The ballad of the codependent rat

I was on my back, Judi was rocking on my pelvis when the window above us was shattered by a hurled stone. I reflexively pulled Judi close to me, chest to chest. Later she would say she felt safe with me as if I was protecting her, but let’s face Judi was in a more secure position in her previous “gitty-up” position than down on my chest where she was protecting my face and chest from any lagging shards of glass.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve asked myself the question who was I really protecting? I never think too hard about it because I might end up feeling ashamed by the answer. (Then again, perhaps that’s what this post is all about.) This memory usually segues to that morning–walking with my roommate, and best friend, Paul, to get some donuts at Winchell’s and running into an old boss. That meeting inevitably reminds me of the time I unintentionally ratted on him.

Gentle reader, be advised some of the names have changed here due to the sensitive material. In fact, all of the names except Paul and Judi have been modified. Paul because he doesn’t read my blog and I’m sure this post won’t kill our  35-year old relationship in the event he read this post, and Judi because, well, she’s dead. More on that at the end. Oops. Spoiler alert!

Some background first.

I have submitted many posts in this blog about my time as a member of the floor staff of the Tower Theatre in Sacramento from about 1980 to 1985, but I have never written about the time I accidentally ratted out one of my bosses. I have also never written about a codependent relationship I had with a woman at that time. Perhaps that story is best left untold. I admit I have wanted to consign that one-year relationship to words for years, but some people might think it’s too intimate or embarrassing. The one you are reading (so far) is a “Lite” version of a relationship and a couple of incidents dealing with work that I want to tell. The reader can stop here if they like. I won’t be offended.

At the time I was working in the theater, I had two managers: a Theater Manager, Wayne and a City Manager, Alex, who oversaw the operations of both the Tower Theatre, where I worked, and the Showcase Cinema, a repertory house that is now, sadly, a parking lot. While Wayne was my direct manager, there were shifts where Wayne would be off so I would answer to Alex. That last sentence is important because it was Alex who I unwittingly narced on.

Then there was Paul, who was my best friend, fellow Tower Theatre employee, and roommate. As movie theater employees we couldn’t afford the two bedroom apartment we were living in, so we moved into one of the rooms and sublet the other one. It worked out well enough for a couple of best friends who were virtually inseparable in those days. Between my makeshift desk–a 3′ x 6′ slab of plywood my father gave me which I placed over two file cabinets–and Paul’s two dressers, we maintained a nominal amount of privacy. We had created a “Wall of Jericho.” Paul and I would talk some evenings, staring at the common ceiling like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” Though there was no sexual tension between us like the Gable and Colbert characters, there was sexual frustration in spades. Neither of us was seeing anyone, and when it came to talking to women, we were both hopelessly broken. That is until I started dating Judi, an older woman from our work.

Dating Judi created many imbalances–I actually didn’t care for her very much. Before our first “date”–if you want to call it that–Paul and I would crack jokes about her. Not mean jokes, but we would poke fun at how hopelessly out of step she was with the current vernacular. She called horror films “spook shows,” and her attempts at humor were painfully labored. Paul and I loved to watch bad cinema and laugh at them both in the theaters (which we saw for free through inter-theater employee agreements) and on video (which we also got to rent for free through an agreement Tower had with the video store across the street). Judi would like to come along, but she apparently feigned laughter which kind of took some of the fun out of these events. Finally, while I was definitely no Rob Lowe by any stretch of the imagination, I didn’t find her physically appealing. I think it is fair to say, Paul felt the same way. So when I began to date her, Paul didn’t understand, and I could find no way to explain why I was dating her without revealing the truth–I was using her.

There. I said it.

She edited and retyped my college papers on her breaks at her other job using the office’s brand new word processor. These class essays including critical mid-term and term projects. There was something else–I was getting regular sex for the first time in my life. Feel free to judge me. If you have read this blog enough you will notice a self-flagellating pattern, so why not invite others in on it. Here’s the thing to keep in mind before picking up the whip–she used me, as well. Judi needed someone–always. She was possessive and could never stand being alone. Long before me and continuing after me, she hopped from one guy to the next without breathers in between. I recall driving her home from work the night we would begin dating. When she leaned in for a kiss I thought she was still dating someone else–I had just seen them together a day or two previous. She had to explain that Bruce had broken up with her a few days ago. I communicated–by receiving her second attempt at a kiss–“Okay then, I’ll be the next placeholder.” I was too hard up and horny to think maybe she needs some time to get over Bruce and maybe I should date someone I really liked.

