Avoiding Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a state of conflicted thoughts, ideas or realities. Or, a confused, frightening mental conflict between evidence of reality and contrary beliefs. It’s a difficult, even traumatizing phenomenon that I believe my subconscious mind was trying to prevent by avoiding information that would bring the dissonance about.

Tina had been staying with me at My Mom’s house, with her mom coming for sporadic stays over the spring. In June, Maura hadn’t been coming around, preferring to stay in Farmington for a while. I recall Tina saying something about her not feeling welcome there, which saddened me, because she was very welcome and I tried to make her stays very comfortable. I set up the coffee to auto-brew for her at the early early hour she’d arise for work so she could wake up with a fresh cup. I tried to keep foods she liked in the house and so-forth. But I digress.

Tina and I were alone in the house, sitting at the dining room table. She was fidgeting with her phone, which was flat on the table before her, to find something she wanted to show me. A little circle with a face popped up on the screen and Tina swiftly put her hand up to conceal the screen while she made that go away, but I’d seen it. The quick glimpse was enough to identify it, because I’d seen it a few times before. It was an incoming message on the facebook messenger app.

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“Was that Cassidy?” I asked, more to let her know that her effort to cover it up was futile than to verify, because I knew it was Cassidy.

She hesitated, uncomfortably before acknowledging it. “Yes, but I just sent that right to the trash like I always do. I’d block him, but I don’t know how.”

Of course, I recognized Cassidy’s messenger circle because I’d seen it before. A few times, when he was trying to contact Tina for whatever reason. I saw one of his earlier messages “Wanna get together and smoke a little or something?” That one was around November, I think. He blinked up on her screen again right around Christmas and perhaps another time that I noticed. When I asked Tina about what her former sex-buddy wanted, she’d always say she just ignored him, was planning to block him and he probably just wanted to bum some weed off of her. She said he probably owed her hundreds of dollars for weed she’d fronted him in the few months they’d been (sort-of) together.

“When we met for Coffee back in September and decided to give ‘Us’ another try, I kind of envisioned some steps that would come next,” I said. “For instance, I shut down my dating apps and cancelled a date I had set up. I cut off ties with women I’d dated – my ex-wife being the exception – I kinda thought you’d be doing the same. I’m getting the impression that you never bothered to tell Cassidy…”

“Oh, He knows about you. Trust me on that.” She found the thing she wanted to show me – some silly picture. I don’t remember, exactly. Something dirty.

As Tina told it, Cassidy was a “smoke buddy” and occasional sex partner during the few months that Tina and I were not seeing or speaking to each other in the Summer of 2017. He had moved into the apartment above Tina’s in the Farmington triplex. I’d met him on a couple occasions. I’d suspected he was the reason for our last falling out. He only lived in the apartment from April through August and Tina and I reconciled on September 11th, but I knew he had been over to Tina’s late the night before. He was also standing guard behind Tina when I’d attempted to reconcile with her in early June. I didn’t know they were a thing at the time, but I suspected. Turns out I was right. With Cassidy looking on, she’d sent me packing, dismissing me pretty harshly. That sent me into a major drinking spiral and I was hammered for days. After all that, I determined to sober up. It was rough at first, but got easier, until I got to a point that I couldn’t even remember what I used to like about drinking.

Tina described her relationship with Cassidy as a “not serious” relationship of convenience. She said she didn’t call herself his girlfriend and that he was pretty dim. Later on, she told me that they had never even kissed, but had sex only a couple times. Sometimes, they just spooned, she said. This was all information I didn’t need. All I needed to know was that it was over. From his frequent attempts to contact Tina via facebook, he didn’t seem to know that. And, those attempts are just the ones I know of – that I happened to notice when they popped up. There were almost certainly more than I saw. Tina always maintained that she never replied and intended to delete and block him when she figured out how. “I can show you,” I’d offered on more than one occasion, but she always had some reason to put it off or said she wanted to figure it out for herself.

The next day was Friday and Tina told me she was feeling a lot of anxiety about Mom’s house and needed to get away for a while. She said her mom would be coming to pick her up after work and take her back to Farmington with her for the weekend.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. I’d miss her terribly. I was really enjoying having her company around the house. It felt like we were a couple, a team, domesticated. It was like a trial run on marriage and I was into it. I always missed her keenly if we were apart for more than a day or two. At that time, she was my best friend and I didn’t tire of her company and conversation.

After some discussion with her mom that I wasn’t privy to, plans changed and she wasn’t going back to Farmington after all. Yay! I get to keep my Tina over the weekend!

