You'd think I'd have learned my lessons by now. Some
people, it turns out, are not what they seem. Some secrets, it turns
out, are better left untold. And some specters, it turns out, are better
left unseen. And the answers, it turns out, don't always arrive
in order. And when they do show up, they just might kick open
a door you're better off leaving closed up tight.
I thought I'd gotten all the education I needed a year or so
ago, starting with an innocuous decision I'd made to go to a cold
spring pool on a hot summer day. I'd found myself standing in the
gaze of the red-hot eyes of hell and discovered, quite by accident,
that I'd caught the attention of the universe somehow. But not the
kind of attention you want, if you get my meaning.
I'd looked evil in the eye that day and faced it down in the
weeks that followed, more out of necessity than anything else. It
certainly had nothing to do with bravery or spirituality or any
quixotic sense of adventure I might have had. I'd just found
myself in the target zone, so I'd fought when I had to, ducked
when I could, and run when I couldn't think of anything else to
do. And I'd eventually gotten out of the whole mess with a good-sized
dose of grit, some help from the Almighty, and a couple of
trips to Chicago.
It began this time, as some of my least intelligent moments do,
in front of the mirror. It was the eve of my thirty-fifth birthday and
I was feeling the need for self-examination, I suppose. Some misguided
ritual to mark the passageway to the other side of my
Magnifying mirrors were invented by Satan, I'm convinced.
No human I've ever known could spend any time at all in front
of a magnifying mirror examining pores and eyebrow hairs without
coming away from there with a toxic sense of shame and
On this occasion, I committed the additional catastrophic
error of looking at myself from behind. In a department store
dressing room. Under fluorescent lights. While trying on bikinis.
To my dismay, stuck right there on the back of my formerly
firm legs were my mother's thighs. My mother's Texas milkmaid
I work hard to stay in shape. Though I am an academic, and
most of the professors I know are thoroughly slovenly in their
personal habits, I have resolutely risen above the fray. I am non-lumpy.
I have fitness goals. I have completed a triathlon.
And I absolutely refuse to let my rear end slide south toward
So the dismay I felt at that moment under the lights was
genuine. I could not have been more surprised.
Now, all women know the steps to combat body-image
trauma. Men would do well to memorize the procedure too. This
sort of handbook-type information, if utilized correctly, could cut
the divorce rate by a third, I'm convinced.
The first step, of course, is to shop. Preferably for expensive
fitness gear that will encourage you to work out with renewed vigor
and dedication. Or, if you choose to punt on self-improvement,
an alternative is to shop for a new and fetching outfit that disguises
the body part in question.
I went for the fitness gear. I swim regularly, but those endless
laps in the pool were not warding off the impending thigh disaster.
Though I have to say, my arms looked pretty smokin'.
The answer here was shoes. I needed running shoes. Now.
The second step is to call a friend, or perhaps an evolved
squeeze or spouse, and complain. Qualified and well-trained personnel
will assure you that you look like a couple million bucks
and that you're just in the middle of a psychotic break.
Let's go get double-hot-chocolate lattes, they'll say.
Which is step three.
Step four is to roll your sad little self out of bed the next
morning, strap on your new gear, and get yourself to the gym.
Most individuals hit the wall after steps one or three.
I intended to complete the entire process. I was not going
down without a fight.
Since I was already at the mall, I abandoned my bikini search
and marched myself straight to the sporting goods store, squaring
my shoulders against the heady smell of chocolate chip cookies as
I passed by Mrs. Fields.
I had momentum. I was feeling good. I was on it.
And then I ran into John Mulvaney.
John Mulvaney is a colleague of mine-a fellow psychology
professor at Southern Methodist University. A full citizen in the
sometimes moldy and pretentious world of academic clinical psychology.
That is the entire extent of our common ground.
That, and the fact that we both believe deeply that he is a
genuinely pathetic human being.
We'd crossed paths the year before in a bizarre incident that
left me with a strange mix of pity and loathing toward the man.
And a powerful urge to avoid him.
In this instance, avoiding him was impossible. I literally
bumped right into him.
He was turning away from the cash register at Mrs. Fields,
hands loaded with a half dozen greasy warm cookies, a soft
drink, and a vanilla milkshake. He had a smear of chocolate on
his upper lip.
