It’s not so much that my formative years scarred me as it is that they gutted me from the intestines out like one lethal claw swipe by an enraged grizzly bear. So by the time my path crossed with equally unwhole and marginally more unwholesome Jason Stillman, the fact that he ritualistically killed strangers seemed little more than one of life’s exercises in morbid, poetic symmetry.
I’d like to make a disclaimer here at the outset of this peculiar story that I am as reliable a narrator as any. You may not agree with the nature of my feelings for Jason, in fact, you may feel a certain disgust for our relationship, but its salience in my life is an immutable fact. I only hope to relay it with some coherency, and ask to be forgiven for any installments that may feel like a train wreck of badly stitched together reflections. It was, after all, a lot to absorb. And at the end, if you are still compelled to play judge, jury, and executioner with me, don’t hesitate. Just remember I’ve already survived being gutted at least once.
I avoid using the term “serial killer” because he hated it. He felt the word serial indicated something bland, repetitive, lacking in passion and imagination. He argued that a serial number on a DVD player cannot convey the full experience of all the hours spent and all the emotion stirred with just a string of nondescript digits, and I agreed. That’s one of many satisfying things we had in common: a deep respect for language. Many cups of coffee at the all night diner we frequented would be emptied and refilled over impassioned conversations detailing theories of the precarious rise and impending fall of language in human civilization, as the world around us would continually choose to monopolize and bastardize it in a bid for control of our minds and perceptions.
After all, what one family called “love” resulted in the gutted empty state I lived in on a daily basis. At least when he killed, the evisceration was not preceded by the mandatory family rhetoric claiming to love, cherish, and protect.
A rainy autumn night sky canopied the street corner where I first met Jason. My nights of insomnia had been increasing in frequency once again, and the all night diner down the block became my only refuge from the frustrating existential angst of the hours before twilight. Momentarily entranced by the color saturated halo surrounding the walk sign, I barely heard a controlled voice from behind saying
"You can go now."
By the time I thought to respond, he was standing next to me with his hand gesturing towards the crosswalk. I only had a second to get a glimpse of his face before he stepped off the curb with an unhurried pace that invited me to follow.
So I did.
“Thanks…I might have stood there through another three rounds of the light changing,” I said.
“You were certainly absorbed. It’s the rain, right?" His voice, steady, confident, (and something else?)
“The way the rain gives everything a phosphorescent glow. It’s sublime, isn’t it?”
“Yes…it is, but you might be mistaking my exhaustion for captivation. I haven’t enjoyed a full night’s sleep in weeks."
“I see. You are on your way home to try to sleep, I assume?”
“Well, no. I’m going to the diner for a cup of hot cocoa,” I responded, pointing to the entrance we were nearing.
“Refined sugar isn’t going to help you sleep. Besides, their hot cocoa isn’t worth the three dollars you’ll pay for it,” he said as we approached the diner. He pulled open the door and continued, “Let me suggest a cup of chamomile tea.”
Caution and surprise dictated my momentary pause, but I conceded the point with a nod as I stepped across the threshold.
A spattering of customers peppered the tables and bar stools. The pleasant ambient lighting and vaguely pretty impressionistic artwork that adorned the walls were among my top five reasons why I loved this diner so much.
I had just met what would be another.
We stood behind the please wait to be seated sign, and watched as the friendly, smiling, rosy-cheeked waitress hurried her way over to us.
“Hello! Booth, table, or bar? Are you sitting together tonight?” She chirped in her mellifluous voice, clearly recognizing us both.
Turning to me, he replied with a generous mix of civility and caution. “How about a booth for two?”
It was impossible for me to say no, and so we followed the waitress to a booth next to a window. The blinds were pulled halfway up and across the street I could see the thrift store where I had purchased my dresser, lamp, and several decorative objet trouvés, as my friend Abbie liked to call them, for my apartment. I had lived in the city for a year and a half, and still felt like a stranger to it. But this was a pattern I had grown accustomed to over the years.
It occurred to me I was about to have midnight tea with a stranger whose name I didn’t know yet. After the waitress left to retrieve water and utensils, I outstretched my hand.
“I’m Elliott. And you are?”
He raised an eyebrow curiously and shook my hand. “Jason. 'Elliott'?”
