“So all those times you said you loved me meant nothing to you? So much for living for passion and art!” Michael said with a note of reproach.
Through the rectangular glass panel on the side of the door, she could see him make a theatrical, sad face; an inverted smile like a masked figure in an ancient play. He may have wanted to appear sincere, but he looked grotesque. “What about you?” she challenged him. “Would a passionate man ask the love of his life to sign a prenup?”
“Yeah, right! Your paws would have been all over my money while you kept the house in your name alone. Would a passionate man become stingy all of a sudden?” she continued. “I said ‘yes’ to my generous lover only to end up with Karen’s stingy fiancé!”
“Hey, it cuts both ways. You became petty too.”
“Did I also require you to wear a certain uniform for me?” Ana let out some of the bile that had been building up inside. “I didn’t appreciate being told to only wear skirts around you or how I should wait for you when you came home from school. Even my daughter has been choosing her own clothes since the age of seven. You need to buy yourself a Barbie doll if you want to play dress-up!”
Michael seemed amused by her anger. He was tempted to kindly inform her that he had had plenty of real-life Barbies, only he preferred to play dress-off rather than dress-up with them. “All you had to do is say ‘no.’ I always listened to your wishes and did exactly what you wanted,” he answered instead.
His seemingly conciliatory statement only incensed Ana further. “Always, of course! Like when I told you that I didn’t want to have a baby with you and you decided to look for someone else on a dating website?”
Michael’s calm demeanor changed. He became agitated and started to gesticulate, marking each phrase with abrupt, vertical hand beats. “You’re completely nuts!” he exclaimed. “I’ve explained all of this to you before. I never intended to replace you. I just wanted to prove to you, since you’re so goddamn stubborn, that even those silly websites would match us up.”
Upon hearing this absurd explanation again, Ana became downright furious, picking up steam as she vented her anger. “Like you ever cared about what others thought! You must think that I’m a total idiot. You’re lying through your teeth and it’s obvious. The gig’s up!”
Michael looked up, as if appealing for divine intervention: “I give up! I’ve refuted your paranoid charges before. What’s my incentive to go over all that crap again?”
“You’ve got none since you won’t get anything out of me anymore,” she concurred. “What hurts so much is the fact that you’re still lying to me,” she said. “You promised that you’d never lie to me the way you did to Karen. You said that no matter what happened, we’d never poison our relationship with deceit. I always hoped that even if things didn’t work out between us, we’d let each other go honestly.”
Despite the anger in her tone, Michael viewed the emotions behind it as the beginning of Ana’s capitulation to him. “I haven’t lied to you, Baby,” he said gently, glad to see that he still kept her guessing, on her toes, her thoughts and emotions wrapped up around him. “Your worries are the product of your own imagination and all the pressure we’ve been under lately. They have nothing to do with my actions. Haven’t I shown you how passionately I love you, Ana? Haven’t I?” He gazed tenderly into her eyes, as if the anger and irritation had already washed over him, having barely touched the surface of his being.
Ana nodded in mock agreement. “Yes you have. You’ve shown exactly how passionately you love me by looking for my replacement a few days before we were supposed to move in together. I’m very touched by your passion, indeed!”
“What the hell?” he cried out. “I didn’t come all the way out here to conduct yet another postmortem of our relationship! Nothing happened, alright? Since we met, I never wanted any woman but you. You’re imagining things.”
Ana looked away, to indicate that she didn’t want to listen to his futile denials. All of his mind games wore her out, but they couldn’t wear her down anymore.
“Baby, listen to me,” he continued. “This is mostly Rob and Karen’s doing. They manipulated us, to turn us against each other. Karen constantly nagged me about how you’d spend all my money, how I couldn’t trust you, how you’d leave me for another man just like you did your husband. No doubt, Rob worked on you in the same way. We played right into their hands.”
Instead of ranting against Karen as before, Ana just smiled at him. “Nice try. But it won’t work this time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Setting me against Karen. Blaming her and Rob for all our problems. You’re doing it to distract me from my real enemy,” she glared meaningfully into his eyes.
“How the hell am I your enemy?”
Ana allowed her deep-seated resentment to seep out, like puss from an infected wound. “You tried to do me what you did to Karen. To isolate me from my family. To make me emotionally dependent on you. To erode my boundaries and my values. To destroy my self-confidence, so that I’d be at your mercy, doing your bidding and buying into your lies, the way she did. But I can’t do that anymore. You duped me for awhile, but you’ll never fool me again.”
Michael didn’t feel like listening yet again to Ana’s hysterical diatribes. When he was in love with her, he liked her feisty, Latin temperament. Now, however, she just struck him as a drama queen. Let’s turn the tables on her and see how she likes it, he decided. “Listen, instead of only looking into what I did wrong and whether I wanted to replace you, you should start considering why I might have wanted to do that. You always put the blame on me. But, as they say, it takes two to tango. When a couple runs into problems, both partners are at fault,” he explained in the calm, deliberate manner he assumed whenever he wanted to appear reasonable and fair.
