broke her rib. Elaine pulled out two checkbooks from her bag. She flipped each of them over to the three-year calendars on the back. “Let’s see last year’s calendar...” she muttered to herself. “No this is 2016…” She flipped between one calendar and the other, trying to remember the exact dates. Before filling out the form, she explained the rib incident.
“At the very end of August 2015 I was taking a medication for, they didn’t know what was wrong with me, but it was an old chemotherapy drug that’s given to people with auto-immune issues. I was advised to take it just before bed, so I would take it Saturday at midnight. And that would knock me out all day Sunday. And Monday was very confusing. A lot of the nefarious things that occurred on the computer occurred during those times. On this one Saturday night, after I’d just taken the medication, he was – yeah, that was 2015.” Elaine’s index finger grazed the checkbook calendar, stopping at August. “He was watching TV in my room at that time. He rolls on top of me. And I said no. Suddenly he wanted to have sex. Now, this is something he has not wanted for decades, okay? And what made him think that now is an appropriate time to jump on top of me? So I tell him to get off, get off of me! And he just pressed his chest against me so hard that, there was, I mean, besides that I was already always in pain, then suddenly there was a popping pain. It happened at midnight, a little after midnight, then I told him he had to get out of here. I locked myself there. I had a really hard time breathing. I ended up sitting on the edge of the bed all that day and the first thing, 8 o’clock on that Monday morning, I went to urgent care and they X-Rayed and told me that I had a clear break straight through the seventh rib on the right side in the front.”
Elaine wrote out what she told me in a few sentences on the form in front of her. She hadn’t called the police that day. Six months later, she said, Ron had decided to turn himself in for breaking her rib. She sat quietly, filling out the forms meticulously for the three events, consulting her calendars. When she was finished, she went back up to the paned-glass window.
“I have three incidents here. I don’t have the exact dates, but I approximated.” She said as she passed the forms through a narrow slit in the glass.
“Okay, that’s enough information to go on,” the woman said, glancing over the forms. Elaine slid her ID through the slit. “Typically we ask for a $10 minimum payment at this point in time. There may be additional fees depending on the nature of the reports.”
Elaine fished in her purse for her wallet.
“It says there’s no charge to victims of domestic violence,” I said.
“That’s true,” the woman said. “Was this domestic violence?”
“Yes,” Elaine responded.
“Well, in 2003 he was arrested because he had basically hurt me and I was cared for at the hospital. And then, let’s see now, the”– Elaine hesitated. She lifted her fingers to her forehead, trying to remember which reports she was filing for. I reminded her about the rib incident. “The which one?” She glanced back down at the checkbook calendars.
“If they are classified as domestic violence, which I will know when I find them, there will be no fee. So why don’t you hold off on it. If there’s any type of report that pops up that is not considered domestic violence that I’m supposed to charge you for, we’ll take care of it another time. This may take me some time to find.”
“Sure, no problem. There’s no hurry. This is a long road. He has Alzheimer’s and some other psychological issues. Thank you so much.”
* * *
Once, Elaine’s house was beautiful. It was light pink, chips of paint flaking off. It had five long windows without shutters, three on top, and two on the bottom next to the front door. It looked quaint from the front. Elaine didn’t have a car, so on the phone she told me I could pull into her driveway. “No one uses it anymore! All yours. Nobody in there, ha!” When I pulled up, I saw an old Ford Taurus next to the garage. Her son’s, she explained. It hadn’t worked in years.
Elaine had called me the night before to confirm our meeting, and to ask me if I could do her a favor. She needed me to stop at the Systems Plus Computers in Lebanon to pick up some documents she’d had printed. On the way to her home, I picked up eight reams of paper divided into two boxes.
Elaine greeted me outside. She was wearing a purple button-down shirt and gold hoop earrings. Her hair was shorter. “Oh! Yeah, I cut it myself,” she said when I told her it looked nice. She instructed me to keep the papers in my car for now and led me inside. Walking up the stairs to the back entrance, she whispered to me, face pointed downwards, “He just got home.”