“I was named by a father who had an exhausting admiration for Eliot Ness,” I retorted, slumping into my seat with the hope that the topic wouldn’t inspire too many questions. Only in hindsight could I understand that tiny reaction I'd thought I had seen.
The waitress seemed to materialize out of the ether to take our orders.
“Know what you want, honey?”, she asked in that same dewy-voiced pleasant tone with which we were greeted.
“I’ll have a side of eggs and a coffee. Elliott will have a cup of chamomile tea. Anything to eat?” He inquired with a stare so oddly attentive that I forgot I had been looking forward to ordering an omelet since I put on my hoodie and left the comfort of my warm apartment.
Scrambling to get out of the moment, I looked to the waitress.
“Just a side of fruit." I at least managed to crack a smile.
The waitress left, and I opened my backpack. Pulling out a notebook and pen, I asked my new companion, “Do you mind if I write? I usually write when I’m here. I just want it out in case I have an idea I want to write down. I mean, we can still have a conversation.”
Without a word and with a sweep of his arm, he pushed all the condiments to his side of the table, and looked at me with an expression that straddled the line between amusement, annoyance, curiosity, and indifference. It was then that I noted I was being studied. Cataloged. Evaluated.
I opened my notebook slowly to give him a chance to absorb whatever details about me that might have aroused his interest. And in return, I took great care to not flinch away from his stare. It was as if I wanted the observer to know I was not merely a specimen, but a sentient being equally capable of an incisive and penetrating appraisal. My latent competitive spirit found inspiration to ignite for the first time in a very long time.
I watched him watching me for a moment longer and then broke our silence.
“At the risk of devolving into a pretentious conversation, do you read philosophy? Nietzsche? That kind of thing?” I inquired as I rubbed the condensation off of my glass of water.
“Sure. Any reason you ask?”
“Well, you know the line ‘And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you’?”
Jason cocked his head to one side ever so slightly, eyes narrowing just a bit, and took a sip of his water before answering.
“Of course. ’He who fights with monsters’ and so on,” he responded. I was thrilled we were on the same page; he was clearly a man of like mind.
“Right! Exactly. When those two lines are presented together, it makes complete sense. There’s no ambiguity in the interpretation. I just wish I had seen those two lines together when I first read that quote. Context, you know?”
He watched my nervous hands fidget with my glass before responding. “This....is a source of distress for you? Interpreting philosophical text?”
“You don’t even know. I’m embarrassed to tell you what I thought the line meant when I was a much more naïve teenage girl who read philosophy like her life depended on it.”
I forced myself to look up at him.
His eyes softened, and he settled further into the blue vinyl of our booth. “Maybe it did.”
I’m not sure if it was 1. how he said those three words. 2. the fact that I was wrestling with a level of exhaustion that skirted the border of sleep-deprived hallucinations, or 3. that I had just reached an inevitable threshold of emotionality that would have been crossed by the next even innocuous exchange with our waitress about an irrelevant detail of our meal, but this particular moment uncorked my emotions like a precariously shut bottle of agitated carbonated soda.
Just as my dry, tired eyes welled with tears, the waitress appeared with our food and drinks. With one glimpse of my face, she delicately set the food down and made her exit. I appreciated her look of concern. Another one of the reasons I loved this diner.
I looked at my midnight companion again, but this time to really examine. Not as an antagonistic force, but as the man who sat before me.
I guessed he was probably just a few years my senior, in his mid-thirties. He had dark brown hair that looked black in the dim light. His eyes seemed to be brown, as best as I could tell. His face was handsome enough even without his apparent confidence, but it was at this moment that the physical appeal of his features really stood out. Faces are just faces to me, but put them in a context of connection, meaning, and humanity, and the depth and beauty of every topographical feature will jump out into a three-dimensional world that imprints itself onto my memory. And his did.
I cannot say how long we were silent like this, but I noticed that steam was no longer billowing up from my cup of chamomile tea. I took it up in my hands, and began to sip it, mostly to have some sort of buffer between him and me.
Jason shifted the weight of his body and broke the silence.
“I’m sorry. Would you like me to leave?”
“No”, I said in between sips of tea, still refusing to put the cup down.
He started to say something, but I interjected.
