A friend was bringing me up-to-date on his life, and for reasons I won’t get into, this story came to mind. Parts of it are second-hand, but I’m going to just tell it the way I’d tell it verbally, that is, without differentiating the bits that I know are true and the bits that are hearsay. And of course, because I’m doing that, I’ll leave out the real names, and take some liberties. I think the couple of people might be able to guess who I’m talking about already know the story, so it’s not like I’m ruining someone’s reputation. But it is the most bizarre breakup story ever, and now that I’ve remembered it, I feel like setting it down for posterity. Or something.
There once a was a woman I worked with in a book store. She was young, bright-faced, usually somewhat cheery, but also anxious and clearly on some level unhappy.
Oh, and she happened to be Jewish.
I mention this not to define her, mind you; it didn’t really register in my mind till she started making a big deal about it. It was a big part of her identity, and, well… her complexes. She was well-known in my city as the daughter of a professor who’d been given “early retirement” after, well, let’s just say there was a lot of talk of colorful, bisexual sex scandals at the university. Him and students. Over a long period of time.
The reason I learned she was Jewish was threefold. First of all, she seemed to want to bring it up a lot. She would talk about Judaism, Israel, Jewish weddings, stuff like that. Okay, cool. I talked a lot about jazz. But the other two reasons were a little weirder: first, she suggested at some point that she was convinced her father’s “sex scandals” had been made up, as part of an anti-Semitic conspiracy.
Now, if it had been 1930, that would not have been too far-fetched. The Ku Klux Klan had been active in Saskatoon at the time, and absent blacks, they had transferred their hatred to Native Canadians, Ukranians, Jews, and other non-WASPs. But in 1997, 1998? I sincerely doubt there was much of an anti-Semitic tendency at my university, or in my city. I do know that she was quite convinced of her father’s innocence, though — despite some very clear indicators that it was untenable — and, well, what people believe in desperation is hard to be too judgmental about.
But the third thing, now that got on my nerves. It was that her paranoia spilled over into the workplace: she had sharp ears, and every time she half-heard a word that rhymed with “Jew” she would hurry over and ask, “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘This book isn’t brand new, but it’s new-ish,'” would be my baffled answer. Or, “I think I have nothing left to do.” Or, “Come on, give me a clue!” It took a few instances before I realized she was hearing “Jew… Jewish… Jew…” And then it got on my nerves. I’d swear at some point I was about to say, “Look, I’m not using the word Jew, I never use the word Jew, it’s a non-issue with me.” But that would be bringing it up, and she was my assistant manager — transferred from another shop in town — and pissing her off was a bad idea. And besides, the attitude in that shop was mostly apathy, and at least she meant well, unlike some of the people I worked with.
(For example, Bev the moron, proof that breeding licenses should be required, who famously declared, “If Gandhi was all famous and important, I would have heard of him by now. Now look at this picture of Priscilla Presley’s baby!” or “Fucking Chinese can’t drive. Huh? How do I know they’re Chinese? They have slanty eyes and drive like shit, that’s how! Huh? Well, but Japan is in China, isn’t it?”)
Anyway, as you can imagine, the co-worker I’m talking about — the one with the Jewish-persecution complex and the scandalous dad — was hard to talk to, hard to communicate with.
It wasn’t just me, or our co-workers, apparently. I heard, after moving away, that her boyfriend (with whom she had lived for some time) had come to her one day and told her that he was suffering from terminal cancer, an inoperable brain tumor, and that he didn’t want her to see him that way. She had begged him to stay, but, ahem, he loved her too much to let her watch him waste away into a frail, pathetic shell of a man.
So he moved out, and cut her off, and she was left behind to put back together the pieces of her life, thinking he was out there dying somewhere.
Then she saw him on the street six months later — hale and hearty, not a physical problem evident. He didn’t see her, and she was so shocked she didn’t approach him. A few inquiries later, she discovered that…
… he’d faked cancer. He’d pretending to be dying, in order to have an excuse to split up with her.
Far be it from me to justify his action: it’s wimpy, it’s got selfish written all over it. He wasn’t even man enough to break it off honestly, he had to pretend to be dying of a terminal illness. The guy was a chickenshit, a loser, and a freak. And may I add, asshole: I mean, I didn’t get along with this woman at all, and the first thing that came to mind — after I stopped laughing, because, I’ll be honest, it’s absurd and bizarre enough to make you laugh, when you to hear someone faked cancer to escape a relationship — was how horrid it would have been for her to spend all that time mourning him, confused, wanting to go find him, longing to see him again and say goodbye and tell him she loved him. The guilt. The pain. The sorrow and regrets.
I laughed upon hearing the story, but really, in some ways, the guy was a cruel sonofabitch. I’m pretty sure she was screwed up by that experience, and he really should have just taken the bull by the horns and been honest with her.
But on the other hand, I have to wonder whether he did this because communication between the two of them was just that impossible? His weaknesses certainly played into his decision, of course. Maybe his fear of confrontation, his lack of confidence or the ability to draw lines and hold boundaries.
But she was one of those people who, no matter what you say, she can find a way of indicting you with it. She was mixed up, psychologically, and hard to talk to or get along with even in a professional context — let alone in a private, romantic relationship context. (I’d say I can only imagine, but to be honest, I can’t.) To some degree, it’s hard not to see this as a kind of perfect storm of human weaknesses, like two LEGO blocks that, when they are fit together, snap tight but also emit waves of psychic pain and discomfort, and which it is insanely difficult to separate once they are snapped together.
This is not a justification, of course. It’s just… well, this is what happens in relationships when communication gets as bad as it can get. People do some really weird, weird stuff.