On Valentine’s Day I head to Luxor, Egypt to write for two months. Valentine’s Day is always bittersweet, for it is when private investigator Casey Cohen left this earth. In 2000, shortly before he died, he gave me a series of fantastical letters sent to death row inmate, Maureen ‘Miki’ McDermott and made me promise to write about them. Many years later, this 500 page manuscript is the result. In this excerpt we visit the house were the crime occurred that put Miki on death row. From juvenile hall, to death row, to Istanbul and beyond, the truth of how the powerful abuse those beneath them.
Casey called me out of the blue that morning and said, “How about a little adventure? I want to show you something, or rather, someplace.”
I met him in the parking lot of a mini mall near the intersection of the 405 and 134 freeways. We got in his car, a white Ford Taurus. “Private investigators drive nondescript cars,” he said.
“Ah yes, good for tailing people?” I teased.
“And does it work the other way around—do you get tailed sometimes?”
“It’s a hazard of the job.” He looked in the rearview mirror. “But not today, not even your ex.”
Automatically, I looked, too, and he laughed. “Relax, Karen.”
“I can’t help it. So where are we going?”
“The scene of a murder.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
We got off the 405 at Burbank Blvd. Casey explained nothing further until we turned onto peaceful, tree-lined Killion Street and we were parked opposite one of the small neatly groomed houses. He turned the engine off and stared out the window, drumming the steering wheel lightly with his fingers.
“Who’d guess that this ordinary façade could hide such a violent history,” he said.
I studied the house. It was a step up from most of the others on the street, dark brown and gabled, reminding me of a miniature English manor. There was a breezeway with a drive that led to the back of the house.
“It’s cute,” I said.
“Karen, I can tell you’re a writer, you’re descriptive abilities are astounding.”
“Thanks, so what exactly happened here?”
“Miki’s what happened.”
“Ah,” I said. He’d told me about her, bits and pieces here and there in conversations.
“Let’s go.” He got out of the car.
I followed. “What are we doing?”
He waved a hand. “Don’t question the expert PI.”
He rang the doorbell and we waited. It was a pleasant day, warm and lazy. A hummingbird glided past my ear and hovered next to a burst of bougainvillea climbing up the side of the house, tiny wings whirring so fast they were a blur. We continued to wait, the silence of the street overwhelming.
“Nobody’s here,” I said at last.
“Hmm, lesson number one: Never try to find someone at home in the middle of the day when people are most likely at work. Visit in the evening.”
He sat down on the front step and I joined him.
“What would you have said if someone had answered?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It would have come to me in a flash of inspiration. You can’t plan these things—except for coming in the evening instead of the day.” He shook his head, mockingly despondent. “You’re going to think me a very bad investigator.”
“No comment. What now?”
“I describe what happened.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“It was done with knives, not a gun.”
I snorted. “Okay.”
“It was an ordinary night, just like all the others in what had become Miki’s ordinary existence. But there were undercurrents of disaster. She just didn’t want to see the signs.”
“I know how that goes.”
“Don’t we all? They’d tried to kill Eldridge before, let’s see, March 21, 1985. That would be fourteen years ago.”
“Do you remember all the dates of the crimes you’ve worked on?”
“No, but I remember this one. It’s important to me. Miki and Stephen Eldridge owned this house together. And they had an insurance policy on each other for 100,000 dollars. Lesson number two: don’t take out insurance policies on those closest to you because if one of them dies suspiciously you’ll be the prime suspect. Anyway, basically, the police were called on this particular night when Eldridge was attacked. Two men he’d never seen before, one black and one Hispanic, had knocked on the door and told him someone was fooling around with his truck. As Eldridge started to unlock the door, they forced their way in. Lesson number three–”
“Let me guess,” I interrupted. “Don’t open the door to strangers, especially ones who give you ridiculous reasons to do so.”
“You’re smart. The Hispanic man displayed a knife and ordered Eldridge to pull his pants down and made him crawl towards the bedroom. The black man held up a bedpost and made the suggestion that they fuck him with it. As Eldridge was being struck with the bedpost he managed to get up and run out of the house. The dog started barking and the men fled.
