After waiting outside the building for about an hour, Michael watched Ana exit the therapist’s office, where he had followed her. Fuck the restraining order! he decided, tearing it to shreds soon after he got it. He felt like his initial intuition was confirmed. I knew it! She’s having an affair with her shrink, he speculated. Dozens of women had washed away every last trace of her. Every kiss, every caress, every ounce of desire, every shred of memory of Ana had been covered over by countless others. Yet he still felt peeved that another man had access to his woman. Because in his mind, no matter what happened, no matter how many other lovers she’d have, Ana would always be his. Lightning doesn’t strike twice. The maids won’t save her this time, he thought coolly, glancing at his watch. It was 1:05 p.m. Too early for Rob or the kids to be home, which meant that Ana would be all alone. They’d have a nice little chat together, undisturbed. He’d be sure to thank her for filing charges against him.
Ana pressed the key button to unlock her car and stepped inside. She turned on the ignition and checked her watch. It was 1:06 p.m. Before I go pick up the kids from school, I have just enough time to drive to Detroit and retrieve the rest of my paintings from the new gallery, she estimated. She turned on the radio, then turned it off. Every love song left a bad aftertaste, taunting her with embittered feelings and soured memories.
Her thoughts reverted back to the conversation she had had with Rob about fidelity. Having experienced the contrast between the man she almost divorced, who truly loved her, and the man she almost married, who loved no one but himself, Ana grasped much more tangibly that her husband had been right all along. Real love meant regarding one another as unique and irreplaceable: something Rob practiced while Michael only preached. Early into their courtship, her lover had promised her, “I’ll be good to you, my sweet Ana. If anything happens to us, it won’t be because of me,” she recalled. That promise, like all of his loving words, was dust in the wind.
Yet sometimes Michael slipped up and spoke the truth, giving her glimpses of who he really was. “How do you reinvest value in a relationship that has pretty much lost its value?” Michael had asked her the second time they met, referring to his fiancée. Since she didn’t know then what she knew now, she had replied, “By working on it.” Michael had countered that to work on a relationship you must have something to work with. And then, Ana recalled, he revealed a part of himself that should have instantly set off warning signals, but it didn’t. He told her, “If there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole experience with Karen is that if a relationship requires work, it’s not worth saving.” That much he practiced, not just preached.
I put so much energy into that freaking relationship and this is the thanks I got for it. As my father told me, when I chose her I must have been thinking with my prick. What the hell is she doing now? Michael followed Ana past Myers, to I-94 East. Does she have a lover in Detroit too? He recalled something his maternal grandfather had once told him. I wish I had done away with every damn woman I ever left, so that they wouldn’t live on to bother me anymore. He had been referring to Michael’s own grandmother, among many others. You’re just like your grandfather! his mother once remarked, only half in jest, when he ogled women in her presence. You bet! Michael said to himself. The man knew how to live. Hump them and dump them. Because when you try to love them, they treat you like shit. And to think I trusted her. Fuck you, Ana! But don’t you dare walk away from me little bitch, he gritted his teeth. I decide if you stay or if you leave.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole experience with Karen is that if a relationship requires work, it’s not worth saving,” Ana recalled, heading towards the RenCen, since her gallery was close to it. That statement rang profoundly true, she mused, but only for people like him, who couldn’t form deeper attachments. For Michael, no relationship was worth saving beyond the initial seduction phase. Memories of affection, intimacy and pleasure didn’t accumulate for him. He dwelled in the shallowness of a perpetual present. To him, love was just another high whose effect would invariably wear off. It may take only a few hours, as with his innumerable one-night stands, or a few days, as with his countless flings, or even several months, as it did with her. But once the conquest was over and the pleasure diminished, Michael would move on to seduce, devalue and discard the next woman whose love and trust he had secured. The hunger for passion, Ana realized, has starved me of love.
Why is she heading towards the RenCen? Michael wondered. He recalled that they had once made out in the glass elevator. Eh, at least she was a pretty good lay, unlike Karen, he told himself. The thought of his fiancée made him smile with contempt. He had a flashback to her last pathetic attempt to show him she learned how to do pole dancing. The poor woman looked like a giraffe rubbing up against a scratching post. If only she had taken lessons from some of his newest girlfriends, he thought, as an image of Tanya, a hot Ukrainian with platinum blond hair, nice tits, a sexy ass and heavenly long legs, popped into his mind. Why the hell am I still wasting my time with Ana? he asked himself, tempted to head back to the Foxy Lady Gentlemen’s Club for a quickie.
