“My Sweet Karen,” it began. That opening made her feel nauseous. She imagined to how many other women he must be writing in this way. Yet the tender phrasing still brought her to tears. “I keep thinking about you,” it went on. “Not a single day goes by when I don’t miss you like hell.” ‘Like hell’ is the operative term here, Karen told herself, no longer believing him. The sugary tone reminded her of a familiar pattern. He must want something from me, she surmised. “I’ve been on my best behavior and things are looking pretty good here. In a month or so I’ll be up for my parole hearing. I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to whip up a letter of support to let these guys know that I have a solid character and that I’ve never shown any signs of violence towards you. Basically, I’ve got to prove to them that I’m not going to be a threat to society once I get out of here. That should be easy. The psychologist seems to be on my side and I’m on good terms with the prison staff. I’m asking for your help because you’re still the only woman of my life. We belong together, Baby. The sooner I get out of this joint, the quicker we can fulfill our dream of starting a life together. Who knows? Maybe soon we’ll have more than just imaginary kids. Love always, Michael.”
Karen could almost hear his melodious voice in these phrases, intermingling real requests with imaginary promises. She had fallen for his lines time and time again, even when everyone else turned against him. She recalled how sincere Michael looked on the day he avowed his innocence. “I swear to God, Karen, that I never laid a hand on Ana or on any other woman in my life. Babe, you know that I’m incapable of violence. Hurting a woman physically is the most despicable thing I’ve ever heard of! Let alone killing her. I may be a jerk and I may have cheated on you, but you know better than anyone else that I’m completely harmless.” She remembered how she had nodded in agreement. After all, Michael had never hit her and he seldom raised his voice to her during their nearly three years together.
Even when faced with all the evidence that made him appear guilty, Karen took an oath at the trial. She stood by her man, as a character witness for the defense attesting to Michael’s gentle disposition. “All they’ve got is some stupid circumstantial evidence against me. This pack of lies has been fanned by the malicious gossip of the press, which would love to crucify me. I mean, what sells better than some sordid tale about a scorned lover who shoves his girlfriend under the train, in a tragic twist reminiscent of Anna Karenina? They’re having a field day with me. But they should have read Tolstoy more carefully. Because Anna Karenina committed suicide all on her own and so did Ana Popescu,” he had scoffed at the press coverage.
But, in point of fact, the faint echo of Tolstoy’s fiction wasn’t what drew the press around him like flies to honey. After all, Karen reasoned, there were plenty of scorned lovers who kill their girlfriends in crimes of passion, as they tend to call them. Yet they don’t all make it into the evening news. What intrigued the press, and later the jury too, was all the evidence that indicated this was in fact a passionless crime, even if it may not have been demonstrably premeditated. Michael had sown the seeds of his own destruction by having sex with one of his new girlfriends, a blond Ukrainian stripper named Tanya something-eva, right there on Ana’s grave, only days after her funeral.
The local news station juxtaposed two clips. The first included footage of Ana’s children and husband at the memorial service, the little girl shaking so hard that her thin shoulder blades protruded like the wings of a wounded bird; the boy burying his head into his father’s jacket to hide his pain; the husband pale and silent, overcome by genuine grief and real forgiveness, attempting to console his children. The second news clip featured Michael, bending his newest conquest over the cross of Ana’s grave. That footage, plus all the people who had witnessed him pushing Ana towards the People Mover, seemed pretty damning evidence against him. Michael’s excuse, which he delivered with a cocky smile when the journalists had gathered around him asking for an explanation, was a psychological lesson into the nuances of human suffering: “We all grieve differently,” he pontificated. “Some people cry and get all depressed. Others become manic and have sex in public.”
This explanation, however insightful, didn’t hold water with the jury, no matter how much the defense had tried to depict Ana as an unstable woman with suicidal tendencies. The string of witnesses for the prosecution attesting to the fact that Michael had, indeed, pushed his girlfriend under the train, plus all the coverage of his callous reaction to the death of the woman who was supposedly the love of his life, had proved somewhat more compelling than any speculation about Ana’s psychological maladies. After a few days of deliberation, the jury found Michael guilty of second-degree murder, since there was no evidence that he had planned the crime in advance. They sentenced him to eight years in prison with the possibility of parole. Which, Karen knew, was exactly the loophole Michael needed to crawl his way out of that hole. But even when all the evidence pointed to his guilt, she had desperately wanted to believe his explanation. After the trial, she visited him in prison to prove to him, yet again, her everlasting love and loyalty. She took a seat across from Michael, separated from him only by a thin screen of transparent plastic.
