Red Flags and Stolen Cheese
Weird things that happen when you think you're not enough
When I was 29 I moved to Los Angeles. I had tried to move here once before, when I was 26, but it hadn’t taken - that time it was just me and my dog in a town where I didn’t know a soul and didn’t have a car and couldn’t overcome the feeling of being utterly homesick, even though being at home was making me sick, which was why I moved in the first place. The second time, I moved with my boyfriend and it felt less intimidating. We’d only been dating six months and this hadn’t been the plan. The plan was we were going to have some fun in New York City where I grew up and where he and I were both teaching yoga and I was going on auditions...and then I was going to move to California on my own. Even that wasn’t the plan…the plan was I was getting ready to move across the country on my own and therefore it really didn’t make sense to start dating anyone, certainly not when I had a major move that was six weeks away, but then the plan became that it would be good for me to learn how to date in a less intense way, have fun and keep things light, and then go. Also, I was rebounding from a relationship that had been dark, painful and confusing, so something fun seemed like a good idea. Or an idea, anyway. I could write a whole post about the plans we make and how easily we abandon them, or how quickly they’re changed by other events outside our control. I was supposed to leave mid-September, so we were going to have some late-summer fun, but then the morning of September 11th happened and that changed everyone’s plans.
Image by Gerd Altmann
I won’t stop for too long about this now, I won’t linger over the fact that I was in a yoga class when the owner of the studio came in and said the World Trade Center had been bombed (first report), or that my stepdad worked in the building and I felt certain he would have been there by now (he wasn’t, he’d gotten off a stop early and decided to walk the last few blocks to work because it was such a beautiful day). I won’t explain about the fighter jets flying low over my beloved hometown making it feel like a war zone, the way people gathered at outdoor cafés and at first I was appalled. It seemed they were using this horrific event as an excuse to go for lunch, but then I realized no one was talking, people were just gathering somewhere to be near other people, everyone at a loss for everything. I won’t tell you too much about how I raced to my mom’s because the pay phones weren’t working, or how she was walking around in shock in her bathrobe, watching the news replay the same unthinkable images over and over again, how we assumed we were watching my stepdad’s last moments and thought that way for five hours until he walked through the door covered in ash because he’d had to walk from the World Trade Center to the Upper West Side and had stopped at Chelsea Piers to try to gather himself together and get cleaned up so he wouldn’t scare my mother. I won’t get into how odd I found it that my mother asked me to get her a coffee from Starbucks while we waited for the news - a phone call, something - all the while unable to reach my brother at school - until I understood she needed something banal to happen, and something familiar, like the feel of a to-go cup full of hot coffee.
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I couldn’t bear to leave New York City after that. The heartbreak was everywhere, the smell of smoke traveled all the way to Central Park, you couldn’t escape it no matter where you went. There were “Missing” signs everywhere, in the subway stations, taped to street lights. Please, please call if you've seen our Jim. Our Joan. Our Sam. I cry now as I think of it. I’ll always cry when I think of it. People were incredibly kind to one another on the street. Sometimes you’d be walking and you’d just see someone stop dead and start weeping. I hugged a lot of strangers the first few weeks. Leaving was impossible. I pushed my move back to January, and by then the signs had come down and the smoke had cleared and the city carried on as it always has and always does, but no one was the same. And by then the boyfriend and I had been dating six months instead of six weeks and we’d lived through this experience together. One night he asked me whether I’d want him to move with me to California. I’m certain there was a tiny voice, way down deep that said no. I’m sure I knew I needed to do this on my own, but the thought of doing all of these very scary things with someone instead of by myself…things like finding a place in a city where I didn’t know anyone, or lining up work, or getting a car, or figuring out how to read the Thomas Guide (this was before GPS for those of you scratching your heads)…well, that voice said yes.
Were there red flags you might ask. After all, six months is a relatively short amount of time to know someone when you’re going to move 3000 miles away from everyone you know. Yes. Yes, there were giant, burning, huge red flags. Yes, I saw them. I’ll get back to red flags in a minute. The thing was, this guy was great in so many ways. He was really smart and adorable and charismatic. I loved his yoga class, he was so creative and hilarious, ninety minutes flew by like five. When I got to know him outside the studio, he was so much fun, and so very different from me. He was delighted to be the center of attention, in fact he thrived on it, while I had to rev myself up to teach in front of a roomful of people. I had panic attacks before auditions because I’d feel so anxious, and he’d walk into a room and own it, no problem. He had a crazy-good singing voice and would go to karaoke regularly and bring the house down. He had zero fear of social norms and would just do the most outrageous things anytime, anywhere. He mooned his friend on a dare in a crowded restaurant and I thought I’d die. It seemed to me that he had no fear, where I was always second-guessing myself, worrying about what people thought, knowing I was never measuring up. I was both repelled and fascinated by that quality in him. But after a short time, I began to understand he needed to be the center of attention. He needed everyone in the room to fall in love with him. Once while I was taking his class, a woman in the room rolled up her mat and left, and he followed her outside to find out why, while the rest of us held down dog. There were sixty people in the room, but he was focused on the one person who left.
