With Friends like These…
Summer, 2015, I was invited to a party at the home of my friend Rich and his wife, Thea. It was a bacon-themed party and everyone was expected to bring something bacon-related. It was mostly food, but Kevin Bacon memorabilia was equally acceptable.
Tina and I were spending the weekend together in the little top-floor apartment of the Buffalo Hotel, so I asked her to come along with me.
We concocted a recipe for bacon-wrapped Parmesan and bacon meatballs and had a great time testing our cooperation in the small kitchen. We worked well together, joked around, kissed between steps and I was completely swept away by how perfect we were together. It was bliss.
We’d not been dating more than a month or two by that point, but I was fast falling in love.
Tina knew how close I was to Rich and Thea and had heard many tales of our adventures together in Ireland, but she had yet to meet them. She was nervous about it. She said she’d had a dream that my friends had thrown her into a river, which I guessed was influenced by Scott’s initial warning to her about dating me. Upon learning I was from “dangerous” Minneapolis, he’d told her that if she went out with me she’d end up cut into pieces and dumped in the Mississippi. That seemed a bit extreme to me. In retrospect, I wonder if he just didn’t like the idea of her dating anyone.
I assured her that everyone who would be over at Rich and Thea’s was super-cool, friendly and absolutely no one was of the river-dumping sort.
I ran through a mental list of likely attendees and when Chris came to mind, I thought a disclaimer might be in order. I’d known Chris for years. I liked him and he was Rich’s number-one pal. He was smart and often hilarious, but his choice of words, subjects of conversation and sense of humor were sometimes not well-taken by people new to his acquaintance. I called him “Crass Chris.”
I wanted Tina to feel comfortable in my circles. I wanted her to have a good impression of them. I recognized that one’s choice of friends can reflect on oneself (a principle I seemingly failed to apply when evaluating what little I saw of Tina’s circle).
“There’s this one guy, Chris who will probably be there. He’s really fun and totally harmless, but his sense of humor can rub people the wrong way sometimes. Just don’t take him too seriously. He’s a good guy.”
“Like what does he do?”
“He doesn’t have a filter,” I said. “He’ll talk about gross, crazy stuff. Weird sex, injuries, disease, racist jokes, crude language… swears a lot. And if he wants to show you something on his phone, brace yourself.”
She laughed. “I think I can handle him. I know plenty of people like that.”
We put our first batch of meatballs into the oven, poured ourselves some drinks and chatted on.
The meatballs were absolutely delicious and we congratulated ourselves on our teamwork. Our first joint-venture in the kitchen was a tremendous success. High-fives and meatball kisses.
It was a bit of a drive from Buffalo to White Bear Lake and we were going to be drinking, so we were planning on spending the night. We also had an early obligation the next day. We packed up an overnight bag while the second batch was baking, then got ourselves out the door to head over to the party. It smelled so good in my van on the way that I wanted to tear the foil off the tin pans and start munching. “Forget the party – let’s just keep all these meatballs to ourselves,” I joked, my stomach rumbling.
After making the effort to issue a warning about Chris, I was a little disappointed that he didn’t make it to the party so she could see what I was talking about for herself, but Tina was getting on well with everyone and we were having a good time. Someone brought some barbecue bacon-wrapped water chestnuts that we decided were even better than our meatballs, but our contribution went over well with the crowd, too.
As the night went on and people were getting tipsy, Tina pulled me aside and told me that someone had come on to her and it made her feel uncomfortable. “I told him I was with you and he was like, ‘Dan? Who’s Dan?'”
“What?” I was pretty surprised to hear that. “Who was it?”
She elaborated, “That blonde guy cornered me in the back hall and said he had something to show me down in the basement. ‘C’mon – It’ll only take a minute,’ he said. I was like ‘gross,’ and if it only takes a minute, who would want to anyway?”
“Kevin?” Kevin was Jessica’s newish boyfriend. She was an old friend of Thea’s and the ex-girlfriend of the guy who owned the recording studio I used to work at. She was really sweet and I got along with her well.
“Yeah. I think that was his name.”
“Kevin is Jessica’s boyfriend,” I told her, growing irate, “and he certainly knows who I am.”