“Listen Jason, I don’t know you at all, and this is a bit of an awkward moment. But I’m near delirium from lack of sleep, so just bear with me. The point is I’ve been in this city for a year and a half now and still feel like a stranger in an even stranger land, and my friends are all in different cities and I rarely get to see them. So here’s what I want. I want to assume right now that you are my friend, and that you give a shit, even if just a little, and that you made that comment and that we’re having this situation right now at all because you give a shit, even if just a little. And at this point, I really want to be able to sleep, but for the first time in maybe ever, maybe I don’t want to feel like I don’t want to ever wake up again.”
What I didn’t know at the time was that wasn’t at all the reason we were in that situation. But that’s for a different chapter.
He processed for a second and then, leaning forward, took the cup out of my hand and set it down. “Okay”, he replied in the same gentle manner as he did with those three words I hadn’t realized I needed to hear until he set them afloat on a current of air between us.
I looked out the window. “It’s stopped raining,” I heard myself say.
I looked down at my notebook.
Only three lines were written on the page:
I am not a machine.
I am not a mistake.
I am not a machine.
My eyes started to well up again, but this time a single tear made a suicide run out of the safety of my eye, down my face and onto the nearly empty page.
He examined the notebook, studying the upside down words carefully. With the same deliberate fastidiousness, he reached his hand across the table and rubbed his finger slowly and gently on the wet paper where the tear had crash landed.
And without hesitation, he summoned the waitress, paid in cash, and we left without touching our food.
It was several degrees colder outside now, but at least it was dry. I adjusted my backpack to prepare for the walk home, unsure of the plan or if there was one at all.
“I think we should just walk,” he said, looking up and around while buttoning his coat.
“I guess we could. But it’s really cold. The lobby of my apartment building has a nice little spot with a couple of couches… and most importantly it’s heated. It’s the best of both worlds. I get to get warm without having to invite you into my apartment in case you’re a crazed rapist.”
And without any trace of irony, he replied with:
“I can promise I’ve never raped anyone in my life, and I don’t see picking up that habit now.”
We walked the couple of blocks to my building. He held my backpack while my cold hands struggled to coordinate the keys into the lock. I pushed open the door and took my backpack from him. “Thanks. So where is it that you live?”
“Not too far from here. Those were the couches you were talking about?”
As I collapsed my body onto an inviting nest of plush deep red cushions, he sat down directly across from me on the opposing couch, as if mirroring our positions in the booth at the diner.
With some of his confidence curiously eroded, he said “So, what do you want from a friend?”, stressing the “you” in a way that made it sound like friendship was something you order like a meal.
How do YOU want your burger cooked?
I let out an exaggerated sigh and rolled onto my side so I could face him.
“I just want someone to talk to I guess. Somebody who seems like me. I don’t know. You seem familiar. Not in the sense that I know you from somewhere. Just that you feel familiar.”
He peered at me blankly, but not indifferently. “Like you?”
“Well I’m not saying you’re a woman prone to depression and anxiety who has never recovered from a traumatic childhood and whose adult choices mirror that nightmare over and over again even as she’s clawing futilely to not repeat them,” I declared with a complementary melodramatic arm gesture. I rolled onto my back and shut my eyes, spent from my own theatrics.
He leaned back and outstretched his arm leisurely along the top of the couch. “I am certainly not a woman.” His words were brittle and mocking.
I felt a rush of anger flush my face. Towards him, towards myself, towards my family, towards every half-baked relationship from which I ever extricated myself that left my heart wrung out like a sponge: limp, damp, clammy, and primed for a bacterial invasion that would render every pore of it useless, disposable, and unsalvageable. I propped myself up, and gripped the edge of the cushion I was perched on to blunt the force of words I knew were coming.
you’re not feeling your feelings, Elliott
I’m trying but how does a blind person identify a shade of color they’ve never seen
“I spent years convinced that if I just stopped feeling so much, I might actually find some peace. That if I weren’t trapped in a perpetual state of grief, I might be able to finally ward off the inevitable desire to evaporate into nothingness. How long do you wait until sleep might actually be rest, and not just an endless procession of your mind’s incessant ability to surpass itself in creating intensely terrifying nightmares whose imagery could single-handedly change the course of the entire horror movie genre?”
