By Jessica Ramer
Larry Rattner once posed as Ken Follett to prank an aspiring writer into believing the great author would help him get his book published, and then bragged to my mother and me about his practical joke. When a neighborhood couple separated, he insisted that the husband had murdered his wife, Millie, and buried her body in the flowerbed. Millie reappeared a month later, and the couple lived together until her death from uterine cancer.
Because of Rattner’s penchant for tall tales, my mother responded with amusement rather than alarm when he said a neighbor had threatened me. In his telling, Roger Conroy, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD, pointed a gun at me when I ran into his yard to retrieve my runaway goldendoodle. I am alleged to have said—at sixteen—“Shoot me if you must. I’m just getting my dog.” When Mom told me this story, I laughed until I got the hiccups and had to drink a glass of water while bending over at the waist to get rid of them.
I could not have known then that Rattner’s tale would birth an unfortunate sequel more than a decade later. By then, I was living in a housing development that had transitioned from lower middle class to something less. As I walked my dog one evening, I was joined by my neighbor and her twelve-year-old daughter. When we reached the end of the cul-de-sac, a short, bushy-haired man reeking of cheap cologne and even cheaper beer attached himself to us. My neighbor introduced him as George Domenico.
As I looked up to see an iguana scampering through palm fronds, Domenico dropped behind me, slipped his hand underneath my shirt and bra, then groped my breasts. Hard. Too embarrassed to call attention to his sexual misbehavior in front of a pre-teen girl, I shuddered in disgust and squirmed away but said nothing.
Mistake. Men like Dominico read humiliated silence as consent. Believing, I guess, in Ogden Nash’s dictum that candy is dandy but liquor is quicker, he appeared at my door the next day holding an orange Tupperware container filled with what he said was wine.
“I’m not interested,” I told him, but he forced his way past me into my townhouse and walked upstairs, peering into every room in my house. My voice trembling, I followed him, ordering him to leave. He responded by pinioning my arms with his and pulling me close to him.
His tight grasp made it hard for me to breathe. Unable to push him away, I could only gasp, “Let me go.”
“Come on. You let me feel you last night.”
I struggled to free myself, twisting my torso to one side. As he repositioned his arms, I sucked in air and raised my voice enough to be heard throughout the row of townhouses. “Get out of my house! Get out now!”
He left. After double-locking the door, I curled in the fetal position on my futon couch. When my breathing returned to normal, I walked down to the clubhouse and spoke to the president of the homeowner association. He told me that George had rubbed an unopened soda can on the bellies of two teenage girls sunning themselves by the complex pool, persisting even after they told him to stop. After learning about his serial predations, I filed a forcible touching complaint.
Somehow, this fifty-something man who lived with his father was able to hire one of South Florida’s most expensive lawyers—a man who bragged publicly that he could make Mother Teresa look like a whore during cross-examination. This lawyer had, my prosecutor told me during a phone call, unearthed the “shoot me if you must” story. In Rattner’s latest version, though, he swore that I had been the one to accuse Conroy of pointing a gun at me when I was in high school and had continued to repeat the allegation years later.
“Rattner’s wife backs him up,” she said. “It will be your word against theirs. And Conroy denies ever pointing a gun at you.”
I raised my voice in frustration. “Of course Conroy denies it. He never did it. And I never said he did. My mother can back me up on this.”
“Since your mother wasn’t present for the incident, her account would be considered hearsay.”
“No, she wasn’t present. She couldn’t have been present for something that never happened.”
“Even if the judge allowed her to testify, the jury would weigh the sworn testimony of two people versus one mother with a strong motive to lie.”
I cringed at her next statement. “Domenico is saying you propositioned him and refused to take no for an answer. He will claim your charges are revenge for being rebuffed. Furthermore, this attorney discovered the fact that you suffer from treatment-resistant depression.
“In other words,” my prosecutor said, “they will use the ‘nut and a slut’ defense. This case isn’t winnable, and it would only hurt you to pursue it.”
Domenico trumpeted the prosecutor’s decision to drop the charges as proof of his innocence. One of his drinking buddies stood on his porch and glared at me whenever I got into or out of my car. Since he did air conditioning work, I suspect he was the one who clogged my air conditioner’s condensation pipe with plaster, causing a pervasive mold infestation that left me fatigued and wheezing. I sold my townhouse as-is and moved back home with my mother until I could find a new place.
Lying in my childhood bed, I pondered the costs of Rattner’s lies: damaged health, financial loss, diminished credibility, an equal opportunity sexual predator left with his freedom and reputation intact. Not great, but I could live with it. What I found harder to live with was the fear of what Rattner’s slanders could cost me in the future.