Continued from Scenes 1-5
“In the early 1970’s birth control pills had much higher doses of hormones in them,” Stalker continued. More strokes, more problems. Deborah was a physician. She knew the risks. She stopped using them. One night, I persuaded her not to worry. “It will be fine. Just once.” I insisted. She relented.
Deborah was not a 1960’s peace, love in, free-sex encounter for me. — yes I had had those. I did what all of us communist, draft-dodging, long-haired hippies did. No, Deborah was a woman, a partner. My first. We didn’t have any girls in the parish school. Starting in ninth grade, in high school, yes then I went to school with many girls, beautiful girls. Catholic girls, Jewish girls, girls of all shapes and persuasions. “Stay away from the Jewish girls,” my mother Mary warned. “And the Protestants, and the . . . ” Only Catholic girls allowed! “Those others girls don’t have any morals.” she said.
In those high school days, this disc jockey with the golden voice, never at a loss for words, had no idea what to say to a girl. I stammered, I blushed. I was scared. I would start ” . . .er, uh, so, ummm” and close with “ah, ummm, okay.” With nothing in between. I would practice all night what I would say to a girl the next day. It would all come out a red-faced garble.
I went blank. I thought of the years ahead that had stretched in delicious mystery, where anything was possible. Evaporated in an instant.
“Er, uh, so, uh, should, uh, er we get married?”
“That’s the way you ask me?!” She turned her back to me and slinked away.
I should have said, “we can do this.” Don’t worry about a residency. You will be so far along in the program, they will give you a leave of absence. Don’t worry about money. I will work two jobs, two full-time jobs. I will make it work. I was 20. She was 28. I would make it work for us, I should have said.
I said nothing.
I am the one who drove her. A long, silent drive. She came out after the procedure looking white, looking small. She stood on her own.
When I saw her, my knees buckled. I fainted.
I should have said, “I will take care of this.”
My son. My first murder. My son.
* * *
Stalker said that after the abortion, things were never the same with Deborah and him. After he told me about it, things were not quite the same between Stalker and me.
My heart beat in rhythm with his pain. This self-proclaimed alpha male, the “Savage,” the don’t-mess-with-me — I still know my karate and there is nothing you can do to me to hurt me. I will beat my own head against the wall and be out for three days and still rise up. My skull is so thick you can’t hurt me.” This tough Irish-Catholic drinking man, the-rules-don’t-apply-to me, this Woodstock free-love hippie, this monster who would do anything, so don’t dare him to do it! Deep inside, his heart was bleeding 35 years. “I should have done something,” he said. He killed his son. His first son. He sobbed into the phone.
Insidious Catholic-inspired guilt, I thought. If you drilled long enough through the layers, that’s what you found in his bedrock. Unmovable, unshakeable, unforgivable guilt. I knew about Jewish guilt, knew about that well first hand. But this was a different strain. Jewish and Catholic guilt are siblings, yes, with the same parents. But the siblings went their separate ways. One guilt could be lifted each Yom Kippur with proper repentance. For Stalker, his guilt would be eternal. He would not take the sacrament because of it. And no confession could absolve him, he said. No, no priest could fix this.
You were young. She was eight years older than you. She was a doctor. She knew the risks. Maybe she even was trying to get you to marry her. Maybe it wasn’t conscious. Maybe maybe maybe.
“It doesn’t matter. I am the man. I should have taken care of her. Roe vs. Wade. Murderers. That’s what they are. Murderers.”
Perhaps if he tells me, that will lift some of the pain for him. So he can stop punishing himself so harshly. Perhaps I can help just by listening. It won’t hurt me much to do that, I innocently believed.
Your first killing, you say? What was the next? How many?
* * *
You can’t make this stuff up. Stalker’s voice is at risk. The tool he used to seduce me cross-country, then to harass me, is being prodded and scoped. He is barely 60 years old, but he has been mixing alcohol with cigarettes for forty years. “I didn’t smoke as a teenager, like the rest of you. I didn’t start until I was 20, in Virginia. Do you know how cheap cigarettes were in Virginia? I can still sing now, of course, but, not like when I was lead in the band, in our day.”
