Yvette wrote to ask about Rachel. Yvette lives in Texas and knows Rachel’s brother. He showed her some of Rachel’s artwork and Yvette was hooked. Now she wants to write something about it. That’s why she reached out to me. It caused me to think about someone I don’t like thinking about.
When her brother wrote me about her death seven years ago, I’d been out of touch with Rachel for a long time. I had to cut her out of my life. She’d caused a lot of damage. My connection to her had contributed to the end of two marriages, dozens of failed friendships, and more hurt feelings, confusion, and drama than I could account for. Now a bright-eyed new person has appeared to dredge up what I thought was dead and buried. And yet, I tried to answer all the questions Yvette asked. In answering I realized how little I know about someone I thought I knew too well.
I met Rachel through her then-boyfriend/ex-husband-to-be, Albert, at Jinx Coffee in 1998. They’d recently moved to Chicago from California and he was concerned that she didn’t have any friends in their new town. He knew I made art so Rachel and I would have something to talk about. She waited tables at Leo’s Lunchroom down the street, but apart from bumming cigarettes off me, she rarely said a word. Soon she was making covert dinner plans with me. I didn’t understand why the fact we were going for pasta at Club Lucky had to be kept secret from Albert, but soon learned that if Rachel wasn’t scheming or setting people in her life against each other, she didn’t feel alive. I played along because I realized it was the price of admission. It was fascinating watching her gears turn. She never stopped spinning fantasies.
She told coworkers at Leo’s she had cancer when she didn’t, told me and others her oldest brother was dead when he wasn’t. Even when caught in a bald-faced lie she rarely acknowledged it. She’d massage and massage her explanation until we either gave up or forgot about it. We knew she couldn’t live without her lies. I took any childhood story she told as a fairy tale, so it was a surprise when I eventually met her parents and one of her brothers; I’d just assumed she’d made them all up. Some of the things she said about them were even true.
Rachel and Albert broke up for a time and she moved in with me. She immediately took up with one of Albert’s coworkers at the coffee shop. Kevin was a blackout drunk. I remember carrying him up the stairs with my next door neighbor Liam after Kevin had passed out on his porch. I had to throw out a loveseat because he’d soaked it with his urine and Rachel had to get rubber sheets for her bed because he pissed himself so regularly. Then Rachel reconciled with Albert and they got married. I wasn’t invited.
We kept in touch though. She was a fascinating character. I watched her invent and reinvent herself so often. She knew she could count on me, but that meant that I inevitably got tangled up in her drama. I got married during this time and my ex-wife-to-be used my relationship with Rachel as one of her reasons for leaving me. Albert hated me. The day I drove a car full of my ex’s belongings down to Texas where she’d moved, Albert chased the car down the street threatening to beat me up. I just laughed and kept driving. When I crossed the Texas border it was raining sideways, so hard the wipers couldn’t keep up and the skies were black. Every rest stop was full of stopped vehicles. I found out the next day I was within a few miles of a tornado.
Back in Chicago, Rachel started cooking for the Archdiocese of Chicago and we resumed our weird friendship. Through the church, she met an old rich man who became fixated on her. He’d eventually moved her into his downtown condo. But she was never happy with just one man’s attention. She posed for me one afternoon and on a break from working we started messing around. If her roommate hadn’t walked in, who knows what might’ve been, but afterwords Rachel got shy and said it had been a mistake. We never finished the painting, but another older man bought it as is for $500 in order to curry favor with her. i was happy to be rid of it and to take his money.
Rachel always drank like a fish. Red wine was her poison and she’d drink bottles, rarely eating much aside from dry toast or popcorn. I’d insist we go out for dinner because that was the only way she’d eat properly. Eventually, her doctors told her she was on the brink of liver failure. Eventually she stopped working, letting the old men take care of her. Then she moved back to California. But by then I’d stopped answering her phone calls. My mother called her an emotional vampire, and maybe that’s what she was.
So, Yvette’s questions stirred up all kinds of thoughts. There was music that I’d reclaimed as my own in the years after my involvement with Rachel ended. I could listen to Cat Power, Smog, and Silver Jews, and not immediately remember her playing them on repeat behind a closed bedroom door. Now when I put one of them on, she’s there again. I tell Yvette that I didn’t care much for Rachel’s art. It was always a sore point for her. She knew I didn’t like her dramatic birds beneath cracking varnish or her tormented self-portraits. I found them as phony as so many of her stories.
But Yvette is convinced Rachel’s art is worth celebrating. She’s coming to Chicago this weekend to try to dig up some research. I’ll meet her and show her some of the places Rachel lived and worked. In a recent email, Yvette tells me Rachel’s brother is no longer cooperating with her. Seems his new fiancée is uncomfortable with their friendship. So Rachel’s legacy of ruining relationships survives her. I doubt Yvette will come up with enough for a substantive biographical document. Most of the people who knew Rachel are long gone, the places she worked are changed or no longer exist.
Maybe Yvette can write a fairy tale about a scary-thin girl with long blond hair who liked to tell tall tales.
That would be a fitting tribute.