Light flooded the kitchen from the large windows to our right, next to a small table and chairs. The walls were a pale yellow and the cabinets painted white. The sink basin was ceramic white. A rusty orange grime covered the refrigerator in the corner. The kitchen looked like it hadn’t changed in years.
Ron stood next to the counter, facing us. Elaine and I had planned to meet before he got home so we could be alone, but I’d arrived late, and he’d just returned. He was far less menacing than I’d pictured. He wore an old white T-shirt and cargo shorts. Brown lace-up tennis shoes and white ankle socks. Black framed glasses, which he tended to misplace. When he did, he’d say, “Looking for your glasses is an oxymoron.” He had a scraggly, white beard, and patchy, mostly white hair. His teeth were small and different shades of greyish-yellow. He shook my hand and smiled.
Elaine offered me tea. She went to pour herself a cup of coffee. Her colorful mug sat atop a matching tea plate.
“Oh, I put sugar in there, I hope you didn’t, too,” Ron said.
“Well, I did, great,” Elaine mumbled. He looked at her. She didn’t look back.
We sat down next to the windows. Elaine at the end of the table, me next to her on the side closest to the counter, Ron in the chair next to the empty one across from me. One chair separated him and Elaine.
I spotted a Bernie Sanders poster tacked to the back door. Ron told me how he’d been involved in the New Hampshire Democratic Party ever since they moved here 32 years ago.
“You know, at one point, New Hampshire was the only state with all female representatives,” he said. His voice was breathy, strained. “Including the president.” He looked at me.
“The governor, you mean,” Elaine said.
“Right, the governor.”
Every time Ron spoke to Elaine, his eyes lingered on her. Her eyes flicked around, making brief eye contact with him but never staying for more than a moment.
The three of us kept chatting. Ron spoke to me directly. Every now and then I’d glance at Elaine to try to include her in the conversation. She’d shrug and raise an eyebrow. Eventually, Elaine offered to give me a tour.
“I’d love that,” I said. We all got up. Ron walked over to the counter.
“Do you want a cookie?” Ron said, sliding a wax paper sleeve to me.
“Sure, thank you.” I grabbed the chocolate cookie inside the paper.
“I’m trying to figure out what the white stuff they’ve put on top is,” he said.
“Powdered sugar?” I asked.
“It’s the stuff that hardens,” he said, slowly.
“Frosting,” Elaine said from the sink.
Elaine left the room for a moment, mumbling to herself. Ron and I stood in the kitchen, each eating our own cookie. We both faced the windows.
Elaine came back a few moments later. “Well, let’s go!” She turned to lead and I followed.
“I’ll be on the porch,” Ron said.
We stepped into the dining room. A few gold plates sat on a table and a number of boxes lined the walls. The hardwood floor was an orange-brown. Some paintings hung on the walls. We kept walking, passed a white door. “My son’s room,” she said. He was asleep. Elaine’s son from a previous marriage, Kevin, who was now 35, lived at home. He had Asperger’s. He spent most of his time in his room. Curtains hung from the doorway between the dining room and the next room, which I guessed must have been a sitting room at some point. It was even dimmer, lit only by the windows in the rooms adjacent to it. The air felt damp. Boxes and containers lined the walls and crept into the center of the room, their contents spilling out. Pillows, old appliances, books, clothing stuffed into plastic bags. Picture frames stacked on top of one another sat atop a tall armoire. Elaine sighed. “It didn’t always look like this,” she said.
More curtains hung from the doorway into the next room, the living room. Sunlight spilled in again and my body warmed. Pink, velvet furniture. An orange cat slept on one of the pink chairs. It stretched as we walked in. A giant, flat screen TV sat at the front of the room. I saw the couch that served as Elaine’s bed: slightly darker than the rest of the pink furniture, a maroonish-pink, a couple of small couch pillows, no blankets.
