AFTERWARD I WOULD blame myself for having missed the warning signs. Among my colleagues I have a reputation for being intuitive. Probably I was too close to the situation. Couldn’t see the sky for the storm clouds.
Or the killer for the smoke in my eyes.
My name is Caroline Carlin Burnham, Carrie to my friends, Ms. Carlin to my clients at the biofeedback center, Cat to my husband, Rich. But that was when we were together and pet names were a sign of his affection. In the early days of our marriage, it was Kitten. At the end it was Nudnik. (Translated, that’s nag, nuisance, and all-round pain in the ass.) Definitely no affection intended. If he has a name for me now, I don’t want to know what it is.
Adding insult to the agony of my impending divorce, last Saturday I turned forty. A double whammy.
Chances are none of it would have happened if it hadn’t been for the heat wave. Certainly not in the way it did, anyway. The thermometer outside my window had soared to ninety degrees for four days running. My office, which is in one of those buildings with a sensational view of the Hudson from hermetically sealed picture windows, and without air conditioning until June, could have doubled for a sauna.
When my three o’clock canceled at the last minute, I had the computer switched off before it had spewed the final session printout. I flew out of the building, got in my ‘04 Honda, blasted the air conditioning in my face, and gave my trusty steed its head. Was it my fault it aimed straight for the street it used to call home?
Don’t ask me what it was that day that impelled me to drive past my old house. I thought I’d worked through the worst of the jealous crazies. Maybe the heat had gotten to me and affected my judgment. Maybe it was hearing about the wedding plans.
Or maybe it was the dream.
I am barefoot on wet tile, staring at a giant beach ball leaking port-wine splotches, staining the snowy tiles as it bounces alongside a pool. I watch as it slips over the edge, glances off a body floating face-down, a ribbon trailing from the blood-caked, mud-caked tangled mass of hair. Red. Like the water. I scream, but there is no sound, only the lap...lap...lap of the water as it sloshes against the aquamarine wall.
She was poolside, lolling on my favorite chaise longue wearing only the bottom half of a bikini. The suit’s stark whiteness set off the bronze of her oh-so-smoothly-tanned skin. Her honey blonde hair was plaited into a heavy braid and encircled her head like a misplaced halo.
From where I’d parked in my former next door neighbor’s driveway, I could see without being seen.
A phone rang, and I watched as she lazily extended one graceful arm and plucked her phone from her partially open Fendi handbag. My sixth sense was working overtime. I knew who was calling. Her shrill laughter carried across the manicured lawn, catapulting me from the car as though I’d been ejected from a jet plane.
Like a burglar casing his next hit, I skulked along the overgrown bushes that separate our raised ranch from the Millers’ colonial, suppressing a wail of protest as I recognized the antique gold chain nestled between those curvaceous twenty-eight-year-old breasts. Its diamond and ruby clasp glittered and sparkled in the sunlight.
Phone tucked under her chin, she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of nail polish and began applying appropriately scarlet paint to her talons.
“...just back from Bergdorf’s,” she was saying. “Anything fabulous’ll run at least five.” A pause, then a giggle. “Thousand, you dinosaur. And don’t tell me you can’t afford it. I’m your marketing director, remember? Shit!”
She made a grab for the bottle as it toppled from its perch between the heaving mounds, leaving a crimson trail across her evenly tanned bra-line-free shoulders.
“It’s what bridal gowns run nowadays. You want me looking drop-dead gorgeous, you’re going to have to live with the price tag.”
Our divorce wasn’t even final. The corpse wasn’t cold, and they were burying the body!
She gave a throaty laugh. “Well, I’m a little smarter than she was.”
Oh, Erica Vogel, you are a lot smarter. You have Rich Burnham paying five thousand dollars for a wedding dress. Mine had cost five hundred on sale. That was eighteen years ago, and it had never occurred to me that I shouldn’t pay for it myself. I started calculating how many hours I’d have to work for five thousand dollars. Matt could go to soccer camp for the whole summer for five thousand dollars. Allie could take singing lessons forever. The top of my head felt like a pressure cooker about to blow. If the gown cost that much, how much was Rich forking out for the wedding? And at the Waldorf, yet.
