I knew she was a liar. Maybe not in the beginning, but I did. There was no surprise there; co-workers had questioned my judgment when I hired her as my personal assistant from the very beginning. She was nuts they said. She was crazy they warned. I brushed them aside, I knew what I was doing and it wasn’t like I was going to get involved with her.
Until I did.
Strange enough I could deal with the lies. Lies are harmless if you know the words are empty. Promises became the equivalent of Chinese food—unfulfilling. Arms length kept things safe. Our relationship was built on the immediacy of the moment and everyone at some point has steered that boat and enjoyed the ride. The warnings of an iceberg ahead were ignored because I didn’t need someone to shout them out. I could see them plain as day.
What I couldn’t see was how big the iceberg was, hiding in the depths.
I am guilty of doing something that I’d say a lot of people do nowadays. No, not getting involved with a co-worker. I meant automatic bill pay. That, in itself, is not the crime. The crime is not checking the bill. Instead of examining the contents on the statement I merrily went about my life in a blissful state of money coming in and money going out. My job was fantastic, three promotions in four years, and running my own division. It made the alarm clock a little softer in the morning. I was in the black, zero debt with spending money at my disposal. Let the computer balance my direct incoming deposit and my outgoing bills.
On a random Saturday in the middle of December, my brother asked if I ever cashed the check he sent me for our mom’s birthday gift. To make things easier we go in together. I buy the presents, and he sends me what he owes. End result, everyone wins. This year I had the brilliant idea to have my personal assistant do the shopping. She does the legwork, I give her the Mastercard and I win again. His request was a difficult one due to my memory being admittedly shoddy combined with trying to remember a check from six months ago. Giving thanks for living in the twenty-first century, I logged on to see my statement. Three clicks and a scroll later, there it was, the check deposited in bright green numbers.
So far, so good.
I was going to log out and go for a jog when I saw on the next line that I paid MasterCard a little under three hundred dollars. Interesting, since the only time I use that card is when a store doesn’t take AMEX. With a couple of keystrokes I was at the MasterCard site, looking at my previous bill. In between the random grocery bill and a gas station charge sat a one hundred twenty dollar charge for car insurance on a car I did not own.
Digging a little deeper, I checked the previous month and saw the same charge. Another month, another charge.
Five months, five charges totaling six hundred dollars.
Who the hell had access to….
Change of plans. I wasn’t going for a jog. I was going for a drive. I climbed into my 2015 Altima and used all of its six cylinders to make it to her apartment building. A building I had spent many a night and a couple of mornings driving to work from. The good thing about being a familiar face at an ordinary apartment building is not having to ring a bell to gain admittance. All I had to do was wait a couple of minutes, see one of her neighbors and follow them inside with a smile and some small talk.
I walked through the dark green walls that covered God only knew how many layers of paint previously and walked up the three flights of loud marble steps until I saw the golden “3K” nailed to the slab gray door. At this moment maybe a thought came to your mind. You’re wondering how I knew she was home?
And I didn’t care either.
If she wasn’t home I would wait until she was. There was nothing going on in my life that day. My social calendar was empty. The only need would be the inevitable hunger and my anger easily shouted down my grumbling stomach. Fortunately for me there would be no waiting. I could hear the house music blasting from behind the door.
I hated the music then, I abhor the music now.
I knocked on the door, three punches with the side of my right hand, and waited. A second or two passed and the volume lowered. I hit the door a couple more times and could hear the shuffling of feet coming towards me. When the door opened I saw a surprised face staring back at me.
“Hey, babe! You decided to surprise me?” She leaned in for the kiss and I side stepped her like I was Bruce Lee. Her face registered shock at my avoidance. “What’s the matter?” Since I was now inside she closed the apartment door. I felt the anger rising inside my stomach and it took all of the meditation courses I had taken in college to not lose my shit. Looking at her I could see she literally had two faces. When she was at work or out, she was always on point. Hair, makeup, clothes, the whole nine. Home was a different story. The hair was up in a messy ponytail, split ends apparent to even my untrained eye. The face was devoid of any makeup whatsoever and a JUICY outfit of some kind covered a body in need of some parlor tricks. We still hadn’t moved from our collective spots and I wanted to get this over with. Without saying a word, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper.
“What’s that?” I could tell she was tense, her words touching my ears like ghosts. I decided now it was time to speak and unfolded the paper like a magician about to unveil his latest trick.
“This is my MasterCard statement from last month.”
