Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Post-Katrina Lesson #1- Adventures In The Psychic Psychotic Friends Network- Part 2

And now, for Part 2 of the story...

The Problems

In Part 1 of this sad-but-true tale, you got quite a bit of background on the Xs. It's not all pretty and clearly, I don't share a lot of XX's values, but that never stopped me from seeing her value as a human being. She never insisted that I be like her. And XX always had a wicked funny sense of humor and was always great fun to be around.

In retrospect, I think the trouble may have started when I started driving solo. Since XY was recovering, I was told I could use his mini van to run errands and tend to my refugee business. Some of you may remember a comment from my friend, Whitney Broussard, in an early-September post about meeting him in D.C. (about 120 miles from here) for The Future of Music Coalition's Annual Policy Summit. We'd both attended this before (Whitney is a pretty regular panelist) and I thought it might ease my homesickness and sadness to see some of my friends from the music world. As soon as I mentioned the possibility to XX, she began throwing obstacles in the way. I ended up getting sick and couldn't have gone anyway. But after this, I noticed that she started to get testy. I don't think she liked my newfound independence.

The next weekend, another friend was going to be in D.C. for a convention. I hadn't seen him in about 15 years, and as some of you know from prior reading, I have a thing for Ethiopian food, which is plentiful in Washington. As a city girl, I felt like I needed a little urban fix and Alex needed to connect with his former world, so I announced my plans to go to D.C. for the day. We would meet up with one of Alex's friends from home who was exiled in Fairfax, meet up with my friend, and have some of my favorite chow. Then back to Keswick. XX clearly didn't like this and suddenly I felt like a teenager living back at home with distrustful parents.

In the beginning, there were no restrictions on my use of the car. They said that it would be nice to take a drive up into the mountains, an hour or two away. But now, they didn't think I should take the car to Washington. When I asked why, the first response was that I might not be comfortable driving in the city. (!!!) I told them that the country roads were the unfamiliar ground and that I had been to D.C. countless times, knew my way around and had driven in the city more than a few times. Then the story changed to it being an insurance issue and that I couldn't drive the car out of the state. No problem, I said. I could park it in Fairfax and take the Metro. Then they just said no. No problem, I said. I'd could rent a car for less than $30. Oh. They had no rebuttal for that one. So, the nest thing I hear is XX asking me, in a disapproving maternal voice, "just how well do you know this guy anyway??"

(Picture of my kids at the Whitehouse on that fateful day with Alex's long-time friend and school-chum, Katie, left. Please forgive my vanity, but I didn't like the way I looked in the picture, so I made Alex happy by replacing myself with Samuel L. Jackson.)

This gives you a good idea of what the first few weeks were like. Suddenly, I was like a teenaged kid that they had to control. I had to let them know what I was doing and where I was going all the time to make sure it was "approved." Really, I don't think XY cared, but XX expected it. And she seemed to resent the fact that I was doing things independently. (I'm saying "I" but it includes the kids, too.) In fact, she seemed to resent many things. She made snide remarks about the amount of time I spent on my cell phone, without regard to the fact that it had not worked for a long time and I was just beginning to hear from friends all over the country and other New Orleans expats who wanted to know all about what had been going on with us. I was on the phone with my mom and Renard a lot, too, working through all our feelings about the tragedy as it continued to unfold. No one knew what to do, what we could do, what had happened to our homes and when or if we could go home again. And compounding the frustration for me was the fact that I had no internet access in Keswick and I couldn't even watch the news because the only access to CNN was through the satellite receiver and XY sat in front of the TV 24/7 with sports and soap operas on. I was losing my mind in the communication vacuum and had to compete with Alex for a little dial-up time once it was late enough for them not to expect phone calls on the single, no-call-waiting phone line.

As many of you know, I am a night owl, and especially given the aforementioned circumstances, I stayed up quite late, as is customary for me. This too, irked XX, even though it had no effect whatsoever on her life or lifestyle. We were in our own wing, remember, and once we went in and closed the door, no one in the main house could have known whether we were asleep or awake anyway. So, bottom line, I noticed a clear change in XX's attitude after the first couple of weeks, once my independence had taken hold.