I was about to find out. Tiptoeing from behind a row of pine trees, I made it to the protective branches of the giant weeping willow I had planted as a sprout fourteen years earlier.
“...haggling with the banquet manager,” she was saying as she mopped at the congealing polish. “November’s the earliest date I could get. Figure around three, maybe three-fifty a person, not counting the flowers and the band. And the invitations and the photographer, of course. So if we don’t invite more than a couple of hundred...”
The pressure cooker exploded into hiccoughs. I clapped my hands over my mouth to muffle the sound and sank to the ground, oblivious to the pebbles and brambles that scraped my legs. Frantically I mumbled my mantra. “I’m calm, this is not a life-threatening situation...” Erica frowned, glanced in my direction, but went on painting. The sharp edge of a toy boomerang half buried in the loose soil cut into my ankle. I shoved it aside, barely feeling the sting.
Her voice became syrupy but the expression on her face said something quite different as she swung one foot and viciously kicked Matt’s favorite soccer ball into the mucky half-filled pool.
“Whatever you think, honey. Twelve’s a little old for a flower girl, but if you really want Allie in the wedding party...”
Over my dead body! Better yet, over hers! My hand found a rock. Stoning! That was it. The punishment for adultery in the Old Testament. To hell with that turning-the-other-cheek stuff they're pushing in the new one.
“'Course,” she snickered, “the dragon lady might have something to say about that.”
The “dragon lady” certainly would. My daughter would be her flower girl the day flowers grew on glaciers.
I’d heard all I could stand. I had to get out of there before I grabbed that nail polish and smeared a gigantic A across those perfect boobs.
I scrambled to my feet and sneaked out of the yard. My imagination went into orbit. Stoning was too kind. Strangling, decapitation–those had potential. I envisioned myself twisting that chain around her slender throat, hurling Matt’s boomerang across the yard, severing the Aryan head from its willowy neck. I pictured the bleached braid hanging on my belt, stretched her on a Spanish Inquisition rack. I burned her at a stake in Salem. No, wait. First I wanted her pilloried, with the whole town throwing rotten fruit in her face. Then I’d stone, strangle, and rack her.
I dashed across the Millers’ lawn to my car, nearly mowing down Sue Tomkins who was walking her Yorkie.
“Carrie? What’re you doing here?”
Mumbling something inaudible, I jerked open my car door, jumped in, turned the key and roared off, leaving Sue standing open-mouthed, the yapping Yorkie straining at its leash. By morning the whole town of Alpine would be buzzing. Maybe all of Bergen County. I didn’t care. I was plotting my revenge.
I didn’t hear the siren until flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror. Coasting to a stop, I waited for the unmarked brown car to swerve past. It didn't.
The gaunt craggy-featured man who unfolded himself from behind the wheel wasn't wearing a uniform, and briefly I toyed with the idea of flooring the accelerator in the hope he might be a carjacker instead of a cop. Except no self-respecting carjacker would risk his freedom for an eight-year-old Honda. I took a deep breath, rolled down my window, and raised my red-rimmed eyes to his cool slate ones.
He flashed a badge. “May I see your license and registration, please?”
I fumbled around in my purse for my wallet, reached into the glove compartment, handed him the documents.
“You live in the next town, Mrs. Burnham,” he said, his voice tight with disapproval. “You must know this is a school zone. You were doing forty-five in a twenty-five-mile zone.”
I muttered something about not realizing I was going so fast–I’d had a lot on my mind. And prayed, because I sure couldn't afford a speeding ticket, with its accompanying points and surcharges.
Goddess must’ve had a free minute, or maybe plainclothes cops don’t issue tickets, because he handed my papers back to me.