Things changed again on Saturday and she was desperate to get back to Farmington. I had given Tina a car for this very purpose, but she was refusing to drive it, after her accident at the liquor store.

Always accommodating, I said, “Don’t make your Mom drive into Minneapolis and back on her day off. I’ll drive you down after I finish this work project. I was planning to run and get some materials for the bedroom, so I can stop at Home Depot on the way back.”

I got to work on a writing assignment for work and Tina set to packing. She packed a lot. She tended to over-pack for trips, but she was going home where most things she needed were duplicated.

It took me a bit longer to get ready to drive Tina than I’d initially estimated, but we got on the road as dusk was falling and we listened to music loud, sang along and chatted away until I noticed a strange sound emanating from my van. Music off. Quiet. Listen, diagnose.

I determined that something had gotten caught in the suspension and was knocking on the passenger wheel well. I decided closer inspection could wait until we got back to Tina’s.

I pulled into the driveway, parking behind Maura’s car, because there was a red Pontiac I didn’t recognize parked in the middle of the driveway, by the doorway.

“Whose car is that?” I asked Tina.

“I don’t know.” She undid her seat belt and hurried out of the van.

I helped Tina unload her luggage and she toted it down into the apartment while I got under the van to see what was knocking. It was a plastic shield in the wheel well that had lost a screw and was flapping when the wind caught it. I decided that wasn’t urgent. My hands were dirty from my inspection and I was planning to go downstairs to wash up, and say Hi to Maura before turning back for Minneapolis. It would be a very quick stop-in. I was sensing Tina needed a break from me and I didn’t want to intrude on their mother-daughter time.

Tina came back out after her second trip toting her bags just as I was getting up from checking the wheel well. “Do you want to come inside and say hello to my mother?”

“Yeah,” I said, holding my hands out. “I was just about to do that and I need to wash my hands.”

She led me down into the basement apartment where Maura was standing in the living room. We exchanged a couple quick pleasantries and then I kicked my shoes off by the stairs and turned towards the bathroom.

“Could you use the kitchen sink instead?” Tina got in front of me, ushering me in the other direction.”

I thought this was odd. I might have washed my hands in the kitchen sink when I was preparing dinner, but the bathroom was the default cleaning up room in my experience. Tina snatched a black towel off the oven door, thrusting it at me. “See? Look. It’s black. Perfect for your dirty hands.”

I shrugged. I set the towel on the counter and used some dish soap to wash my hands over the (dirty) dishes. I made sure my hands were clean before I tried drying them, as civilized people will do, so the color of the towel wasn’t terribly interesting, except for the fact that this new dollar store kitchen towel left my wet hands covered in streaks of black lint that I had to brush off into the garbage.

Tina hurried me towards the door. Maura, standing in the doorway to the TV room never moved.

I sat on the bottom step to put my shoes back on and Tina stepped forward to give me a quick kiss goodbye and I was on my way back to my lonely bed in my Mom’s empty house in Minneapolis.

That night I had a disturbing dream. I was staying at Tina’s and heard a strange sound from the bathroom. I went to investigate and heard the shower running. Tina was in bed and no one else was supposed to be in the house. I knew I wouldn’t be peeping on Maura when I pulled back the curtain. Behind it, there was a naked man I’d never seen before, wet and soapy in the shower. He was startled and immediately moved to attack me. We struggled briefly before he ran off and out of the apartment – naked all the way.

I think I woke up as he was making his escape and never got a reaction or explanation from Tina, who had calmly observed me and him emerging wet and bedraggled from the bathroom.

I spent the weekend tinkering with improvements to the house, getting it ready to sell and come Monday, I had to get off to my driving job. I liked the chauffeur gig, but sometimes the hours were weird and sometimes there just weren’t many hours to be worked.

I got done with work early and decided to swing back down to Farmington to see my one true love.

I had a key, and we were planning on cohabitating permanently once I’d sold Mom’s house, so I let myself in. I found Tina in the kitchen, perusing the fridge in some jammie pants and a hoodie. She didn’t seem to have heard me come in. I approached from behind, intent on wrapping her in my embrace and kissing her neck, but I didn’t want to startle her, so I said “hello” as I approached.

“Oh, hi,” she said, turning towards and somewhat stiffly accepting my hug. I could feel that she was wearing some kind of girdle under her sweat jacket. Something like Spanx. It struck me as pretty odd, but I didn’t call attention to it. She may have been self-conscious about it, I thought, and I wouldn’t have wanted to embarrass her.

