Something Stinks Next Door
Tina’s next door neighbors were an interesting clan and it was odd how small degrees of separation linked the interpersonal web between myself, my friends, Tina and the neighbors.
Shortly after I’d stopped drinking, I met my friend Donovan after work in Farmington. I think it was around July or August 2017. We went to the establishment where I’d first met Tina so Donovan could drink some vodka-sevens while I enjoyed some cigarettes and energy drinks on the back patio of Pizza Man. I hadn’t had any contact with Tina in a couple months, but I was keenly aware of how near she probably was. I missed her.
Donovan ran into a pretty young lady from his work and introduced us. “You’re adorable,” she said, taking my hand.
Before I could return the compliment, a slender and tallish man standing near her interjected, “That’s high praise coming from her.”
As the night went on, Donovan’s coworker Carrie came around to flirt with me touching my arm, my hands. She was getting pretty drunk and pretty forward. I didn’t know if the man she seemed to be accompanying was a date or a friend, so I was a little unnerved by the attention.
Brendan, I’d learned, worked down the block at a little bar and restaurant (or maybe it was Brandon or Justin/Dustin? – it was quite a while ago and there are a lot of men’s names to keep track of in Tina’s shadow, but this guy was in it). Carrie worked part time with him there in addition to the grocery store she worked at with Donovan. He’d suggested they go out for a drink at Pizza Man after work. He was older than Carrie, but I so was I and Tina was 18 years younger than me, so I wasn’t judging! After some time, I ascertained that Justin or Brandon was hoping to get a romantic connection going, but Carrie was plainly looking at it as a couple work buddies just getting a drink after a long day.
Carrie, who’d actually seemed quite sober when I was first introduced got very drunk, very fast and by midnight, she looked on the verge of passing out, throwing up or both.
We learned that she’d ridden her bicycle to work and had it chained up a block away Donovan and I both realized that there was no way she’d be able to ride her bicycle back home and I offered her a ride.
Brendan (I’ll call him) didn’t seem to like the idea of Donovan and I taking his “date” away and he kept insisting that he’d walk her back. He’d take care of her, etc. Donovan and I were getting creeped out by him and questioned the purity of his motives between ourselves. Carrie was in no condition to hold off a potential predator.
Eventually, we worked it out that I’d drive Carrie home and then drop Brendan off so he could come along for the ride and be sure that Donovan and I were treating her respectfully.
We got her home with some difficulty and the whole ordeal reminded me keenly of the end of the first date Tina and I had at Gossip’s. That night, I wound up with Donovan and Tina riding along to drop off an extremely drunk girl named Shayna – only she couldn’t direct us to her house and we drove around Farmington aimlessly for at least an hour before Tina contacted a guy named Keith and asked me to drop her and Shayna off at his house around 3:00 in the morning. Later, on, I learned that Keith was married, his wife was out of town that night and he was a meth amphetamine dealer. Surely, there were no red flags at the end of that first date.
Carrie needed help getting up the driveway and through her garage, but we were eventually satisfied that she was safely settled in her house.
Next, Brendan had to be delivered home. He said he lived across from the grocery store. “Oh,” I said. “I know right where that is – over by Tina’s.”
Brendan directed me to pull into the driveway with the big white truck. “Oh. Right next door to Tina’s,” I observed.
Donovan was well aware of that, since I’d recruited him to drop some special agates into Tina’s window well just ahead of the second anniversary of our meeting. It was part of an overall grand romantic gesture that didn’t really go off as planned.
“Tina? Who’s Tina?” Brendan asked as I pulled into the driveway.
I gestured towards Tina’s door. “She lives right next door to you. I’d be surprised if you hadn’t met her. She’s my on-again-off-again… Never mind,” I trailed off.
Months later, Tina and I met up and decided to give “us” another shot. I was convinced that my sobriety would help smooth over any of the past kinds of problems we’d had. I was blaming myself and my alcohol misuse for everything that had gone wrong before. Tina was perfectly willing to let me assume that responsibility. As we began seeing each other again, information about the neighbors trickled out of Tina. Plenty of it was disturbing, and all of it was sketchy. There were also some other weird little coincidental connections, because, why not, huh, universe?
I think the first thing I heard was that Jan, a forty-ish skinny woman was a former meth addict and that Tina occasionally went with her for drinks at Gossip’s, the bar Tina and I first kissed at, years prior.
Some time later, Tina told me that Jan tried to hook Tina up with her boyfriend’s son. Jan assured her that the son was better in the sack than Donny, the father. She’d had sex with them both. Of course, Tina lied about so much, it could be hard to believe any of it or even piece the truth together. She had a tendency to project her own negatives onto other people. She could well have been talking about her own situation. It always seemed like something bordering on incestuous was going on at Scott’s.