The irony is that he seemed to be so tender and caring at first, Ana mused, searching for a parking spot next to the RenCen. She recalled how during their second meeting, Michael had bragged about how much Karen’s little nephew enjoyed playing with him. He called him “Big Guy,” as no doubt he’d have called Allen too precisely because he was so tiny, the same way he called her and probably every other girlfriend he ever had “Baby,” at least during the seduction phase, before the restlessness overtook him and he became drawn to someone else. He told her how he liked to toss the “Big Guy” into the air and catch him, turn him upside down and tumble around pretending they were wild animals. That playfulness had impressed Ana at the time. She had interpreted it as evidence of Michael’s paternal instincts. But now it occurred to her that she had recently watched a show on Animal Planet with her daughter about how male chimpanzees, some of the most selfish and aggressive primates around, like to rough play with their young to express their dominance instinct. By way of contrast, Ana had a flashback to how lovingly and patiently Rob had taught his son how to ride a bike, despite the boy’s initial trepidation. Allen became so proficient at it that he enjoyed riding his bike around the block for an hour a day, right after coming back from school and wolfing down a strawberry Poptart with a glass of milk.
Her new lover must work in downtown Detroit, Michael speculated, as he found an inconspicuous parking spot close to Ana’s. She’s still wearing those granny skirts, he gazed disapprovingly at her all-too-familiar pencil skirt, which had made him drool with desire at the beginning of their affair. Even her long, luxurious dark hair that had impressed him so much before now struck him as unmanageable and common. Ana’s petite figure, which he had twirled in his arms with such joy, seemed mousy and insignificant. She’s reverted to walking like a granny, he observed with scornful detachment, watching her shuffle along, dragging the left foot more than the right. She’s nothing but a vicious wasp disguised as a harmless butterfly, Michael muttered to himself. She’s not that much hotter than Karen, he decided.
As soon as Tanya says yes to marriage, I’ll dump Karen, he consoled himself, once again finding himself in the awkward position of chasing a married woman. Fortunately, her husband, Pavel, who worked as a clerk at a local convenience store, posed no threat whatsoever. The only problem was that they had a kid together, little Sasha, a two year old boy. But that was quite all right. Since Tanya sorely wanted to become naturalized, she’d be awfully tempted by a marriage prospect to an American citizen. And then he’d have his scrumptious private dancer all to himself. Because there ain’t no way he’d tolerate his woman showing off her hot little bod to other men. On the other hand, Michael charitably qualified, her female colleagues would always be welcome at his house.
A few weeks earlier, at the end of April, they had had a brief spell of snow in Michigan. This came as no surprise to anyone, since they were used to those disoriented, light flurries of spring that melted almost as soon as they touched the ground. That’s how Ana felt about the memories of Michael that currently assailed her, randomly, lightly, popping from all sides into her consciousness, as she made her way through the lunch hour crowd. They were like the scattered traces of a long, tenacious winter that would soon be effaced by the bloom of spring. Some of those memories she must have repressed before. Others she had chosen to interpret in an implausibly generous manner.
Like the time Michael had told her last October that, all of a sudden, his free Wi-fi Internet access at home vanished. He had gone on to explain that he filched a free connection from his next-door neighbor and that somehow the connection must have grown weaker or the neighbor discontinued the service. At any rate, he had unfortunately lost it (even though, it now occurred to her, he managed to magically recover it whenever he had something urgent to communicate to her). Ana had not even blinked at his explanation. It rang plausible given Michael’s stinginess. Besides, the email exchanges couldn’t compare with being together or even to talking on the phone. But now, in retrospect, his explanation rang false. What seemed much more plausible, given what she had found out about Michael, was that he had simply gotten tired of the emails. Their initially exciting effect wore off once he could see her as often as he pleased.
That would have been nothing more than a little white lie coming from a normal person. But then again, a normal person would have told her, Honey, now that we’re seeing each other almost every day, let’s forget about the emails. Coming from Michael, however, Ana realized, that seemingly harmless lie which she hadn’t even noticed at the time was yet another symptom of his malady, of the ceaseless pathological lying, as well as a sign of how easily he’d decrease or discontinue contact with her once their affair became less exciting or inconvenient for him. Ana stepped into the gallery, to discuss with the owner which paintings had sold. She didn’t expect much in terms of profits, however. The market in art was still depressed, courtesy of the interminable recession.
Oh, it’s just another one of her stupid exhibits, Michael thought, calmly waiting for Ana outside the gallery. What did I ever see her? he wondered, not seeing any of the unique qualities he had attributed to his former idol. He watched her and, he assumed, the owner of the gallery carry like two little ants several large paintings filled with droopy and dark human figures. What shitty work! No wonder nobody wants to buy it. She’s back to finger-painting that morbid crap again, he noted with some satisfaction. Must be getting really bored without me around.
As she was placing the paintings in the back seat of her car, Ana recalled how suddenly and inexplicably Michael changed their plans, without consulting with her, but always for a supposedly other-regarding reason that she now realized served solely his interests. During the period when he was wooing her, he promised her that he’d introduce her and the children to his parents. He said that they’d spend vacation as a new family as soon as they moved in together.