“Try not to let it affect your driving,” he said, and strolled back to his car.
Two minutes of diaphragmatic breathing, and my heart rate returned to normal. I was getting ready to start the engine when my cell rang. My blood pressure zoomed. I don’t give this number to anyone but my children and they have strict instructions not to call unless, at the very least, they're hooked up to an IV in a hospital ER.
“What happened? What’s the matter?”
“There’s a lady real upset, wants to know can you see her tomorrow.”
I turned up the air conditioning letting the cool air whip across my face. “Allie,” I scolded. “Couldn’t this have waited till I got home?”
“But–she says she’s having a crisis.”
The distress in my child’s voice brought me up short. “Sorry, honey, I’m a little uptight. I nearly got a ticket. Put me on hold and ask who it is.”
I’m a biofeedback clinician with a new, not-very-large private practice. Before my separation I worked for a pain clinic. Part of my job involved teaching people how to control their internal responses to pain and stress through relaxation training. It’s a kind of “heal thyself” alternative to the conventional medical approach. When Rich defected, everyone at the center was sympathetic, but it soon became apparent that a practitioner who’d temporarily lost the ability to practice what she preached was setting a lousy example. I quit before they fired me, went into therapy, got my head together, relatively speaking, and ultimately started my own practice.
My fingers drummed on the dashboard as I reviewed the possibilities. Who could be so upset as to need to see me on a weekend? Maybe Ruth-Ann had had another abreaction or Phyllis had worked herself up into a migraine again. It’s rare for me to get an emergency call though. Except for my ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) kids, the bulk of my practice consists of people with anxiety-related diseases, but I’m not an M.D. and most of my patients continue to see their own doctor or therapist.
Allie came back on the line. “It’s Vickie. She says her doctor’s away.”
Victoria Thorenson, a relatively new patient, the one who had canceled today's session. Not yet twenty, with pixie good looks, Vickie should be on the threshold of a wonderful life, but she lives on an emotional trampoline, bouncing from one man to another. According to her psychiatrist, she has a history of involvements with unavailable men, setting herself up for failure. The affair with the latest had lasted for over a year but recently he broke it off. I had just switched her from breathing and relaxation exercises to guided visualizations, where she’s been picturing herself as successful and independent. Normally an easy visualizer, that one has been giving her trouble.
I sighed. “Tell her I’ll see her at noon.”
“Maybe we'll send out for pizza tonight.”
It's not hard to make a twelve-year-old’s day.
I clicked off and sat there thinking about how my Sunday was getting shot to hell. Ruth-Ann, one of my overeaters, was coming for a session at eleven. She’s an Orthodox Jew, so I make an exception and see her on Sundays. And now I had Vickie at twelve, which meant I wouldn’t get home till nearly one-thirty. That left less than half a day with the kids.
I sat there letting the air-conditioning blow its stale breath in my face, love-hating Rich, wondering if he ever worried about the effect our impending divorce was having on Matt and Allie, if he ever had regrets. Did he remember how crazily we had once loved each other, or had his passion for Erica erased the memories from his mind like a deleted e-mail?
And then, as always, the nagging voice that wouldn’t be stilled–had I, in some way I hadn’t realized, been responsible? Maybe I should have studied the stock market, learned about mergers and acquisitions. Maybe I should’ve worn sexier underwear, watched porn flicks with him, had a breast augmentation. Maybe dinner every night with the children had been too much strain. Maybe I should have fed them early and served him gourmet dinners, followed by orgasms on and under the table.
A car screeched around the corner, bringing me back to reality. All I’d need to complete my day would be to have Rich see me loitering in the neighborhood as he drove home to his lady love.I switched on the ignition. No response. I tried again. A feeble clunk, then nothing. With rising agitation and a sinking heart, it began to penetrate–what I’d done. Run the air-conditioner without the motor on. All my murderous thoughts that day, and the only thing I’d managed to kill was my own DieHard battery!