I was bringing Tina around this group of friends for the first time, wanting everything to go well. This guy is rudely coming on to my new girlfriend, disrespecting me, disrespecting Jessica, making my date uncomfortable, I thought.
“I wasn’t sure if I should tell you,” Tina said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble. He just really creeped me out.”
I considered options. Kevin was completely smashed and since Jessica was also drinking, would probably be spending the night, too. Tina’s comfort was paramount and I was angry. I considered confronting Kevin, but decided not to make a scene at Rich and Thea’s party. “Maybe it’s time we head out,” I said.
“You want to drive all the way back to Buffalo? Haven’t you been drinking?”
“We don’t have to go all the way back to Buffalo,” I said. “How about I just get us a room at a hotel near here and we can take a taxi? We can come back for the van in the morning.”
“OK,” Tina said. “That sounds good. Thank you, Dan!” She put her arms around my neck and kissed me.
“I’m sorry he made you uncomfortable. Just stick close to me until we leave.”
I found a room about a mile away and arranged a cab, which arrived about 20 minutes later. We said our goodbyes, thanked our hosts and went out the front door.
Kevin was sitting out on the stoop by himself, smoking a cigarette.We walked by without acknowledging him.
“Oh. You guys are together?” he asked. He seemed surprised.
“Yeah,” I said darkly.
I opened the back door for Tina and she got seated in the cab, I realized I’d forgotten to grab our bottle of whiskey. I asked the driver to pop the trunk and ran back into the house to locate the liquor. It took a minute, because I’d forgotten I’d put it in the freezer downstairs. I retrieved it and went back out front. Kevin was still sitting on the front steps. Kicking the back of his head crossed my mind for a split-second.
“I thought you were with that other Jessica girl,” Kevin said as I stepped around him.
“We’re divorced.” My blood was on the verge of boiling
“Alright. Have a good one, man,” he said.
“See you later, fucker,” I said over my shoulder.
“What?!” Defensive anger rose in his voice instantly.
I stopped and looked back at him. He stood, swaying on his feet. “Have a good night, Kevin,” I said and climbed into the cab with Tina.
Tina later gushed that no guy had ever shown protective instincts for her, before. I found that unlikely, but she seemed happy with me. She told me she didn’t think she’d want to go back to Rich and Thea’s because of Kevin, which was greatly upsetting to me. I counted those guys among my very closest friends. Something would have to be done to resolve this.
Over the following months, the situation with Kevin had caused a bit of a strain on my friendship with Rich and Thea. We mostly avoided having Tina and I at the same social events as Kevin, but he did show up unexpectedly for Halloween, dressed as Teen Wolf. I actually didn’t recognize him until he was about to leave.
Meanwhile, Chris and Tina had met on a couple of occasions and hit it off famously. Tina had no trouble at all matching his dirty jokes and innuendo.
By request, I had bought Tina a modest gold and diamond “promise ring” for Christmas that year. Something about Chris’ reaction when Tina showed it to him at Rich and Thea’s New Year’s party seemed out of place for him. It seemed too melodramatic. It was a stronger reaction than even her mom had displayed when we actually got engaged months later. After a lurching forward with a split-second wide-eyed gaze, he leapt in, gushing enthusiasm. “Oh my God! Congratulations, you guys! When’s the date?”
Tina and I were both backpedaling. “It’s a promise ring,” we clarified.
“Oh.” Chris’ attitude did an instant and complete reversal into nonchalance. “Pffft…” He waved a dismissive hand at the modest symbol of my devotion on Tina’s finger.
When you’ve known someone for a long time and their body language, words and tone aren’t matching up, it’s noticed, if subconsciously. My spidey senses were tingling. I felt suddenly uncomfortable but couldn’t quite determine why.
Chris and I got to talking, later and he wanted to know what the drama was between Kevin and I. He’d only picked up bits on the periphery. I told him the story and embellished my disapproval by adding “I just wanted to stomp right on the back of his neck when we were leaving – but of course, I’d never do something like that, unless I had no choice.”
