(excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds)
She could have left him anytime that year and no one would have blamed her. “Serves him right, “ they would have said, shaking their heads and adding perhaps, “Women have left their husbands for lesser offenses.”
He never hit Purslane or the children, didn’t kick the dog or have an affair with a younger, more attractive woman. She new when it began and how it started but could not pinpoint when he crossed the line exactly, when his penchant for poker became an obsessive, destructive, compulsion.
The room was dark except for the television which sat at the foot of the bed. The screen was muted and flashing black and white images of an old western. Purslane tried to sleep but fought against the sound of electronic poker chips as they slid across Reggie’s lap top computer screen and disappeared with a plasitc-y sound of Schlict….Schlict. Her husbad, retired over a year ago, sat propped in bed with pillows playing poker on a gaming website. His eyes red rimmed and drooping, his shoulder slouched against the headboard. “When are you going to turn that thing off, Reggie? You know I have to get up at five?” Purslane’s frustration went unnoticed and she rolled over to look at the glowing face of her bedside alarm clock which read one thirty seven. “It’s a bad beat, I could’ve had five hundred on this one.” Reggie clicked his mouse in frustration and Purslane heard the chips slide off the screen…schlict….
Over the next several weeks her husband went from online gaming to spending hours at the local casino. Purslane nervously kept her eye on their bank account and when it became obvious there was a problem she panicked, and confronted Reggie in a desperate attempt to make him quit. Her tears and anger only made her husband defensive and he barked and spat out the words, “I deserve it, if I want. I worked for over 30 years! I’m enjoying myself!” Purslane was shocked into silence, hurt beyond measure. Did her husband really believe what he’d just told her? She called his brother and sister in California, crying into the phone while they listened, “He’s gonna make us lose everything. He doesn’t care!” They tried to calm her down, saying they’d call and talk to him, but Purslane had to admit that really, no one could stop what had started except one person. As if in the eye of a fierce tornado Reggie was calm and oblivious to the destruction and potential for permanent damage that swirled all around him. He just kept on and on.
Purslane tried to stay on an even keel and went to work as usual but nothing was usual. Every few days 300 dollars would disappear from their bank account and when the balance hit zero she knew Reggie was using their credit cards. She felt caught up in an invisible spiral of anxiety. She rode an emotional roller coaster every day and one night when Reggie hadn’t returned home from the casino Purslane got in her car and started driving. She went to the clinic where she worked, let herself in the back door and logged onto to her work computer. She found a Seattle based ‘do it yourself divorce’ website and paid 200 dollars for the legal forms. Paying for the forms and filling in the blanks gave Purslane a temporary feeling of being in control, but it didn’t last and the forms were never filed with the court.
The days were surreal and Purslane was isolated by fear and disbelief. She started to learn all she could about compulsive gambling, devouring information she found online. Purlsane even attended a few support groups but these groups were for the gamblers and not the spouses and Purslane was an oddity among the men and women who looked at her with curiosity. One of the young men told her, leaning in close to Purslane and pacing his words deliberate and slow, “It’s one of the most selfish addictions there is.” He knew this an yet he insisted his girlfriend accompany him everywhere–even to the grocery store–as a way of distracting him from thoughts of gaming. On the way home from the meeting Purslane thought of him and saw that even in recovery he was a selfish man–requiring the support of another and not having the tools or personal resolve to avoid even the temptation of a stupid scratch ticket.
At home Purslane tried to be supportive, to use what she’d learned to try and help Reggie but disgust and mistrust clouded her every interaction with him. She mentally reviewed what she new of Reggie’s childhood. Her husband had been forced to go to work at a young age and was required to hand over his paychecks to his mom. He said he understood his mother’s demand, after all it takes a lot of money to raise five boys and his brothers were also working and giving up their pay. But Purslane wondered if this early experience with money had left Reggie scarred in some way or maybe he had a deeply imbedded resentment and found some justification in going off the deep end. He’d been a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good boy for so very long. Maybe he did deserve this abandon—this freedom. Maybe like a bad storm it’ll all blow over, the sun will shine again and the clouds will part to reveal blue skies.
But the weather that month seemed to mimic Purslane’s inner emotions and it commanded everyone’s attention. A massive storm hit the region. Hurricane force winds pummeled the Puget Sound area and thousands lost power.