Eight months ago, he first complained to me about the soreness in his throat. Symptom. Hoarseness or soreness in the throat that does not go away. Hasn’t his deep but clear baritone grown gravely over the last two years? The recent voice messages — yes, quite hoarse. I must play some of our early taped phone conversations and compare. Then again, better to keep them in the box. Pandora’s box.
I haven’t responded in so long, he had given up asking for return calls. But yesterday, his early morning, sober and matter-of-fact voice mail said he had information to share and asked for a return call. As I drove to work, I considered it. Perhaps the time is right and Mr. Hyde will be away, and I can rescue Dr. Jekyll from him? The second voice mail divulged his difficulty swallowing and upcoming throat biopsy. My heart sank and my stomach clenched. Waves of sadness. It’s too soon, too soon. He needs more time. Yes, I will relent in my boycott and call back at lunch time. But by then, 12 more messages. The voice mail box was full; each message loaded with another vodka dose. Time to put the wax in my ears to block the sirens of Mr. Hyde. My return call will have to wait for a better day.
The stages of Stalker intoxication —
- Calm, respectful, sonorous
- Cooing baby talk
- Singing off pitch
- Proposes marriage
- Tearful reminiscing
- Self blame and flagellation
- Calls Baby a fat whore, Jew bitch
- Blames Jews for killing Christ
- Wishes the Mid-east explodes in nuclear disaster and turns the region into glass, saving the rest of the world from its problems
- Calls Baby’s relatives bigots
- Threatens to kill Baby’s ex-boyfriends
- Threatens to kill Baby’s family
- Threatens to dig up the bones of Baby’s parents and piss on their graves
- Leaves threatening messages on Baby’s friends’ phones
- Threatens to commit suicide
- Passes out
I have grown so numb to this. Hit 7 to delete. By Stage 9, I’m hitting delete, delete without listening to the rest of the message. How do you exorcise Mr. Hyde? How do I get Dr. Jekyll back? Will it take a cancer scare? Or is it too late, and cancer will take Dr. Jekyll from me, in revenge?
I await the test results, but I do not answer the phone. Once I answer, once I call back, he will know for sure I have been listening all along; the little protection that doubt provides will be gone. If he stops drinking, perhaps then I will call back . . . but will he stop, and will there be time? His voice brings heartbreak a thousand ways. The sirens still can get me.
* * *
2009. The summer of love for Stalker and me.
In May, Stalker had attended his 40th high school reunion, at the Bronx HS of Science. No, I wasn’t there. I had graduated a year after he did. But I saw the reunion postings on Facebook and high school egroups, and I wanted to know what had happened to another old friend from high school, Simon, whose last letter I had never answered. I ached to write him, to say I was sorry for never answering that letter 30 years ago. I posted on Facebook, everywhere, looking for information. Someone passed the inquiry on to Stalker, Simon’s best friend in high school.
Stalker emailed me. I emailed back with my phone number; if Simon were dead, I would rather hear it by phone than an email. Stalker phoned. Simon was alive. “But you don’t want to look for him anymore,” said Stalker. “He is in a place we do not want to go to.”
Stalker sang. He told jokes. He read me stories he wrote about high school. I laughed and thought him brilliant. “Do you like my voice?” Oh yes, a great voice. After two days, he called again. He announced his goals in life. “Stalker wants to get married and have children.” Daily emails, daily phone calls. On the fourth day, he said he loved me. I said I loved him, too. I love my friends. On the fifth day, he emailed he wanted to be married. I wrote back, “If I married you, my Orthodox Jewish relatives would disown me.”
Not that that would necessarily stop me, I thought to myself.
Stalker asked, “What if I converted?”
You know I can’t have children at my age, I reminded him.
“Surrogate,” Stalker said. “You have $50,000?” Stalker so funny!
I don’t want children.
“I want nine. I always wanted my own baseball team. Will you come to New York, or will I come to Portland? We are too old to wait long.” said Stalker. “What do I do to convert?”
I almost thought he was serious.
“Now,” said Stalker. I have some questions. I will send them to you and you will write me essays. I want to know everything about you.”
An email had the first essay assignments. No one had ever asked me such questions.