“Cut to April 29, shortly after midnight, when Detective Melvin Arnold receives a phone call at home telling him a man has been murdered on Killion Street in Van Nuys. The victim, Stephen Eldridge, was killed by two black men and one Hispanic. On this occasion, Miki was at home and she had been assaulted and tied up. It appeared that Eldridge had been dragged across the floor and stabbed forty-four times and his penis cut off after he died.”
“That’s beyond disgusting.”
“Murders usually are, but yes, this one was particularly gruesome and sickly disturbing, which made for excellent theater in the courtroom.”
I studied the front door of the house, closed and secretive. “Who did it?”
“Jimmy Luna, an orderly at LA County Hospital. That’s where he met Miki. She was a kind-hearted nurse and he was a raving lunatic with a history of violence.”
“So what was the motive?”
“Miki was the only person who treated Jimmy with kindness. Other people in the hospital had helped him but they soon grew tired of it, figuring out that he was a loser and worse, violent and dangerous. Miki had pretty much gotten to that point, too, except that she hadn’t cut him off completely. Sometimes, she still accepted his phone calls. He called her obsessively, which was used as proof in the court, except that Jimmy was known to call many people over and over, even assuming other names and accents when he did. Most of the calls to Miki lasted a few seconds, meaning that she never even picked up. In the past, she had loaned him money, even let him sleep on her sofa once when he was sick, so he was attached to her although she wasn’t to him. And now, after all that, Miki was about to leave Jimmy.”
Casey nodded. “It seems she’d had enough of the quiet life and was seeking adventure…once again. She and a friend had heard nurses could make a lot of money in Saudi Arabia and they’d made arrangements to go for one year. Jimmy was in a panic. He was losing his only friend, the one person who listened to his problems and who he could go to for help. He knew that Miki and Eldridge had $100,000 insurance policies on each other, not surprising since he was good at finding things out about people that he could use to his advantage, snooping through drawers and files, overhearing conversations. Inside his perverse and confused mind, he thought that if he killed Eldridge, Miki would have to stay and he was sure she’d want to stay because she’d have the insurance money so she wouldn’t need to go abroad to earn more. He didn’t understand that she actually wanted to go. To him, that would have meant rejection. The world revolved around Jimmy and his problems. All that mattered to him was that he solved his most pressing problem—keeping Miki right where she was.”
We were silent for a moment, staring at the unassuming house. I wondered if the current occupants knew about its history. It must have been a horror scene, blood everywhere, maybe there were traces left, unseen by the naked eye. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that house. But then, I thought back to the places I had lived that had a history of bloodshed and I couldn’t help shivering in the warm air.
I asked, “Why did Jimmy knife him so many times? That makes it a crime of passion, doesn’t it, almost against a lover or a friend? And why cut off his penis?” I shivered again.
“Excellent questions—you should have been an investigator. The prosecutor made a big deal about the violence because it was a powerful image to present to the jury. Yet accusing Miki of ordering Jimmy to do it didn’t add up. This crime was about Jimmy and his obsessions and needs, not about Miki and what she wanted. If Jimmy were a hired assassin as the prosecution claimed, he would not have stabbed the victim forty-four times. Once, twice, a few times to make sure he was dead, but not forty-four. Over half of the stab wounds were fatal on their own. Not only that, it was well-documented that Jimmy was obsessed with cutting off penises. He had threatened others and fantasized about it. And his acts of violence had been escalating over the previous weeks. His co-workers at the hospital were terrified of him. He’d been fired from his job because of it. He was at the breaking point.”
“So why did the jury believe the prosecutor on such flimsy evidence?”
At that question, Casey’s eyes flared with a passion for his work that I rarely saw, providing a glimpse of how relentless his pursuit of uncovering the truth must have been before his illness. “This is the heart of everything, Karen: that people believe what they want to believe. In this case, the prosecutor, Katherine Mader, told the most powerful story, with all the elements that the jury wanted to believe, subtly playing up the homosexual angle. For the ordinary person, the fact that these were a bunch of homosexuals living in what was viewed as a perverted and sordid world, made it easy to turn Miki into an evil mastermind, manipulating the sickos around her.”