Once we moved, I discovered there were many more red flags. You learn a lot about a person when you move across the country with them. In New York City, most people don’t have cars, they use public transportation. If you have a car in NYC it’s because you have a weekend house somewhere outside the city, or you work outside the city and reverse-commute. Otherwise it’s a huge pain in the ass. If you ever want to know what insanity looks like, watch what happens in Manhattan on alternate-side-of-the-street-parking days. Trust me when I tell you it is not normal. Suffice it to say, I had never driven with this man until we were in Los Angeles. That’s when I found out he had road rage that was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and which I will find difficult to describe. He drove like a coked-up bank robber who’d just left the scene of the robbery and had cops on all sides. Something like that. As he drove (fled, careened, catapulted) along the streets cutting people off, nearly missing cars on every side, he cursed like a man burning in the very depths of hell. Getting in a car with him was taking your life in your own hands and saying, here, I suppose I must be ‘ready to go’ in the most profound way.
If I drove, it was worse. Growing up in NYC, I did not have a ton of driving experience. It was occasional, certainly not a daily part of my life. And Los Angeles freeways have a reputation for a reason. They’re not any worse than the streets of New York, but again, I hadn’t driven those. The entirety of my driving experience happened driving outside the city to the Hamptons for the weekends, or to visit my best friend in Connecticut when she moved there and my parents would let me borrow their car. So I was nervous, and driving in unfamiliar terrain, and I may have forgotten to mention I have a dreadful sense of direction. You know what doesn’t help when you’re a nervous driver in an unfamiliar town? Your boyfriend screaming at you to drive faster, get in front of that guy, honk the horn! Sometimes he’d reach over and honk the horn himself while I was driving and then I would feel terrible because the other drivers would think I’d done it. Taking my life in my own hands and letting him drive felt better, or at least it felt like something I could tolerate.
He also cursed whilst putting furniture together, but he didn’t just curse, he cursed Satan. As in, “Satan, don’t you fuck with me!” “Today is not the day to screw around, Satan!” Stuff like that. It gave me pause. When I asked him about it, he shrugged and said he’d gone to Catholic school. Of course I begged him to get help with the road rage and satanic cursing. I told him how scared I was to drive with him whether I was a passenger or not. I told him when we’d go somewhere and he needed the entire place to fall in love with him, it made me feel like having my love wasn’t enough. He’d listen, he’d mirror back what I’d said, I’d feel heard and understood, and absolutely nothing would change. Good times. Meanwhile, we were making our way in Los Angeles. We rented a car so we could take our time finding the right car to lease. We found a really cute stand-alone bungalow with a huge, sunny kitchen. We bought furniture on credit cards, but we made the place cute. We both got teaching jobs all over town within a month of arriving. And I already had an agent to send me on auditions, and he agreed to represent the boyfriend, too. We went to The Grove on Saturday nights for karaoke and he blew the place sky-high. He made friends everywhere he went in ways I never would have. We went to a million restaurants because he was a foodie. We laughed a lot. He was good to my dog.
He took this picture. He won’t want to be credited by name.
Let’s get back to red flags, shall we? When you grow up in an alcoholic household where red flags are just part of a normal day, you learn to view them as something to deal with, not an opportunity to remove yourself from the space, speak up and say you’re not okay, or decide it’s time for something new. Where are you going to go and what are you going to do as a kid, anyway? Pack up your toys and move to a new city? You may learn to make yourself invisible or indispensable, you may dance like a monkey to placate the person who feels like they could become threatening, you might try to save your alcoholic mother from her own rage, but you’re not going to have the agency to treat a red flag as a sign that you’re in an untenable situation and you probably/possibly/very likely need to get out. You don’t have the words for that, or the life experience. If that’s the kind of environment you grew up in, red flags are something you accept. So it will not occur to you later in life, when you’re in an environment of your own choosing, that a red flag is a sign to stop, pay attention and figure out if you’re safe. That it’s a chance to pause and ask yourself if this is a relationship you want to be in, a job you want to continue, or even a conversation you want to be tolerating. You won’t have any conception of your own power, or that it’s okay to choose something different or better for yourself. In other words, it won’t occur to you that how you feel or what you want, matters. And when you grow up in an atmosphere where your questions about what’s happening are squashed and you’re told nothing is wrong except for your perception that something is wrong, you’re going to have a hard time trusting your ability to discern what is real versus what you think is real. Here’s something even more incredible, but not in a good way: you may run toward red flags because they feel like home.
