Read an Excerpt
From How to Kill Your Boyfriend (in Ten Easy Steps)
When Stacy thought about it afterwards, she told herself that she had not intended to kill her boyfriend. It certainly had not been something she had planned. However, even she would have admitted that she had been somewhat annoyed with him lately. It had not been anything definite just the usual ups and downs of a relationship. Once, he had bought the wrong brand of tampons, and she had raged against him mercilessly. If he had really loved her, she had argued, he would have gotten her the right brand. It had all been a sign from God, and she had wept bitterly while he clutched her shoulders and begged for forgiveness. After a few days of brooding and melodrama, she had been able to admit to herself that the entire argument had been stupid, and they had made love. Making love had always been her way of saying she was sorry. In fact, the week before she killed him, they had made love a great deal. It had gotten to the point where she had found herself being aroused as soon as she started yelling at him. And so, maybe the murder, unintentional as it was, had only been an escalation of their sex a case of arousal gone too far.
Dr. Vera Alexander got out of the cab and stood looking at the storefront bookshop. It was in Midtown Manhattan one of those trendy neighborhoods where everything cost too much and the droves of shoppers took a strange kind of pride from the fact that they were squandering their money. Vera surveyed her reflection in the bookstore's windowpane. She was a slightly plump 31-year-old who always had a tendency to look overdressed. The socially acceptable stereotype at the moment was that gay men had impeccable fashion sense, so she trusted all her clothing, hair and makeup decisions to a flamboyantly gay Haitian called François. The style that year was to have one's hair "long and untamed," so, on François' recommendation, she had adopted a hairdo that was so wild it seemed vicious. All the mousse and red highlights made her hair seem like some kind of diseased porcupine. Yet, it was the style, and she was pleased with her appearance as she stared at her reflection.
When she walked into the bookstore there was a smile on her face, because there were at least two dozen people there, waiting for her to sign copies of her book, How to Have Great Sex with a So-So Man. On the cover there was a picture of a beaming woman standing next to a slouching doofus. The bookstore patrons froze and stared at her when she entered; some pointed to her and whispered to their neighbors, as if in awe of her. A couple of them snapped pictures of her, or began to record on their camcorders. Whatever the case, the mass of them moved toward her and put out their hands to be shaken. Soon there was a line to shake hands with her. Of course, all of them were women. Vera shook their hands gladly, smiling at each one and thanking her for coming. The store manager was a bookish-looking woman in her late-twenties: gaunt and severe-looking, with a sarcastic look pasted on her face from years of suppressing her disappointment with life:
"Let Dr. Vera get set-up first!" she chastised the patrons like a kindergarten teacher telling two five-year-olds to stop pulling one another's hair. Some of them groaned in disappointment, but Dr. Vera nodded to them, as if to reassure them that she would shake their hands later. They made room for her to pass, and she walked over to the desk where she was to sign books. A line had already formed; two women tussled with one another in their desire to occupy the same spot on the line. The store manager gave them her stern kindergarten teacher look and they calmed down.
Vera smiled at it all. She got out her fountain pen and sat down at the desk. Soon, she was asking the women their names and writing the same message in their books. She had developed a bad habit of writing and looking up at the person she was signing the book to. As a consequence, the message she wrote was usually illegible. Many people later discovered that she had misspelled their names, or she had written it merely as a line with a squiggly thing in the middle.
She had a good tempo going. In fifteen seconds, she could sign a book, dispense advice on the mysteries of male sexuality and still have time to pose for a picture. Even the sarcastic-looking store manager seemed impressed. The woman did not exactly smile, but she exuded a kind of pleased smugness as she stood to the side, surveying the long line.
"Exactly," Vera said in answer to one woman's declaration of gratitude, "if you can teach a dog to shit outside, why can't teach your man to please you in bed!"
Everyone in the store laughed; some of them applauded. Vera had used that line about 80 times since she started her book tour a month ago. She had had a dream once, where it had been the only thing she could say . . . but people loved it when she said it.
She nodded to the woman who had made the declaration of gratitude (as to dismiss her) and the next woman on line stepped up to the table. People were still laughing at Vera's joke. However, the woman who stepped up to the table had a drawn, wretched expression on her face like in those pictures of war refugees who had watched their children starve to death and their men butchered. The woman seemed about Vera's age, but could have possibly been about ten years older. With her thinness, the woman seemed frail and detached except for the intensity with which she stared at Vera. It was off-putting, and Vera instinctively looked away. She noticed the woman's blouse: the nape of the neck was slightly frayed and discolored. Vera noticed a peculiar birthmark on the woman's neck. It was heart-shaped with a jagged line through it a broken heart. The store manager looked at the woman disapprovingly, wondering if she could afford the $21 price of the book.
