“Alright, Mom,” Allen mumbled. He turned away from his mother, to indicate to his peers waiting by the bus stop that he wasn’t a mama’s boy. Although it was already spring, it was still very cold.
Ana noticed that Allen had left the house without a coat. “Are you sure you’ll be warm enough? I could run back to get you a jacket,” she offered.
“I’m sure, Mom. I’ll be fine.”
Ana got the picture, but couldn’t resist giving him one last hug right before the school bus stopped in front of them. As she waved goodbye to her son, she was overcome by the feeling that she had backed away from the edge of a precipice.
As soon as she stepped back into the house, she heard the phone ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, Baby! I’m sure glad to hear your sexy voice again,” Michael said in a light and melodious voice. “I’ve missed you like hell.”
Ana’s heart pounded as she hesitated between hanging up immediately, as she knew she should, and tying up loose ends with her former lover. “I told you it’s over between us,” she said after a slight hesitation.
Michael picked up on her ambivalence. “Why? Our fight was just a snafu. We both know what we feel for each other.”
The word “snafu” bothered Ana. “Then why did you act so casual when I broke up with you?”
“You’re dead ass wrong about that!” he sharply contradicted her. “I was in total shock.”
“Not really. You were calm and flippant about it.”
“Come on now! You know that’s how I react to bad news. I become defensive and shut down,” Michael switched tactics, granting her recollection but giving it a different spin.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. All of this is water under the bridge now…”
“It doesn’t have to be,” he challenged her. “I can come pick you and all your stuff up even today if you want. I’m ready when you’re ready. Karen’s moved out of the house. She’s back in Arizona now.”
This news surprised Ana. “When did she leave?”
“Right after we broke up. She’s giving me space to mourn the end of our relationship.” His own artificial sentimentality aroused him. “Just say the word and I’ll be there,” he repeated.
“The word is no. I’m staying with my family,” Ana held her ground. She sensed, however, that it would remain slippery under her feet for as long as she continued communicating with Michael.
“Are those Rob’s orders?” he turned the blame upon the wronged husband, to reestablish complicity with her.
“No, it’s my own decision. I want to work on my marriage,” Ana countered.
“Now that’s a sham that won’t last very long!”
“It’s not a sham at all,” she calmly contradicted him.
“Sure it is,” he insisted. “Because we both know that Karen and Rob bore us to death. Nothing will ever pump any life blood into those corpse-like relationships.”
“I can’t speak for you and Karen, but you’re wrong as far as my marriage is concerned,” Ana objected, struggling to maintain her cool in the face of provocation. “Rob and I are seeing a couples’ therapist. And he’s really good,” she added, to buttress her argument. “I’ve realized that Rob is the right man for me. And, conversely, that I blocked out so many danger signals from you. You’re not the man I thought you were.”
Out of all the information Ana had conveyed, Michael focused solely on the fact that she was seeing a therapist. “And you’re not the woman I thought you were either. The woman I knew detested crackpot, pschychobabble therapy! You used to be so strong and independent.”
“What you called strength was me being pressured or coaxed by you into doing everything you wanted,” Ana replied. “And I assure you that Dr. Emmert doesn’t practice crackpot therapy. He’s very competent and helpful. He doesn’t use any jargon or psychobabble whatsoever. He just tells it like it is, using a lot of common sense. Which is precisely the quality I’ve lacked ever since falling in love with you.”
Ana’s defense of her therapist only confirmed Michael’s suspicion. “I’m sorry to hear you were brainwashed by the same bowdlerized psycho-babble Karen read,” he said, knowing that any comparison with his fiancée would bother Ana. “She bought this stupid book, Manipulative people, and liked it so much that she recommended it to my folks. Of course, the irony in all this is that they began finding manipulative traits in themselves.”
“What else could they do? Take her side against you? Blood runs thicker than water,” Ana offered her own interpretation.
“Either that or, which I believe is far more likely, their lesson carries a valuable reminder to us all. Any person who doesn’t recognize themselves in these psychological maladies is probably the most screwed up,” Michael pointificated. “If I were you, I’d start by interviewing your shrink about his own disorders, before you open up any further and maybe even decide to open your legs for him!”
Ana was taken aback by Michael’s crassness and disdain. “Please don’t talk to me in this way!” she snapped back. “I’m not interested in my therapist as a lover. I don’t want any lovers anymore. I’ve learned my lesson. But the fact that you’re speaking so casually and crudely about me taking on another lover really offends me.” Her voice quivered with emotion.