“Hey, man, just so you know – if you ever do get into a fight with Kevin over that and he starts getting the upper hand, I’ll jump in and back you up. I don’t like that guy, anyway,” Chris told me.
“Thanks, but I wouldn’t fight him unless it was self-defense or a more urgent need to defend Tina – like if he was getting physical.”
“I know, but, just saying. I got your back.”
Eventually, things did normalize with Kevin and we all put it past us, but Thea was perplexed and was growing wary of Tina. “She was acting all flirty with Kevin last time, throwing popcorn at him and stuff. I don’t see how there was a problem,” she’d said to me one night. “I’m still reserving judgement, but she might be trouble. I’m not sure I trust her. I mean, is she going to stir up some shit with Chris, next?”
The New Year rolled by and I was feeling pretty good about life. Tina and I were almost inseparable. I was working on setting up a job for her at my organization.The future was looking bright for us. Come February, in a moment of spontaneity fueled by the “total honesty” policy Tina and I had agreed to, I found myself on one knee in front of Tina in her Dad’s living room.
I’ll never forget the profound look of surprise on her face, but she didn’t hesitate. “Yes!” She’d exclaimed.
I was so full of love and happiness, as sappy as it sounds, it felt like my heart might burst from joy. Since it was spontaneous, I didn’t have a ring yet to replace the $100 promise ring, but we were both enamored with the interlocking hearts design and figured it would serve for the time being.
After my divorce, I’d sworn to never walk down that aisle again, but here, just 8 months into my relationship with Tina, I was throwing caution to the wind. I just knew it was right. She was my light and joy. I never wanted to be without her. It felt perfect.
Her Mom came up the next day and Tina told her the news. There was a lot of rejoicing. Maura looked out the front window at the snowy yard and frozen lake.
“Oh my God, is that a heart?” She exclaimed.
That morning, while Tina was sleeping in, I’d gone out to smoke and spent a half-hour or so tromping through the snow to create a giant, fairly symmetrical heart shape for Tina to wake up to. It took up the whole yard.
As cloyingly romantic as all of that may sound, Tina and I didn’t really do anything special on Valentines Day that year. We had more of a Valentine’s week. I had some time off from work and I think we actually spent around 12 days together, boozing and sexing it up. We didn’t have any responsibilities at the time. It was fantastic. Maura had been staying at Scott’s, leaving us the Buffalo Hotel “penthouse” to ourselves. We were in our bubble up there, in our private love nest. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier.
One of those lazy, fun, sexy, buzzed-up February days, I was making dinner for us while Tina was rummaging for something or other in the bedroom. I heard her phone go off and glanced over to it sitting on the counter. There was a message on the screen from a number I didn’t know. It just said, “‘Sup, Nucka?” None of that meant anything to me and I just got back to what I was doing.
When Tina came back into the kitchen and patted my butt while I stirred the skillet, I told her, “Someone’s trying to reach you,” and nodded towards her phone.
She picked it up, bit her lip and said, “I told him not to text me like that.”
That piqued my interest. “Who?”
“What? Oh. Nobody. Nothing,” she dismissed the question, put her phone away, and in a way that she was well-practiced, changed the subject.
We watched South Park, drank whiskey, had sex on the futon, took turns sitting in my “uncomfy chair” by the window to smoke cigarettes and Tina fired up her pipe. I almost never toked with her, because I didn’t really like the stuff, but Tina smoked weed about daily. Alcohol was my drug of choice – well, my second choice. My fiance was my real drug – the one I felt like I couldn’t live without.
As the night went on and Tina was increasingly drunk and high, the conversation took a weird turn. She brought up Chris and we ended up talking about him for at least half-an-hour. She didn’t think his wife was a good match for him. “I just don’t see how those two got together,” she said.
“They were high school sweethearts,” I answered. “Further back than that, I think.”
“He’s so funny. I like him,” she said. “I think it’s funny that you felt like you had to warn me about him.”
“I wanted to make a good impression with my friends.”
“How long have you known him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. 10, 15 years? Rich started bringing him around for game nights ages ago.”