We turned a corner. A grandfather clock stuck on 4:00 sat in the corner next to the front door. A couple of paint swatches were smeared onto the cream wall. One pink, one yellow. “From when we wanted to paint the dining room a few years back,” she said. She led me upstairs. The wooden staircase creaked under our weight. There was red carpet at the top of the stairs. It smelled like an old museum. To our left was a small bedroom lit by the afternoon sun. All I could see was an undressed mattress with a few boxes sitting on top, which used to be Kevin’s. Beyond it I saw another bedroom painted green. “That’s Ron’s room,” she whispered, eyes down. She led me to the end of the hall and grabbed her paisley lanyard, fumbled with a few of the keys on the end. She undid a silver lock, then a gold one. She opened the door.
This was her room: more pink walls. And more boxes filled with things. We only stayed for a moment before she decided to show me the craft room across the hall. She ushered me out abruptly and closed the door behind us. Again, she grabbed the keys at the end of the lanyard and undid the two locks, opening the door for me. There was barely enough space for the two of us to stand next to each other. Miscellaneous items crowded the small, square room, nearly reaching the ceiling. It looked like a messy storage room. Stuff overflowed from the plastic containers piled on top of one another – a broken basket, an old quilt, a clear container full of wires. Piles of books. A toaster oven box. There were armoires and shelves lining each of the walls, filled with books on knitting, crocheting, cross stitching, bead weaving. More shelves with yarn and string and beads.
“I can barely come in here without crying,” she whispered, looking around the room. “This is where he came in to strip mine.” She whispered because the door at the other end of the room led directly to Ron’s room. “It’s like he’s trying to erase my existence. Things just go missing. I had five trunks full of clothes, vintage, all vintage clothes, from the ’50s and ’60s, that I never found.” She said that one weekend when she was gone, Ron had come in and pillaged her things. She said he was messing with her, gas lighting. She said he moved things around or stole them. She turned around and grabbed a box of jewelry on a shelf and opened it. She handed me a string of yellow beads. “Vintage beads. I found these…” she made a flinging motion with her hand, her fingers splaying out at the end. “I had to have the locks installed last year when he bust the old one right off the door.”
Once, she said, Ron had broken into her bedroom. She motioned towards it across the hall. “‘I NEED THE WIFI,’” she whispered loudly, imitating Ron. “‘I NEED ACCESS TO THE WIFI!’” She said he banged on the door so hard it had damaged the frame. The door had been locked since Elaine said he’d been rummaging through her things. She could never be sure when he would blow. Now that he was older and mentally degenerating, he was less physical with her. But he could scream and yell at the most trivial things. The Wi-Fi password. When he broke down the door, she called the police. Later, she called a locksmith and got a deadbolt lock installed on the craft room and on her bedroom.
“Let’s go,” she whispered. “I have something else to show you.” We walked out and she closed the door behind us.
Ron was standing in the hall when we walked out. “Great timing,” he said. “Do you want to see my room?”
Thank God we whispered in there, I thought. How long has he been here?
I glanced at Elaine. My body tensed as I followed him through the bedroom with the naked mattress and into his. Elaine stayed in the hall. His room was remarkably neat compared to the rest of the house, with a green bedspread that matched the walls. It had a large, wooden bed frame that lifted the bed a foot off the ground. A bed they used to share. A desk with a few colored pencils and paper sat in the corner. “I’ve gotten into painting lately,” he told me. I nodded. I thanked him for showing me his room and met Elaine back in the hall.
Elaine undid the locks on her room again. This time, I got a better look. My first impression was that it looked like the bedroom of a child. Dozens of hats hung on the pink wall. A sunhat, a beret, another larger sunhat. Her mattress sat on the floor covered by a pastel quilt. A laundry basket full of blankets and clothes perched atop her pillow. Every surface was covered. Empty pill bottles, lotion, a glasses case, books, three mugs full of pens. A couple of drawings and fliers from WISE were tacked to her wall next to a sign that read “BEWARE! GUARD SHIH TZU ON DUTY.” A nightlight was on next to the bed. The sink in the corner of the room had a steady trickle of water flowing out. “It always leaks,” she said. She twisted the nozzle. The leak turned into a drip.