She then asked me if I knew that she had cancer and that it was in remission. I said I heard about it from a staff member. She then told me the cancer was no longer in remission and she had about a year to live. Now, I don’t know how cancer works, but I could tell she was providing me an “out” so I wouldn’t feel trapped.

As a perennial wallflower, I marveled how she could work a room at a party or a club. Despite her old-fashioned ways, she could mix it up with twenty-five-year-olds with jet-black spiky hair, a multitude of body piercings, and ripped New York Dolls tees, soften up life-hardened fifty-year-old bartenders, and gay men seemed to have an affinity with her. However, just when the party or club got really humming, and I finally started to loosen up, she would turn to me with a pouty voice and say she was sick and wanted to go home. I’d drive her home, but we always ended up at a coffee shop and then had sex in my car in a stalled housing development, parked along a chain link fence with the Main Post Office at Royal Oaks Drive chugging away into the late night all flood lamps and steam.

We found various places to be intimate–her house when her dad was out of town (too weird), the occasional hotel room (too expensive), my car (way too often), and only once on this fateful night when the flying rock broke the window and our congress. As Paul and I agreed when we decided to bisect the room by building the “Wall of Jericho,” whoever gets lucky would lock the door and post a note so the other wouldn’t bust in on the action. “What a joke!,” I thought to myself when we agreed on this plan. “Like either of us is going to get any pussy in this century!” As it turned out, I surprised myself and disappointed or disgusted all Judi’s and my mutual friends/coworkers.

So, I was the first one who got to keep out my roommate. I was hoping Paul wouldn’t get in until later, but things didn’t work out that way. In the middle of our horizontal refreshment, Paul walked into the apartment and jiggled the bedroom door nob. Then I could hear him rip the note off of the door with an audible scoff. Judi and I giggled, but I felt bad because he didn’t have a car and so I’m not sure where he went. Also, it reminded me how Paul disapproved of the union. Some time passed then the window shattered.

After the offending stone had settled on my plywood desk, we gingerly got out of bed, avoiding the sharp bits. Unlike a proper gentleman, I didn’t bother to examine Judi to see if a giant shard of glass meant for my torso had buried itself in her back. We got dressed and turned on the light.

My memory is fussy at this point. We must have picked up all of the large pieces of glass. I vaguely remember Judi being disappointed that Paul and I didn’t have a vacuum cleaner. (A vacuum cleaner? Ha! Lucky for her, her blouse didn’t get too wrinkled that night–no iron or the traumatic event didn’t trigger a need for her to toast some bread–no toaster or she didn’t bring some steaks over for some post-coital protein–all we had was one butter knife!) Now that I think about it, I just may have walked around that side of the room a couple of days picking up the remaining pieces of glass before we borrowed a vacuum cleaner either from Judi, my mom, or, the landlady. These post-smash events are very dim, as is when the glass got replaced.

One thing I do remember is when I first looked through the freshly broken window that night and realized the acute angle of the second-story window from any spot where someone could chuck a rock. You had to want to break this particular window; someone would have to stand near the building next to the apartment complex and throw the rock up to hit the second story window. If a mischievous kid wanting to get a rush from the sound of breaking glass, there were a plethora of windows on the first (and second) floor facing the street and the parking lot.

That’s when I remembered running into Alex driving a bobtail that morning. (Presumably, his was now a truck driver.) Did he actually stalk me so he could break my window in a “Fuck you, you dirty rat” statement? That seems like a lot of energy to spend for so little return on investment. I mean, he could have “cased the joint” until he saw my Honda Civic–Judi’s and my little fuckmobile. Then he could have done some damage to MY property–not the innocent property owners. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. How did I end up ratted on Alex, anyway? That story reveals how absolutely dull I could be at times.