Sensing the resurgence of her feelings, Michael changed his demeanor again: “I’m sorry, Baby. I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that my heart’s really heavy. When you spoke so highly of your therapist, it made me jealous. By now we were supposed to be already living together, celebrating the beginning of the rest of our lives. You know that I love and respect you most in the world,” he added in a whisper, to evoke their former intimacy.
But everything Michael said rang hollow to Ana. “No, actually, I don’t know that at all. You’re not the person I thought you were,” she repeated the leitmotif that had been obsessing her lately.
“Yeah, well, neither are you. You’re obviously buying into the bullshit your shrink’s been feeding you,” he reverted to the insolent manner he had adopted earlier.
“Do you have an on and off button or something? You switch from sweetness to contempt in a matter of nanoseconds,” she observed, almost intrigued by his vacillations.
“What the hell do you expect me to do? You’re pissing me off, woman! You don’t need to take a dump on our love just because other men are telling you to do it. They don’t know our history together. And I’m willing to bet they don’t understand the meaning of passion. Babe, they hardly even have a fucking pulse! You want to end up like them, the living dead?”
“It’s not necessary to be vulgar,” Ana attempted to restore a modicum of civility to their communication. “After all, we’re not peasants or hoodlums, as my grandmother used to say.”
“Sorry, Baby,” Michael retreated again. “It’s just that I’m so sick of all these people putting barriers between us. Getting to you is like going through a damn obstacle course. First Rob, then Karen, next my parents and now you’ve added a shrink to the mix. Wasn’t our situation already complicated enough? Why did you have to screw up everything when we were so close to the finish line?”
“Our lives aren’t a race and we’re not in a competition to win anything,” she replied, by now attuned to Michael’s game and racing metaphors.
“Then why do I feel like I lost you?”
His feigned emotion irritated Ana. “Don’t you find something wrong with the fact you lie so much and manipulate others?”
“Not at all,” he replied in a cool tone, this time. “I mean, no more than you do. After all, you lied to Rob so you could be with me. We’re in the same boat here. Everyone lies. It’s human nature,” he observed, her criticism slipping off him like water off a duck’s feathers.
“Yeah, but not everyone does it as easily and as well as you do.”
“I’m just more Machiavellian, that’s all,” Michael chose to interpret her criticism as a compliment.
“Most decent people who lie actually feel bad about it. But you don’t. You’re proud of it. Doesn’t that bother you?” Ana insisted, hoping to puncture through his thick skin.
“Bad men do what good men dream,” Michael answered philosophically.
Ana paused for a moment to consider his reply. “Bad men’s dreams are good men’s nightmares,” she countered.
“Haven’t you read Nietzsche?” he took their conversation to a loftier plane. “That’s just the kind of bullcrap the weak tell the strong. If I lie better than others, it’s only because I think quicker on my feet. And if I don’t feel guilty, it’s because I’m not wishy-washy like some people. When I make a decision, I stick to it.”
“So now you’re calling me wishy-washy and weak?”
“Hey, if the shoe fits…”
“You have a topsy-turvy view of reality,” Ana retorted. “And for as long as we were together, so did I. People who lie and cheat without remorse aren’t stronger or better than everyone else. In fact, they’re weaker and more dependent. Because they need to use and mistreat others in order to feel superior to them. And they’re not more decisive either,” she went on venting her spleen. “You constantly change your plans and violate your promises. When one has strength of will, one doesn’t do that. The strong stick to the words that come out of their mouths.”
“Yeah, well, what’s coming out of your mouth is total garbage, so I certainly hope you won’t stick to it,” he replied.
Ana got the distinct impression that nothing she said actually reached Michael. In fact, she had come to realize that nothing anybody said ever reached him. “I obviously became involved with the wrong person,” she voiced her conclusion.
“I’m not the wrong person,” Michael objected. We’re going round and round in circles, he thought with impatience. “Not that long ago, you, yourself, called me the love of your life. Do you remember how happy you were in my arms?”
Ana hesitated for a moment. “Yes,” she replied. Because, in all truth, up until the end, she really did feel elated in her lover’s presence.
Michael was encouraged by her response. Promise her whatever she wants and she’ll be yours again, he calculated. “Listen, if what you want is a damn ellipse, you can have it. You can have anything you wish. Like I always told you, ‘What my Baby wants, my Baby gets’. If you don’t want to divorce Rob because of the kids, we can stay lovers for as long as you wish. Until Allen graduates from high school,” he reiterated the offer that had made the best impression on Ana.
