It’s as if two Michaels existed in her mind: the one before they told their partners about the affair and the one after. A small part of her still refused to believe that the tender, affectionate, charismatic, reliable and doting lover she had known, whose stated objective in life was to make her happy— “what my Baby wants, my Baby gets”—had morphed into one of those hollow men profiled in the psychology books her therapist had recommended.
Logically speaking, the two sides of Michael, the one she had known and loved, the other she feared and despised, couldn’t be reconciled. She recalled Michael running to greet her with unbridled enthusiasm each and every time they met. Even those over-the-top romance novels couldn’t quite capture the intensity of his real life passion. The tactile memory of his touch gently exploring her body before consuming her with an insatiable hunger still sent shivers of desire up and down her spine. Michael’s patience throughout her professional struggles and emotional vacillations still attested to the depth of his feelings. The ease and comfort with which they communicated struck her as unique. And the interest he took in her art, which he not only encouraged, but also inspired, made her feel like in losing her lover, she’d be losing a soul mate.
She recalled a moving, jazzy song she used to listen to with Michael. It described a woman letting go of her lover gradually, piece by piece, trace by trace, memory by memory. She now felt like she too had to let go forever of Michael’s passionate kisses, of the way he cradled and twirled her in his arms, of his excited ‘Hey, Baby!’ greetings, of his sensual caresses, of his desirous, flattering gaze that had made her feel beautiful and feminine, and, most painfully of all, of their joint dream of a happy future together.
Of course, had he listened to that love song, Dr. Emmert would have said that it didn’t apply at all to her situation. One doesn’t let go of a psychopath piece by piece. One runs away as fast as possible in the opposite direction. That’s what Karen should have done also. She recalled a photograph Michael had shown her, which featured him and Karen on the day of their engagement.
Michael’s smile looked so beautiful, with his pearly white, perfectly aligned teeth, that it seemed almost plastic. By way of contrast, Karen had struck her as plain, reinforcing the point Michael had made on a number of occasions that his fiancée was not pretty, or cultivated, or sensual or affectionate enough for him. If he was cheating on her, he implied, it was only because he belonged with a woman who measured up to his good looks, eroticism, intelligence and talents. That woman was his girlfriend. Not one to remain immune to flattery, Ana had bought his argument.
Now that she had caught a glimpse of the darker side of Michael, however, she recalled the sadness of Karen’s expression in the photograph that was supposed to celebrate their engagement. Her smile wavered somewhere between meekness and melancholia, while her deep-set eyes expressed a sense of resignation that Ana had rarely seen in someone so privileged and young.
From the day they met, Ana sensed that Michael couldn’t live without danger, without risk, without dream. His life had to be a perpetually thrilling fantasy. So far, Ana reflected, I’ve been his dream, while Karen was his reality. I’ve lived somewhere else and was his escape from the mundane existence he lived with his fiancée. She recalled Michael’s excitement and eagerness whenever he’d call her during their first few months together, before Karen had moved to Phoenix—“Hey Baby. Gosh, I miss you so much!”--while his fiancée was asleep or away on an errand.
Looking back at the last few weeks of their relationship, Ana realized that those excited calls had all but disappeared. After telling their partners about the affair, it was generally she who called her lover, while Michael greeted her with a flat “Hey” rather than the eager “Hey, Baby!” that used to make her heart flutter with anticipation. Which meant, Ana retrospectively deduced, that it was the manipulation, the cheating, the lying and the risk that were most exciting to Michael, not she, herself.
This presaged a disturbing pattern that inextricably bound pleasure with infidelity. Had he taken full possession of me, she extrapolated, absence would have become presence and the ideal would have switched sides. Someone else would have become the spoiled girlfriend while I’d have turned into the duped and neglected spouse.
Clue after clue began seeping into Ana’s consciousness as a more multidimensional image of her former rival foreshadowed her own likely future. She recalled the dismissive air with which Michael had described the pointlessness of Karen’s efforts to make him love her again: “She’s doing everything to please me: losing weight, exercising like a freak four hours a day; reading books she thinks I might like, but nothing works. When you’ve got it you’ve got it and when you don’t you don’t.”