Casey gave a mirthless laugh. “It was a well told story, no more and no less. Mader was the best of story-tellers while Miki’s lawyer was a very bad one. A very bad lawyer indeed, whose only interest was in delaying the start of the trial so that he could earn as much money as possible, without doing the slightest bit of discovery. In fact, there was no defense at all. That was a big part of the habeas appeal that I worked on, showing the incompetence of Miki’s lawyer. In contrast, Mader was a master at theatre. She’d defended Buono, the Hillside Strangler. Now, with Miki, she was on the other side. Whatever side Mader played, the truth was inconsequential. Mader could have cared less that Buono was guilty and Miki was innocent. Both were pawns in a game where winning trumped truth. Winning at all costs was the only thing that mattered because in this world, winning means success and success means power. Mader was smart, ambitious and determined to win. And when she did, she was rewarded. She went on to become a Superior Court Judge.”
I shook my head. I understood a little about what he was saying, but not completely, not then. It would take a few more years until I had experienced a powerful person telling a story to destroy me and not being able to do anything to save myself. But on that morning, all I could think was that Miki must take some responsibility for what had happened to her. “You have to agree that if Miki had never let a lunatic like Jimmy into her life, she wouldn’t be sitting on death row. She’d be living her adventures in Saudi Arabia—or somewhere else by now.”
Casey wagged a finger at me. “Lesson number—what number was I on?”
“Four, I think.”
“Okay, lesson number four: don’t befriend lunatics. Not something you’ve ever done, is it, Karen?”
Was he making fun of me? No, he was serious. “Come on Casey. Don’t drag me into the story.”
At that moment, a white van drove slowly down the street, the driver peering out the window as he passed, and I tensed, quickly growing self-conscious when I realized my over-reaction.
“You are in the story, Karen,” Casey observed quietly.
Despite my protests, I knew he was right, my eyes glued to the van until it had disappeared around the corner at the end of the street.
“You want to know the real reason why I brought you here?”
He nodded towards the house. “Take a good look—a real good look. It’s hard to imagine that evil occurred in such an ordinary and peaceful setting. No matter how deranged Jimmy was, Miki never thought he’d do what he did. Don’t be complacent, Karen. All the same signs are at your house, hiding behind the perfect facade. Get out while you still can.”
“My lawyer says I should stay. I’ve told him about the threats, everything, and he isn’t impressed, just says that’s how divorces are, people say things they don’t really mean. If I leave, I weaken my position.”
Casey shrugged, world-weary. “Your lawyer’s a shit and probably made a deal with Walter’s lawyer.”
“Are you serious? I’ve paid him. I can’t get rid of him now.”
“That’s exactly what Miki thought. She realized how useless her lawyer was but by that point, it was too late. He’d been paid too much money and she couldn’t afford to start all over again with someone else.” Casey sighed while shaking his head, then gave me such a piercing look that I had to turn away. “Take a step back and observe your situation. You’re an exile—we both are. Our wanderings have fed our imaginations beyond control and as a result we are homeless. You aren’t attached to that house—you told me you hate it.”
I hung my head, his words bringing on a hopeless feeling that I always tried to avoid. Why had things turned out so horribly?
“I want a home. I want to belong somewhere, to have someone who loves me,” I mumbled, sounding pathetic in my own ears. I hated that I was feeling sorry for myself.
He spoke more gently but with no less urgency. “Just get out. Please. If not, it might be you lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Yes, you’ll have stayed in the house—a house that means nothing to you except what other people have told you it should mean: stability, normalcy, social status, success. Holding onto these empty platitudes, well, that’s not you. If you’re going to die for something at least die for something that matters.” He stood up and held out a helping hand. “Yes?”
He tilted my chin up so I had no choice but to look in his eyes and I thought how easy it was with him to look into his eyes where there were no demons, only compassion. For a moment it almost seemed that it might happen right there, in front of Miki’s house, at the scene of that horrible murder; that he might kiss me.
But he only repeated again, “Yes? My assessment of Walter is that he’s a sociopath. He’s incapable of putting himself in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling.”
I nodded in agreement. “That’s what the therapist said. His stepmom told me once that she always felt like he was watching people carefully and trying to imitate how they acted, so that he would appear normal.” I shuddered at the thought.