The storm raged for more than nine hours and it woke Purslane up at two AM. The house was without power and so quiet and dark Purslane found it easy to tune her ears to the ravages of the wind outside. She heard trees breaking and crashing and debris swirling and being blown down the street. She’d never before heard the wooden beams of her home creak and give way and Purslane felt as if the beams were her own bones. The wind pushed the house forcing it to give way in tiny increments and the sound it made left Purslane uneasy. The mournful whistling stopped and started, like a living breathing thing that needed to pause an take a deeper breath before blowing again with even more force.
The neighborhood looked as if a giant hand had grabbed it and shook it from left to right. Garbage cans and lids and pine tree bows lay strewn in yards and in the road. Composition roof tiles had been ripped from homes and lay scattered through out the neighborhood. The roof tiles made Purslane think of cards. She saw Queens and Jokers and Aces and equated the lost tiles with lost money. Money that could provide warmth and shelter and comfort the way a roof protects a home. Fallen trees blocked major streets and intersections and the power remained out for seven days. A family of four even lost their lives while trying to heat with a generator that wasn’t properly ventilated and others nearly died while trying to cook meals on charcoal stoves.
Purslane hoped the storm would somehow reset Reggie’s brain and he would stop and become his old self again. She hoped he would wake up and shake off the compulsion to gamble. Hoped he would fall to his knees and plead for her forgiveness and that he would understand and appreciate the real and serious risks he was taking with their financial security—what little they had. And Reggie did in fact break down at one point and fell into Purslane’s arms crying, “Why am I doing this to my family?!” But he continued to gamble and Purslane felt her spirit –her very soul–scab over and become dull. She was powerless to help Reggie but at least she had finally stopped crying. Stopped pleading and even stopped feeling hurt. It was a sense of betrayal that set in and gelled in her pores. She was numb and fell into a silent acceptance.
Reggie slowed his pace and seemed tired and weary. He looked old and beat up. Purslane opened her own bank account and canceled their joint credit card.
Reggie gave Purslane money to pay his half of the bills and mortgage and Purslane wrote the checks. Reggie played poker and bought lottery tickets and even admonished Purslane when she refused to buy a Powerball ticket, tying to manipulate her by saying, “But you’re the one whose going to win—I know it!” He even told Purslane that if she didn’t buy a ticket he wouldn’t share his winnings with her and that he would leave. Purslane replied that she hoped he’d win and if he did she’d be more than happy to drive him to the airport. Reggie was non-plussed by her lack of response and continued to bully Purslane into buying lottery tickets. Sometimes she did but mostly she’d smile and offer the same ride to the airport should he win. It gave Purslane satisfaction to know she had a witty response to his selfish declaration and obvious manipulation.
But there was no satisfaction in the knowledge that she was now a solo pilot navigating through the year on her own. Holidays, birthdays, Christmas celebrations and vacations were for the most part financed by Purslane. She could no longer count on Reggie and they had no common goals. Purslane knew in her heart that deep down he was a good and kind man. Reggie showed his old self to his children and Purslane protected their image of the father they loved. But Reggie was not the same man Purslane had married and he would often say to Purslane, “I’m enjoying life….” and take what money he had left each week to the casino. He was finally living his life as the child he was never allowed to be. But there is no real freedom in loss of control and for every action there is an equal but separate reaction. Purslane became hyper responsible, hyper vigilant and overly concerned with saving and with interest rates and credit cards. She and Reggie sometimes had raging arguments that left her emotionally winded. But these arguments were good for clearing the air and releasing pressure and when Purslane yelled out, “I would never have married you if I’d known you were a gambler!”, Reggie said in a deep, determined voice that Purslane could not ignore, “I’ve always been a gambler.”
And she knew it to be true. Purslane had fooled herself. She remembered their first date; a trip to the racetrack where he handed her $20 to bet. She laughed as Reggie purchased a Ma Jong set and showed the kids how to read the tiles. He taught the boys poker placing bets with Skittles and Necco Wafers and she knew nearly every game of golf that Reggie played involved quarter bets.
Purslane pulled air deep into her lungs and released a long, satisfying sigh. She finished applying mascara and dabbed on a bit of lip gloss. She smiled at herself in the bathroom mirror, kissed Reggie on the lips and drove herself to work.