I came to work at the Tower one night and saw Edward, the Regional Manager for the theater chain who rarely paid us visits, there walking around with Wayne. (You’ll recall he was the Theater Manager). They were looking at the concession stand and in the back where the store room, freezer, and popcorn machine were. The floor staff was buzzing about how Alex, the City Manager, was put on administrative leave. Since I was Crew Chief of the floor staff, I was asked some questions about things that Alex may have talked to me about. Some of the staff were defensive of Alex. One guy would ultimately quit in protest, and the assistant manager would make a defiant statement in support of Alex.

Edward and Wayne called me into the store room to ask me some questions. I didn’t mind the questioning because I didn’t think I had anything of any importance to say–there was nothing for me to hide. At one point one of them asked something about soda or popcorn cups, and I queried, not knowing I was going to blow this case wide open, “Do you mean backup popcorn cups?” There was a beat of silence, then Wayne asked me what I was talking about. I said something like, “You know, backup cups. The kind we use when we run out of our regular soda or popcorn cups.”

For a moment, they both looked like idiots. How come they have never heard of this? In a split second, I envisioned Alex (or Wayne, for that matter) having to go to some restaurant supply store and buy some popcorn or soda cups because they knew the theater would run out of them before the next delivery. It made perfect sense.

One of them asked what the cups looked like. I said something like, “I think I can do you one better.” With that, I walked over to the freezer and pulled a sleeve of medium-size backup popcorn cups from behind it that I recalled seeing a couple of nights previous and showed it to them. They stared at it for a while then Wayne told me that we never have backup cups. I didn’t say anything, but wanted to ask, “But what do you call these? What do we do if we run out of a particular size of popcorn or soda cups? That’s what these are for.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just provided the theater chain the smoking gun to a suspicion they had about Alex and, I guess, solved some financial irregularities.

Brief explanation: At least at the time when I was working at this theater, film presentation companies didn’t get a dime from ticket sales. The only source of revenue was from concessions–the net sales kept the lights on, the projectors running, and the staff paid. Determining sales–when it came to popcorn and soda– was done by how many cups were on site at the beginning of the day (-) how many were left at the end (x) the price of that particular size of popcorn or drink. If you switch the cups before say the early evening screenings one night, all those backup cups sold (x) the price of each cup would go straight in the embezzler’s pocket.

That’s how it was explained to me. What was embarrassing is how I didn’t connect the dots when it was happening: how Alex told me on one or more nights to start using these cups that were stored in an odd place–behind the freezer–not in the locked store room where everything except for the ice cream was stored. And telling some new guy that yes, you can do inventory on popcorn and soda like you can Raisinettes and Whoppers–by doing simple math on the popcorn and soda cups “just like I used to do at Taco Bell with soda cups and Enchirito trays.” If I was so damn smart to the greenhorn how come I didn’t see the Alex thing coming? Amazing.

That’s how I became a snitch, a narc, a rat. I still think of that moment: me holding that sleeve of outlaw popcorn cups and those two guys staring at it incredulously. I honestly was not intentionally being a snitch. I was so naïve. It was unfortunate that I was so disingenuous to Alex sitting up in that cab of that bobtail that morning of the Night of the Broken Window. If I was older, I’m sure I would’ve said something to him like,”Hey man, I was the guy who accidentally ratted you out. I’m sorry. Edward and Wayne asked me a question, and I answered it, and I had no idea that it would precipitate in you losing your job.” Maybe that wouldn’t have been a smart thing to say. Maybe Alex would have said, “Hey man, that’s okay. Hey, wait a minute. I’ve got something for you,” reached into the glove box, pulled out a handgun and shot me. Then shot Paul, so there were no witnesses. Floor staff gossip said that Alex embezzled to feed a coke habit.

I don’t remember Judi taking a side in the Alex thing, and I never told her I thought Alex could have thrown the stone. (It’s safe to say I left out the part that maybe in the split-second of the window breaking I used her as a human shield against falling knives of glass.) A short time later I attempted to break up with her in the parking lot of the local Peppermill. It was late in the evening, she said something she often said that set me off and so I tried to terminate the codependent relationship. She said no, then criticized me about something I have long since forgotten. All I remember is, I relented. We had sex in the car on that ghost neighborhood near the post office, as usual, as we often did before dropping her off and I drove home feeling like shit, as I often did afterward.