But once they set into motion the plans for divorce, the process of devaluation began with the same lightning speed with which rigamortis sets in to destroy the delicate features of a beautiful woman after death. All of a sudden, Ana realized, I wasn’t good enough to meet his family anymore. More importantly, given his predatory instinct, she imagined, Michael probably wanted to leave his options open. If I had met his parents and they liked me, he wouldn’t be as free to discard me whenever he pleased. After all, Michael had learned a valuable lesson from introducing Karen to his folks, she speculated. In his screwed up worldview, once his fiancée complained to them about his behavior and they expressed some half-hearted sympathy for her, that act of carelessness had bitten him in the butt. He’d probably never repeat that error again.
More serious were the lies that Michael had told her by omission, Ana thought, now focusing on the instances of telling silence, not only the empty promises. Following one of their disputes on the issue of divorce, to appease her lover, Ana had walked around her neighborhood picking up flyers that advertised houses for sale. Michael had told her that if she ever agreed to marry him, he’d buy a house next to Rob’s so that the kids could walk freely and easily back and forth, from one home to another, from one parent to another. When Ana had handed him the fliers, Michael had barely looked at them. He leafed through like they were some useless coupons he was about to discard.
But instead of telling her about his change of plans, he said nothing at all. He only looked at her with the same expression, a flicker of irony in his eyes and a disdainful curve of the lips, that he had had when he told her that Karen’s mother, having recently retired and divorced, was talking about buying a bigger house to live with him and Karen in Arizona once the two of them got married. Then too Michael had made no comment. He had smiled with his mouth and even more so with his eyes, allowing Karen’s mother to believe that her impossible dream was achievable, all the while secretly planning to leave his fiancée and marry his girlfriend instead. Because in his mind, other people were just “options” and “opportunities”: Plan A and Plan B while he was busily working on plans C through Z.
By the time I gave in to his wishes, Ana reflected, Michael’s mercurial needs had already changed. In fact, the very act of submission to his will caused them to shift. Identifying Michael’s fickle desires followed the same uncertainty principle as pinpointing the exact location of an electron at any given moment. Whenever you shine a beam of light on it, you alter its position, so that it’s no longer in the same place. The instant you satisfied any of Michael’s wishes, you displaced them, such that he either wanted something more or something else. And then, the deception that really ate the cake, Ana thought with bitterness, that slick move about keeping Karen at his place for a few weeks after having already told her about the affair, ostensibly, “to let her down easy.” If you want to let someone down easy you may do it in person, but you don’t drag her to every sentimental place you’ve ever been together to watch her fall to pieces over losing you. He’s such a sadist, Ana muttered under her breath, stunned that she could have ever loved or trusted such a man. The self-professed ocean of raging passion turned out to be nothing more than a dirty little puddle.
Why do I even bother with this woman? Michael asked himself again, his anger almost completely evacuated by contempt. She probably made a whole of ten bucks from that junk, he speculated. Karen was right. I was trading a net gain, since at least she earns a decent income, for a net loss, since Ana loves to spend money on herself and all those useless art supplies. What the hell? She’s heading back to the subway station. Maybe she’s meeting one of her new lovers there after all. Can’t wait to see what that loser looks like!
Ana had parked close to the People Mover, the very same subway train that had taken her to the Catholic Church in downtown Detroit where she had first met Michael. She felt like their love story had come around full circle, from being everything to each other to becoming nothing at all; from having all their dreams realized to realizing they were only figments of their imaginations. What bothered Ana most was the intuition, confirmed by the psychology books she had read, that there’d never be any justice for Michael. He’d never experience even an ounce of regret for all the suffering he caused in so many lives. Psychopathy was the only disease without any dis-ease, one of the authors had put it. No matter what happened to him, Michael would merrily move on with his life, from one woman to another, from one conquest to another, from one penultimate moment to the next, substituting lust for affection and ownership for love. How I despise him! she thought.
“Why do you want to hold on to that anger?” Ana recalled her therapist’s question at the end of their session. Perhaps Dr. Emmert was right. Perhaps there was a reason why she wanted to continue hating Michael rather than forgiving and forgetting him. I want to hold on to the anger so that I never love him or anyone like him ever again, she told herself. I want to hold on to it so that I will remember that normality and family values--everything that, with all my artistic pretensions and longing for a life of passion and excitement, I had considered too conventional and staid—are the only solid foundations of my existence. I want to remember how it took being almost destroyed by the most abnormal human being I’ve ever met to appreciate my normal, loving husband. I want to remember that there’s nothing more boring than the utter predictability of absolute selfishness, which I saw reflected in Michael and which I almost mirrored myself. Above all, I want to hold on to the anger so I that I’ll always remember that I almost threw my life away. I never want to forget how dangerously close I came to being stripped of everything I am and of everything I have. Because without my loving husband, my children, my sense of loyalty and love, my values, my passion for art, my warmth and friendliness, my deeper emotions, my honesty and trust--all of which Michael would have continued to erode, bit by bit, layer by layer, with his possessiveness and mind games--what would be left of me? A Nobody and a Nothing just like him. Only I’d become a Nobody and a Nothing with a broken heart, because unlike him, I do feel pain and I can feel remorse and I would feel regret.