* * *
Our summer of love, 2009. Stalker wanted to know everything about me. I could share those stories that I had hoped, in my most self-indulgent daydreams, to find an audience for. “From your first skinned knee to your first pet, from your first kiss to the last tear that fell upon on your cheek. I want to know and you will tell me.”
Stalker’s assignments arrived in my daily morning email. Right after work each evening, I tackled the assignment. I worked hard, so my essays would be waiting for Stalker when he got home from his late night gig. The cross-country time difference worked to our advantage. As he made himself dinner at NY midnight, I would put my cell phone on speaker, and set it down a few feet from my pillow. Closing my eyes, cuddled in the covers, I listened to his sonorous baritone penetrating the dark stillness. It seemed like another person was in the room with me, and my loneliness began to evaporate. Stalker told me his life stories and sang me to sleep.
Nothing had ever felt so sweet and intimate.
The essay assignments from Stalker started out pretty easy for me.
1. What was the first doll or stuffed animal that you had? What did it look like? What name did you give it? 2. What other dolls or stuffed animals did you have over the years? Tell me about them.
When my sister caught the chicken pox, my mother purposely exposed me, so we could both “get it over with.” What a nightmare. The runny, messy, pink Calamine lotion; quite useless. I itched all over my little body. Ugh. I was about three years old; my sister, six or seven.
As a consolation prize for our being so sick, my father bought us gifts. Sister got a beautiful doll in a gorgeous case. I got a . . . a flimsy, miniature aluminum tea set?! What did I want with that?? I wanted a doll! Give me that doll!
Later, Sister and I got Ginny Dolls. Mine came dressed as a nurse, with an elegant navy velveteen cape, a cap sporting a red cross, and the classic white uniform. (I kept that cape to use as an apron for other dolls, long after Nurse met her tragic fate.) Sister and I had so few toys, we were careful with the ones we did have. We treasured them and they always looked brand new.
Only once did we leave our toys at risk. My father’s voice teacher visited our Grant Avenue apartment in the Bronx, to give my father a singing lesson. (What an extravagance, I realize now. But, at the time, I didn’t see other possibilities for us two little girls with our hand-me-down wardrobes and the paltry toy collection.)
The teacher brought his children with him. To escape the booming operatic voices in the small apartment, my mother took us girls out during the lesson. Later, we were shocked to find our dolls, board games, cards, potato heads, Spaldings and pick-up sticks out of the toy box and strewn all over the apartment. Where was Daddy, while the teacher’s feral children dismantled our cherished Ginny dolls? Didn’t he care about us at all? The Ginny dolls were as good as dead. I grieved; Nurse was my best friend.
With a heavy, guilty heart, Daddy took us and our injured dolls straight to the toy store. But alas, the deed could not be undone. “We don’t carry those anymore.”
Sister and I settled for new baby dolls instead. Pink plastic, maybe ten inches long. Not even. But, a bonus! They peed after you fed them with a water bottle. Loved that doll! Mine came in a pink, flowered flannel one-piece sleeper. Sister’s came in a blue one. (She always had blue things; I would get red or pink.) I think I named the doll . . . Doris? (After Doris Day) Later I called her Beth. After I read Little Women, I used the name Beth a lot — after the shy, sickly sister.
A few years later, Sister and I each got a Barbie doll. I got a Ken, too. At first I longed for the gorgeous ready-made outfits that were not in our budget. But, turned out I enjoyed commandeering other items as makeshift clothing for the dolls. Creating something out of nothing was fun and challenging. I contrived living quarters for the dolls, on top of the tall chest of drawers in our bedroom. I stood on a chair to reach, and entertained myself for hours making sleeping and sitting rooms for Barbie and Ken. I used shoebox tops for beds, covering them with my handmade quilts and pillows. I bent cardboard into furniture, lay scraps of leftover material for rugs. Right after finishing a layout, I would tear it up and start over. Making it was more fun than having it.