There are a few other things that merit a mention, and these concern the kids. I mentioned earlier that XY has a bit of the bigot in him and he'd begun making remarks about "The Mexicans" and "The Africans" that bothered us all, especially Alex. (Alex mentions this in his blog posts linked in my previous post and comments section.) "The Africans" referred to a family from Togo that XX was supposed to be helping with their English. XY routinely had the teenage son come over to do work at the house to earn extra money. And they announced that Alex could also do this. I'm all for teaching kids responsibility by giving them chores and then giving them an allowance for completing them, but the primary chore that they chose for Alex left he and I both a little befuddled. This chore was to walk the six acres and pick up sticks from on the ground. Alex's comment was that it the best they could do in the absence of a cotton crop on the property. We could hardly take this task seriously, but XX certainly did and was miffed that Alex, who had to make up for two weeks of missed classes in a new school far away from home, put his homework before pick-up-sticks. She complained frequently about that and about a dog blanket that he didn't take out of the mini van we were driving. She thought that taking the blanket out was doing us some huge favor, even though we tried to explain to her again and again that it was not a problem and we were hardly even aware of it being there.. But XX saw the sticks and the dog blanket as big priorities and Alex's neglect of these clearly pissed her off. It was about this time that she began issuing stern orders to Alex as soon as he came home from school. And that's when the notes started.

Little yellow post-it notes started appearing, directing us to do things. That was no problem, and we were happy to help in any way we could, but it was the tone of these notes, particularly when it came to the tasks assigned to Alex. . Granted, Alex does not usually do what you ask him to do as soon as you ask it. Usually, his response is, "okay, as soon as I ..." eat, finish my homework, finish watching this show, etc. And, granted, a lot of time he forgets and doesn't get around to it. And yes, it gets annoying when he doesn't do what he's asked. And I get very annoyed when it's something important, but most of these things were of no magnitude. I thought the nasty tone was an overreaction, but I kept my mouth shut and only tried to explain once that Alex's homework would always be his priority and that I'd pick up his slack if necessary.

Meanwhile, Little Rachel seemed to be exempt from chores, with the exception of doing things she liked and offered to do, like set the table and help in the kitchen. And Rachel is the greatest little mess-generator on this side of the Mississippi. (Probably both sides. Rachel's father once described her distribution of junk around the house as "pollenation" and I now frequently refer to her simply as "The Pollenator." Kind of like the Terminator, because she swiftly terminates any sense of order and cleanliness in any area she occupies.)

One thing that really bothered me, and I didn't hesitate at all to address it, was the fact that XX, who loves to shop above all things, was showering Rachel with all purchases while Alex got nothing. I made it very clear that, while I appreciated that she wanted to buy things for Rachel, there had to be parity between what was spent on the two of them. Oh, she said she definitely agreed and said it would be hurtful to spend on one child and not the other. So she continued to buy little things for Rachel and made repeated promises to take Alex shopping, but never did. XX's own mother could see how Alex was being neglected and felt so bad for him that she gave him $150 to buy some winter clothes for himself. In fact, during the time I was back in New Orleans, she told Alex that she would take him shopping while I was gone and instead, took the two of them out. Both kids bought a few things with their own money, but the trip was not to buy anything for Alex again Rachel had extra things that XX bought for her, right there in Alex's presence. When I returned and saw this, I made a lighthearted and joking remark about it not being safe to leave town because she couldn't seem to help (over)indulging Rachel in my absence. (She even bought Rachel a very fine leather blazer that XX really wanted for herself but only came in an extra-small-petite size. It was impractical and something I would have never done.)

There were other things I learned about the Xs in the first few weeks of our stay. I learned that XX had recently undergone treatment Hepatitis C. When I asked her how she contracted it, she hedged. Then she mentioned...uh...maybe drug use. Later she let it slip that she was on prescribed methadone. And antidepressants. And antipsychotics. And as XY began to recover, he began to drink again. That's when XX told me that he was an alcoholic and that she hoped they'd leave for Florida before he started drinking heavily. She said that it sometimes got pretty ugly and she hoped the kids wouldn't have to experience any of that.


