Breaking Glass

"I hope you're writing some of this down," she said, gathering her books and hopefully her wits before I swept her off to class. On the way to campus we stopped in a long column of cars in front of what turned out to be a perpetual red light. At the corner a pretty young woman with a pink backpack held a sign requesting money and referencing a passage from John.

"There's that crazy bitch." A gleam in her eye, a little tug at her lips, Mona enjoyed the fleeting satisfaction of pinning the dreaded label on someone else. Of course! It was Sara, the first Sara, flying a sign for meth money. She'd flamed out after a screaming fit complete with threats to burn the place down because her boyfriend, the first Danny, wouldn't accompany her when she wanted to go. The second Sara didn't fare much better. Sure, she lasted a couple months, and even paid Mona a little rent she raised off the streets. She'd sworn off meth since, after all, she was pregnant. But when the cops busted her for flying a sign — after she'd told them where to find Bo on the understanding that they'd leave her alone — Mona found syringes in her room.

Unlike the others, Bo and Stacy were junkies. Trying to kick smack isn't easy, but they looked to be on their way until six cops showed up one day — thanks to the second Sara — and he was clearly strung out while being interrogated for the 50 computer tablets he'd apparently stolen.

How did I get into this mess? Definitely not what I signed up for when Mona, darkly beautiful Nebraska sweetheart, asked me to live with her in Kansas City while she got her MFA in creative writing. After she'd published a book of poetry, UMKC offered her a full ride plus a stipend. Since her husband Nick was stuck teaching sculpture in a western Kansas cow town, he'd encouraged her to go for it. If he couldn't bust them out, maybe she could.

It was an opportunity to be part of a family, to look after the two youngest — nine year old Violet and seven year old Vega — while helping Mona with her schoolwork.

With the last-minute addition of her oldest, Will, the five of us moved into the second and third floors of an old stone house near Westport Rd. As soon as I moved into the top floor, things began breaking, like when I set down a suitcase and heard a crash from within when it fell over because the floor was slanted in that spot or when I dropped a jar of water in the dark because I thought a table was underneath my hand when I let go.

But the first real sign of trouble came my first night back from a West Coast road trip to celebrate the publication of my book. I was doing yoga when Mona came upstairs, took a seat and started chatting. She told me she'd had a crush on me back in the day, then pointed out that  Will, who'd taken the girls to Manhattan — the college town where Nick and I grew up and Mona went to school — wouldn't be back till late the next day. We could spend the night together, all night long. "We could have sex," she said, matter-of-factly.

Ever since the Halloween night Nick introduced us, Mona and I had been close. But it was brother-sister close, never a hint of anything more. This coupled with the fact that I was standing on my head when she let slip the magic words caught me off guard.

I dropped from the ceiling and told her we couldn't do that because it would be irresponsible. Later I pretended the exchange never happened. All the flirting and provocations that followed I chalked up to her loneliness without Nick.

Sure, she was lonely without him, but for years she'd been lonely with him. A childbirth addict with her fertile days behind her, nothing remained to distract her from loveless matrimony. Now, out of Nick's presence, she could let the truth could sink in. She started crying, just a little at first and then every night in torrential bursts. I was there not just to help with the girls and the papers and the poetry-making but to listen and sympathize while her illusions of the perfect family drained from her soul by way of her tear ducts.

I could forgive her for thinking I might play an even bigger role, helping catalyze the breakup and supporting her not just emotionally (and financially) but sexually, catching her in my arms as she plummeted from marital grace.

The more I saw Nick through her eyes, the more alien he became. One night when she had to write a report due the following morning, she got hung up on something and had to text Nick about it. Instead of resolving whatever was at hand and getting her mind back on her work, he ensnared her in escalating text war. Later when he drove out to take her to Iowa so she could present a paper at a conference, he kept the attention on himself while she grew visibly frustrated trying to get her thoughts in order.

Not so long ago Mona supported Nick through art school, earning money at daycare and securing gigs for him at galleries and otherwise getting the word out, all the while caring for three kids at home with another on the way. But when it was Mona's turn — after a chance meeting at a Lawrence coffeehouse led to her book publication — Nick got the bright idea that he should be a writer too, his output taking the form of erotic fiction he lovingly bestowed upon his adoring wife.