She went on talking and asking questions about him and I remember tiring of the conversation and wanting to wrap it up and move on to another topic. “Yeah, he’s a good guy,” I said. “The kind of friend you’d want in your corner, like a friend will help you move – a good friend will help you move… a body. He was just telling me that if I got into a fight with Kevin and started losing, he’d jump in and help me kick his ass.”
“So if you killed me, you’d call Chris to help bury me?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I mean, I know you’d never hurt me, but hypothetically. Say there was an accident and you’d go to prison or something…”
“Sure,” I said. “He might be on my list to call if dirty work was required. If something awful happened and I had to dispose of your body or die, I think he might help me out.”
“But only if I was already dead, right? I mean, maybe he’d help you move my body, but he wouldn’t help you make me a body. He wouldn’t kill me just because you asked him to…”
“Oh, I’m sure of that. Especially you,” I said. I was kidding, of course.
“No he wouldn’t!”
“Oh, yeah. I think if you became a problem that needed to be eliminated, he’d be happy to help.” I was smiling. I was not serious. I was just teasing her on this ridiculous conversation, but she became histrionic.
“No, he would not! Chris would not hurt me.” She was getting louder.
I pressed on. “Sure he would – especially if I slipped him some cash. Like I said, he’s a good friend to have in your corner. I think he’d help me make the body and then move it.”
“I’m going to ask him next time,” she said with a determined air of defiance. She picked up a spiral notebook and scrawled in big letters, taking up a whole sheet of paper, “Would Chris kill me, just because Dan asked?”
“There,” she said, showing me the page.
It was getting really weird. Tina had met Chris on approximately two occasions and I’d known him for going on two decades. I was kidding around, but she was quite adamant that in the crazy hypothetical scenarios she was concocting, this guy she barely knew (as far as I was aware) would be incapable of harming her. She was behaving like she thought she had some kind of special relationship with him, presuming to know him better than myself. By no means do I believe Chris to be a killer, but if you went with the premise that he would help carry out a murder, why would Tina think she’d be off-limits?
“OK… Anyway…” I was still looking for a way out of this bizarre conversation.
“If it was anyone else, sure,” she said. “Do you know he showed me his guns? He has so many freaking guns! Have you ever seen his guns? He said he never shows anyone, but he showed me.” She beamed. “Well, he showed me pictures,” she added.
“Yeah,” I said. I shrugged. I knew Chris had a sizable collection. I’d seen and handled a couple and I guess I was special, because I’d even seen some pictures of his rifles and shotguns, too. I tried again to change the subject and finally succeeded by segueing into guns.”You know, there’s a shooting range near here. I’ve been thinking about picking up a handgun. I have a line on a Sig nine millimeter, but I was thinking about looking at revolvers.”
“Will you take me shooting?”
The next day, Tina and I got groggily back to the land of the living and had some breakfast. As was becoming our routine, we stayed up very late and drank way too much. I had some work thing to do the next day, so I was planing on finally departing the love bubble after staying over a week, but I was in no hurry to get going. I found a movie for us to watch and we reclined cozily amid a pile of pillows and comforters on the futon.
Something in the movie put me on to thinking about the weird conversation about Chris from the night before and I was struck with some amount of anxiety. I’m thinking it’s not surprising that something wasn’t sitting well with me about that recollection. I connected the text message with her sudden interest in Chris and when she went to the bathroom, I stole a look at her phone. The only recent message was “‘Sup nucka?” When I looked at the actual message, I saw it was from someone named Chris. It seemed pretty likely that “‘Sup Nucka” was from my “move-a-body” buddy. I made note of the number and texted Rich to ask for Chris’ cell phone number, then waited for confirmation.
We got to binge-watching episodes of Shameless, but Tina wasn’t paying much attention to the show. She was busily tapping away on the slide-out keyboard on her phone for quite a while. She looked happy or amused. It was uncharacteristic. Tina often ignored her phone and tended to the terse side with texts.
“Are you writing a book?”
“What? Oh. I’m just texting my dad,” she said, setting the phone down for a moment.
That was even more unusual. Tom was the king of brevity.
“That’s a lot of texts for you and your dad,” I observed, but I knew her relationship with him had been strained, Maura didn’t think they talked enough and I was glad that she was communicating with him.