I pasted on a fake smile. "Hello, John."
"Dr. Foster," he said back.
"You can call me Dylan, John."
"I prefer the title," he mumbled.
We went through this silly little ritual each time we spoke. He
had never once gotten a "Dr. Mulvaney" out of me.
His eyes firmly fixed on the ground, he sucked hard on his
milkshake straw, coaxing a thick clot of ice cream into his mouth.
He chased it with an enormous bite of cookie.
I watched with raw disgust, fighting the urge to wipe the
chocolate off his lip.
"Well," I said. "Nice seeing you, John. Have a good afternoon."
I turned to leave. I got a good twenty yards into my escape
before he called out after me.
"I'm going shopping," he said. "I need a sweater."
I turned and stared at him. Was this merely a social-skills
debacle on his part or had he gone insane?
Incredibly, he kept talking.
"And then I'm going to see a movie. The new art film. At the
"Okay, John. Have a good time."
Why do academics love art films? And why was John
Mulvaney telling me about his afternoon plans?
I shot him a little wave and walked away. Rapidly. I made it
this time. A clean exit.
I bought myself some nifty high-tech running shoes, after a
fairly intriguing ritual of rolling up my jeans and walking barefoot
in front of the sales person so she could see what my feet do when
I walk. I pronate, apparently.
And then I initiated step two and called my evolved
"David Shykovsky," he said.
"I hope you know the correct answer to this question."
"What question is that, Sugar Pea?"
"What do you think of my legs?"
"Ah. Let's see. Many men would fail this test. But not me."
"The correct answer," he said, "if I recall from years of answering
this sort of question miserably in other, less crucial
circumstances with other, less fabulous women, is that your legs,
like the rest of you, are perfect. Wonderful. Sublime."
"No reason. Want to meet me for a double-hot-chocolate latte?"
"I'm working, babe."
Rats. So much for step three.
"Nope. Body coming in."
"I don't know how you do that job."
"I don't know how you do yours either, Professor. At least my
patients are mentally stable."
"Your patients are dead."
"Exactly. I don't talk to them. I don't worry about them. I
don't listen to their problems. I just drain 'em and dress 'em."
"That's so gross."
"I prefer to think of it as a necessary art."
"How do you figure?"
"You try to make a ninety-seven-year-old dead person with
no teeth look like they're forty years younger and in deep, peaceful
repose. It's not easy."
"I could see that. Are you still taking me out tonight for a surprise
"Midlist, I'd say."
"Death business been slow?"
"How about six thirty?"
"You'll be late."
"Seven?" I said.
"Check. See you at seven thirty."
We hung up. David Shykovsky is an enigma to me. Delightful
man. Smart. Charming. Good-looking. Adores me.
Owns a funeral home in Hillsboro.
I can't quite get past that last part.
I spent the rest of the afternoon, a rare sunny Saturday in
January, embarking on my new Thigh Recovery Program. Lunges,
squats, weights, and a three-mile run. Take that, milkmaid.
I'd be lucky if I could walk the next day.
After my workout, I showered, stared at my thighs some
more-I swear they looked better-and then spent a good half
hour primping for my dress-up, pre-birthday date with David. All
in all, a pretty high-end day for me.
I was smack in mid-primp when I heard something at the
front door. It was a knock of sorts. More of a thump, actually. Or
I heard a car pulling away from the house. Maybe I'd missed
UPS or something. Maybe it was a pre-birthday present!
Twinkling with anticipation, I threw on a robe and scooted to
the front door, checking the peephole.
I unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door.
Something slid across the wood and smacked heavily onto
the floor of the entryway, catching my baby toe under its end.
I let out a little scream-a mixture of pain and indignation-and
looked down to see what had fallen into my house and onto
It was an ax.
I couldn't see it clearly against the hardwood, so I reached
down and picked it up, then flipped on the light.
My hands were red. Why were my hands red?
I turned the ax over in my hands.
The ax was red. Had it just been painted?
I looked over at the light switch. A handprint was smeared in
red on my wall. My handprint.
I squinted at the blade.
There was hair on the blade.
I dropped the ax, my eyes widening as it thwacked heavily to
I slid to the floor, my back against the wall.
That ax was covered in blood.
And that, of course, was the moment I knew I'd made my