“You can’t reason with someone like that, you can’t change them. You can’t even look at it as being his fault. It’s just how he is.”
I promised I would delay no longer.
I’d already started searching for a house but I redoubled my effort with a renewed sense of urgency and by the time Casey returned from his trip abroad and I’d come back from my night in Carmel, I had found one across the border from affluent Calabasas, down on the flats of Woodland Hills. A neat and cozy little A-framed house painted powder blue and built in the 50’s with hardwood floors and a screened porch off the main bedroom. Rent 1,200 per month. With my child support and four years of alimony, I could do it. I would get nothing else out of the marriage, having signed a premarital agreement.
The first night in our new home we ordered pizza and sat on the deck in the backyard. Katya was sixteen, Harrison six and Max four. It was an adventure and we were happy. Walter had scared the children with his aggressive attitude, screams and constant threats. Once, he had punched Katya in a fit of rage for throwing a wayward ball that had spilled his cereal into his lap. He had refused to apologize, ordering that she should.
“And she needs to clean up the mess!”
I will not forget the look of terror on Katya’s face as he chased after her and she tried to get away, his hand balled in a fist, fury on his face, and then the blow and her cry of pain and horror. I had been in the kitchen with a clear view of what was happening. I ran to her aid but didn’t get there fast enough. I screamed at Walter while Harry and Max whimpered on the sofa. Katya stumbled upstairs and I found her lying on her bed, face to the wall. She refused to talk to me and I had left in defeat, hating myself more than I hated Walter, hating the fact that I had exposed my daughter to another abusive man after taking her away from her own father.
I went into the master bedroom where Walter lay on the bed flipping through TV channels.
“I’m not asking her clean up, you should!” I told him.
“It’s her fault,” he said dismissively, his attention on the TV screen.
So, I had gone downstairs and cleaned up just as I had done to the food that Sasha had flung across the room in his rages and my own blood splattered on the floor and walls. Years later Katya told me that she woke up every morning in that house with a knot in her stomach, wondering what battles awaited her with Walter that day. He timed her showers. He ordered her to use no more than two squares of toilet paper to wipe her bottom, even going so far as to dole out the squares by taping them on the bathroom wall in twos.
I was ordered by Walter to always present my grocery shopping receipts to him, and he would inspect them as if I might somehow be trying to cheat him out of his money. Once, when he was in an especially paranoid state and I had thrown the receipt away by mistake, he ordered me to go out to the trash barrel and find it. When I refused, he actually climbed into the trash barrel, retrieved the receipt and triumphantly brought it back into the kitchen, whereupon he proceeded to highlight in yellow the few things I had bought for Katya, such as tampons, shampoo, and the like.
He gathered the products, amounting in cost to not more than $20, and said, “This wasn’t part of the deal, now take them back!”
And again, when I refused, he got in the car and drove down himself to return them, waving his money when he returned with the words, “You can’t fool me or take advantage of me, remember that!”
I didn’t know which marriage had been more bizarre. I suppose they were equally so, but in different ways. How could I have allowed myself to stay in such situations for so long? How had I gotten into such insane situations in the first place? And how had I allowed Katya to be exposed to such torment, and now my two boys.
My lawyer negotiated some money out of Walter so I could buy the necessities and at the end of the first week in our new home we all had beds and a sofa. I bought a small computer table and set it up in a corner of the living room. The day I sat down at my computer and began to write without the fear of someone sneaking up behind me and breathing down my neck, no one judging me, relentlessly spewing insults about how inadequate I was…well, that was the day that I truly felt reborn.
At last, at the age of forty, I had become my own person, no longer defined by the men who had once owned me.
“I consider this to be the day when I became an independent adult,” I told Casey proudly on the phone.
“I can’t resist saying I told you so.”