“That’s some Jerry Springer shit, right there,” was my first reaction. Then, “wait… was the son’s name Brendan or Brandon, by chance?”
“I don’t remember,” Tina said quickly. “I wasn’t interested in getting with anyone that meth-head was with, anyhow.”
Still later, she told me about the young guy who lived upstairs at the house next door and how some time back, he’d invited Tina up into his bedroom to “watch a movie.” She said she’d seen the kind of movies he liked to watch up there when he left his blinds open and pornography visible on the screen. She told me she declined. But she’d never learned his name?
After we’d been back together a couple months, while I was driving us back to her apartment, Tina gravely said she had to tell me something. She was a little tipsy.
“You know how I told you I used to go to the bar with Jan?”
“The last time I went out with her, she ditched me – just disappeared and this guy, Justin walked me home.”
“He must have misread the signals, because he tried to kiss me when we got back to my apartment.”
“I told him I was seeing somebody, but I felt like I had to tell you because it felt like cheating.”
I processed all that in silence for a moment or so and then concluded aloud, “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me. You put a stop to it, right?”
“And you told me about it. What you’ve described is not cheating.”
“It felt like cheating,” she said.
“It’s not. Thank you for trusting me and telling me. I love you so much!”
“I love you more.”
Later on, though, I was thinking about names and neighbors and started getting the idea that the Justin she was talking about was Donny’s son, the guy Jan was trying to set her up with. I thought about Gossips, the bar we’d first kissed at and how Tina never wanted to go in there with me anymore, like she was avoiding someone. I thought back on Carrie and the guy from the bar whom I’d given a ride home to. They both worked at an associated restaurant next door to Gossips. Much later, I wondered if she’d only told me about this interaction with Justin in case the upstairs neighbors had witnessed it and might tell me what they saw.
Is this the porn movie guy? Is it the same guy that I gave a ride home to a year earlier? Is that Donny’s son? I couldn’t keep the names straight. Might have been two different people.
Months went by and I never saw the guy I’d dropped off over at the neighbor’s when I was around, but I had met Donny, his (according to Tina) meth-crippled elderly-seeming roommate, John and of course, Jan. I also pieced together that Jan knew Donovan, Kathy, and their daughter and had once placed a foster dog in their care. Small world. Small town, anyhow.
Then, I’d heard that Donny’s son was moving back in – meaning he’d moved out, explaining why I hadn’t seen him around.
As Summer got underway, I noticed that Tina was spending more and more time over at the neighbor’s house. I was never invited to join them. One night, Tina just left me alone in her apartment while she snuck over there and disappeared for over an hour.
It was night time in June and I’d thought Tina was doing some tidying in her bedroom with some music playing while I was watching TV, waiting for her to rejoin me. After a while, I went looking for her. The music was on in her room, but Tina was not in the apartment. I went outside for a cigarette and to see if she was out there, but there was no sign of her. I was baffled. I went back in and waited a while, watched another couple episodes of Red Dwarf but I started feeling very anxious. Where the hell did she go, without saying a word to me?”
I went back outside, agitated, anxious, annoyed. I lit up a cigarette and looked across the driveway. There were people moving around in the living room, I could see through the window. The TV was on. I watched for a while to see if I’d spy Tina in there. I caught a glimpse of a tangle of blondish hair from the back, but before I could determine if the hair belonged to Tina, someone suddenly closed the drapes. That was odd.
I finished my cigarette, not certain Tina was at the neighbor’s, but definitely leaning in that direction. I tried to call her. She didn’t answer. I felt pretty abandoned at this point and decided to head back to Minneapolis.
I was just going to disappear as she had done, but I recalled promising her years earlier that I’d never just up and leave without telling her.
“I’m leaving,” I texted her.
She replied. “OK. Have a good night.”
I was kind of blown away by that flippancy. Instead of just packing a couple things to take home, I started packing everything. Maura came home while I was hauling suitcases out to my van.
“What’s going on?” She asked. “Where’s Tina?”
“I’m going home. I don’t know where Tina is. Maybe at the neighbors. I’m not sure. She just up and vanished. She’s been gone for hours.”
“Why are you packing so much stuff?”
“I’m packing everything,” I said.
“I don’t know when I’ll be coming back.”
I drove on home with most of the stuff I kept at Tina’s place and shortly after arriving, I got a text from Maura. “She is at the neighbor’s. I just saw her sitting on the deck with them.”
“I’m glad she’s OK. Goodnight.”
As I was climbing into bed, my phone bleeped at me. It was a text from Tina. “I heard you think I suck.”
That kind of belligerence seemed out of character.
While I was considering a reply, she added, “I probably do. Get rid of me now, before it’s too late. General consensus: Tina=shit.”