He had gone on to explain how everything about Ana, from the inflections of her voice to her slightest gesture, excited him naturally and effortlessly. Yet those weren’t the words that echoed in her mind at the moment. “When you’ve got it you’ve got it and when you don’t you don’t,” Ana repeated to herself the phrase that Michael had used to describe Karen’s Sisyphean task.
Would any woman “have it” for a lifetime, she wondered, beginning to intuit that lasting attachment was relational, having much more to do with the attitudes of the lovers than the inherent qualities of the beloved. Was Michael even capable of lifelong loyalty and commitment, as he had repeatedly avowed? And what did any of his promises mean, when he had shamelessly violated all the ones he made to Karen?
Ana felt that she had loved Michael as passionately as anyone could love anybody else. But she had never really trusted him. During their conversation, Michael had reproached her for her distrust. He maintained that their partners, his parents, her therapist, her own neuroses were to blame for her lack of trust in him. But Ana didn’t see it that way. Michael’s reassurances simply didn’t ring convincing, while his dismissal of her doubts only fueled her suspicion. The moment you let down your guard, she speculated, you became another Karen; a pawn of his capricious will and a victim of your own vulnerability.
Ana recalled the crass, demeaning manner in which Michael had described his fiancée’s generosity on another occasion: “She hides chocolates and other silly little gifts throughout the house for me, like a bitch marking its territory.” At the time, that comment had provoked Ana’s jealousy. All she could think of was that another woman was competing for her lover.
Only Michael’s reminder that in their relationship it was he who showered her with presents had reassured her then that she had the upper hand. She had also bought wholesale Michael’s description of Karen as a needy and possessive woman who clung to him so fiercely that the poor man felt suffocated. But now Ana could easily imagine finding herself in the pathetic position of fighting desperately to reclaim his affection, while he was busily pursuing another woman with the same single-minded fervor with which he had seduced her.
Whenever Ana felt threatened by her rival, Michael was quick to reassure her: “Don’t worry, Baby. Once I’ve made up my mind about something, nobody on Earth can change it. There’s nothing Karen can do to win me back. It’s you I want. You’re the woman of my life.” In the past, such declarations of love were music to Ana’s ears. Now, however, they sounded cacophonous, striking the wrong chord. If even a woman who loved Michael with such unconditional devotion couldn’t make the slightest dent in his attitude and feelings towards her, what did that say about his capacity to love?
From Ana’s perspective as a spoiled girlfriend, Karen’s efforts to win back Michael had seemed as pointless as a fish struggling to survive on land. It was transparently obvious to her that Karen’s logic--if only she tried harder, cooked better, became thinner, wore sexier clothes and acted more tender, Michael would fall in love with her all over again—was at best misguided and at worst delusional.
“Dream on!” Michael had commented with contempt one afternoon, describing his fiancée’s desperate efforts, as he lay stretched out like a cat on his girlfriend's lap. “I want you so much,” he had told Ana over and over again, his eyes filled with desire. But even back then, in the midst of her willful blindness, the detached, arrogant way in which he talked about his fiancée had made Ana feel like her lover was capable of discarding a woman with the same insouciance with which a child tosses away an old toy. What she had refused to believe back then was that she, herself, could ever be that discarded toy.
Now, however, Ana couldn’t help but wonder: if I had chosen the same path as Karen, would her vain hopes and agony have become mine? Would I also bury my head in the sand and explain away Michael’s disinterest in the most implausible ways in the humiliating and futile attempt to revive his nonexistent love? Would I, like her, remain so attached to our past, to the memories of the days when he doted on me, that I’d be incapable of letting go?
Why didn’t Karen let go? Ana began thinking about what might induce a woman to stick to a man once he gives such incontestable evidence of mistreatment. Because even now, after he had nearly left her for another woman, Ana felt quite sure that Karen still clung to Michael with all her might, from thousands of miles away. Ana recalled one of his explanations for his fiancée’s tenacity: “She thinks that my love for you is intense, but ephemeral. She doesn’t think we’ll make it three months once we actually move in together.”