But, in his own mind, this concession wasn’t free. Before articulating his thoughts out loud, Michael performed a quick cost-benefit analysis. If she doesn’t want to marry me, he told himself, then I’ll keep Karen as my fiancée, Ana as my girlfriend and continue giving myself extra treats, for a little fun on the side. During the time he confidently awaited her response, he also reveled in the idea of posting his application on several dating websites, to see how many women he could line up for his personal enjoyment.
And in the off-chance, which was becoming increasingly unlikely, that Ana would decide to leave her husband, Michael thought a few steps ahead, he’d hang on to her until he found someone who didn’t carry quite as much emotional baggage. Then he’d let her down easy, like he had done to so many others. He’d tell her that she was obviously too depressed about breaking up her family to be a good partner for him. That way their break-up would seem to be her fault rather than his.
Without even suspecting the profound cynicism of Michael’s design, Ana was not even remotely tempted by it. “I don’t want to be either your wife or your lover anymore,” she said to him.
“What exactly am I being accused of? Thought crimes, like back in Romania?” he challenged her. “Even if looking on some dating website crossed my mind, so what? It’s not like I was actually going to do anything about it.”
“For you, the distance between thought and action is infinitesimally small,” she remarked. “You have about as much impulse control as a starving dog in front of a juicy sirloin steak.”
“You know what? Screw you, Ana! I’m sick and tired of all your freaking accusations. I always knew you were unstable. But your paranoia really eats the cake!”
She didn’t respond to this escalation in their argument. She regretted having engaged in any discussion with Michael. It was completely pointless, like talking to a wall.
“When are you going to finally come to your senses and realize that we belong together?” he asked, believing that she had caved in under the weight of his denials.
“I already did. And once I woke up from my dream, I realized that I was living a nightmare. What I thought was mutual love turned out to be, at least on your side, just an extended one-night stand.”
“That’s total bull crap and you know it!” he objected, incensed by her stubbornness. “You’ve been brainwashed by people who don’t understand us. Because of them, you’ve turned our lives into some damn science fiction in your head. All you have to do is look at our past to know that I’m a passionate man and that you’re my woman. I love you like I’ve never loved anyone before and I refuse to let you go. If I have to come rape you and get you pregnant for you to finally open your eyes and see that we belong together, I will. Don’t push me to extremes, Ana!” His voice vibrated with anger.
“You’ve completely lost it,” she quietly observed. However outrageous Michael’s threats might have sounded, however, Ana sensed that they weren’t empty. Part of her still wanted to believe that they arose from the profound, frustrated passion he avowed. Yet a growing part of her suspected that they came from his controlling nature and a fierce desire to possess her, like her therapist had told her. “I’m not your property. You don’t own me,” she declared.
“When I come to get you, just make sure you open the door!” Michael advised her before hanging up the phone.
Instead of feeling intimidated, however, Ana felt indignant. He thinks he owns me, the way you own a dog, she told herself. She had a flashback to Nicu, her first boyfriend. She recalled how one afternoon Nicu’s sheepdog, Ciobanu, a little mutt who followed him around with slavish devotion, suddenly took off. Nicu seemed genuinely worried and looked everywhere for his dog. Finally, after a few hours of searching, he saw Ciobanu digging behind a tree, from a distance. He called him very sweetly, “Come here Ciobanu. Come here little doggy,” holding out his hand, as if he had a treat waiting for him. Ciobanu rushed back eagerly to his master, his tail wagging with friendliness and anticipation. As soon as he held the dog firmly by the collar, Nicu began hitting him with a stick, hard and without mercy, over the head, the back, the legs, despite the dog’s desperate yelps and Ana’s tearful protestations.
During their whole conversation, Ana had the impression that Michael’s sweetness had the same phony ring as Nicu’s voice when he called his misfortunate dog to him. When he acted nice, it’s as if her lover was trying to lure her back, but only so that he could punish her for having had the gall to leave him in the first place. Her fingers instinctively went to her throat as if searching for a collar. She felt the black silk cord with the aquamarine pendant Michael had given her a few months earlier.
Ana removed the necklace and tossed it into the trash, as if the gift itself enchained her to her lover. It reminded her of the way he had so often consumed her with that disconcerting vampirism of the flesh and soul that feasted upon her emotions and marked her as his momentarily privileged possession. All those beautiful presents--the jewelry, the clothes, the expensive meals and even the more precious gift of time itself—were never a sign of any real generosity, she now thought. They were his way of buying me: a downpayment for future abuse. “You don’t own me,” she repeated to herself the phrase that would become her liberation from a love that had existed only in her own mind, as the fantasy of a faithful and adoring lover that Michael never was and never could be.
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