“Really? Is that what you heard? I’m really sad. I feel anxious, hurt and disposable. I now know that you were right next door hanging with the neighbors (didn’t even know when you left or where you went at first) but you couldn’t even bother to step across the driveway to see me before I left? I feel pretty unimportant.”
“I’m sorry. I saw their dog and went to pet him and got pulled into weird conversations and puppy kisses.”
As always, all was forgiven and after I got some work done on my mom’s house, I was back out to Tina’s the next day, hauling all my stuff back into the apartment. I was a little embarrassed because I felt like I’d overreacted and tried to bring my clothes and things back in a bit at a time when she wasn’t watching, hoping she wouldn’t notice that I had actually taken pretty much everything of mine with me the night before.
June 2018 was really when everything started going sideways. It’s when she vanished to the neighbors without a word, when Doug turned up right after Tina said he wouldn’t, when Cassidy was messaging Tina on facebook and when she needed that mysterious weekend away and she didn’t want me in the bathroom or bedroom. It’s when Nate was back in town inviting Tina to that fateful wedding. She had needed more time away from me than usual, overall, also spending a couple days with Amber. Tina and I also had our first actual argument since we’d reunited in June. It was about selling my Mom’s house to my Dad. Tina didn’t approve of my decisions.
Then, in July, after Nategate and Rockfest were concluded, I was off to my driving job on a Tuesday and my last run of the night got cancelled, so I got back home to the apartment early (and isn’t that just the oldest cliche – coming home early and finding…). Tina was nowhere in sight. I heard music coming from her Mom’s room, so I went and knocked on her door.
“Come in,” Maura called.
I opened the door, half-expecting to see Tina in there, but it was just Maura sitting cross-legged on her bed, fiddling with her smart phone. She seemed surprised to see me in the doorway.
“Hi. How’s it going?” I greeted her.
“Just fine and dandy, Dan.” She seemed distracted by her phone and didn’t look at me as we spoke.
“Good,” I said, but I didn’t think she sounded fine and dandy and she looked troubled. “Where’s Tina?””
“Um. She’s over at the neighbors.” she gestured behind her. “If you go and yell at the fence, she’ll probably come out.”
I snickered at the idea of loudly berating the chain-link fence. “I never liked you, stupid fence,” I thrust my finger at the air. “Yeah. Well, OK. I’ll see if I can hail her.” I went outside and looked the house and deck over. No one was in sight.
I wasn’t just going to start hollering. This is the modern age. I called Tina.
“Hi. I got back from work early. Want to go out and get some dinner?”
“Um. Sure. I’m just at the neighbor’s snuggling the dog on the couch and watching Hogan’s Heroes,” she provided some random details.
“Well come out and give me a kiss,” I said enthusiastically.
I lit a cigarette and sat on the steps, expecting to see her emerge from the house in a minute or so, but I finished my cigarette and she still hadn’t appeared. It was dusk, the sky noticeably darkening as I waited. I noticed the neighbor’s TV through their living room window. There was a program on but it wasn’t Hogan’s Heroes. I paced down the driveway and could see into the living room. I didn’t see any sign of Tina. I lit another cigarette and started getting impatient. I called her again.
“Are you coming?” I asked. “I’m waiting outside for you. Come give me that kiss and have a cigarette with me. I want to go get some pizza.”
“Yeah. I’m just saying my goodbyes. We were watching American Ninja Warriors and I’ve got dog fur all over my lap.”
“OK. I’ll be out here,” I said, but then I was pondering her responses. It all seemed pretty incongruent.
I finished that second cigarette pacing up and down the driveway wondering why it was taking so long for her to come out. About 20 minutes passed and as I was walking back towards the house from the street, I noticed Tina emerging from the shadows behind the neighbor’s fence. I never heard or saw a door open. Didn’t see her cross the yard. She just appeared. She had a small green canvass tote bag looped over one arm. It didn’t immediately register, but I’d seen that tote just once before: When Tina had met me for a quick “nooner” in the big Lincoln Navigator I’d rented. She’d brought “sex supplies,” including a towel in it on that occasion.
“Hi!” I approached her.”
“Oh. It is you. I couldn’t tell for sure in the dark,” she said. It was pretty dark by then. She stood strangely away from me. I stepped up to her to give her a kiss and got a pretty lame quick peck on the lips. I was overwhelmed by the scent of baby oil. It was strong, like someone had just upended a whole bottle of it.
Tina said she wanted to change before we went out so we went down into the bedroom. I laid on the bed while she changed out of her stretch pants into jeans. Rather abruptly, her hand shot into into the open suitcase on the floor which she had still not unpacked from her last excursion. Then. she opened her underwear drawer and shoved something into it, as if she’d just then decided to take some undies out of her suitcase and put them away, leaving everything else for later.
