The Mistletoe Inn
My mother attempted suicide four times before she finally succeeded. At least those are the attempts that I know about; there could have been more, as my father often ran interference, hiding things that he thought would hurt me. My mother suffered from major depression. She also had migraines. By most accounts they were unusually severe. She almost always had visual effects, seeing strange lines and flashes of light and sometimes hearing voices. When the migraines came she never left her room.
Doctors tried to help, though it seemed to me like they were bailing out a sinking boat with a paper cup. Most just medicated her with the latest trending mind drug: Valium, Xanax, Prozac, etc. A few told her to “buck up,” which was like telling a stage-four cancer patient to just get over it. Then there were the insufferable people who said stupid things like, “I was depressed once. I went for a walk,” or, “You have so much to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?” then smugly walked off as if they’d just performed a service to society.
With my mother almost always ill, my father did his best to pick up the slack. It was not unusual for him to
come home from a long day of work, make dinner, clean the kitchen (with my help), then put in the laundry. I could never figure out why my father stayed with her.
The Christmas afternoon my mother died was the first time I ever saw my father cry. He also cried at her funeral, which for me was the most upsetting part of the day. I know that sounds weird, but in my young mind, my mother had died long before we buried her.
After the funeral, my aunt took me for a couple of days, until my father came and got me and we went on with our lives. Just like that. Just like nothing had happened.
My father, Robert Dante Rossi, didn’t have a degree, but he was smart. He had started but never finished college (even though he insisted that I did). He was hardworking and good with people. I once heard one of his colleagues describe my father as “the kind of guy who could tell you to go to hell and you’d look forward to the trip.”
He was a Vietnam vet and had served two years in the air cavalry, which meant he saw a lot of combat. He rarely talked about those experiences, but he didn’t seem overly affected by them either, at least not in the way the movies like to paint Vietnam vets: handicapped in mind and spirit. I remember when I was fifteen I asked him if he had ever killed anyone. He was quiet for almost a minute, then looked at me and said, “I served my country.”
When he got back from the war he went to college for a year before deciding it wasn’t for him. He took a job managing a Maverick convenience store in Henderson. After five years and as many promotions, he was in charge of the
entire Las Vegas region for Maverick. I don’t suppose that he ever made a lot of money, but I never felt like we were poor. My father was disciplined and frugal, the kind of guy who still mowed his own lawn and drove an old Ford Taurus.
He did his best to raise me alone. He got up early every day, made my lunch, then drove me to school. He took a late lunch break so he could pick me up after school. I usually just stayed with him as he finished his rounds, talking about my day, then doing my homework in the car when he went inside a store. He’d always return with a slushie drink, a chocolate MoonPie, and a couple of fashion or teen magazines—the previous months that they were about to throw out. I liked being with him.
When I was a little older he decided that as long as I was making the rounds with him I should get paid for it, and he hired me as an employee. I would go into the stores he was visiting and wipe down the soda dispensers and clean the glass on the refrigerators. That’s pretty much how my life went during my teenage years.
My memories of my mother were vague and hazy, perhaps because they were so heavily wrapped in trauma. Most of them were of her in a dark room lying in bed. I didn’t really know her. I suppose my father could have filled in the blanks, but the truth is, I didn’t want them filled in. The few
times my father started to tell me about her I stopped him. “I don’t want to know,” I said. Looking back, I think that hurt him, but my intent was the opposite. I was trying to prove to him that I was okay without her. I felt my mother was a failure and a traitor, not just to me but even more to my father. I deserved someone who cared enough about me to stick around and so did he. We both deserved someone better than her.
At least that’s how I saw it.
In high school I was one of those girls who always had to have a boyfriend. Starting in the eighth grade, I had a string of boyfriends until my senior year in high school when I started dating Kent Clark. (Yes, people teased him about his name. His friends called him “Steel of Man.”) Kent was a popular guy. He was on the high school basketball team and lettered in track and wrestling as well.
Two years after high school, Kent proposed to me and I said yes. My dad, with a neighbor woman’s help, went through all the work of reserving the reception center, caterer, flowers—the whole matrimonial shebang.
Then the Steel of Man kryptonited the day of the wedding, running off with a high school girlfriend he’d dated before me. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. Not the worst experience. Just the most humiliating.
Alone, I continued on with college, pursuing my general
education where my father had dropped out—the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. That’s where I met Danny, another basketball player. Two years later, I was a fiancée again.
