No Way of Knowing
The loudest cry came from inside and made all sirens hush. There was really no way of knowing, if you didn’t know. When we first met, that clamor was impossible to see. I wanna believe that I looked hard enough. But who can claim that they truly look at anybody other than themselves?
Alex took me by surprise. The day we met, she’d been on her own for five hundred and ninety-five days. I wanna believe that our first kiss was cosmic.
“You should know better than to knit narratives of false hope,” she’d caution. “Stay true to the facts.”
“Pshh, they’ve butchered the facts. Where have you been? Under a rock?”
Sometimes I’d notice a whiff of melancholy in those extreme gazes she performed. A little too dramatic, assuming a royal pose—a Poldark defying the gale on a Cornish cliff. At other times, I thought of her as the little monk by the sea. Needless to say, the shaded figure might as well have been a weeping female. The time produced them in relentless numbers. In those instances, I could never decide whether I wanted to shake her awake or look at her until I lost the ability to see.
“Start again,” she’d meet my eyes with verve.
Our first encounter wasn’t great. It certainly didn’t involve kissing. But we got attached to each other—I think.
“What are you researching today?”
“You know—this and that.”
I thought she was teasing me by stalling straight answers, when in fact she was buying time to come up with a lie.
“Travels to Mars?! You planning to leave planet Earth?” On occasion, I snuck up to spy on her.
“Maybe.” She shrugged expertly.
“I hear there’s a rich guy in Japan who’s looking for a pretty companion.”
“He’ll be going to the moon though—wrong planet.”
“Right. You’re going to Mars.”
There was no kissing for a long time. Alex always said she wasn’t into women. When our romantic relationship finally kicked off, I felt self-important for a minute. But it cleared. Alex was a complex creature. There was no way of getting behind her true intentions. At times, I was persuaded that she couldn’t have been more joyful. But then I’d turn my back to her and somewhere a grain of salt melted into water.
“Fine. I’ll get it right this time.”
I asked her where she’d come from. She dodged my inquiry until my body erupted in rage, limbs behaving unreasonably—that was unlike me. The answer was always the same. I’m on the run for murdering my father and his wife in their sleep…taking their money…been running for almost two years now…blah blah blah. She continued to tell the same bonfire tale.
In the beginning, I’d join in and pry out details. A loud rain was beating down, scorching the earth with sharp drops that morphed into spears. The street was poorly lit, fields of maize stretching out across a clean row of houses, the last rooftop at the very end would cover the crime. A dull bark in the distance, some three or four streets north, reminded her on the way out that it was real.
I played along at full speed—snatching at clues, twisting evidence, insolently tearing down curtains, unasked with a smirk, rolling thunder. It was harmless jest. Like brainstorming plot. Intellectual foreplay. Sometimes it was foreplay. But the play got old and tedious. Manic repetitions instead of strategic recurrence. And I started to increase the volume of my sighs.
“Can we stop this!?”
“Oh, wow. Somebody’s in a mood.”
“It’s just—we keep going back to this story, Alex. I get it, you had a tough life, you don’t wanna talk about it. That’s ok. It really is. I accept that and I can wait for you to open up. It’s just—I can’t go back to that house.”
I feared the confrontation would manifest as the first brown spot on a clear surface. But she only moved closer, spread her benign hands across my cheeks, and surrendered shamefully.
“You’re right. You shouldn’t. It’s not yours to go back to.”
Something horrible had happened to her, obviously. And I fantasized about the night Alex would splinter in my arms and I’d rock her until she fell asleep under the weight of her tears.
“We could play a different game,” she suggested in a woozy mood.
“Bring it on,” I moaned. Wine always made me compliant.
“A different plot—what do you think?”
“Only if you don’t run it against the wall again.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
She promised with a sharp “s” that clung to particles in the air for weeks after. I tried to mimic her poise and utter it with steam while smearing pistachio cream on my breakfast roll in the morning and almost choked on the barbed note.
“You know, I always wanted to write a crime novel,” she said.
“You absolutely should. I love crime novels.”
“So here’s another scenario. Two women. Lovers. One of them turns out to be a serial killer. What does the other do?”
“Uh-huh. Let’s see. The other could…um…become an accomplice. Absolutely! Like Thelma and Louise, just more wicked. Or, plain evil.”
“Right. But why should she though? Wouldn’t you just go to the police?”
