if you were a serial killer
BY MICHELLE ROSS
A woman from my lab confessed at happy hour that she sometimes wishes her husband would meet an untimely demise while he’s traveling for work. If she were to leave him, she fears she’d go running back to him. But if he were to die, well.
I tell Marina this while I repaint the kitchen walls. The red I chose the first time around, which is supposed to stimulate appetite, makes me feel as though I’m wedged inside the throat of a much larger animal.
I say, “This is what happens when people aren’t honest with each other.”
It’s been two weeks since I put it to her bluntly: I’m not in love with her anymore. Nothing I said before seemed to jolt.
Initially, she looked as though she were in a state of cataplexy like the orexin/ataxin-3 transgenic mice in my lab. I give them leftovers from meals, and the more aggressive among them buck their more passive kin to get at the special treat. After, all of the mice lay motionless, impotent on the floors of their cages, the only sign of life the slow thumping of their furry chests. The excitement triggers a temporary, wakeful paralysis.
Like human narcoleptics, the mice eventually shake the paralysis off, and so did Marina, at which point she said, “I’ve been stressed out. I’ve been worried about everything going to hell in the world. I’ll make it up to you, you’ll see.”
Then came anger. She said I was cruel. She said I was insensitive. Heartless. Ruthless. Sadistic. She said, “I’m not one of your lab mice, Lori. You can’t poke and prod me to see what will happen.”
Now she says, “I’m not sure I like what happens when said people are honest.”
I say nothing.
Marina stands at the edge of our kitchen, our sleeping daughter in her arms, and she stares at the living room furniture. I rearranged it the weekend before when I came home from the nursery with a ficus tree in a fifteen-gallon pot.
She says, “I’m never going to get used to this.”
That’s what I thought when I painted the kitchen red, but I gave the color a fair shake. Five years.
This time around I’m painting the walls green, first white to dilute the red, which Marina once said made her want to dance. For a week or so after the paint dried, she shimmied to the table with plates as her partners. That was a long time ago. Later, she accused me of choosing red just for shock value. “Like that damn Serial Killer game you used to play with your friends.”
After this project is completed, I have plenty more lined up. I’m going to scrub the grout between the tiles with a toothbrush. Replace all the broken doorstops. Empty out every drawer and cabinet in the house and throw away everything that has sat idle for a year or longer.
“This is me not giving up,” I say as I motion all around. “I want to fall in love with you again. I want this to work. But it won’t if we’re not honest.”
She tries to smile. Her pain, naked and shimmering, makes her new again like an insect wriggling out of its pupal case, and I wonder as I dip the paint brush into the stark white if maybe I do feel something like love.
There’s a pinworm infestation at Gretchen’s daycare. All parents are encouraged to check their children for the parasites. They come out at night when the child’s asleep, like Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
“Let’s just assume she has them, give her the medication, and call it a day,” Marina says.
When she was pregnant (she was adamant that it be her: “It’s the most intimate one can ever be with another human,” she’d said), she was vigilant about what substances passed into our daughter’s body. She eyed deli meat with the disdain of a vegan. But now that we’ve entered the world of parasites—lice, nematodes, mites—she’s quick on the draw with toxic chemicals.
I put on latex gloves and grab the masking tape. I hand her a flashlight and say, “You either help or I turn on the ceiling light.”
As I sit on the edge of the bed, Gretchen rolls over onto her belly, cooperative even in her sleep. Nothing wakes her, not pulling her pajamas and underwear down, not even prying her cheeks apart. This is disconcerting but hilarious too. My belly hurts with the effort not to laugh. I turn to Marina, wanting to share this with her. The flashlight is all that meets me. Marina’s head is turned, and her eyes are closed.
Marina comes home with two grocery bags full of vintage magazines and photographs.
“Doesn’t it break your heart?” she says, holding up a black-and-white image of a big-eyed boy wearing huge chaps made of thick animal fur. It’s like an exquisite corpse image—boy on top, guinea pig on bottom. He’s hugging a small bird against his rib cage.
The walls of Marina’s home office are covered with these old photographs of strangers. Not photos of us, mind you. Those are relegated to the rest of the house. Her office is a museum of lives that are not ours, of lives that have long since passed.
She plays curator to our relationship too. When I point out problems—how we don’t have fun anymore, for instance—she holds up dusty memories and says, “But look at how much fun we used to have!”
But her clutter is what drew a pack rat into our home when Gretchen was a baby. The animal made its presence known by chewing straight through her computer cord in two places; and as I discovered posthumously, it used the wires to line its nest. I set traps with bananas and cheese for five nights straight before I caught the animal. Each night before its capture it made away with the bait, leaving behind only tufts of fur, the fourth night a flap of skin the width of a dropper.
“Poor thing,” she said. Her aversion to pests doesn’t extend to mammals.
“That poor thing could have made us terribly sick. They carry diseases,” I said.
“I know, but I still feel bad for it.”
I, on the other hand, would have ripped that animal apart from limb to limb if it had come near our daughter.
“This is what breaks my heart,” I say now, scanning the bags and boxes stacked wall to wall in her office.
What she does is not hoarding, she says for the hundredth time. Hoarders are empty and clogged at once, full to the brim with what’s useless.
When our daughter runs through the doorway, Marina lifts her up and swings her through the air, and Gretchen yells, “Whee, whee, whee!”
“See, this is how I feel,” Marina says. “Not empty. Not clogged.” But I think that if I were to flick her with my nail, her face would crack.
Eventually, Marina pries loose her own disappointments. She sits across the dining table from me, amidst a backdrop of green. Like a dung beetle on a forest floor, she rolls shit into a gargantuan ball.
I encourage her. “Good,” I say. “More.”
After a while, her body droops. She says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“It’s good to get these things out in the open,” I say.
