Dividing by Zero
A Totally Undefined and Very True Work of Romantic Fiction
I was not a nice person, but then he was not a nice person. We were not nice people. He had no empathy, and I had no boundaries. Both of us were ragingly suicidal and violently angry. We had grudges; we had abandonment issues; we had trauma scars. I had obsessions and he had impulses. The gods of romance who decreed that we were fated to be together were laughing up their sleeves at us, and yet it worked out beautifully. Both of us are still alive, and well, and happily married to each other.
We met through a mutual friend, and I say “friend” carefully, because Charlotte was not really Eric's friend. She was a social worker who was hosting a peer support group for people with our kind of problems. This program was a hopelessly optimistic attempt by Yukon Territorial Government to get people on disability to help each other, instead of having to rely on supports from the system. In the case of me and Eric, YTG got way more than it bargained for.
Eric was from Lethbridge, and I was from Peace River, ten hours north of Lethbridge. As fellow Albertans, Charlotte felt that we had a great deal in common, and she had high hopes for us.
It wasn't Charlotte's fault that she didn't see our true brokenness. Eric was a brilliant compensator and so was I. We were obviously the most functional two in the group. Charlotte did not know about the horrendous misdeeds of Eric's youth, because all that was sealed up in Young Offenders Law and confidentiality, and Eric was not inclined to tell her about it at his screening session. On the surface, we had no addictions and no criminal records. Naturally, we should want to be together, and that is exactly what happened.
You know the group therapy drill. You go around the room, and you introduce yourself and say a blurb about your life, and why you are in the program, and what you are hoping to get out of it. I was the unlucky one who got picked to go first. I had absolutely no point of comparison for what was expected of said introduction. I didn't want to overshare, but Charlotte looked at me with big, pleading eyes. I also didn't want to let her down.
“I'm Joanna,” I began. “I'm in the group because my doctor referred me. I have stable housing and I'm food secure for the most part. I don't need much of anything, except friends. I'm a writer, and musician, and an artist, and I dabble in theoretical math. I would love to get to know someone who is nerdy and who can teach me to play Minecraft, because my daughter wants me to play with her, but she is too impatient to teach me herself.”
I saw Charlotte looking at me with gratitude pouring forth and also Eric smirking at me and sizing me up. My lonely heart flip flopped. I don't normally like or trust blue eyes, but his were making me rethink my prejudices.
The woman to my left spoke next. “I'm Jenny,” she spat. “I'm a drug dealer, and I just got out of prison. I think this group is stupid, and I'm only here because the court ordered it. Y'all a bunch of psychos. Don't talk to me.”
And so it went around the room. Most people just grunted their name and slouched down in the their chairs. Finally it was Eric's turn.
“I'm Eric,” he grinned. “I'm a mad man who can't keep a job. But I can definitely teach Joanna to play Minecraft. I want to know what she means about dabbling in theoretical math. I didn't know that was a thing you could dabble in. Don't you have to go to school for that?”
“Joanna?” Charlotte passed it over to me. “Do you want to respond to Eric?”
“I'm inventing a new kind of numbers based on dividing by zero.” I told Eric hesitantly. What if he was a math geek? He could make me look stupid. I did not have all my theory figured out yet, and I had double checked none of it with a real mathematician.
“Why do you need to divide by zero?” Eric pushed. “What's wrong with ordinary numbers?”
“I'm trying to graph the the shape of a multidimensional quantum field, and I want something more my speed than calculus to work with,” I explained. “Undefined numbers are kind of like imaginary numbers if you use them right.”
“Can I leave yet?” Jenny interrupted to ask Charlotte.
“Not yet,” Charlotte shook her head at Jenny. “Why don't we all just take a break and have some goodies that I brought.”
“I'm not done talking to Joanna,” Eric reprimanded Charlotte. “This Jenny person can wait her turn.”
“You can talk to Joanna all you want to on break,” Charlotte compromised, and Jenny glared at Eric.
“You two geeks can get a hotel room,” Jenny snarled. “I didn't come here to sit around listening to over achieving morons gush about math.”
“Jenny, please use respectful language,” Charlotte bleated
“What are you doing in this group?” Eric wondered as we sized up the refreshments table. There was nothing I could eat but carrot sticks. Every thing else had soy or eggs or dairy in it.
“I told you, my doctor referred me,” I replied, puzzled. “You're here.”
“I'm a psychopath,” Eric told me proudly. “I'm incapable of being a taxpaying member of society.”