There was a tiny bathroom next to the sink. Boxes of binders and folders and papers lined the floor. She sat herself down on the lid of the toilet and started looking through the papers. I squatted on the floor next to her. She handed me two binders, took one herself and moved out of the bathroom and onto the edge of the bed. She started flipping through the pages. She pulled the glasses from the top of her head onto the bridge of her nose. The pages were filled with long strings of numbers, symbols, charts, and lists I didn’t understand. Some parts were highlighted in yellow and notes were scribbled in the margins.
“This is all from the investigation,” she said. “The investigation” was Elaine’s. She was investigating Ron. She was sure that Ron had hacked into her computer. She said he’d created multiple social media accounts in her name – a smear campaign. So she’d had two of her old laptops and one of Ron’s sent to a digital forensics company in Colorado to have everything – all of the files, browsing history, internet searches – put onto a hard drive and sorted, and then she’d had everything that came back printed out at the Systems Plus near her. She’d been looking for mentions of her name, references to social media, and anything that would prove Ron was manipulating her online presence. I googled her name and found a woman in Alabama, aged 75, and a Facebook profile of someone in Montreal. But that was it. The crates of paper in my car were more reports from the agency to sift through.
“This is my case number.” She pointed to a long string of numbers and symbols. She turned the page to a list of Ron’s Google searches. She pointed out “victimsofliarsandcheats.com,” then a Google search for “narcissism.” I saw a book on her shelf titled Internet and World Wide Web Simplified. She flipped the page again, this time showing me another long list of letters, numbers, slashes, and dots. Her name was highlighted multiple times amongst the conglomeration of symbols. “See? Elaine, Elaine, Elaine…” she whispered.
“Does Ron know about the investigation?” I whispered.
Elaine nodded, eyebrows raised.
“What does he think?”
“Well… I think he thinks the computers are getting fixed. They’re in Colorado.”
“So does he know?”
Elaine hesitated. “I don’t know what he knows.”
“What do you hope happens from the investigation?”
“He’s not mentally competent, he can put on his mask for a while, like he did today. He’s going to have to be placed.”
I asked what she meant by “placed.”
“A geriatric psychiatric ward.”
Was that possible? I didn’t know. There was, I thought, a more pertinent question. “Why don’t you leave him?” This was a question I’d ask Elaine many times. I was never sure she was telling me the whole truth.
“I’m not going to get kicked out of my own house. If he wants to leave, he can. He’s tried to make me believe I’m crazy. And most of the stuff in this house belongs to me.” I looked over to the sink and saw that the trickle was back, a steady stream.
Elaine continued to flip through the binder. She guessed that she’d spent about 80 hours studying the data so far. Eventually, she got up to show me the first book Ron ever gave her, titled The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, a bestseller first published in 1985. Then she showed me a self-published book she’d been reading lately, My Sociopath: An Empath’s Soul Journey Among Sociopaths.
“I accidentally have two copies, so you can have one.” She found a beige tote bag on the floor and stuffed the book inside and handed it to me. I thanked her and told her I had to get going soon.
“Right, of course,” she nodded her head vigorously. “Can you help me with those papers?”
We walked back downstairs and out to the driveway. Ron was outside raking leaves into a pile. I wondered how long the pile had been there. I wondered how long Ron had been there. Elaine and I walked towards my car.
“Bye, now, nice meeting you!” Ron called.
I smiled and said nothing. I looked at Elaine.
“Is it going to rain, Ron?” Elaine said a little too loudly, facing away from him. They were about twenty feet apart. She sounded like she was talking to a child. She was trying to distract him.
“Huh?” he said. He faced us. One arm was perched on the handle of the rake, the other was on his hip.
“Is it going to rain?” she repeated.
“Hmm, I’m not sure.”
“Maybe you should go put those grass seeds, in case it rains. Put the grass seeds inside.”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah.” Ron didn’t move. He kept his eyes on us.
I didn’t move, either. Elaine motioned with her eyebrows that I should grab the papers. I opened the car door and handed her a box, and grabbed one for me to carry.
“Just some stuff from WISE,” she muttered, more to herself than anyone. The two of us hurried inside. I didn’t look at Ron. We rushed through the house and up to her room, where we dropped the boxes on the floor.
“Phew! I never could have gotten those up here without you,” she said. She gave me another hug. “Thank you.” She walked me back out to my car.