The woman handed Vera the book to sign, and Vera came back to her senses. She tried to reassure herself by smiling. "To whom am I signing this?" she said.
The woman's voice was low and ominous: "Don't pretend that you don't know me."
Vera's smile disappeared; all the background conversation in the bookstore seemed to cease. "I'm sorry," Vera said, flustered, ". . . I don't "
"Don't you dare pretend you of all people!"
"I'm not "
"I took the weight for you," the woman went on, suddenly animated. "I carried it while you were doing all this," she said, looking around the bookstore, as if all of it were Vera's and the woman's sacrifice had allowed her to attain it. "But when is it going to be my turn to be free?" the woman lamented. ". . . The things we did," she said, beginning to sob, "they're killing me the weight of it all . . . ! I can't take it anymore it's too much for me."
Vera had sat stunned for most of that; the store patrons had stood staring. Vera remembered that she was a psychologist and stood up, to calm the woman. "Please "
"I've lost everything," the woman cut her off, talking more to herself now than anything.
"Ma'am, please "
"Ma'am?" she screamed, outraged by the formality and coldness of the term. "After all we went through all those things we did . . . ?"
The store manager came over, but Vera warded her off by shaking her head. Vera walked around to the front of the desk and tried to take the woman's hand.
"No!" the woman screamed, as if brushing off a lover's hand. And then, more calmly, "If you don't remember me, it's too late for that. It's too late." Her eyes were full of sorrow and desperation now: "You were all I had left."
"Maybe you should sit down," Vera attempted to reason with her once more. She again tried to take the woman's hand, but the woman pushed her hand away. And then, with a disillusioned expression on her face:
"You really don't know me . . . ?" She stared at Vera's face, as if searching for some clue of recognition; but seeing none, she bowed her head thoughtfully and started talking to herself again: "I guess it's best that you forgot. I took the weight for you, but it's too much."
"Let's talk about it," Vera said, trying to think up every therapist trick she knew. "Maybe you can help me to remember."
The woman started to walk away, as if she had not heard.
"Please," Vera called after her, " at least tell me your name!"
The woman stopped and stared at her as if considering something. At last she sighed, saying, "I'm the one who helped you to forget." At that, she walked out of the store. When she got to the curb, she looked back at Vera via the display window; then, she turned and took a step into the street. The speeding truck hit her instantly. She was sent flying like a cartoon character. There was something unbelievable about it like a cheap special effect in a bad movie. The truck tried to stop, but the woman's careening body fell right in its path. There was the sound of tires screeching, and then a thud . . . and then silence.
For Dr. Vera, four years passed in a blur of success and controversy. As was usually the case, the controversy had fueled her success. The entire episode with the woman at the bookstore had been captured on some of her fans' camcorders. The story got international attention. People called it "The Forget-Me-Not" incident, because of the woman's rant on being forgotten. A couple of networks did exposés on Dr. Vera, trying to figure out the connection between her and the woman: if there really was some deep dark secret that they had shared . . . but there had been nothing. The woman had spent her entire life in a small town in North Carolina; she had had a history of mental illness and had been living with a family friend until she snuck away to come to New York the day before she died. With all the media attention, the camcorder scenes of Dr. Vera attempting to calm the deranged woman had made her seem compassionate and accessible; and within weeks of the incident, Dr. Vera had been approached to do her own radio call-in show.
Four years later, the Dr. Vera radio call-in show was not exactly a hit, but it was broadcast nationwide, and there was talk of a television version. Since the incident, her agent had been telling her how she was on the verge of greatness. Her last book, 10 Steps to Find Out if Your Man is a Cheating Bastard had been a number one bestseller . . . but that was two years ago, and she could not help thinking that her career was languishing.