One night when I was half asleep, I thought I heard Will counting down to zero in the kitchen. Soon after, Mona yelled to come quick. Will had gone on a rampage, shattering several personal items including the cheap landline phone I kept in the living room and a clay sculpture of a phone on a nearby shelf.

The next day I asked him what the hell happened. He said he'd awakened in his room to the terrifying vision of Mona castigating him while holding my phone threateningly over his head. So he grabbed it and broke it in two and bolted out to the living room where he saw the phone sculpture and figured he'd really show her by smashing that too.

Nick happened to visit that evening, and I passed along Will's version of the previous night's events. "Do you think it's true?" I asked. But instead of answering, he launched into a two hour epic narrative of Mona the Merciless. He called her histrionic and said she alternated between threatening his life and her own. Through it all he presented himself as a cool-headed, wholly dispassionate observer, a victim of this crazy woman he'd mistakenly married and sired six kids with.

The next morning I got Mona's take. Will, she said, "had an upset" when he couldn't find one of his shoes and announced that if it didn't turn up by the time he counted down from seven, he was going to "wreck the place." When he got to zero, he stormed the living room and destroyed the first thing he noticed — the phone sculpture — and followed that up by annihilating the landline. The giveaway was the countdown, which I'd heard myself, so I knew she was telling the truth.

Nick didn't care if his son's self-serving confabulation was true or not, so long as it gave him an opening to denounce his wife. One night when Will lectured her like she was his daughter, I knew where it came from. For years Nick had treated her like a child in need of daddy's loving wisdom.

Meanwhile Violet was tormenting her sister. She'd snatch a book out of Vega's hand or turn off the Xbox while Vega was playing a game or "accidentally" elbow her, routinely putting her down and bossing her around. Yet whenever Vega fought back, Mona just told them both to behave themselves, as if the blame went around equally. Every time Violet had a fit — always over something bizarrely inconsequential — Mona bought into it, taking at face value her attention-seeking tantrums.

One day in charge of the kids, I turned my back on them for one minute, and suddenly Vega was struggling to explain through tears — real tears — that Violet had yanked her from her seat and banged her head on the floor because she'd sat on a piece of fabric Violet had left on a pillow. Apparently it was some kind of special fabric. When I told Violet she could never under any circumstance hit her sister, she replied, "Why are you always interfering?"

When Mona got home, she took Violet's side and called me an asshole. I told her I'd responded to Violet the way any responsible adult would. Why did she want me looking after the kids if I couldn't point out misbehavior? She said Violet was just like she'd been as a little girl, and she felt like I was attacking her.

Not long after, Will's dog Lucy fell about ten feet from the balcony onto the patio in front of the house. Violet was beside herself with grief, as usual playing it for all it was worth. The handyman happened to be out front, and he said Lucy was prancing about as usual, no sign of injury. So I came back upstairs and passed on the news that Lucy was okay. "One of the things I hate about you," said Mona, "is how you make these authoritative pronouncements." I stewed over that for awhile — there was a grain of truth to it — and then confronted her on my way out the door. "One of the things I hate about you is how you keep picking away at me like I'm one of your toenails."

When I returned, Violet swore her mom never said "one of the things I hate about you," though Mona knew perfectly well she had. Later as we discussed the incident in the kitchen, Violet showed up to forbid us from speaking of it anymore. Perhaps she was embarrassed that Lucy was indeed fine and Mona had apologized for the hurtful phrase. I explained to Violet — again calmly but firmly — that she didn't have the right to decide what we could or could not discuss. Mona chimed in that I didn't know how to talk to a child, and I responded that I was doing what she, as a parent, should have been doing all along.

"See?" said Violet. "He's attacking you now." So I laid the palm of my hand on Mona's arm and assured her I meant no harm, that my comment was not an attack. "Don't touch me," she snarled.

I began to wonder if Mona was nuts. Could it be a personality disorder, as Nick had hinted when he called her histrionic? So I consulted the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, but it just didn't add up. Then I noticed a summary box listing the symptoms of another condition, borderline personality disorder, and there it was: the alternating extremes in relationships, the unstable sense of self, the reckless impulsivity, the tongue-lashings Nick had told me about, the rapidly shifting mood and threats of suicide.

That's when I made a questionable decision. I sat her down on the couch and showed her the description of her illness, in essence holding up a mirror to her soul, letting her see what she'd been hiding from herself her whole life.

