I was tired of the controlling nature of my husband, the 38 year old whom I’d married at barely 19 years old. Somehow at the time it seemed perfectly normal for me to marry someone so much older than I was, but he demanded I never wear shorts or tank tops, and I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair or visit friends in town, have lunch with coworkers, and a myriad of other things. He’d never hit me, but I saw his controlling behaviors to be abusive, especially as a somewhat free spirited 19 year old kid. I wanted to grow up too quickly. I certainly didn’t want to be tied down to someone who wanted to act like my father.
I left my husband and stayed in the guest house on a horse farm for a while. I worked on the farm and had gotten to know the owner Josh fairly well. When I tore the cartilage in my knee falling out of the hay loft one day while trying to give my favorite mare a special treat, it was determined through an MRI that I needed knee surgery. I would fly to Florida so that I could stay with my grandmother after the surgery, but until I left for Florida, I needed somewhere else to stay. I refused to go home. My only other option would have been to sleep in my truck.
Josh was a kind man, and a Vietnam prisoner of war vet. He had seen what humanity had been capable of and even told me some horror stories that stick with me even today. Josh knew what it meant to want out of somewhere and feeling as though no other options would ever come, so he handed me the key to the guest house one day and told me that it was mine to use. It was my own private hide away where I could escape from the life I had found myself trapped in. There was a small kitchen, a lovely bedroom, a living room with a large TV and even an office with a computer for me to use.
Outside of the office window sat one of the largest spiders I'd ever seen in my life. Each night she would build her web spanning over one of the windows looking out into the forest and over the bubbling blue river close by. Sometimes I would set a small ceramic lamp by the window and turn it on in order to attract moths. They would flutter down toward the light, getting ensnared in the web. The massive spider would jump into action and wrap them up in her sinuous fibers, pull them to the edge of the web, and then repair everything for the next catch. Watching her draw them in and save them for a midnight snack became a nightly ritual for me.
I couldn't help but feel that there was a lesson to be learned from her. I still believe it to be an omen of things to come, now that I look back on it. Sometimes in life I've been the spider, other times I've been the moth. Occasionally I was even the web, spun and molded into a trap for someone else, manipulated into doing something, whether I liked it or not.
When I flew to Florida, my Grandmother and her husband were waiting for me at the airport. I never had known her very well, she hadn’t been in our lives very much, but I knew her husband even less. Right away we went to her home - the home I remembered her living in the only time I remember ever visiting her. I was about four the last time I had been there. She had the rock garden still, with googly eyes and pipe cleaner smiles glued on them. Her yard around her little trailer was all sand and rock with a couple of wild poppies poking out here and there. The inside was exactly what I had remembered it to be and upon entering the kitchen, I had flashbacks of three lovely little miniature Schnauzer puppies I tried to feed by hand until being told not to. There I was at four years old, sitting on the linoleum floor by the oven, feeding these cute little yappers little pieces of dog food that looked like round meatballs mixed with light colored bone shaped pieces. I had no idea why I remembered that so clearly, but it was as if I was looking down at myself sitting there.
The next day we took off from Daytona and drove across the state to Tampa. My Aunt was going on a cruise and needed my Grandmother to house sit and watch over her dogs while she was away. We were there for about 3 days when my cousin happened to come by. I hadn't seen my cousins in many years and didn't realize that one had ended up in prison, one was in jail for two years, and the one that came over hadn't done any time, but was always the ring leader. These details had escaped me, since I hadn't seen them in so many years. Grandparents dote on all of their children, no matter what they've done, so she didn't tell me any of this either. It had been a dark secret within the family. I never knew any of these things. My father had never been close to his family, and Chad had been his half-sister’s stepson. I suppose he saw no need at all to be close to them.
Chad offered to take me out to Clearwater Beach for “a day or two” in order to show me around. Grandma said that she was fine with the idea. Up until then all I had done was sit on the couch and do word searches or cross word puzzles every day. I was pretty sure I loved my grandmother, but she was pretty much a complete stranger to me. Sitting I couldn't wait to go to the beach and see something of Florida, other than the four walls and three dogs. Away we went - me still as naive as ever about my cousin, the web spinner. It was almost the last time I ever saw my Grandmother.
The first day in Clearwater was wonderful. My cousin had a furnished apartment right on the shore, not far from where he worked on a fishing boat. I spent my days in the sunshine, walking the sand, collecting shells and meeting new people. We went to go see The Blair Witch Project in the theater, my treat. My cousin had to sleep with Looney Tunes on the TV that night and still woke up periodically from nightmares. He swore me to secrecy about that detail, and until just now I’d never told anyone.