As for her personal life, despite the fact that she was a relationship counselor, she was single and childless. It had been over a year since she had had sex, and the more she thought about it, the more certain she was that the young stud her agent had set her up with the last time had faked his orgasm just so he could get away from her! In bed, she seemed almost mouse-like nothing like the voracious sexual beast she wrote about in her books. In college, two of her lovers had fallen asleep while making love to her. Granted, they had both been drunk at the time, but it had all set off a lifelong sense of sexual inadequacy which was probably why she connected so well with her legion of fans. She knew how they wanted to feel about their sexuality, because she wanted the same feeling the same fantasy. Her greatest fear was that people would discover she was lousy in bed. To a certain degree, she remained single because she was afraid one of her ex-boyfriends would write one of those tell-all books on her, cataloguing the horrific boredom of her sex. Every lover was a potential blackmailer.
And if all that were not bad enough, she was growing tired of being Dr. Vera. Her last name was actually Alexander, not Vera, but it had become an accepted practice for media doctors to go by their first names like Dr. Phil and Dr. Ruth as to give a false sense of intimacy to their fans. Being Dr. Vera required vast amounts of energy as was usually the case when one lived a lie. Every day, she told lies about lovers who were a figment of her imagination; she dispensed sexual advice on things that she, herself, was terrified to try. And with each passing day, it became clearer to her that she hated doing her call-in show. Five nights a week, it was the same tedious nonsense: women calling up to find out why their husbands or boyfriends did not love them anymore; people trying to manipulate their lovers into doing something (stupid), or who were merely calling to hear a psychological professional justify their scummy behavior. She knew that something would have to change soon or she would crack. Every once in a while she would have a nightmare where she failed totally at this life and again had to return to being a high school guidance counselor. The nightmare would motivate her to work harder for a few weeks, until she again felt herself on the verge of cracking.
"Okay," Dr. Vera said after she had finished answering the last caller's question, " we have time for one more call." She looked at the computer screen before her to see which caller was to be next, and then she pressed a button: "Matt from Minneapolis, how may I help you today?"
"Thanks for taking my call, Dr. Vera. I'm a longtime listener and first time caller." The man's chipper, excited voice annoyed her for some reason, but she retreated into her usual radio routine:
"Thank you, Matt. How may I help you today?"
"Well, Dr. Vera," Matt began, "I've come to the conclusion that I'm a lesbian."
"Aren't you a man?" she asked, frowning at the computer screen.
Dr. Vera frowned deeper, and looked through the soundproof glass, at the engineer/producer. When she made eye contact with the huge, woolly-mammoth-looking man, he shrugged and bit into a gigantic submarine sandwich. Vera sighed and stared at the computer screen again, as if the answer to everything lay within it. She had trained herself to always give kind, considerate responses even to the stupidest questions but all she could think to say was, "Look, Matt, to be a lesbian, you sort of have to be a woman."
"That's a pretty sexist view!"
"How is that sexist?"
"It's sexist to believe that a man can't be a lesbian, just as it would be sexist to believe that a woman can't be an astronaut, or have her own radio call-in show."
Dr. Vera shook her head: "To be a lesbian, you have to be a woman," she maintained.
"Not at all: a lesbian is simply someone who wants to have sex with a lesbian."
"So, if I had sex with you, I'd be a lesbian?"
Dr. Vera groaned, despite her usual attempt to maintain a professional/ unflappable radio persona. Maybe it was the fact that it was Friday night and she wanted to go home. She wanted to get away from people and their sexual problems at least for the weekend
"Anyway," she said to move things along, "you think you're a lesbian trapped in a man's body?"
"Not at all I'm secure in my lesbian-ness," he said, making up his own terms.
A side of Dr. Vera wanted to say something sarcastic like, "Good for you, girlfriend!" Instead, she sighed and said, "So what is your problem then?"
"Oh," Matt said, as if he'd forgotten, ". . . you see, the problem is that my boyfriend doesn't want to be a lesbian."
Dr. Vera hung up the phone and sighed. The theme music began to play in the background, and she glared at the producer as if to say, Aren't you supposed to be screening these calls! However, he was too busy devouring his sandwich to notice her. "Cherished friends," she began her usual sign-off message without enthusiasm, "this brings us to the conclusion of another wonderful show. This is Dr. Vera, reminding you that every day can be a great day if you choose to see it that way. Until next time, my friends . . . !"