I cocked my head but didn’t say anything.
Tina was ready pretty quick and we drove up to Carbone’s. I could still smell mineral oil, strongly, which was puzzling me. I didn’t remember her ever smelling like that in the years I’d known her.
Walking into the restaurant, me trailing Tina, I caught a whiff of burning plastic mixed with the mineral oil smell. We got seated and the smell of burning plastic kept bothering me. It was overpowering the baby oil smell. I was looking around, trying to discern the source of the odor, without any luck.
“Do you smell something?”
“No. Like what? It smells like pizza in here,” Tina replied.
“Like burning plastic. It’s pretty noticeable. You don’t smell that?”
“Is half of my face sagging?” I half-joked. “Maybe I’m having a stroke. You really don’t smell that?” I knew Tina’s sense of smell was much more acute than my own, so I was actually a little concerned.
“I don’t know. Maybe a little.” Then she chuckled. “I don’t think you’re having a stroke.”
We finished our dinner as I kept trying to discern the source of these odors and then we decided to go shoot a couple games of pool before heading back home. Tina had to put a couple quarters in the novelty vending machines on the way out of Carbones. I don’t remember what was in her little plastic bubbles, but she seemed pleased for a moment.
We drove to the Mug, a local bar we knew had a pool table. The smell of burned plastic followed us in the van and I could still smell mineral oil on Tina while we were shooting pool at the bar.
Tina had more than a couple double-shots of whiskey and got very chatty with another couple on the patio. I could tell that she was starting to slightly annoy them, but Tina was oblivious to the social cues. She pressed on, loudly repeating her insistence on the right kind of locks for keeping their new bicycles safe in Farmington.
We eventually tired of pool and went back to the apartment.
I was hoping to use the bed for more than sleeping when we got home, but Tina insisted on having a shower, first, so we took one together. Unfortunately, Tina was more intoxicated than I realized and she fell, loudly, right out of the shower, taking the shower curtain down with her and soaking the bathroom. I’d tried to catch her, but she was exactly as slippery as a soapy-wet drunk. I nearly fell on top of her in my effort to save her from injury. She was laughing and seemed unharmed and we did dry up the floor, finish our sexy shower and made love, but then Tina didn’t want to sleep in bed with me. She put the TV on and got comfy on the futon, instead.
When I went to bed, I noticed the black stretch pants Tina had been wearing earlier. I picked them up off the floor to toss them into the hamper. There was no sign of any dog fur on them. They looked clean so I just put them back on the floor where Tina had left them thinking she might want to wear them again – she used those as jammie pants, sometimes.
For the following few days, Tina did not sleep. With the exception of a couple 30-minute naps, she was awake for days on end.
Some time after Tina and I broke up, I was reading an article about addiction and the smell of crystal meth smoke was described as “like burnt plastic.”
Things started clicking.
Towards the middle of summer there had been other occasions when Tina would literally stay up for days on end. Then, she’d finally crash and sleep a whole day away. The upstairs neighbors later told me that she always seemed to be acting really strange if they saw here coming back from the next door neighbor’s house.
I’d observed a few pretty weird episodes, myself, when Tina would disappear into the bathroom or her bedroom for a long period of time to finally emerge in a radically different state of mind.
My mom had mentioned to me that she thought Tina was on drugs sometimes. I told her that Tina used marijuana to help with her acid reflux (such was the excuse she used at any rate).
“No. It’s not that,” she’d said. “I’ve seen what druggies look like, you know,” she said. “Sometimes it looks like she’s on some hard drugs.”
“Nah. Tina doesn’t do that kind of stuff,” I’d insisted at the time.
After the breakup, some unidentified person living next door (a “younger guy”) reportedly went into Tina’s apartment when no one was home and took several garbage bags full of unknown contents out with him. Soon after, police arrived and made an arrest at the neighbor’s house. I don’t know who was arrested.
Police, I was told, returned to the neighbor’s house a few weeks later and that may have become a pretty regular occurrence.
I was afraid Tina’s addictions and dangerous impulsiveness were worsening.The class of people she was associating with seemed to be deteriorating (or were perhaps always of that caliber but concealed from me) and it looked like she was putting herself into dangerous, perhaps criminal situations.
Antonio mentioned seeing her come home one night with “a Mexican guy whose pupils were so dilated, his eyes looked like black holes.” He was sure at least Tina’s date was high on meth.
Addiction is a progressive disease, it’s said. Untreated, the ends are always the same: jails, institutions and death.
One important way I’m better off for having had these experiences with Tina is that I have gotten myself sober and I can so clearly see that I do not want to go down the road Tina’s on.