“Good for whom?”
“Relationships are hard. Pretending that’s not true doesn’t make it any easier.”
I tell her about Joseph Priestley’s photosynthesis experiments, how he sealed mice inside glass containers with the company of plants. The oxygen was thin, but it was enough provided they didn’t fling themselves against the glass.
“There’s pleasure in surrender,” I say. “Sometimes it feels like love. Sometimes it feels like death.”
“You and your damn honesty,” she says. “At least your coworker does her partner the courtesy of keeping her shit to herself. He’s better off for it.”
She’s said the same thing about infidelity. She’d rather I lie than confess. She values preserving the illusion of cleanliness. But me, I’d prefer to be mucked up with the truth. I’d rather be with a cheater than a liar.
I say, “This is the great divide between us, but talking about it is good, see? Being open and honest makes me feel close to you again.”
She smiles sadly and says, “You don’t feel like you’re suffocating?”
“Not right now,” I say. I shrug.
I don’t tell her about Priestley’s control mice. Her mind doesn’t go there on its own. But how else would he have discovered photosynthesis?
When the vacuum salesman shows up on our doorstep, I don’t hesitate to let him in despite that the hard muscles in his arms shimmer as he hauls into our house a thick cardboard box, large enough to hold a body. He could snap my neck if he wanted to. He could snuff the life out of me with his two hands.
What he does is he removes a laminated photograph of a dust mite from a white three-ring binder and hands it to me. The creature looks like a scrotum that has grown legs and mandibles.
He tells me that allergy to dust mites is the most prevalent illness in the country. “If you’re human, you’re allergic to dust,” he says. “We’re all sick from it.”
He claims that a mattress doubles in weight every five years from the accumulation of dust mites, skin cells, and dust mite feces. Whether or not his figures are accurate, our mattress is certainly heavy with the weight of us. It holds eight years’ worth of discarded skin cells—eight years’ worth of refuse.
When he vacuums a small swath of my side of the mattress, I watch through a window as soot-like particles pile inside the vacuum’s cavity. “You see that?” he says when he turns the machine off. The way he points to the dust collected in there, like a doctor sharing the results of a diagnostic test, it seems indicative of some malady of my character.
He says humans shed about eight pounds of skin cells a year. I do the math: eight pounds multiplied by two people multiplied by eight years is 128 pounds of skin cells.
My coworker who thinks she can be rid of her husband if he would just die is wrong. Particles from his body would rattle around inside her chest forever.
When I send the salesman away, I lie back against the bed and breathe deeply. Pleasure in surrender, pleasure in surrender, I tell myself.
“Let’s play Serial Killer,” Marina says one night. Gretchen is asleep, and we’re drinking beer.
I look at her skeptically. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
“I want to play Serial Killer. I go first.”
She doesn’t have to think. Her answer is already planned out. She says, “If you were a serial killer, you’d break your victims’ necks with your own two hands, decapitate them with a machete, then string their heads from a high ceiling like disco balls. You’d give them a spin and watch them whirl and splatter, making the room over into a Jackson Pollack. The bodies you’d have no use for. You’d dump them into the bayou in black plastic garbage bags.”
Now I’m the one who’s stunned. I can’t twitch a muscle. I can’t take my eyes off her. When I’m able, I say, “I think that’s enough of that game.”
“It’s your turn.”
“When did you become so sensitive?” she says.
Gretchen comes home from daycare with a clementine, woody flower buds of clove inserted into its flesh like eyes. She says to us, “Bacteria get in through the holes. You’ll die if you eat it.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Marina says. “What if we had nothing but this clementine to eat?”
“Then you would eat it first,” she says to Marina. “If you live, Mom and I will know it’s safe to eat. If you die, we’ll know it’s not safe to eat.”
“Why Mama, Honey?” I say. I glance at Marina sideways.
“You’re the tallest,” she says to Marina.
Marina isn’t offended. She smiles. She says, “That’s right. I would eat the clementine first.”
I can’t leave it at that, though. Later, when our daughter’s playing in the backyard, I say, “What if you couldn’t eat the clementine first? What if it had to be her or me? Who would you choose?”
It’s a ridiculous question. Of course, I want her to choose me to eat it. I just want to know what she’ll say.
“Why couldn’t it be me?” she says.
“I don’t know. Let’s say you don’t have a mouth.”
“I’m trying to picture this,” she says. “This not having a mouth. Would my face be skin where my mouth is supposed to be? Would I have teeth in there?”
“Yes, you’d have teeth, and they’d be perfectly pristine locked away in your face, no contact with sugars and starches.”
“Wouldn’t I die?”
“You’d eat through a tube in your stomach.”
“So I’m receiving food through my stomach, but you two have nothing but this rotten clementine?”
“That’s right. Who would you choose?”
“I have hands, right?”
“Then I’d grab the clementine, and I’d get rid of it. I’d prevent you both from eating it. And I’d take the tube out of my stomach, and I’d give it to you two to receive nourishment from. I would pass it back and forth between you.”
“You’re not playing along,” I say.
“You don’t get to make up all the rules,” she says. “Anyway, this mess about me having no mouth is plain silliness. We both know that my eating the clementine makes the most sense.”
“How’s that? Because you’re the tallest?” I say.
We smile at one another.
“Because all three of us would choose me to eat it first.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I say, but I hesitate.
“It has nothing to do with love. We’re just different in this way. I’d sacrifice myself first. You would not. You would for her, but not for me. And that’s okay. I’m perfectly okay with that.”
I look away. I say, “Well, you’d sacrifice yourself for a stranger on the highway.”
“That’s right. I would,” she says.
This is how Marina makes her kills: she slips her arm around you from behind and presses her lips against your neck; the knife goes in clean and quiet.