As soon as she was off the air she groaned again, grabbed her huge handbag and walked out of the studio. The summer night was hot and humid. The studio was in midtown Manhattan; when Vera got outside, there were thousands of teenagers milling about on the sidewalk. A rock star named Pastranzo had done an interview at the station about four hours ago, when Vera was coming in to work. Awestruck teenage girls had screamed and passed out at the prospect of meeting their hero; ambulances and huge phalanxes of police officers had had to be called in to quell the hysteria. The worst of it seemed to be over, but even though Pastranzo had left the studio hours ago (through a side entrance) the teenagers refused to believe it. They stood their ground, baking in the summer heat with the crazed obstinacy of goats. Vera, who had had to fight her way through the crowd when coming into work, was now forced to do the same thing upon leaving.
All of a sudden, a squealing 14-year-old ran up to her with arms open wide, perhaps thinking that Vera was Pastranzo. As Vera did not have the patience to explain the difference between herself and a stringy-haired Italian man, she put some sense into the girl's head the most efficient way she knew: with a firm backhand.
When she got to the curb, she hailed a cab and headed to Brooklyn. The cab smelled of vomit, curry and toe jam, so she opened the window and groaned again as she sat there brooding.
The two police officers exited the deli, each carrying a Styrofoam coffee cup in one hand and a paper bag of donuts in the other. Just as they reached their patrol car, the first officer bent his head to take a sip of his coffee and noticed the person standing across the street, in the shadows. The neighborhood always seemed as though it were in the middle of nowhere, even though the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges towered overhead. On the bridges, and the major thoroughfares that connected to these bridges, traffic zoomed 24 hours a day except of course when there was a traffic jam. Either way, on the streets below the bridges, there was always a kind of loneliness. Most of the buildings were industrial warehouses or warehouses that had been converted to luxury condominiums. After dark, the neighborhood was usually deserted. This was why the police officer found the person in the shadows so conspicuous. The first officer got his partner's attention, and then he gestured across the street. His partner stared quizzically in that direction before nodding. They left their coffee and donuts on top of the patrol car and began to walk across the street. Their hands automatically went to their guns. They did not grab them yet, but their fingers were within reach of their weapons. They made no attempt to rush; as they walked, they surveyed the person in the shadows. They took note of where his arms were if his hands held a weapon. At last, when they were about to step onto the curb, the first officer called to the figure in the shadows:
"Is everything all right?"
Stacy stepped from the shadows, and they saw her. They surveyed her shapely figure the way her cotton blouse was moist from the humidity and her sweat; they looked at the way her jeans hugged every succulent contour of her legs. She was like an angel standing there before them. Her hair was long and curly from the humidity; she tossed it over her left shoulder and the officers followed the motion as if it were something miraculous. She smiled, and they instinctively smiled. They forgot about their guns and whatever protocol they had learned in the police academy. There was something infectious about her smile, so that the more they looked at it, the more they smiled and felt overcome by an unnamable feeling that made them feel alive and intoxicated.
"Were you guys concerned about me?" Stacy flirted then, breaking the silence. She smiled wider, and the officers, to their amazement, found themselves giggling along, like two teenage morons. They were speechless in that "I wish I could say something cool, but I'm too overcome with awe" sort of way.
Stacy nodded at that moment, as if acknowledging that they were putty in her hands, and then she gestured toward the all-night deli: "Were you guys making a donut run?"
"Yeah, you know how it is," the second officer said, still shy; but looking at her now, and seeing again how beautiful she was, he suddenly remembered the strangeness of her standing in the shadows. "Is everything all right?"
"Sure, I was waiting for a friend."
"Your friend makes you wait here in the dark?" he said, trying to joke. He felt proud of himself; his partner seemed impressed, so they laughed too loudly at his joke.
It was then that a cab drove up and stopped in front of the deli. They all turned to look as Dr. Vera got out.
"There's my friend," Stacy said, smiling again. However, she made no attempt to get Dr. Vera's attention, and the woman walked into the deli. Only after the cab had driven off did Stacy and the officers realize they had all stood staring at the scene. The officers looked at Stacy again, and giggled in the same nervous way as she smiled back at them. "Thanks for looking out for me, officers," she said then.
"That's our job," the first officer said with a strange sense of self-importance.
"Can I ask you something?" she said then, lowering her voice, "I mean, between friends?"
"Sure. Anything," the officers said in unison, enlivened by the prospect of being her friend.
"Did you ever shoot someone?" she said, gesturing to the first officer's gun.
The officers looked at one another uneasily.
"That's a strange question," the second officer said.