Ana was amazed by his talent for deflecting blame away from himself and displacing it unto those he was hurting. Michael seemed able to modify the past just as easily as he changed his future plans. She approached the glass panel on the side of the door and placed her open palm on it, in a last appeal to their mutual vow of honesty. “Would a passionate man lose interest in the love of his life the instant she was about to become his partner in life?” she asked him. “Please admit this much, Michael. Admit it’s the taboo of our affair that excited you. Not me, not our relationship.” She hoped that he’d finally tell the truth, to release her forever from the last traces of doubt she might experience in those moments of weakness when she still believed in the illusion that he once loved her.
Michael placed his open palm on top of hers, so that only a sliver of glass separated them. “Would a passionate woman become hysterical over divorce once she agreed to it and chicken out at the last moment?” he retorted, in the same vein.
Ana smiled at the absurdity of the situation. Their dialogue had become a volley of rhetorical questions; a mirror of mutual blame for their aborted relationship. This was the closest thing she had experienced to what the French called a dialogue de sourds. But she knew it was much too late to listen to one another. Reproaches were futile and explanations fell on deaf ears.
As Michael stood there, only a few inches away from her, Ana’s gaze lingered on his dark almond shaped eyes shaded by long eyelashes, his delicate nose and his full lips. She saw the angelic face of a man with a diabolical soul that almost made her forget the best interests of her children, who truly were innocent. As impossible to resist as her lover had been at the beginning of their relationship, so impossible to love he had become by the end. “I just no longer felt any human warmth from you,” she said quietly.
“What?” Michael asked. Ana had spoken so softly that he couldn’t make out the words through the glass panel.
She removed her hand from it, allowing her arm to fall limply by her side. “I lost faith in our love,” she repeated louder.
“Did you really, Ana?” He recalled the fire in her eyes on the day they met; the abandoned look of longing whenever they made love. “You used to say that you adore me. You told me that your life was in my hands. What happened to that trust? What happened to your love?”
“They were misguided and misplaced,” she answered as honestly as she could. “When you had the chance to show me that you cared about me and my kids, you chose instead to look out for number one. As always.”
His eyes narrowed. “And you didn’t?” he countered. “Who bailed out on us? You or I?”
“I did,” she admitted, straightening out her back, now taking pride in that decision. “Because it became quite obvious to me that you wanted a slave, not a partner,” she declared, approaching the glass panel until the warmth of her breath left a circular haze upon its clear surface. “You know what I think? You act like a hero, but, in fact, you’re really a coward. Because if you had any balls at all, you wouldn’t stab people in the back the way you do.”
Michael’s eyes were completely devoid of emotion. Then Ana heard a shrill, older voice, as if he were channeling another creature from within. “Shut the fuck up, woman! I’m tired of listening to all your goddamn accusations!” he shouted at her, with clenched fists at his side.
She laughed in his face. “You think I’m scared of you? There’s nothing to you, Michael. You’re a trivial human being who can’t even love. You’re empty to the core.”
“Yeah, well, if by love you mean the way you treated your husband, no thanks! I can do without it. By the way, good luck with your new chastity belt!” he sneered. “Let me know if you need any help putting it on.”
Ana’s eyes narrowed. “You know the only thing that’s bothering you now? The fact that I dumped you, not you me. If it had been the other way around, I wouldn’t have seen trace of you anymore. But you’re a control freak and you always want to be the one in charge.”
Instead of exploding, as she expected, Michael’s tense features relaxed into a silly grin. “Hubba, hubba! Aren’t we feeling feisty? I know how we can fix that little problem,” he directed her a salacious glance. He then paused for a moment, not willing to accept that Ana meant half the words she said. This must be just another one of her emotional tirades. “You’re saying all these nasty things about me so that you can convince yourself to get over our love,” he said. “Because, in your heart of hearts, you’re still in love with me the way you’ll never be with Rob.”
Ana was even more disturbed by his cavalier attitude than she had been by his earlier displays of anger. She began retreating backwards, to indicate that their discussion was finished. “You’re wrong about that. Because there’s nothing and nobody to get over. I don’t like you, I don’t respect you and I don’t love you anymore, Michael. I’ll never look back fondly upon you or any of our memories.”
Time stood still as they glared at each other. Ana’s gut instinct told her to walk away. At the moment when her body pivoted on her left heel to turn around, Michael leaned back and kicked in the glass panel with his foot, with a powerful, swift movement. She watched him break the glass as if in slow motion. She saw it shatter into bits and pieces right in front of her eyes, so fast that she barely had time to shield her face with her hand.
He slipped his arm through the jagged hole and unlocked the door from within. Her heart pounded as she confusedly considered what to do next. She thought of running to the phone. But before she got the chance to take a single step, Michael was already in the foyer, his gaze alert and furious. He grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back, both of her hands fitting uncomfortably, with the fingers pressed tightly together, into one of his.
He placed his free hand around her throat, strangely enough, reminding Ana of one of their first intimate encounters, of his unbearable tenderness on that day, of how he had cradled her neck in his hand and convinced her that he enjoyed feeling the smoothness of her skin against the roughness of his palm, so that she began abandoning herself to him, seduced by the lightness of his touch. Whereas now, the veins in her throat pounded as she awaited like a sacrificial lamb the constricting motion of his fingers, the sense of suffocation, possibly even death, although she couldn’t imagine it just yet.