Karen felt almost embarrassed to voice some faint, lingering doubts that sometimes troubled her in the middle of the night. “Did you do it?” she asked him very quietly, imploring him with her eyes to deny the charges like he had before. His sad, puppy dog expression faded and all of a sudden Michael looked alive, almost triumphant. His eyes sparkled and his mouth twisted into a familiar expression. She saw the grin he always had whenever she caught him cheating on her. In that mocking smile, Karen recognized the shamelessness of being guilty without feeling any guilt. “Why did you do it?” she asked him, her eyes wide open with a mixture of horror and disbelief. And then, without a trace of regret, Michael laughed out loud and said, “I plead the Fifth.”
This time, she told herself as she gazed once again at his letter, he won’t be able to reel me back in. But instead of not replying, as the previous two times he wrote her, Karen resolved to let him know exactly how she felt.
Dear Michael, she wrote,
I hope that after reading my letter you’ll never contact me again in any way, shape or form. Not only will I not write the parole board anything positive about you, but also I’ll mail them a copy of this note, so that they’ll know whom they’re dealing with. It’s true that you never hit me. But for several years, I was emotionally abused by you. I was constantly lied to, cheated on, manipulated and used. And it’s true that I can’t blame everything on you, since I was partly responsible for allowing the abuse. I bought into your lies. I forgave you each time you cheated on me. I even believed in you when the whole world seemed to turn against you. When they saw your callousness and deceit, I kept my eyes shut. Even after the jury found you guilty of murder, I still chose to believe in your innocence. I didn’t want to believe the worst about you. I couldn’t accept that the man I loved for so long could sink so low.
But now that I’ve had the chance to distance myself from you and think about our past, I can no longer go along with your machinations. In fact, I no longer believe that there’s anything good or true in you. Each time I took you back, you only hurt me more. We were in an unfair match from the very start. I loved you most and you never loved me at all. Which is why you could do with me as you wished and why I was so defenseless against you. No matter how hurt, or how angry, or how frustrated, or how humiliated you made me feel, you didn’t care about my feelings as long as you could bend me to your will. And you’re still trying to do that, with all your flattery and promises, conveniently wrapped around the request that I help you again. Well I won’t. I know now that you’re a human parasite. You’re like this strange wasp I once saw on a nature show that leaches on to a poor caterpillar. It bores a hole in it, lays its eggs inside and then moves on to some other unsuspecting host. The wasp’s larvae eventually eat the caterpillar alive, leaving behind only a frail, empty shell. That’s what you did to me. You fed upon my vulnerabilities and hopes. Then, after you had your fill and tired of me, you moved on to Ana. She left you before you could finish her off so you killed her, out of wounded pride and malice.
My worst regret is that I stayed with you in spite of everything. I told myself that each and every sacrifice you demanded of me would be worth it, because it was for you and our relationship. I asked myself: can I live without any faith in my partner’s fidelity? Can I live without any kind of trust in him? Can I live apart from him, sequestered somewhere in Arizona, just to save our relationship? Can I live without spending money on myself? Can I live without my family, thousands of miles away from them? Can I live without my job? Can I live with all the humiliations he’s making me endure, just to compete with whatever perverse acts the sleazy women he hangs out with are doing with him? Can I accept the assumption that my ‘no’ means ‘yes’ to him? To each of these questions I answered “Yes, I can” because I loved you. But each time I made a sacrifice, the rewards got smaller, not bigger as I had hoped. Each time I gave in, you were less affectionate, less attentive, less interested and kept demanding more and more out of me, as if I owed it to you. And each time I gave in to you, my strength was cut in half and I became less capable of resisting you the next time you trampled all over me. Our whole relationship became a one-way street. Which makes me wonder why I stayed with you for as long as I did; why I accepted such unfair conditions and kept jumping through all those hoops that never got me anywhere.