"It's a perfectly natural question," Stacy responded with a shrug. "You guys carry guns for a reason."
"We carry guns to keep the peace not to shoot people."
She laughed heartily, while they stood there with gloomy expressions on their faces. "You don't need to justify it with me, officers," she continued. "The first time you pull a gun on someone, everything changes. Even if, in your mind, you're telling yourself that you're keeping the peace, once you get that close to death to killing someone something changes within you. There is a sense of power there that's difficult to turn back from. . . ." She was looking at them with an odd gleam in her eyes; they shrunk away from it felt cowed before it. They looked at one another uneasily again, but just then Dr. Vera emerged from the deli
"I guess we'll have to discuss it another time," Stacy said, cutting off their conversation. "It's been a pleasure, gentlemen," she said, beginning to walk across the street. And then, winking at them mischievously over her shoulder, "Don't hurt nobody." Their faces were wretched as they watched her leave, but then their eyes navigated to her retreating buttocks, and they stood staring at the firm perfection of it. They were mesmerized now, forgetting the discomfort they had felt when she asked her strange questions. They forgot about the morbid gleam in her eyes, and the fact that she had been standing alone in the shadows. For those few moments, they became merely men staring at a nice ass.
Dr. Vera had developed a (bad) habit of stopping by the deli after her shows, in order to pick up some junk food. That was especially true on Fridays. Tonight, she was so tired that she would have had the cab wait, in order to drive her the last two blocks, to her luxury condominium, but she had endured enough of the vomit/curry/toe jam stench as she could stand. Even though the blocks of this neighborhood were dark and deserted, there were usually a few policemen lurking around the deli, replenishing their junk food and coffee stocks. That was why this was a relatively safe neighborhood. As she began the trek home, she placed the ice cream and cookies she had bought in her huge handbag. She used the bag to carry her gym clothes, but it had been weeks since she had seen the inside of a gym. Now, as she plopped her ice cream and cookies on top of her gym clothes, she felt no guilt. She was going to eat junk food all weekend. She was going to order pizza and Chinese food, and vegetate in front of the TV, and nobody was going to take that away from her.
Still high from her junk food manifesto, she turned to the right and continued down the block. She noticed Stacy crossing the street, but thought nothing of it. Yes, she would take a long bath and watch the most melodramatic love story she could find on cable TV. It would all be perfect, and she would be at peace . . . at least, until she went back to work on Monday. These were her thoughts when she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Stacy's smiling face:
"I'm a big fan of your show, Dr. Vera," Stacy said as soon as Vera turned around.
"Thank you," Vera responded before turning back around. She started walking quickly, hoping to get away, but Stacy matched her pace, her youth and grinning face seeming somehow inescapable. Unable to stand it anymore, Vera swung around and faced Stacy, who was walking by her side as though she had been invited home: "What do you want?" she said gruffly; but then, seeing Stacy's grinning, awestruck face, she sighed and reverted to her radio persona: "How may I help you today?"
Stacy squealed with delight, because that was the phrase Dr. Vera used to greet all the guests/patients on her radio show. Stacy was still beaming, like some kind of star-struck imbecile.
"How may I help you?" Vera said again, to bring Stacy from her trance. This time, Stacy nodded excitedly, saying:
"I'm the one who is here to help you, Vera. May I call you Vera?" she said, smiling again.
"Sure fine," she said with a certain amount of annoyance. She started walking again calmly this time, but nonetheless with the hope of getting away from the woman. "How do you intend to help me?" she said with the same twinge of annoyance in her voice.
"There's something in my car I want you to see."
"Something's in your car?" she said, fighting to understand. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, that's my quandary. If I tell you what it is, you may not want to come; at the same time, you may not want to come unless you know what it is. . . . Will you come with me, no questions asked?"
"No," Vera said frankly.
"I understand," Stacy said, bowing her head thoughtfully. At last, she looked up and sighed, saying: "That leaves me no choice."
Stacy's tone and body language disturbed Vera, so that she was a little breathless as she said, "What do you mean?"
Stacy hiked up her blouse then, and pulled out a .22. Vera froze, but Stacy gripped her upper arm with her free hand and pulled her along, saying, "I need you to come with me, Vera."
Vera stumbled along, dazed.
Stacy continued: "As I tried telling you before, I need you, Vera. However, you need me as well you just don't know it yet."
Copyright ©2006 by D.V. Bernard