So, there we were going along, and some days were incredible fun and other days I felt deeply troubled, and many days were a combination of great fun and great misery, and almost a year went by that way. I was totally committed to helping him feel secure and happy so he wouldn’t be driven by this need for approval that was stemming from his own alcoholic and distant parent he could never satisfy. I knew all about that, and I knew how to save him if only he’d let me! My love would do it, I felt sure of that.
So when Christmas came and he wanted to go home for two weeks but I told him we could only afford to go home for five days if we wanted to be able to pay the rent, when he told me there was no way he was only going home for such a short amount of time, I told him he could stay back east for two weeks, and I’d come back to L.A. and teach both of our classes. That meant I’d be teaching 27 classes a week while he stayed in New York and had fun. Was it a red flag when he agreed to let me do that? That’s rhetorical. And there were more and other things I’m not sharing, things that had begun to make me deeply uncomfortable and worried about with whom, exactly, I was living.
And then one day we went to Whole Foods. I went to grab a few things we needed and he went toward the cheese aisle. He was always bringing home the best cheese or a great wine, an olive tapenade he’d found at the farmers’ market, a fruit he’d never seen before, a recipe he wanted to try - while I’ve always been a pretty simple eater. So I came around the corner and saw him halfway up the aisle, and just as I turned that corner, I saw him slip a piece of cheese into his cargo pants. It was so smooth and casual, I almost thought I was seeing things. After all, my whole childhood anytime I asked anyone around my mother if they thought she was okay, if it didn’t seem a little scary that she was drinking so much, that she’d get so enraged, that she wouldn’t be able to stand up…I was told she was fine. She was a social drinker, it was no big deal, I was the one with the perception problem. I was sensitive and dramatic. So maybe I was wrong again.
I walked up to the boyfriend. “Did you just put a piece of cheese in your cargo pants?” I asked. “Shhhhhhh!!! No, what’re you, nuts?!” He asked me, looking me dead in the eye. “So, if I reach into your pants, I’m not going to find cheese?” I asked. (Note to reader: it’s a very bad sign if you find yourself asking this question) “No,” he said, but his eyes were a little wild and his cheeks were a little flushed, so I dove my hand into his pocket and sure enough, I pulled out a large piece of wrapped parmesan. He grabbed it and threw it in the cart. “What’re you doing?” he hissed, looking around us frantically. “What am I doing? What are you doing??” He looked at me. “I’m evening the score,” he said, throwing his hands up like it was obvious, “the prices here are insane. That parmesan is eleven dollars!” I stared at him. “Right,” I said slowly, “but we’re choosing to shop here. It’s Whole Foods. You don’t get to ‘even the score,’ if you don’t like the prices we need to shop somewhere else!” “Okay, okay,” he said as if I was boring, and started wheeling the cart to the checkout line. But as we walked to the car, I kept replaying it in my head. He’d slipped that cheese in his pants so casually, so expertly. I knew it wasn’t the first time.
My heart was racing when we got in the car, but not because of the road rage. “You’ve been doing that a long time, haven’t you?” I asked. He told me he’d been doing it since he was 18, not because he needed to, but because he liked the rush. He said he enjoyed the dichotomy of being a yoga teacher who shoplifted. He did it at clothing stores, too. My mind raced as we sped down Fairfax Avenue. I thought of all the times we’d gone shopping together. I had a vague memory of being at Banana Republic with him months prior, where the woman at the register seemed confused a sweater from their new line had a sale tag attached. She’d had to give it to him for the sale price, but she’d seemed weirded out. I asked him about it and he said yes, he’d gone into the dressing room and switched the tag. I told him to pull over and he did, just fast enough for me to open the door and get sick. “Wow,” he said, ”this is a really big deal to you, huh?” I was in tears at this point. I told him he needed to move out. We had local friends by then, and there was one guy in particular we’d grown close to, I knew he could stay there. I told him he needed to move out and get help, that I would support him through it, but I couldn’t live in a house where I’d open the fridge and not know if the food was stolen. I said I couldn’t see a future with someone who might one day steal diapers for the rush of it.
He left that night. He packed some things and went to stay with our friend. He came back and packed a suitcase the next day and flew home to New York, leaving me to pack and ship the rest of his belongings. Leaving me to teach 27 classes a week continually, so I could pay the rent. Leaving me to figure out how to get to Redondo, Century City, the Hollywood Hills. Leaving me to make my own friends, find new trails to hike with my dog, figure out how to stay somewhere even when it felt lonely and scary and uncomfortable. I was devastated, but I was devastated because I had not been enough reason for him to want to change. Just like I had not been enough reason for my mother to want to choose me over Chardonnay. I was not enough, that’s the part that hurt the most. But leaving me was the best thing he ever did.
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If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about red flags, stolen cheese, tendencies of (grown) children of alcoholics and how to overcome them, and how to trust yourself once and for all, I’ll be here Friday, 9/1/23 at 11:15am PST, or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. If you’d like to meet me out in the world, I would love that so much. Here are two upcoming possibilities.