She took it well — or seemed to at first. Then she found a new friend. With the girls back in cow town for the summer, she started bringing someone over she'd met on the street. John was a sweet guy with a terrible addiction. 27 years old and sporting a beard and dreadlocks, he seemed very distant when she introduced us, but that was only the meth. Once he agreed to stop shooting up in exchange for a place to sleep on the balcony, he really opened up.

Will didn't care for John sleeping on a balcony attached to Mona's room. When he cited a provision in the lease prohibiting guests from staying longer than a week, they went "camping," spending the night in a midtown park where John knew they wouldn't be hassled. When Nick happened to call the landline, I told him they'd already left for the park, having wrongly assumed she'd cleared it with him beforehand. So he called Will early the next morning and told him to see if she was back yet. She was back alright and in the arms of John on the balcony. Will returned with his cellphone and snapped a picture of John reaching up her shirt. He informed them he would be emailing it to Nick.

With that task completed, Will got in his pickup and drove to a gun store. But, as luck would have it, it was Sunday, and you can't buy a gun in Missouri on Sunday. When he got back, John and Mona watched from the balcony as he very deliberately put on a pair of black gloves, grabbed an ax, and headed for the front door.

So they scurried off the balcony onto a limb, climbed down the tree and fled the scene barefoot and penniless. Will got to work destroying glasses and dishes, furniture, lamps, sculptures, my replacement phone and Mona's tablet and printer, topping it off by soaking Mona's bed and John's backpack in motor oil. By the time I got out of the shower — having heard none of the mayhem — he was sitting on a chair, the ax in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other.

I asked Nick to take the five hour drive to KC, but he refused. He didn't think it was necessary. Will moved out and Mona returned from the crack house where John had taken her for safekeeping. She assured me they had not slept together; she had not cheated on Nick. But she needed Nick to show he cared, to knock a few bricks from the vertical pavement surrounding his heart. Since Nick wouldn't come out to see her, I wound up doing the same drive in the other direction in a last ditch effort to save their marriage.

No more pinning all the crazy on Mona, I told him. He'd done his part too. Aside from my own observations, she'd let me in on his rigid and condescending style, how he never kissed her anymore and never seemed to smile — except, that is, when he ripped into his students and other "pathetic" people. If he didn't wake up, he'd lose her.

Later on he told Mona he didn't believe a word I said because he knew all along I was just trying to steal his woman.

Mona needed help, but she'd never heal as long as her emotionally retarded husband mistook possession and control for love. When she'd rage at him over seemingly nothing — as borderlines are wont to do — instead of responding with calmly reasoned compassion, he'd just fan the flames. As far as he was concerned, the crazier the better. So long as she was off her rocker, he was in charge.

She finally got up the nerve to tell him she wanted out. He'd always said whoever files first wins, so it was no surprise he beat her to the punch. His petition for divorce characterized her as unstable and no longer an appropriate role model for their kids. Naturally he should keep the kids and the house, cutting her out completely. It was just a ploy of course to get her back, to let her know she was nothing without him. I told her to fight.

Meanwhile Mona moved John into her bedroom and offered one of his buddies Will's old room. Unlike John, Rosy cultivated an air of menace, like he was doing you a favor by holding back his vast reservoir of rage. He'd named himself after his dearly departed mom and liked to cut apart tin cans with a whittling knife and fold them into sharp edged roses.

Many more of John's street friends arrived to share in his good fortune: Critter, Red, Bo and Stacy, Danny and Sara. Angela was the squeeze Rosy came in with but soon got traded in for the second Sara, who found syringes in his room after he bolted to Marlborough, land of the "trap house," in a car inexplicably purchased by Mona under his name. In the end only John, his acquaintance Scott and the second Danny passed the test and stayed on. Danny and Scott even got work — hard work — in the daily labor pool, while John kept himself busy angling for crazy checks and fabricating art, often at the end of a torch, from the plentiful debris left in the wake of Will's rampage.

Somehow it worked, Mona queen in a palace of broken glass.

And then she left. Like the street urchins who couldn't seize a golden opportunity if it required staying off the needle, Mona caved before the lure of her own drug of necessity, thrice weekly injections of Nick.

I like my new roommates. We have a good time. There's a lot of wisdom in people who survive houseless and penniless with practically no possessions for years on end, many starting in their early teens and ranging widely across the country. Lots of stories and insights to share.

It's nice. I just miss my little sister.

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