“Bye, Ron, nice to meet you,” I said.
“Bye,” he said, still raking the leaves.
* * *
It was sunny and hot – one of the first beautiful days of the season. We stopped at the post office on the way to the bank so Elaine could check her P.O. box. She preferred to receive her mail there. On the way out, Elaine walked right past my car to another one parked a few spots away. “This one, Elaine!” I yelled from my car window.
“Thank you!” she said, doubling back. We pulled away from the post office and drove a block over to the bank. On the way inside, Elaine explained that she had to make a transfer from her and Ron’s joint account into her personal account. She made herself a cup of free coffee at the welcome desk and poured in four tiny containers of half and half. She waved to a man at a desk, trying to get his attention.
“Is that your banker?” I asked.
“He knows me,” she whispered. “I’ve worked with him.” She walked over to his cubicle.
The banker stood up.
“I’m Elaine Miller.”
“I know who you are, Elaine.” He gestured towards the two seats in front of his desk.
“I’m here to do the usual,” she said. “That is to take out, in cash–”
“And deposit back in cash,” the banker finished her sentence.
Every month, Ron’s retirement pension was deposited into their joint account. And every month, Elaine went to the bank to transfer it into her personal account. I asked whether Ron knew. “Well, I have power of attorney,” she said. Because of the dementia? “Right. And other psychiatric issues that are yet still to be fully determined. He’s going to a psych eval that’s scheduled for August. He hallucinates, he has delusions.” This time, she requested that $1,700 of the $2,000 deposit go into her account, and the other $300 be given to her in cash.
“And we’re just going to put that into the other account?” the banker asked.
“As cash,” they said at the same time.
“So that that doesn’t come out on the computer that other’s monitoring,” she said under her breath. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
The banker helped her fill out a deposit slip and left to get her money.
While the banker was gone, Elaine told me the story of why she had a personal bank account in addition to their joint account. She kept her voice hushed. She told me that the two of them used to share a safe deposit box at the bank. But after he hurt her in 2003, she’d closed that one and opened up a new one for her and her mother. In it, she kept all of their valuables – jewelry, social security cards, Ron’s social security card. That was the only thing in there that had anything to do with him. When she went in one day, a bank teller told her that Ron had come in and tried to get into the safe deposit box. The teller had said no, since Ron’s name wasn’t on the box. “He was, who knows. He was probably just going to take all the jewelry,” Elaine said.
The banker returned. Elaine left the $84.89 that had been in the account initially. She said this would cover “the mortgage and the few things else that are automatic payments.” He handed her an envelope with $300.
“Thank you kindly, there’s three hundred in here?” She pulled out the bills and spread them into a fan to count them. She examined the receipt for the deposit and stuffed the envelope into her bag. Under her breath, she sang the words, “life is so unusual!”
“How do you know Elaine?” the banker asked me.
“We met…” I hesitated. I wasn’t sure how much Elaine wanted any given person to know about who I was and how we’d met.
“Through WISE,” Elaine interjected.
“Yeah, through WISE,” I repeated. “We became fast friends.” I smiled. Elaine got up to leave. I had to use the restroom. The banker said there was no public restroom, but that he could take me to the one in the back. I followed him through a series of doors. When I came out, the banker was waiting for me at the end of the hall.
“While I have you here,” he said, “I wanted to ask you a couple questions.”
“Yeah,” I said instinctively.
We started walking slowly back towards the front of the bank. He stopped at some file cabinets before the last door and leaned against them. We stood across from each other in the narrow hallway.
“So, we understand Ron has dementia and Alzheimer’s and all that. We understand that. We’re working with her in the ways she wants to do her banking. But she’s starting to say things like people are watching her.” He ended his sentence as if it were a question. “Is this something people should be worried about, or is this”– again, his voice trailed upwards. “You don’t have to answer, but we just, we had the opportunity to ask. We’d just like to know a little more. We tried to talk to her about it but she says it’s fine. This is just how she wants to do it.”
I responded that I didn’t really know what was going on, either.
“Do you mind if I give you my card? When things come up would you mind getting in contact with me?”