My cousin's girlfriend didn't like me from the start, so I just tried to stay out of her way. I couldn't understand WHY she didn't like me. She came from a wealthy family and had everything I never had. Maybe she didn't like me because I didn't envy her for that the way most other girls would. I didn't want what she had. I wanted to get my knee surgery and go back to work for my old boss. It had been a great job with a great boss. Other than having a controlling husband, it was an ideal life.
When the time came the following morning for my cousin to take me back to my Grandmother, he denied ever having made the agreement. He backed out, claiming he had to work and that if she wanted me to stay with her, she could come get me. His attitude was cold and unfeeling. I didn't understand what I had done wrong! Trying to make up for some unknown offence I had committed, I baked a cake and cooked a pot of chili. Chad, his girlfriend and his friends loved it. They ate every crumb without ever offering me a bite. Afterward, when I asked Chad to take me back to my Grandmother, he said he would the next day in the morning. The morning came and we didn’t leave. Again, he claimed that he had to go do something and that if she wanted me, she could come get me. He had her phone number stored into his phone while I didn't have a phone at all. Cell phones were still a relatively new invention at that time. I couldn't even call her to come pick me up. Apparently Chad never bothered to call her and he’d been lying to me all along. The third day I was denied a way back to the house in Tampa, I screamed at him that I wanted him to call her right then.
The phone rang on the other end. Someone picked up.
"Grandma? 'Manda wants me to bring her back to Mom's now," a pause... "Oh." Another pause. "Ok, bye."
"So?" I asked. "When is she coming to get me?"
"She's not" he told me, straight faced. He turned to walk away from me without offering anything further.
"So you're taking me back then?" I was confused.
"No." At this point my face turned purple and I was beginning to get very upset. "She's gone." He punctuated these words with a menacing glare over his shoulder.
"GONE?! What do you mean, gone!?" I was beside myself. Chad finally turned back around to face me.
"She went back home to Daytona."
"Yeah, she said that if you can find a way to get back, you're welcome to."
Thinking I was only going to be in Clearwater for a couple of days I had only brought about $200 with me for touristy stuff. I had already spent all of that on a swim suit, a dress, sandals and groceries to cook the chili and cake. Chad had borrowed what was left, promising to pay me back. I had no money and was stuck in a strange town with a cousin I was quickly learning to dislike, his girlfriend who hated me, and my cousin’s fisherman boss; the fat, pretentious, lazy, ugly, stinky, smelly, appalling, good for nothing boss. He wanted to take me out for dinner or for drinks or dancing. He was over 50 and I was 19 years old. His hideous 40 year old girlfriend didn't object to his advances, which was only that much more appalling. She gave me $20 to save towards my bus ride back to Daytona one day, and told me that if I went to dinner with her boyfriend, she would double that. The whole thing turned my stomach. I tried to give the $20 back, but she refused. I jammed it into my pocket in a huff and walked away.
About a week later I found myself still stranded on Chad’s couch at the beach. I had gone out for a walk around the water’s edge. At that point I was desperate to get back to my Grandmother. I grew to hate my cousin for manipulating me the way he had. His girlfriend would constantly come over and talk to me as though I were a 5 year old child, treating me like I was dirt, completely beneath her. That day when I came back, Chad and Jennifer were standing in the kitchen, staring at my handbag.
"'Manda," my cousin looked at me, "Did you steal from Jennifer?"
"What? No! Why would you think that?"
"Are you sure? We won’t be mad as long as you tell us the truth."
"Chad, no, I didn't steal from Jennifer. Why?"
"Because she has $20 missing from her purse, and I know you didn't have any money. We just checked your wallet and you have $20 in your purse."
“That's MINE!" I was incensed. I was so far beyond angry I couldn't see straight. Here was this girl who came from a wealthy family accusing someone who had loaned her boyfriend money the week before of stealing from her. They didn't believe me no matter how much I protested.
"’Manda, Jennifer marks all of her bills with red marker." My eyebrow shot up in the air. Why would any girl need to mark her money? "If we look at your $20, will you see any red marker on it?"
"Not unless you put the marker on it just now," I said. They had already looked at it. They already knew my $20 had no red marks on it.
They handed me my own handbag and I dug the $20 out of my wallet. I held it up. Sure enough, red marker was in the top right hand corner of the bill. Disgusted, I threw the bill in a crumpled ball right at Jennifer, hoping to smack her in the eye with a corner and blind her. She instantly threw her hand up in a dramatic gesture as though she were a helpless victim. I grabbed my purse and my one change of clothes and walked out the door. That was the last time I ever saw Chad.