Danny was a walk-on for UNLV’s basketball team and quickly moved up to starting forward. I should have known that the odds were against any kind of real relationship with a rising basketball star, but I thought I was in love and was caught up in the thrill of being the future wife of a professional athlete. I soon learned exactly what that meant, which was, to Danny, almost nothing. The more he rose in the public’s (and his own) view, the less he regarded us. I began hearing that he was not behaving like a betrothed man on road trips. The next year he was drafted by the Orlando Magic and left Vegas, and me, behind.
Twice burned by young athletes, I found Marcus, who was nine years older than me. I also met him at college. He was my history professor, which should have been my first red flag.
My father wasn’t thrilled with any of the guys I’d been with, but for the most part kept his silence. For Marcus he made an exception. He said that a professor dating his student was as unethical as a psychiatrist courting a patient. Still, as much as it pained him, he believed in letting me make my choices no matter how stupid they were. I thought it a great accomplishment that Marcus didn’t leave me before we reached the altar.
In retrospect, I wish he had. I learned on our honeymoon night the extent of his cruelty. He got drunk at our wedding—drunk enough that I drove to our hotel while he
yelled at me about how the wedding had been all about me, how I had neglected him, and how selfish I was. In the pain of the moment I begged his forgiveness, but he still made me sleep on the couch in the guest section of the suite my father had paid for. That was our honeymoon night. I suppose it was a preview of how my life would be with him. Before we were married, Marcus couldn’t keep his hands off me. Now he wouldn’t touch me. I was embarrassed to undress in front of him since he started calling me chunky and telling me that I needed to lose weight, even though I knew I didn’t. He criticized me constantly, not just the way I looked, but the things I said, the things I thought, even the music I liked. He constantly called me stupid or ditzy. Nothing I did met his expectations.
What I didn’t realize until later, much later, was that emotional manipulation was his modus operandi. He was a master at it. He should have taught psychology instead of history. He controlled our relationship by keeping me emotionally needy, giving me just enough “love” to not give up, but never enough to feel satisfied. It was like filling a dog’s water bowl half-full. I never felt like I was enough, and apparently I wasn’t. I should have left him, but I didn’t. I suppose that I believed, like my father must have, that marriage was for better or for worse.
Three years after our marriage, Marcus was offered a bigger paycheck at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I hated leaving my father and Las Vegas, but it was a promotion and Marcus was insistent. I didn’t fight it. I believed that supporting my husband was the right thing to do. Also,
Marcus frequently complained that I was too close to my father and that it got in the way of our marriage. I thought that the experience of being alone in a strange town would bring us closer together. It didn’t.
I filed for divorce two years later when Marcus was exposed in a campus investigation for ethical misconduct, something you may have read about in the Huffington Post. I’ll never forget the night he told me. In a cruel twist of irony, it was Valentine’s Day and I had spent the day making him a romantic candlelit dinner. When I stopped crying I asked, “Why did you cheat on me?”
“You’re too clingy,” he said stoically. “You were suffocating me. You forced me into it.”
“I forced you to cheat on me?” I said.
“Yes, you did,” he said. “Besides, monogamy is unnatural. Anyone with half a brain knows that.”
That evening when I called my father and told him what had happened, he never once said “I told you so.” He just wanted to beat Marcus to a pulp, and likely would have if he’d been there.
The next day the press arrived at our apartment. You wouldn’t believe the things they asked me.
Press: How do you feel about your husband being sexually involved with six university students?
Me: You’re really asking me that?
Press: Are you upset?
Me: . . .
After our separation, Marcus ran off with not one but two of his female students. Alone again, I moved forty miles south to Denver. My father wanted me to come back to Las Vegas, but shame kept me away. I didn’t want to return home a failure, even if that’s what I was.
I got a job in Thornton, a suburb of Denver, as a finance officer at a Lexus car dealership, which is where I was the winter this story began.
As I look back at where I was in my life at that time, it wasn’t so much that my life wasn’t what I thought it would be, as that’s likely true of all of us. Rather, it’s that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I wanted someone to build a life with, someone who would think about me when they weren’t with me. I wanted someone who loved me.
I also wanted to live a life of consequence. I wanted to be someone who mattered, which leads to something else you should know about me. In spite of my catastrophic love life, more than anything I wanted to be a romance writer. I know that sounds strange. Me writing about romance is like a vegan writing about barbecue. Still, I couldn’t let the dream go. So when I got a flyer in the mail for a romance writers’ retreat at the Mistletoe Inn, a little voice inside told me that it might be my last chance to find what I was looking for. That voice was far more right than I could have imagined—just not in the way I ever imagined it would be.