“Of course,” I said, even though I knew I would not call him.
We walked back to his desk and he handed me his card. I scribbled my email on his notepad. Elaine waited by the coffee machine.
“Thanks again!” She called, heading towards the door.
“See you next week,” the banker replied.
* * *
The last time I met Elaine, she showed me the police reports that had finally arrived in the mail. We sat in the parking lot of a Price Chopper. Ron was at home. She handed me the envelope. The WiFi incident and the rib incidents came back as call logs – simple reports of the times Elaine and Ron had called in. Only the wrist sprain resulted in an arrest. Both Elaine and Ron’s statements were included in the report. Elaine’s statement was as she’d described. Ron’s was different. It said that when Elaine grabbed the collar of his shirt, he told her to let go, twice. He tried to get her to let go by “squeezing her fingertips.” When that didn’t work, he “grabbed her thumb and twisted it back so she would let go of me.” Ron was arrested on one count of simple assault.
The call log for when Ron had turned himself in for the rib incident included a “narrative” – a brief account written by the officer who took the call. It said, “Both the 88 and Elaine suffer from 37 issues. The 88 has Alzheimer’s. Elaine said that the 88 had jumped on her back in August and it broke one of her ribs. The 88 said that during sex Elaine stated that her side hurt. Elaine advised that she was fine. The 88 agreed to go to the hospital to be evaluated. No crime.”
I called the police department the next day to find out what “88” and “37” referred to, though I could have guessed. The 88 is typically whoever calls in. 37 is anything related to mental health issues – it could be an episode at the time of the call, or refer to a history of mental illness.
Elaine had said on numerous occasions that she did not suffer from any mental health issues. As we pulled away from Price Chopper, she said, “I guess I could say I have been suffering from PTSD. Complex PTSD. It’s a result of narcissistic abuse.” That’s what her social worker told her, she said. “I did have terrible startle reflexes for a while, I was cowering, just scared all the time.” She rubbed her knees as she spoke.
At her home, Elaine and I sat at the kitchen table. Ron was out. She read me some old letters he’d written that she’d found. Part of the evidence. The first was a reflection on a workshop Ron had attended while he was married to his first wife, Sally. Elaine pulled her glasses down her nose to read.
“Between 1977 and 1979 I felt very frightened, confused, humiliated, hurt, and angry. The extremely close, symbiotic relationship with my wife exploded in front of my face. She went through emotional hell in revolting from my control and her submission in our relationship. I’m sorting out what happened then, particularly some deep hurts that remain. I am also struggling still to find a way to make love – both sex and intimacy – with my wife.” Elaine glanced up at me. She told me his first wife had had two mental breakdowns, and they got a divorce after the second one. She pulled out another reflection letter Ron had written.
“My feelings about Daddy – and Mommie as well – were quite a surprise. Right off in Friday night it all came out. I hurts a lot to see Daddy drifting away and I’m angry at both him and Mommie for letting this happen. I’m angry at their symbotic relationship, for putting him in the role of the dependent one and her in the role of keeping life going. I’m angry at the heritage of wanting a symbotic relationship that they’ve passed on to me, screwing up my relationship with Sally. I’m angry at their decisions to let Daddy drift away and have Mommie be the strong one for both of them. I’m angry at them somewhat vicariously, instead of dealing with my own issues with Sally. Still, there is a lot of pain at seeing Daddy disappear; I love my relationship with him.”
Elaine spread the letters out on the table for me to see, the folder she’d pulled them from resting next to them. I asked her why she did this, why she sifted through all this stuff. “I certainly have asked myself why. Why, why? Why not just go away? But I have to know the truth. I have to know, for me to be able to let go of this,” she said.
Someone rode up the driveway on a bicycle. Elaine glanced up and frantically grabbed at the papers and stuffed them into the folder.
“Hi!” A woman’s voiced called. It was her friend, Sarah.
“Just a minute!” Elaine said. She shoved the last of the papers in and put the folder on the kitchen counter. She walked me to the front door. “Call me. Anytime. I’m here.”
*Names, locations, and other identifying details have been changed for the safety of the subject.