“That's your diagnosis?” I gasped, stunned that he would announce it like that.
“Well, no, just narcissistic personality disorder.” Eric sighed. “I don't qualify for aggressive narcissism, because I don't plan to kill anybody. Except maybe myself, but you know how that is.”
“I have bi-polar, CPTSD, and borderline personality disorder,” I listed my complaints. “I get suicidal if I work.”
“You're malingering.” Eric contradicted me. “You were over it years ago. Anybody with a brain can see that. But don't worry I won't tell anybody. I don't want to work either. At least not at any job I can do with my skills. Should we malinger together? We could start a Minecraft channel on You Tube, unless you want to do one about your undefined number theory.”
“I'm not ready to present my work to an audience,” I admitted. The malingering thing was true enough that I let it pass. I probably was malingering, and all the better, if Eric didn't think of me as a victim or an easy target.
“Eric squinted at me as if he was trying to decide if I was telling the truth or just putting him off.
“Oh, Joanna, I'm sorry, I forgot I brought some vegan cookies from Riverside,” Charlotte burst in waving a greasy paper bag. “I asked; they don't have any soy in them.”
“You have allergies?” Eric pried.
“Yup, to literally everything. I'm chronically malnourished.”
“It doesn't seem to have affected your weight,” Eric remarked.
“Nope. I'm still fat.” I winced. “Must be my meds; I don't know.” I was long since done with being sensitive about my size. If heavy was a problem for him, Eric could go boil his head.
“I like bigger woman,” Eric confided. “I'm a rebel that way. You're beautiful. I can't stop staring at you.”
“Gee, thanks!” I gulped.
“But you probably don't want guy who doesn't have job,” Eric grimaced.
“Well, I don't have a job,” I argued. “Wouldn't that be pretty hypocritical of me to turn you down because of that?”
“But I don't plan to get better and get one either,” Eric stated. “I'm not being modest. I just don't like rejection or abandonment. If my employment status is a problem for you, say so now, before I waste any time with you.”
“You are freaking adorable,” I laughed. “As long as you're not going to turn on me if I get better and start making more money than you do, I don't care if you don't work. I learned the hard way that taking money from a man is a bad idea. I'll be the bread winner, if you like it that way.”
“Look at us, already negotiating our relationship like an old married couple.” Eric teased. “Listen, we're not Jenny. We don't have to be here. Let's go take a walk and get to know each other. These losers with their opioid issues are wiggin' me out. I can't stand drug addicts.”
“I think we should be compassionate to people with substance use problems,” I resisted Eric's cold point of view.
“No, you don't!” Eric scoffed. “I can see that being around these freaks makes your skin crawl. It's not your job to be compassionate, Joanna. That's what Charlotte is for. They pay her $70,000 a year to babysit drunks. But you're not getting paid to put up with this crew, and I'm not out there murdering prostitutes. It's not our problem. Let's get out of here.”
“Charlotte, Eric and I are going to duck out early,” I called. “Eric has an appointment at the bank and we want to hang together for the rest of the afternoon.”
“Oh sure, we're just going to watch a movie.” Charlotte beamed that her matchmaking had met with such immediate success. “I didn't know Eric had other things to do. That's fine, I'll see you both next Tuesday. You have a nice afternoon.”
“I don't have an appointment,” Eric whispered to me. “Oh, I see; you're lying to her to avoid conflict. I should learn how to do that. I'd probably be much better off if I wasn't so confrontational about everything.”
“Lying to avoid conflict is passive aggressive and people pleasing, Eric,” I answered. “Don't even try it. It sucks out your soul. I need to stop. I'm glad you pointed it out. I didn't have to lie to her. I could have just said we were leaving to go on a date. It's not my job to protect her feelings. Ugh! Why do I always do that?”
“Don't be down on yourself,” Eric soothed. “You messed up once. So what? You are what you are. Own it.”
Eric and I walked out into the September sunshine, and the rest is history.
Eric is not gentle and I am not truthful. I still lie to avoid conflict. In fact, this whole story is lie made up to avoid conflict with my therapist and my family who really want to know how exactly I met Eric, and why I am so determined to stick with him in spite of his violent past, his repugnant personality, his blatant disregard for social norms, and his flat refusal to find or keep employment. What is true is that one beautiful day in February, 2020, a dogooder named Charlotte introduced me to a man named Eric, and my whole life changed forever. There is no love like that of those who are not supposed to able to feel or express love. A diagnosis does not define us.