“Have you had dinner, yet? How about I take you out to eat?” I suggested. “Just let me get changed out of this suit, first.” I started towards the bedroom. Tina intercepted me, physically blocking my path. “could you change in the bathroom?” she requested.

“Um. OK… Why?”

“My room’s a terrible mess. I want to clean it up a bit. Look. Clean clothes!” She quickly collected up a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and casual socks from the couch. They were neatly folded. She’d done my laundry for me. I smiled at that act of considerate kindness, but I was pretty baffled by the changing in the bathroom thing. I had become enured to the habit of not challenging her oddities. I never really told her “no.” The closest I had come to that was “I really don’t want to, but OK.”

I took the fresh duds into the bathroom. It was a small space. It wasn’t quite so bad as changing in an airplane lav, but not far removed. A bit irked, I grew suspicious. I was being manipulated, of course, but my brain fought me. I should have gone straight into the bedroom. I was going to hang my suit up in the closet in there, anyway. This is where I think my subconscious was acting to keep information from me that would have caused cognitive dissonance and maybe a fair amount of trauma.

I finished changing in the cramped bathroom and popped out. The bedroom door was open. It had been closed when Tina ushered me to the bathroom. I peered in. It didn’t look at all different from the last time I’d seen it.

“I just need to hang up my suit,” I said to Tina who was sitting on the living room couch. I gestured towards the bedroom.

She shrugged. “OK.”

I went in, stepping over a couple bags she hadn’t unpacked yet and hung up my suit. Curiosity compelled me to linger a bit and look around to see what she might have changed in the two minutes I was in the bathroom changing that was so critically “messy” that she hadn’t wanted me to see it.

Nothing seemed amiss and nothing seemed an unusual mess.

I’d been conditioned and boxed in, in a way, not to challenge Tina’s assertions. I was more concerned about offending her with even a hint of suspicion than protecting myself. I always gave her the benefit of the doubt, but that whole weekend gnawed at me for some time. In a way, I was protecting myself. Whatever Tina was trying to conceal, I didn’t want to see it.

The next day, I was up earlier than Tina (I usually was since I don’t drink anymore and have responsibilities) and noticed the recycling was overflowing in the kitchen, so I tied up the trash bag and took the garbage and all the recycling out. When I opened the recycling bin, I noticed a heap of mail in there, all addressed to Cassidy.

After all trust broke down following the Nategate hotel incident, I’d perused some of the contents of Tina’s phone, including texts between her and Cassidy. I learned she had been texting with him at least up until November, that they had made some plans to get together and Tina was trying to get him to come over to collect all the (junk) mail that had accumulated for him since he’d moved out.

I’d seen the large collection of Cassidy’s mail. It had been piling up in a brown paper bag in the entryway for months. Now it had been discarded, after Tina tried to hide an incoming message from him, after she had to get back to Farmington for a weekend alone, after she’d kept me out of the bathroom on one day and out of the bedroom on another. Had Cassidy been over and picked out the mail he needed, discarding the rest or had Tina merely grown weary of that bag filling up in the entryway? I never asked. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. The red Pontiac wasn’t Cassidy’s car. I was pretty sure of that. I’d seen him driving a black SUV with one mismatched white fender.

The stairs going down into the apartment were never finished. They were  just raw, ugly particleboard risers and treads, so Tina and Maura let Scott’s daughters write and draw all over them with colored markers – they’d eventually be carpeted over. Some time back,  I’d decided to add a little Dan and Tina love message to one step and wait for Tina to notice it.

Going back into the apartment after taking out the trash and recycling, I noticed some new writing on one of the steps. It was a crude scrawl, reading “I was here. Please don’t kill me – thanks.”

Hmmm. Could be that the girls were over, again. Maybe one of them was just being silly. It didn’t look like any of the other writing on the steps, but maybe they had a friend with that weekend. Was that new? Maybe it was always there and I just hadn’t noticed it before…

The thought that haunts me now is what would have happened if I’d just gone into the bedroom to change. Was there a man in there? How would that have played out? It wouldn’t have been good. That’s for sure. Was there something else to hide? She was obviously hiding something. Why didn’t I just go into the bedroom? Tina was in full control of me. In these kind of moments, my anxiety would spike, because cognitive dissonance was already setting in due to conflicts between my beliefs and deductive reasoning. I preferred to lean to Tina’s explanation of the world, because I didn’t want to face anything that would threaten my addiction to my drug of choice, which was her.

Ultimately, I’ve determined that someone was hiding in the shower when the red Pontiac was parked in the driveway and it wasn’t Cassidy.  Not that day. Maybe the next? I knew someone I believed owned a red Pontiac, though…

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