“Since when do you pay your bills?” Her attempt at levity fell to the Earth like Icarus. I swallowed the fury begging to rage against the dying of the light and locked my face down. A face she had cupped in her hands a thousand times on the couch to our right and in the bedroom down the hall. At one time she made smiling as easy for me as breathing. Now I could do neither and my words choked out through gritted teeth.
“Do you want to drag this out or do you want to admit what you did?”
“What are you talking about?” I’ll tell you what, the way she handled the situation made me think she missed her calling. To have the range to go from innocence, to ignorance, to comedic insight and now irritation showed some serious acting skills. She was running the emotional spectrum like a Kenyan in a marathon. Ignoring her words I said in the calmest voice possible,
“You have two options—either I go to the police and let them settle this or you admit what you did, pay me my money right now and it’s over.”
Her green eyes registered the gravity of the situation and she reached out for my hands. With obvious revulsion, I pulled back like they had touched a boiling pot. A tsunami of fear washed over her face and she leaned back against the tan wall. The image of a cornered rat came to mind. I was so locked on that thought I missed the beginning of whatever she was saying and didn’t care enough to ask her to repeat. All I managed to hear was,
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” When she didn’t get the sympathetic reaction she figured would come her way her voice rose and the Italian came out of her arms and hands. “I didn’t know what to do! I figured you wouldn’t notice one month!” You know when you’re watching a movie and the character suffers a concussion? All the sound goes out and you hear a background whistle that gets louder and louder until the character shakes out the cobwebs. That’s the way I felt. My eyes were bulging out of my head and the whistle grew louder and louder until I finally exploded.
“One month? ONE MONTH?! How about FIVE MONTHS!! How about SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!!”
“I just didn’t have the money. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The tears came next and she sat down on her couch and collapsed into her hands. I made no move to comfort, nor did my words grow soft. I just stood against the door and waited for the show to end. After the tears ran dry and the sniffling stopped, she spoke up,
“I can’t pay you the six hundred right now. Give me two days and I’ll have it Monday morning.” I considered my options. I could wait two days. She would pay me Monday and I’d go to Human Resources and make sure firing her wouldn’t put the company in an awkward position. This was the win I was looking for and after a minute of silence I spoke up.
“If you don’t have the money on Monday we’re going to have a serious problem.”
“I promise you I will. I am so sorry, I’m embarrassed and I—“ Without saying a word I turned around and walked out. I couldn’t stand being there for one more second, listening to her spew her bullshit. I was done. We were done. All that was left was the waiting.
Monday morning came and went like any other. The afternoon dragged as it often does, the familiar beats of working at a job for four years. The only difference between this Monday and every other Monday that came before was the absence of my loyal personal assistant. I emailed HR if they received any word from her and received the equivalent of shrugged shoulders in reply. After an hour of no reply to my text, I called and went straight to voice mail. I left a firm, “Where the hell are you” message and pushed her from my mind for the rest of the day.
The moment I left work was a different story.
I drove to her apartment like a banshee, thankfully arriving in one piece without killing anyone. There were no available spots so I double-parked and bolted out of my car. My stomach bubbled like a cauldron and all sense of rational thoughts were being pushed aside by the color red. I wanted to find her and I was afraid to find her.
Throwing open the front door something to my left caught my eye. Her name, scratched out on the mailbox. I looked up to the sky and scrunched my face. There was a desperate need to scream and curse and I once again swallowed back the rage. A couple of neighbors walked in and the only information they could give me were smiles and sorries. Finally, I saw the maintenance guy and asked if he had seen my mystery girl. The old man scratched the back of his ear and informed me she moved out in a rush a couple of hours earlier. No forwarding address, no information given. She didn’t even care for her security, although based on the way she beat up her hardwood living room floor she probably knew there was no money coming.
Son of a bitch.
I went back to my car and sat without turning it on. I punched the steering wheel eight or nine times, then five or six more. If someone was driving past me they would have thought I was having a psychotic breakdown. To try and regain some control of my sanity I flipped the visor down and looked at myself in the mirror.
What was I going to do?
The option of the police came to mind and was ruled out just as quickly. Was it worth the hours I would have to spend filling out paperwork and giving a statement? They would probably stare back at me and think I was just another loser in a long history of losers ripped off blind by the women they thought cared about them.
I am not a loser. Six hundred dollars was not worth losing my pride.
Letting go a deep breath I turned my car on and began the drive home. With embarrassment and shame coursing through my veins I learned a most valuable lesson:
Never think you’re special. If someone is a liar, they’re going to lie to you. If someone cheats, they’re going to cheat on you. And if someone is an asshole, they’re going to shit on you.