“You’re wise, so wise,” I purred and he laughed as best he could. Quickly, I continued, covering the pain in a rush. “And I don’t miss that huge generic Calabasas house that had no personality whatsoever. I love it here. The kids are happy—I mean, I wish it didn’t have to happen, I’d much rather not put them through this because I’m sure, although they’re happy and excited now, it will be difficult for them but at least—“
“Karen,” he broke in gently. “You don’t have to justify anything. You did what you had to do. You’re a good mother. Being a bad one would have meant staying in that situation. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, feeling the emptiness that always came when I remembered how far away we really were from one another. He wasn’t with me. He never would be. We talked, he encouraged me. He loved me, I knew that. He loved his wife and his children. They were what mattered most and I understood that, too. He was dying a little more every day, fading away from all of us who loved him. And there was no relief from that agony.
I was happy. Yes, I told myself that I was. Over and over each day I repeated it. And I was, really. And the way I stayed like that was by keeping Casey in the compartment where he belonged, in a place in my heart just for him and no one else.
“Tell me something, Casey,” I said.
“If I can,” he answered.
“Do you think we deserve the things that happen to us? You know—the karmic thing. Like, you say Miki’s innocent but then, how could she have been convicted? Does it mean she did something in this life or a previous one that she’s now being punished for? And me, I married two abusive men. Not one—two! And my children suffer for my mistakes. I always feel that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try to be optimistic, believe in myself—you know how people say, be positive, believe? Well, I try that and it doesn’t work.”
“Karen, are you seriously asking me this question—me the most cynical and depressed person on the planet?”
“Yes, and I’m asking you precisely for that reason—and also for your enormous intellect.”
“If my intellect is enormous—which I take issue with, but if it is, it doesn’t make me any more worthy or unworthy than the next fellow. Every single person is capable of the worst and the best. You know that bumper sticker—just say no to drugs? Well, some people can’t say no. They just can’t. It’s not their fault, but we make them into criminals. It’s absurd. I actually don’t think I have a right to judge anybody for anything—not even a child molester or a vicious dictator or a serial killer. Nobody likes hearing that, I know. I once got thrown out of a party for making that statement—of course, there were other reasons, like I was having an affair with the host’s wife…but I digress. There’s always a reason why people do what they do. And who am I to say that if I hadn’t lived someone else’s exact life, I wouldn’t have done the same as they did? Hey, if I had lived someone else’s exact life, I would do the same because I’d be them. People in positions of power—and I don’t like those people, Karen, I can’t help it, even if I say I don’t judge, irrationally, I don’t like those people—are generally very smug and full of themselves. They point fingers at the pawns beneath them and say, come on, you can do it, work harder—look at me, I did. But they don’t really mean what they say. They don’t really want all those poor people up in the clouds with them—hell, they had to do too many unspeakable things to get to their positions of power, they aren’t about to share it, no matter what they say to the contrary. And it would be impossible anyway because each person’s situation is unique and we’re stuck in our own set of circumstances, based on every single thing that has happened that has led us to that place, including what happened in the womb, our intellectual, physical and emotional capacity, our genetic code, even all the way back to what happened to our ancestors.”
I thought for a moment and then asked, “So there is no moral accountability, the person who commits a murder in cold blood is no different from, let’s say, Jesus Christ? They both did what they were programmed to do?”
“Yes. But there is accountability—within the natural world it’s there, forget about the methods we humans come up with to punish one another. There is always a balance of good and evil—for lack of better terms. Jesus was good, he was God incarnate, or so we are told in the stories about him, but look at all the evil that’s been done in his name. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that if someone murders another human being, they should be held accountable. It seems obvious enough. But then comes the fine print, as it were. How can one human, who is no better or worse than the other, really carry out a just punishment on a fellow human? One is not above the other—therefore, one has no more right to judge than the other. It’s an impossible mess to figure out. It’s okay in our society to go to war, to blow the limbs off a million innocent people, leave young boys dying in ditches, kill children in ‘friendly fire.’ But it’s not okay to kill your neighbor down the street just for the perverse pleasure it gives you. If you really, really look at it honestly, one makes no more sense than the other. It’s all madness, Karen.”
I sighed. “Why do I do this to myself? I should know better by now than to ask you these types of questions.”
He laughed and the sound was almost normal. He was enjoying this conversation. “You do it for my sake. Because I, myself, am such a perverse lunatic, it’s conversations like this that make me feel better for a second and that second is an eternity to someone in my situation.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said dryly.