I stayed with you at first because I believed the illusion you created for me by using other women for sex while appearing to treat me differently. I was convinced that you lusted after them, but that you loved and respected only me. I thought that I was somehow special in your eyes. But when I found out about Ana, it burst that bubble. Afterwards, I stayed with you mostly because I no longer had the strength to leave. I stayed because I feared ending up all alone, without a man who loved me. I stayed because seeing the truth about our relationship would have meant having to face up to the truth about myself: that I needed you to feel like I was someone worth loving.
But the thing is, Michael, I never really felt safe or happy with you. In the back of my mind, I always felt anxious and insecure. I was suspicious of what you might be doing with other women. I felt inferior to you and, in some respects, to all those women you seemed to want so much more than you ever wanted me. I felt that, somehow, I deserved the mistreatment or, at any rate, that I didn’t deserve anything better. In other words, I stayed with you mostly because I didn’t love myself enough rather than because of how much I loved you. But that chapter of my life is finally over. Unlike the poor caterpillar eaten alive by the wasp, I’m still very much alive and ready to move on. I’m no longer the insecure, incomplete person you once knew. I’m not afraid to be alone and I’m not afraid to love again someone real, someone who promises me nothing but acts in a way that’s respectful and honest. I no longer blame only myself for the way you treated me. No one will abuse you unless you allow them to. But, by the same token, no one will abuse you unless they choose to do it. And you did, Michael. You chose to use me.
In moving on from our unloving relationship, I feel like I’ve survived a war. The toughest battle wasn’t the one against you. It was the one against my own insecurities, which bonded me to you in the first place. It’s taken me a long time to come to this realization. Now that I finally have, I’m able to let you go in peace, without hating you, without wishing you any harm. I only hope that other women will be wiser and stronger than I was and more fortunate than Ana. I also pray that you won’t prey upon others, even though I don’t have much hope. Because I don’t believe you want to change. You’re very happy with who you are. But that’s no longer my problem. Being bitter or resentful towards you would prevent me from focusing on myself. Just know that I’ll never cover for you again. Don’t count on me anymore. You’re entirely on your own as, in fact, you’ve always been. Because, in your heart of hearts, you’re a lone wolf. Karen
A few days later, Michael lay on his bed, one arm under his head since the pillow was too small and thin, the other holding up Karen’s letter. He could hardly believe his eyes. As he was looking over the note, several spasms of anger passed through him. The dark, oblong letters of her careful, feminine handwriting danced on the yellow page. Once he was done reading, he crumpled up the pieces of paper and threw them diagonally, to the furthest corner of his jail cell. For a few minutes, he couldn’t even think straight, he felt so furious. But after awhile, he decided to take care of business by eliminating all traces of that hysterical note, so that it wouldn’t bug him anymore. He crossed the room with a deliberate gait, picked up the crumpled paper, tore it up into tiny little pieces, then tossed them by the handful like confetti into the latrine, to flush Karen and all of her delusional crap down the toilet, where they belonged. He urinated on those bits of paper before they swirled down into the liquid abyss. I don’t need you bitch anyway, he muttered to himself.
After taking care of this unpleasant business, Michael’s disposition instantly improved. Let’s see, he calmly reviewed the situation. His parents and some of his former professors and colleagues would write positive letters attesting to his good character to the parole board. The prison psychologist, who fortunately happened to be female, was absolutely crazy about him. He had her wrapped around his little finger and, he was obliged to admit, he kind of had the hots for her too, a little bit. If everything goes according to plan, within a month I’ll be out of this dump, he mused, reclining on the bed again.
Michael stretched out his arms above his head and wiggled his body. He enjoyed the cool smoothness of the sheets against his warm back. It made him feel as if he were already back at home, the king of his castle. He could almost see, with his mind’s eye, the two large pine trees in his front yard that shielded him from the prying eyes of neighbors. Michael was overcome by the familiar sense that all was well with the world. His bubble had protected him yet again from the malevolent lies of two-faced women that he never loved in the first place. Pretty soon, he’d be enjoying life to the fullest again. Michael looked forward to tracking down Tanya and luring her to sunny Arizona. Or maybe even moving to California, to see if he could rekindle the unfinished romance with Amy, his old flame. A wave of glee passed through him as he thought, “Ladies, fasten your seatbelts cause pretty soon it will be SHOW TIME!” in bold capital letters of a flashing neon sign, like at his favorite strip club, Foxy Lady.
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