“We’ll see who’s so tough now, Powderpuff,” Michael hissed into her ear. Yet he remained patient, not yet tightening his grip, enjoying her fear and the sense that her life was once again in his hands, where it belonged.
Panicked ideas flurried in her mind as she stood there in his grasp. She glanced sideways towards the door to see if any of the neighbors would be close enough to come save her in case she screamed for help. That’s when she saw them: her saviors, a scene right out of a dark comedy. The navy blue van with flowery pink letters “Dolly Maid Service” had parked in her driveway. Two women, dressed in navy uniforms, made their way to the door, one armed with a vacuum cleaner, the other with a mop and bucket.
Michael promptly released his prey. He walked towards the door and courteously opened it for them, like an old-fashioned gentleman. “Sorry about the mess. The kids were playing ball earlier,” he said in a friendly tone, nodding apologetically towards the shattered glass. The maids smiled, grasping only his tone, not the meaning of words since they only spoke Spanish.
“See ya later, Babe!” Michael turned to his former girlfriend with a meaningful, though no longer menacing, glance.
To Ana’s ears, those were ominous words uttered in the lightest of manners. She had asked Michael to remove her last glimmer of hope that he might be a decent human being. He gladly obliged, by attacking her. Now she knew that there was no point in trying to sort out the truth from the lies. Michael himself was the lie. From beginning to end, from love to indifference, from tenderness to violence, from “You’re the woman of my life” to “See ya later, Babe!” their whole relationship was a sham. A single word seemed to capture what she felt, after all those months of passion, followed by the weeks of torment: disenchantment.
When she recovered from the initial shock, Ana’s first impulse was to call her husband. She tried Rob’s cell phone, knowing that would be the easiest way to reach him at work.
“What’s the matter?” he asked her. He could tell from her faint voice and strange tone that something was wrong.
“Michael showed up at our house today. He attacked me.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“I’m fine. The cleaning ladies came by so, thank God, nothing really happened. He just frightened me.”
“What did he do? And how did he get in?”
She heard the suspicion in her husband’s voice. “He kicked in the glass panel on the side of the door with his foot. Then he shoved his hand through it and opened the door himself, from within.”
Rob tried to imagine this scene. It occurred to him that the first thing he’d do in such circumstances is run to the phone and dial 911. “Did you call the police?”
“I didn’t get the chance. It all happened so fast.”
“What about after he left?”
“No, not yet.”
Rob had the impression that his wife’s behavior didn’t make any sense, given everything they had learned about Michael.
“Why didn’t you call the police as soon as you saw that creep at the door? Before he even kicked in the glass panel?”
“Because at first we were just talking calmly. Only at the end he attacked me all of sudden. The whole thing took me by surprise.”
The phrase “talking calmly” triggered Rob’s recurring doubts. “But you just told me that you didn’t open the door for him,” he pointed out what seemed to be an inconsistency in her story. He was afraid of catching his wife in a lie yet at the same time wanted to get to the bottom of things, once and for all.
“I didn’t. Like I said, he kicked in the panel. But before that, we talked through the glass. He seemed pretty calm, overall. I mean, there was nothing unusual about his behavior. He was just telling me that he wanted us to get back together.”
“You had a conversation with him?” Rob asked, incensed that his wife would engage in such reckless behavior. “After Dr. Emmert explained to you how dangerous this guy could be?” She’s far from being cured of her sick love for that loser, he thought, feeling both angry and discouraged.
It struck Ana that her husband seemed to be blaming her for Michael’s attack. They always blame the victim, she thought. “It’s not like we were having a pleasant discussion. In fact, I told him that I wanted nothing more to do with him. I didn’t think he’d freak out all of a sudden, break into our house and try to strangle me!”
Rob couldn’t believe his ears. “He tried to strangle you? My God, Ana… I’m calling the police. This guy should be arrested.”
“Maybe it’s not necessary to go that far,” Ana hesitated, having heard that in many cases police intervention only eggs bullies on.
“It certainly is necessary!” Rob countered, becoming increasingly alarmed as the information his wife relayed to him started sinking in. “I’m not going to stand idly by while this creep harms you or any member of my family! Ana, listen to me. Get out of the house… now! And meet me at the police station.”
“Listen to what I tell you, for once in your life! Meet me at the police station,” he repeated emphatically.
Before she could respond, Ana heard a click and the dial tone. She felt ambivalent about filing a report about the attack. What could the police do? Issue a restraining order? Would that really protect her? She had seen this situation before. They’d label the incident a “domestic dispute.” Since she had no visible marks on her body, it would be his word against hers. Besides, even if arrested, Michael would be out of jail in a matter of days and even more incensed against her. The whole cycle of hatred would go on and on, indefinitely. Ana saw no easy solution to the problems a chance encounter in a church had created. Life would be so much simpler, she thought, if Michael would move far away, across the globe, or magically disappear from her life—him and every shred of memory of him--as if they had never met.
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