“I’m not really writing that much. I just keep deleting and starting over.”
A little later, Tina told me she’d got a text from her mother, who’d been staying at Scott’s down in Farmington. “She’s coming back to the apartment after work,” she told me. There was some strife between her and Scott and she had a headache so she didn’t want to see him that night.
After a bit, Tina was back to texting while the Shameless marathon rolled on. Maura came in around 5 PM and settled on the futon with us and we chatted for a few minutes, but things quickly turned from there.
“When do you have to get going?” Tina interjected.
“I have to get up in the morning, so I can’t be up too late,” I said. “I figure I’ll head home after this last episode.” I gestured to the screen.
We all sat together and watched the show for a few minutes, but Tina was seeming agitated. She went to the kitchen and started cinching up trash bags. She asked if I could take out the garbage. I said I definitely would on my way out. The apartment was on the third floor of the old Buffalo Hotel so it was a minor chore but I was happy to do the “man’s work.”
“Do you want some help carrying your bags out to the van so you don’t have to make another trip up?”
I had the pretty distinct impression that I was getting the bum’s rush. I was confused, hurt and I didn’t like it. I dug in my heels. My curiosity was piqued. I deliberately dragged out my pending departure, feigning ignorance. My suspicion was on high-alert and I became determined to gather as much information as possible before I left.
“Nah, you don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’ll take care of it all by myself.”
Tina was struggling to maintain a semblance of normalcy, but I could see that she was becoming frantic and manic. She started gathering my things from around the apartment.
“C’mon,” Tina said, “Let’s take care of this while my mom’s still up so she can help bring everything down.” She turned off the program.
Maura had gone into the kitchen and at one point, was bent over, elbows resting on the stove, fingers on her temples, cradling her head. She looked… frightened? She seemed to me like a person powerlessly resigned to pending disaster.
“I really don’t need any help…”
Tina, still wearing pajamas, was putting her boots on. She was moving swiftly, packing my suitcase, gathering the garbage by the door. I moved slowly but began making progress towards leaving. I took my time tying my shoes, triple-checked that I wasn’t forgetting anything I’d need, paused to re-verify some details of our pending plans, but eventually, the three of us were going down the stairs with my work bag, my suitcase and a few bags of garbage.
As we trudged across the snowy parking lot, Maura looked over at me and said, “You look like a kicked puppy.”
“That’s about right,” I muttered. I don’t think I was heard.
Van loaded, Tina gave me a quick peck and said she’d call me later. I was a bit stunned. I started the van, but just sat there for a minute, letting everything sift through my mind. I lit a cigarette and put the van in reverse. I slowly rolled out of the parking lot and started towards the highway. After a few blocks, a notion struck. Someone was coming over. Someone I wasn’t meant to see. Maybe I should see.
I turned the van around.
As an aside: Chris, who I’d not had any dealings with in years contacted me on facebook shortly after this blog went live. “Dude… call me.” He provided a new phone number. I guessed at what he wanted to discuss. At that point, no mention of Chris yet appeared in my blog, but I think he was worried that his name would eventually appear in one or more of my stories.
I called him. He seemed nervous and I’d say, paranoid. He said something like, “If you were recording this call…” But his sentences were disjointed and largely incomplete. In essence, it went something like this:
“I read your blog,” he said. “Well, a little of it. I’m worried about you. Man… Don’t you still work in politics?”
“Yeah. A little. I’ve been taking a break.”
“Aren’t you worried about how all that could affect your career?”
“Well, alright, damn. I mean. You didn’t even change the names…”
“I changed some of them. And I didn’t use any last names.” Actually, when I’d first started writing, I changed all of them, but I found it too distracting to keep track of all the aliases I’d assigned.
“Somebody could come after you. I mean…”
“Thanks for your concern, but I’m not really worried about it. Actually, I don’t care.”
“Alright, man, if it’s helping you, I guess, but…”
“It is helping me. After years of lies, gaslighting and manipulation, telling my truth is like breathing fresh air after being trapped in a coal mine.”
“That’s cool. Alright. Well, talk to you later, I guess…”
This story to be continued. More to follow…