Karen must have convinced herself that what she and Michael shared was true and lasting love, while what he experienced with other women was merely temporary and superficial. The memories of how well Michael treated her in the beginning of their relationship—all the wooing, the romance and the charm that were his natural trademarks—must have obliterated the avalanche of uncaring words and actions that had followed. And in that avalanche, Karen’s identity and self-respect were crushed.
Ana wasn’t about to make the same mistake. He offered heat without warmth. Attachment without bonding. Passion without love. Before, Ana would have considered these phenomena impossible. But with Michael, everything became possible. His appetite for self-gratification was insatiable and his chameleon-like personality, adapting to any woman’s needs in order to control her, incomparable. Yet underneath that pliable layer of charm, Ana had discovered a hardened egocentric personality that allowed no woman to get close to him and capture his attention for long.
The heart of the problem, Ana believed, was that Michael viewed love only as a game. For each match, there had to be a winner and a loser. The winner, of course, could only be him in the end. “Keep your eyes on the prize at all times,” he often told her. But once you won the prize, what then? You hung it up on the wall and sought the next target. I don’t want to be vanquished, since I’m too proud and independent, Ana told herself. And I don’t want to be a victor, since I don’t need to dominate anybody. The only viable solution is the one I’ve chosen, she concluded. Leaving him.
Easier said than done. Turning over at random one of the books her therapist had suggested, Ana glanced at its back cover description: “He will choose you, disarm you with his words, and control you with his presence.” That’s definitely Michael! she confirmed. He had an electrifying, almost inescapable, charisma. No matter what he talked about, even when discussing the most trivial topics like what he ate for breakfast, Michael’s voice had the soothing feel of silk and the husky, soft texture of velvet.
“He will delight you with his wit and his plans. He will show you a good time,” she continued reading, recalling all the plans for travel around the world and boundless artistic creativity he had conjured up for the happy days when they’d finally live together. “He will smile and deceive you,” she went on reading, her nostalgia displaced by the intuition that one day, sooner rather than later, she too would have been replaced.
“And when he’s through with you, and he will be through with you, he will desert you and take with him your innocence and your pride.” And no amount of effort will ever change his mind, she added to herself, thinking of Karen. “You will be left much sadder but not a lot wiser,” the author predicted, “and for a long time you will wonder what happened and what you did wrong.” Getting involved with and, worse yet, staying with him, that was the error, Ana answered, her thoughts turning once again to Karen. “And when the next one knocks on the door, will you open it?”
Ana pondered this question. First things first. At the moment, she didn’t even feel confident in her reply concerning this one, let alone “the next one.” Her lover’s smoothness, persistence and passion had profoundly shaken the foundations of her being and her life. Her conscience had been leveled by largely uncontrollable emotions, impulses and desires. Her marriage would have to be reborn from the ashes, like a phoenix bird. Her children had just been taken for an emotional roller-coaster ride that might have scarred them for life.
Ana was interrupted from her thoughts by a loud knock on the door. She went to see who it was, surmising that it was probably the mail carrier delivering the package of books she had recently ordered online.
Instead of the mailman, however, she was faced on the other side of the glass panel by the door with Michael’s friendly smile, as if they hadn’t had an altercation less than an hour ago.
“Come on, Baby, open the door,” he urged her in such a lighthearted manner that he seemed to be laughing off their earlier lovers’ quarrel. “I’m more in love with you than ever after the stunt you just pulled on me. That only proves we’re meant for one another, you spunky little girl!”
Ana hesitated. Every rational fiber in her being told her to resist all of Michael’s advances henceforth. Yet part of her remained drawn to her lover’s familiar charm as well as to their complicity, welded by months of intense passion, forbidden pleasures and--she thought--friendship. Ana’s whole being trembled with the ambivalence that the prey must feel when it’s caught in the mesmerizing gaze of its predator, as it absurdly hesitates between life and death, between capitulation and escape.
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