Ana had become so used to her lover by now that she could almost hear his voice in the back of her head: “Don’t act like Little Miss Innocent, cause I ain’t buying that crap. You knew what you were getting yourself into. You chose to be my lover. You chose me.” Yes, I did. My only consolation now, Ana told herself, was that I chose to leave him in the end. I learned the hard way that there are only two options when you become involved with a psychopath: losing a whole lot or losing everything. I chose not to lose everything.
Dang! This is getting downright weird, Michael thought, stealthily following Ana as she approached the People Mover. Some of the trains stopped and left the station while others whizzed by. But she just stood there, frozen, as if she had fallen in a trance. She’s acting like she’s drugged out. Maybe her new boyfriend’s into drugs. I knew she was a nutjob. These artist types are completely out of touch with reality.
I chose to embrace reality and reject the romantic fairytale Michael promised me, which he never delivered, which he never could have delivered since empty words is all he had to give, Ana thought, feeling more confident. She stood still on the platform, watching the movements of the train that had initially brought her to her fate. On that sunny afternoon, without a cloud in sight, Ana had the distinct impression of emerging from a haze. Returning to that spot felt cathartic. For a moment, she had a flashback to the accident scene she had witnessed by the subway, shortly after having met Michael. It filled her with a sense of unease. She recalled that the man who had thrown himself under the train had a wife and children, who probably loved and needed him. She thought back to all those great novels she read as a teenager, including her favorite, Anna Karenina. Back then she had been thoroughly impressed by the heroine’s noble suicide for the sake of love. But now she wondered how many people sacrificed their lives and families for flimsy fantasies masquerading as great passions.
A sense of resilience permeated her, as it did on that fateful day, a year ago. Ana had the same feeling of roots, of being anchored in love, that she experienced the first time she stood by that train, contemplating the stranger’s suicide. I’d never do that to my family, she told herself. Because I love my sweet little son. I love my precocious daughter. I love my decent husband. I love my life. Now that this nightmare with Michael’s finally over, I’m able to tuck my children into bed at night and look my husband in the eyes again. At that moment, the memories of her lover that had weighed so heavily upon Ana seemed to evaporate into the warm spring air. For the first time in weeks, she felt free. As she took a step closer to the platform, Ana stretched her body upright, allowing herself to expand, to spring back into shape, becoming once again the woman she had been—multidimensional and capable of loyalty and love--until she became lost in a man who, as it turned out, was an illusionist who lived only for his fantasies.
As he saw her there so close to the moving trains, her body upright and tense, leaning slightly forward, Michael spotted his perfect opportunity. He gazed around him. People were entering and exiting the train, moving all around Ana, so the confusion of the crowd would no doubt shelter him. Plus, this could easily be interpreted as a suicide, he thought, recalling that the evening he met his girlfriend, some poor guy had thrown himself under the People Mover. So, he figured, the story would sound pretty credible. In fact, even her own family would believe it, since Ana had already proved to them that she was unstable, ready to up and leave her husband for another man. He walked stealthily behind Ana and just winged it. As easily as he told Karen all those lies on the spot, he now followed the impulse, little more than a whim, of giving in to his underlying drive to eliminate this nagging obsession, this annoying inconvenience, which ached like a rotten tooth right before you pull it out, by extracting his girlfriend forever from his life, as if she never existed.
As she stood there, perfectly still, coming to terms with the dizzying, spiraling circularity of her life, letting go of one lost dream and embracing the promise of a new beginning with her family, Ana felt herself lose her footing. In that instant, it occurred to her that someone had pushed her from behind. It was nothing more than a tap on the back, but enough to make her lose her balance. Ana knew exactly who that person was. She wanted to turn around and grab Michael’s hand to drag him along with her, as the heat of hatred rose from deep within, much stronger than her former passion. But she didn’t get that chance. Ana’s heart raced wildly as she stumbled forward, her hands reaching out desperately to regain her balance, as if begging fate itself for help. But she grasped nothing except for the sting of a fast, unstoppable, massive motion, the ruthless acceleration of steel that mercilessly pulled her under. Time itself stood still as reality became enshrouded by a cloud of darkness.
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