The late hour requires me to stop here for now. As we move on, it really starts to get weird, ugly, and downright scary. So, stay tuned...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Post-Katrina Lesson #1- Adventures In The Psychic Psychotic Friends Network- Part 1

Lesson #1: If you have the time, run some kind of background check on your distant friends before accepting an offer of refuge. It may be money well spent.

This is part one of the story of our escape from the Keswick House of Horrors. We've moved twice since then. Needless to say, the last month has been quite turbulent and hasn't been much fun for us at all.

First, some background. I mentioned a thing or two about my hosts in previous posts, and will now flesh things out a bit more. For the sake of my little typing fingers, (and to protect the guilty) let me just refer to her as XX and him as XY.

After we arrived in Keswick, I was told by she who I once called "friend," that our coming to live there was XY's idea. That's only fitting because all of the resources possessed by the duo were procured with XY's money. XY is a multi-millionaire who, until hooking up with XX, lived in a simple cabin in the mountains and drove a pick-up truck. He also had a modest house in south Florida for winter getaways. In many ways, he's a republican good old boy, and maybe a little bigoted, but as experience has revealed, he's got a good heart and has his head screwed on pretty straight.

As I implied earlier, XY's simple and modest life changed when he married XX. I had known her through a mutual friend with whom we both used to sail out of St. Croix in the early to mid 1990s. My experience with her was pretty much limited to fun and leisure on the high seas. At the time, she was living in her parents' condo on the island and living off of (or more accurately, shopping through) a hefty monthly "rehabilitative alimony" payment from her ex-husband. She'd also gotten a six-figure settlement from a class action lawsuit which she blew through pretty quickly.

The last time we sailed together was in summer of 1995. My last sailing adventure (without XX) was right after I found out I was pregnant with Rachel, in December of that year. In the years following her birth, I heard from XX from time to time and was regaled with stories of the really creepy guys with whom she'd gotten involved. After receiving a second, unexpected six-figure check from the lawsuit, these guys and a resurrected drug habit helped make XX's money disappear pretty quickly.

Around 1997, now a woman in her mid 40s, XX returned to Virginia and moved back in with her parents with none of the money left and little or no other resources necessary to live independently with any real quality of life. With only a highschool education and scant retail work experience, she enrolled in a community college. In 1998, her father died and she called me in great despair because her mother was "being really mean" to her. I sent her a plane ticket so she could come down to New Orleans and be in a friendlier environment for a bit. Soon after returning from the trip, her mother kicked her out of the house and she began working as a sitter for old and sick people.

At some point in the years after that, she connected with XY. She'd known him in high school but didn't give him a second look back then. (She was a "cool" girl and he was a kinda chunky "not-cool" guy. ) But I guess things looked different to her in the light of her current state of life. In 2000, there was a courtship and then a marriage proposal. At 50, it would be XY's first marriage. When she told me about the wedding, which was to take place in Hawaii, I told her I'd be there if she wanted me to be. She asked me to be her Maid of Honor, and I think this was more so because I was willing to make the trip at my own expense than because we were such great friends. (I always liked XX and considered her a friend, but we didn't communicate that often and I had only seen her once in the preceding 5 years. I never thought she considered me to be a close friend, certainly not one worthy of Maid of Honor. But then I learned that there really are no other close friends. There's a lesson in this, as well. Beware when someone has no real friends and badmouths the ones that were once friends for reasons that strike you as things most of us would not have a problem with. Same goes for lovers that can't find one positive attribute or one good, kind thing to say about any of their exs.)

Anyway, I was impressed by how unabashed XX was about the fact that what she seemed to love most about XY was his money. He didn't seemed bothered by it and I figured that, from his perspective, he'd simply found someone who gave his money meaning. Personally, not being the judgmental type, I just observed it with some degree of amusement. (It really was amusing to hear her literally whining about wanting black pearls and other jewelery while we were in Hawaii. She whined in a sort of joking way, but she was clearly serious.)