“Life is a mystery. Shall we leave it at that? You always say you don’t know why you went into juvenile hall to teach the kids there. And that’s right, you don’t really know. You can talk to a therapist and they can analyze you and pretend that they’re wiser because they have some degree in something-or-other, but that’s bullshit. You went in there because of all the things that happened to you before, plain and simple. In actual fact, you had no choice but to do it. But like I said, no one wants to hear that because it doesn’t bring satisfaction. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. We want to think we have some special dispensation, that we know something that nobody else does, that we’re part of some select club, that we live our lives for larger and nobler purpose—even, perhaps that there’s some master plan to it all and we’re members of the lucky crew, the ‘chosen.’ But the reality is that we simply can’t help but do the things we do. It’s foreordained, not by God, but by each and every action that has taken place previously. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t make choices.”
“Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”
He snorted. “It doesn’t make sense because it is impossible as finite beings, for us to understand anything, especially ourselves. We’re in the middle of our own lives. I don’t have a scientific formula for what I’m saying. I just know it’s the only conclusion that makes sense. We make choices, and at the same time, we are foreordained to do so.”
“My dad would call you a Calvinist, all that predestination blasphemy—well, that is if you believed in God, which you don’t.”
“He can call me whatever he wants. And I would say—respectfully, because from everything I’ve heard about your dad he sounds like an exceptional human being—that Calvin was no different from anyone else. He did what he did because of all that had happened to him leading up to that point of creating his religious theology. That’s how it is.”
I was suddenly back in my dad’s library as a child, listening to him read the Bible, recite poetry, tell us stories. He was the best of story tellers; a charismatic public speaker.
I reminisced to Casey, “My dad used to tell a story from the pulpit about a young man who came to visit him, rebellious and wanting answers. The young man was angry at God and he complained to my dad, ‘I didn’t ask to be born. None of this is my fault. And now here I am and God is dangling me over the flames of hell and saying Turn or Burn, do it My way, or I’ll drop you in. That’s not love, that’s not freewill—that’s coercion!’ My dad tried to minister to this young man. He explained how God loved him and didn’t want him to burn in hell. But, my dad told the young man he had to repent, he had to admit his sin, ask for forgiveness and submit to God’s authority. At that point in the story, my dad would pause, his serious gray eyes raking the audience, hand to his fatherly beard—just like yours, Casey—and you could hear a pin drop, every single person hanging on his every word, waiting to hear the climactic pronouncement. And then he’d say softly, yet with this command in his voice that always sent a thrill through me and made me want to obey whatever he said, ‘that young man went away a sinner still. He would rather rule his own life in hell than submit to God’s will and live in heaven.’ And a single sigh of agreement would go up from the audience and I’d feel so uplifted and as if my dad knew everything, he’d told the story so well, with such conviction. It was only as a teenager that I began to see the holes in the story. The young man was right! A loving God didn’t behave like that. Imagine telling your own child, bow down and worship me, do it my way or I’m going to make you suffer the worst possible agony for eternity. How could anyone in all honesty be fooled and think, oh wow, thanks so much God for the great opportunity to make such a ‘choice?’ I mean, my dad is genius smart—I’m not kidding—but he doesn’t see how horrific and unbalanced his belief is and it’s incomprehensible to me.”
“We all have our favorite stories, Karen. And like I said about Mader, it’s the ones who tell their story with the most conviction and talent that ‘win’, whatever that means.”
Casey sounded tired now; tired and beaten down and immediately I felt the same. Reality had come back to hit us after a few moments of pleasurable conversation.
The last time Casey and I talked on the phone he was very weak but he called to find out how I was doing and to make sure I was okay. Until the end, he was concerned for my wellbeing. I’m sure he was quite addled with pain medications and it drew me back to the day we had talked about suicide and how hard it would be to make that choice.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “I’m not doing it,” sounding almost apologetic, and of course I knew what he was talking about immediately. “I can’t find the right time, or the right justification.”