My maple, four-drawer nightstand became another favorite toy. I took out the socks and handkerchiefs from the top two drawers; empty, they became perfect square log cabin rooms for me to decorate. I made curtains from scrap material (I had a stash; my mother sewed our clothes!), tables and chairs from stiff cardboard. The possibilities were endless. I liked to study house floor plans in my mother’s magazines – Redbook, Ladies Home Journal — and try out my own cardboard floor plans on the desk I shared with Sister. (I was given my own desk about age 12 – but, what was the problem with sharing one?? I felt kicked out! And I lost my Barbie’s home, when that second desk replaced the chest of drawers. No one asked me first. If only they had asked.) I particularly remember a cardboard split-level house I created on the desk I shared with Sister – before I even knew the term “split-level.” Yes, I fancied myself a future architect. Even to this day, I conjure up houses, complicated floor plans, and exquisite furniture in my night dreams. But, doesn’t everyone?
Stalker, you asked about stuffed animals. Let me take a breath before I tell you about my one stuffed animal. Yes, the one. And before I answer the next questions:
What other toys and games did you like at various ages? Did you like to draw or paint or use coloring books or clay? Did you have a paint set? What did you like to wear at various stages of childhood and early teen years? Frilly dresses? Dungarees? Short pants? What colors? Did you like to try on makeup as a little kid?
Did you and your sister get along well in the early years? Since she was older, did she take you places? If so, where? Did your parents take you out to parks, and to stroll and play? If so, where?
What outdoor games did you like to play as you got older? Did you skip rope? Were you good at it? Did you own a bicycle? Where did you ride? Did you own a pair of outdoor roller skates, or go to the indoor rink at Jerome and Fordham? Did you ever ice skate? If so, where? Did you go sledding in the winter? Where? Did you own a sled of your own?
What were the names of your best friends in various neighborhoods and at various schools? Why did you like them?
Did you like to sing or dance? Did you ever take lessons? Did you ever take other kinds of lessons? Did you ever go horseback riding? Maybe at Pelham Stables?
What music did you like? What type of record player did you or your family have? What music did your sister and parents like? What were the first few records that you owned?
Did you watch much television? What were your favorite shows? Were there any shows that your family watched together? Did you and your sister ever fight over what to watch? What kind of television did you have?
What movie theaters did you go to? I believe there was one on 170th and another on Mt Eden, both just east of Jerome. Did you go there? Who did you go with? Later did you go to the Valentine, the RKO Fordham, and the Paradise? Who did you go with? What movies did you see there? (Maybe Ben Hur at the Paradise. You would’ve been about seven.) Did your dad ever take you to big Manhattan theaters like the Criterion? What were your favorite movies from theaters or tv as a child?
Ah, yes, I had finally met my conversational match. I was in the hands of a master, who could direct the conversation, take command of the situation, and never let the well go dry. I felt relief and became willing to follow his lead — curious about where it would take me, where it would take us. Yes, I’m a sucker for novelty.
I was driven to write my personal history, as long as someone wanted to hear it; eager to record the details of a young life I had assumed forgotten. Yes, his assignments monopolized my time and energy, but I don’t think that was his intention. I could have limited myself to short answers, instead of writing up long anecdotes. But, I wanted to tell the stories.
His own memories were stirred up as well. His Davy Crockett raccoon cap, his toy guitar. His father’s squeezing circus tickets out of the family budget, only to find Stalker with rheumatic fever, too ill to go. “But the next year, he took me to the circus at Madison Square Garden. My father might have been a no-good drunk, but he was fun. You always had a good time with my father. I will never forgive my mother for throwing him out for a year. I was only ten. I needed him. She kept us apart and I never forgave her.”
Yes, it hurt to admit to Stalker all that missed as a child. No ice skating or horseback riding. No bicycle riding, no swimming. No vacations. No, no, no. Maybe he could see why, later, I wanted to say yes to anything that came my way.
Stalker’s questions became tougher to answer, but I wanted to give myself over to the dialogue, to stop holding back. Finally I could be wholly known to someone!
Then Stalker’s next essay assignment arrived. “I have asked about what fun you had as a child. Now write me about sad and stressful things in your childhood.”
Hmmm. But, did I really want to be known, after all? How vulnerable could we be? I had to make some choices. Stalker held nothing back. I could try to match his courage, his openness, his strength. He knew no embarrassment or secrecy. Yes, I resolved. I will challenge myself to open up and share myself.
I knew he wouldn’t settle for anything less. And that made it easier.
* * *
Also see Stalker, the Music
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.