“Alex, c’mon. If I killed someone, you’d just rat on me?”
“Hundred percent,” she swept probability out of the way with a robust broom. “Let’s stay on course though. I think this could be something, or have you ever heard of a lesbian serial killer duo?”
“I. Have. Not. Sounds fun though.”
So we whipped up another tale. But this one felt unwritten—more open to possibility, as if paving ground.
I know what you think. But reading lines is different from interpreting reality in the moment. You can always go back to the start of the sentence, of the paragraph, the chapter. Damnit, you can go back to the fucking title at any point and realign. And if you’re skillful and experienced, a true detective—even if the hints are obscured—you would see right through the kind facade of the villain. You would!
Alex Roth was impossible to read. A chameleon by day and night—she’d be anything you needed her to be. She’d be what you didn’t yet know you needed.
She was principled, too. When we met for an evening meal or at a bar, she’d never drink more than a glass. I admired that. People were wasted at all hours. But she was rare, taking responsibility, I thought. Maybe because, at the time, I needed someone who was willing to take responsibility. In retrospect, I understand that abstinence can be explained in many ways and that the need to remain in control can have untold reasons.
Later, after she had moved in with me, she’d loosen up a bit and allow herself a second or third in the privacy of my salon. But even then, she seemed sovereign. And even in those moments of mysterious brooding, she was always emanating clout.
I miss her.
I know I shouldn’t. They say I can’t. But they don’t know what I know. They don’t know what it’s like when she’s there, when she reaches for you in rush hour traffic, bodies streaming in and out of openings, the mutter of crowds like hail, storming. And in these unkempt conditions, she holds you closer, arms entangled, pockets touching—and you feel safe.
“Maybe your draconian duo could murder men?” I asked.
“Uh-huh. Right. Only men?”
“Why only men?”
“You know…cause they’re the root cause of all evil…or something.”
“Isn’t that a bit harsh? There are plenty of good men.”
“Right. Only bad men then?”
“Like some kind of avengers?”
“With a moral code?”
“Why not. So the audience can relate better.”
“Right. So they’re not evil evil?”
“Nah, we need characters with more dimensions. Complex. Arcane. Astray, but not inherently evil.”
“Right.” Alex agreed.
Humorless men presented photographs of dead men. They penetrated my home and soiled my Amini. Inside the kitchen, they dealt cold faces like cards on my honed marble top and demanded immediate answers. And they spread unthinkable lies and fiercely rebuked objections.
At first, I wouldn’t allow them to corrupt our haven, where our bond had thrived for many months, where we were alive together.
Eventually, though, skepticism caught up with me. And I started returning to the places we had been, trying to retrace us, the moods and gestures, rereading nonverbal communication, documenting spoken interactions, word for word, whatever information memory was ready to release. I became more aware of my surroundings. Though they claimed that you had most certainly left the city, I felt the eyes of Eckleburg on my damaged body at all times.
A moral code. Without a doubt, there must be a moral code, I insisted. And I looked at the dead men every once in a while, even after the stern ones had packed up their game and left me fractured. I saw their severed flesh, bodily fluids smeared across skin and cloth and carpets. One was lying in a pool of excrement. She’d given him laxatives, they said. A moral code. What was the moral code? How was there no moral code—despair was whirling around the insides of my brain.“There are plenty of good men,” I heard her say. And she seemed so sincere.
I still look for her. Not as much as I used to. I get the occasional update from the precinct and have to come in to swear that I haven’t heard from her. During one of my visits, they told me about her female victims, too. Another deck of cards.
“You were lucky, you know. Very. Lucky.”
“But keep your eyes open. She may come back. Many of them do, actually.”
Alex isn’t coming back. She was just pausing—hung up her hat for a minute or two to recharge. Evil, devoid of morality. Used me for welfare or for emotional comfort. Whichever, it’s not important. And now she’s probably doing the same to someone else, maybe she’s composing another photo, or maybe she’s with someone like me—pretending to be whatever they need her to be on her way to Mars.
Either way, I know there can’t be too many of us.
Stela Dujakovic is a university teacher and humanities scholar at Paderborn University in Germany, where she's exploring the magnificent world of old white men in American literature as part of her dissertation project. She is a prose editor for New York-based literary magazine Inklette and has published short fiction and non-fiction in Truthout, Resist!, The Write Launch, and the Free Library of the Internet Void.