In a rambling manner, he started to reminisce, first about how he used to jog along the beach by the Santa Monica Pier. “I could feel the strength of my limbs, the sand beneath my feet and I ran so far that when I turned around, the high-rise building where I had my condo was a distant speck. Oh those days, how I lived for the senses! I loved to go to this little shop where they had the finest imported cheeses and I would buy the most expensive kinds, along with crusty French bread, and then I’d go to another shop and buy a vintage wine and so forth. I indulged myself, Karen. I spent money.”
He carried on and l listened, tears falling unhindered.
“We all take different paths but end up in the same place, that’s how it is. Just think, when you were sixteen and crying your eyes out because your parents were so strict that you never went on a date—remember telling me that?”
“And dreaming of going to the prom but knowing it would never happen because your parents believed dancing was sinful? At sixteen I was in a brothel in Thailand losing my virginity. Could two paths be more divergent? Look at us then and look at us now, drawn together by circumstances beyond our control. Bottom line, we all get to where I’m at eventually—I don’t care if you’re the homeless guy on the street corner or the pope—eventually we become one and none of it matters anymore. Nothing more happens and all that’s left are memories and then even those are gone. Make your stories real, Karen, make them live.”
“How do I do that, Casey?”
He took a few short, sharp gasping breaths before continuing. “You always have, Karen. Remember when you were eleven and had to take that stupid home economics class, baking and sewing, only for girls, and you couldn’t bear the boredom and unfairness of it and you hid notes to yourself as if they were from some spy and you were a spy, too, and you would come into class the next time filled with excitement to find the note and live the fantasy…”
He paused, gulping air.
“I remember, Casey,” I said. I had told him that story of my childhood and so many more. I listened to his labored breathing and held my own breath, waiting for him to speak again because I knew he had more to say.
“I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“What did I want to tell you?” He sounded alarmed.
“I don’t know,” I answered, praying he would remember.
“Ah,” he sighed. “Yes, so, I had a dream last night—a wonderful dream. We were sitting on my balcony in that condo I used to have overlooking the Pacific, you and I were sitting there. It was a warm evening, the sun setting in a bright display and the thing of it was that you were sitting some distance from me on a chair floating in the middle of a pond. We were talking and I saw a fish swimming in circles around your chair. It was splashing and darting around you and having a wonderful time. It was a Coy. And I got very excited and said, ‘Look, Karen, look at that fish! Why, it’s the luckiest fish there is, you’re very lucky, Karen, to have a fish like that swimming around you!’ And you looked down but you couldn’t see it. For the life of you, you couldn’t see that fish. But I could, Karen, I could see it and I can tell you that it’s there, swimming around you. Whenever you doubt, whenever you get discouraged, remember that you’re lucky, you’re blessed. You will achieve your dreams—you have it all there inside of you. Believe in yourself.”
“Thank you.” I choked on the words.
His voice grew fainter. “The truth is close to me now, Karen. Yesterday afternoon I was so tired, I just lay down. I can’t describe it, being that tired, as if my entire being was giving up and letting go. I fell asleep but I don’t know if I really slept. It wasn’t like any sleep I’d ever experienced. Then, this peace washed over me and I felt no more pain. I became separated from my body and I saw a beautiful light and flashes of different colors and I thought, so this is it, this is how it is, just like people say: into the light and all the fear and worry, all the pride and desperation, all the wanting so much to be loved, respected, paid attention to, all of it gone. And then, I came back from the light, I don’t know why I came back, but next time I won’t, Karen. Next time I’ll go all the way.”
“I don’t want you to,” the words came out in a gush, like blood from a deep wound.
“It’s the right time for me, everything happens just when it should. And I’ve left something for you, remember?”
I couldn’t think what he was talking about.
He spoke with urgency. “The letters.”
“Oh, yes,” I said doubtfully. “You didn’t send them yet.”
“I will. And then, you’ll write about them—promise me!”
“I will,” I assured him, adding, “Except I don’t understand what I’m promising, Casey.”
“It doesn’t matter—you’ll know what to do when you read them. I have faith in you.”
He never called again. On Valentine’s Day he followed the light and I felt relief for him and a terrible emptiness for myself. What would I do when I needed advice; when I yearned for his soft, calming voice rationally explaining truths, comforting, encouraging and cajoling me to think and stretch my mind? What would I do?
Then, the letters came and he was with me again and the journey began.