As soon as we arrived in Keswick after the storm, XX began expounding on the many aspects of their largesse and how XY had completely spoiled her. He did everything. EVERYTHING. He brought her coffee and breakfast in bed every morning, did all the grocery shopping, cooking, gardening and everything else. (They, of course, had a housekeeper.) When not in one of her many health crises, XX spent her days watching soap operas with XY, pleasure-shopping and getting spa services and such. He also bought her a Mercedes for use in Virginia and she bragged about the "bigger, fancier and more expensive" Mercedes he bought for her to use while at their "home in Palm Beach." (Actually, it's in Riveria Beach, but Palm Beach sounds much ritzier, so she always refers to it as such, whereas XY, small on pretense, refers to it accurately.) She actually spent part of an afternoon giving me a tour of the contents of her jewelry boxes. I should note that XY still drives his pickup truck and his late mother's mini van.

As I mentioned, when we arrived, XY was recovering from a badly bruised kidney. His idea to have us take refuge in Keswick came to him while in the hospital. He recounted to us that he'd thought he was going to die at the time and upon realizing that he would be okay, felt that this was something he was called to do. He wanted to adopt us as an extension of his family and wanted to call me "sis." He said he was so blessed to have his life spared and to have more money than he could spend in a lifetime (which offended XX, who clearly felt she could easily spend it and stated as much,) and that he should share his blessings by helping us out. How could he just sit there and have this whole section of this big house just sitting empty when he knew that we had nowhere to go? This is what prompted his offer of refuge. In retrospect, XX had a motive and a set of expectations as well, but none of this was obvious to me at the outset.

The X abode is a sprawling 5 bedroom/7 bathroom house in an upscale area Keswick, part of Albemarle County which constitutes "Greater Charlottesville." (Population - less than 40,000- The New Orleans Superdome holds 72,000.) Two people occupy this 5,380 square foot house. (The purchase was XX's idea, of course.) We were to occupy "the wing," an addition to the main section of the house, separated from it by a den. We were pretty self contained there with our own little refrigerator, sink and microwave. We'd have to venture into the main part of the house only for laundry facilities and full-scale cooking.

We did everything we could to be good and unobtrusive guests. We eschewed the use of XX's twice-a-week maid and cleaned the wing ourselves. We did our own laundry and would have cooked our own meals if XX had not insisted that we eat with them, family style. (My children had to ask to be excused from the table, a formality we never bothered with at home.) I cooked a few times and would have done so more often, but XX said she liked to cook (and though I'm good at it, I don't really like to do it.) I'd help her whenever she'd let me but most of the time, "That's okay. I've got it" was XX's reply to my requests to help out in the kitchen. XX insisted on buying us groceries when we first arrived, but we took care of our own food purchases after that.

One of XX's favorite activities was to take us shopping for the winter clothes we would need. She did not pay for these, I did, with the exception of a leather coat that she insisted Rachel have. (I wouldn't have purchased it anyway, as it was not a practical purchase, but it appealed to XX's sense of style. She would have simply purchased it for herself if it had been available in her size.) XX did push me to buy a couple of other impractical (but inexpensive) items for Rachel. But the point is that we were taking care of our own needs, especially once I knew my way around town well enough to drive myself where I needed to go, (they let me use XY's mini van since he was on bedrest and not able to drive,) and we were helping out in whatever ways we could.

Now you have a sort of picture of the state of things shortly after we arrived. You know a lot about the Xs, but not everything. You'll find out more just as we did, in the unfolding of the events that will follow in the next post. To whet your appetite a bit, I'll just say that I've only recently stopped having nightmares about our last week at the Keswick House of Horrors. Brandy mentioned in a previous post's comment that she knew what was going on after reading Alex's blog entries on his My Space page. Alex mentions the reason we were given when we were asked to leave, which was clearly XY's attempt to save face. It all fell apart in the light of XX's psychotic behavior during the week it took us to find another place to go (a Holiday Inn, as it turns out.) Alex also wrote some pretty amazing poetry in those blog entries that capture his feelings of anger and frustration not just as it relates to this subject, but to the whole exile in general. Check it out.

Thanks again for your patience and for sticking with me with so much love and support. This has been a tough month.
One quick favor...Muse's package, sent via mail, was forwarded to me at my new address in Charlottesville, but please let me know if any of you sent anything to Keswick via UPS or any method other than mail in the last month or so. I may never see it if you did, but at least I might enquire.