I finally ended the codependent relationship; I’m not sure how. In the second half of the year-long relationship, Judi suddenly dropped the “I have cancer” story and switched to “I’m moving to Boston within a year.” I never asked her whatever happened to her cancer. By this time I didn’t care–I was now certain the cancer and Boston stories was her way of giving me an out or maybe it was her out. Judi was my first relationship lasting more than three dates, so I was a rookie at this stuff and a bad rookie, at that. Shortly after the breakup, I began dating the woman who has been my wife for thirty years. She made me a much better man than the guy in this post.

About a year or so after the breakup Judi moved to San Francisco. Paul moved East Bay. They would visit often. From time to time Paul would tell me she still thinks of me and would also poke fun at my immaturity. Fair enough, I guess. I would remember times in the thick of the dysfunctional relationship where I wished I would have gotten up from a restaurant table or movie theater seat saying I had to take a leak and just bolt. It would have been cruel, but I wonder if I would feel better about that exit as time moved on. Instead, I would just sit there eating my Eggplant Whateveritscalled from the vegetarian restaurant she insisted we visit far too often or watch some film she wanted (me) to see.

Perhaps the worst feeling of relationship regret/panic came when we were at the State Fair. I remember being stuck at the top of a stalled Ferris wheel. I was trapped there with her as she was going on about something I didn’t care about and I started asking myself, “What was I doing in this relationship?” I started going through the pros and cons of leaving, and the pros were winning by a landslide–at least at this moment. I began to panic and got this overwhelming urge to go home to my bed–my reset button. “Things will be better in the morning, Jack.” I started saying “Uh-huh” and “Right” to shit she was saying. All the while I was looking around to see just how I could climb down the two hundred foot ride and leave her up there.

My moral struggle with our relationship came down to me getting much-needed help with my class papers; having the regular sex (even if I felt crappy after each time) versus me feigning interest in things she said and liked so the above two things would keep going was slowly chiseling me down. And as the relationship dragged on it became harder and harder to look in the mirror.

And then there was her baggage: how domineering she was: going to places she wanted to go to while rarely asking me what I wanted to do along with her possessiveness and her fear of being alone. She could be in a crowded room surrounded by friends and acquaintances, but if she didn’t have a man with her, she might as well be in an empty hall. It was revealed by someone I knew from work that two days after I broke up with her this guy received a letter in the mail from her alluding that they should hook up. Wow, she must have been writing that one the night I broke up with her.

We made quite a couple–never acknowledging these things even though we were so transparent. When the inevitable break up occurred it was like a mashed-up quote from Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: We shouldn’t ask why our relationship ended, but how it lasted as long as it did.

The main players in this story of embezzlement, codependency, and vandalism have gone their separate ways. I haven’t seen Alex since the morning of the donut run. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again and if I do will I see the window breaker? Even if I did see him, he might never confess to breaking the window. In darker moments I think Paul might have broken the window in frustration of being locked out of his room, but that doesn’t sound like him at all, and if he did I would like to think he would have told me by now. Judi, after moving to San Francisco in the late 80s got breast cancer. She died in 2004. (Yeah, I know, I could make some comment about irony, but cancer’s a bitch.) Paul is still living in the Bay Area. We text each other nearly every day. He remained one of Judi’s friend to the end. As for me, well I’m an open book, as you can see.

In my current line of work, I often deal with personnel changes: office reorganizations, as well as individual employee hires, moves, and separations. So when I have to type that last word, Judi always comes to mind. I recall a time decades past blanking on the vowels in that simple word while working on a paper late at night at a coffee shop, Judi hovering over me ready to take it when I was finished so she could type it up for a class. I asked her how to spell it, and she gave me a mnemonic aid that–as mnemonic aids are designed to do–has never left me. “There’s always A-RAT in ‘separate.'” Coincidence or was she also trying to tell me something? Am I “a rat”? That stone on my plywood desk seemed to cry out something like that. As for Judi, she’s gone but haunts me in a word I see far too often.

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