My throat was raw and dry with tension. My head started to ache. Jason sat motionlessly, eyes fixed on me.
“But you’re not convinced anymore?” he asked flatly.
My anger spiked again.
Stop antagonizing me
Where is the feeling?
Is this multiple choice?
“I fought for every wretched shred of will to live. I surfaced just long enough from what could best be described as the swamps of my distorted emotional world to conclude that I wasn’t safe, and that I had to get out of there. Can you understand that? Anymore of that vice grip of a family was going to kill me. So I ran. And I’ve never stopped running. The sad irony is that I’ve never trusted myself to avoid bad situations, but I’ve always been able to rely on myself to get out of them. How’s that for a useless talent?”
“So you’re not convinced anymore?” he asked again with the same infuriating flatness.
“What?” I snapped. The blood rushed in angry rapids through my now throbbing head.
emotions are simple
Not to me
He raised an eyebrow at my tone, but continued. “But you’re not convinced anymore that you should just stop, as you said, ‘feeling so much’?”
“Oh,” I replied with the poise of a derailed train car.
My throat relaxed, and I leaned back as some of my intensity loosened. “I don’t know. It’s hard to think. I’m tired. It’s amazing what that will do to an unintentionally nihilistic and impossibly self-determined ill-fated trajectory,” I said.
(Another one of my displays of deliberate affectation.)
He squinted his eyes and crossed one leg over the other. “Elliott, it’s nearly impossible to follow this trail of bullshit.”
I was again incensed. “Bullshit? How is that fair to say when I…”
“Shut up for a minute,” he said, cutting me off with a sharpness that had only been hinted at earlier.
His expectation of unquestioning compliance was clear. I instantly acquiesced, suspended in a state of anger and confusion. He looked at his watch briefly and continued.
“It’s not that you don’t feel too much, it’s that you don’t feel enough, which I’m gathering is a fact you’re at least starting to recognize on some level. You’re well-read, you’re bright, you’re very clever. But you are obviously clueless to anything more basic. Seems to me the most brutal legacy your past left was an inability to register simple emotions that other humans feel like clockwork. Your compass has been, for lack of a better analogy, demagnetized. The bad decisions and arrogance along the way, well, that’s your own damn fault. If you want my opinion, if you stopped romanticizing your slow suicide and spent less time lamenting the futility of your overly analytical mind, you’d realize the whole thing is a lazy strategy. You’re not a victim of horrible circumstances at this point, Elliott. You’re simply a victim of a lazy strategy of survival that you’ve desperately married yourself to, even as it is ready to leave you for dead.”
Time appeared to slow down as I watched Jason get up and walk over to me.
What is it? Sadness? Anger?
What was the question?
Picking up my backpack, he heaved me up by my arm and demanded, “What apartment do you live in?”
“24. But I….” He thrust his hand into my left jacket pocket and pulled out my keys.
Into the elevator, up to the second floor. Down the hall. Past 21 and the sound of the Chihuahua barking. Past the trash chute. Past 22 and the sound of late night sex. Past the fake plant. Past 23 and the sound of a baby crying over the muffled drone of a sitcom rerun. Past the fire alarm was my apartment.
He opened the door, and ushered me in. I was in a haze but remember his scent. No cologne. Unobtrusive, clean, and male.
He put my backpack and keys on a chair and took off my jacket.
Standing in front of me in the dark with only moonlight pouring through the window behind him, he was a silhouette. An outline of a person of whom I knew nothing. He removed his coat, gently took my hand, and placed it on his upper arm. “Squeeze,” he instructed.
“Not like it’s bruised and you’re being careful. But like you want to bruise it.”
I squeezed harder.
“Again, but this time imagine it’s the arm of anyone who has ever hurt you, ever betrayed you, ever fell short of your expectations, ever left you, ever did not give you what you wanted or needed from them.”
Heat rose up from my spine and into my skull. My hand tingled and I squeezed. At first it was just the muscular arm of a man, but then I felt skin, I felt flesh, I felt the vulnerable and penetrable quality of it.
“Elliott, you give what is flesh and bone and fallible so much power over you. You’re looking for character and soul in a world largely devoid of it. And maybe you are one of the few who tries to embody some lofty ideal of universal dignity, but it doesn’t exist outside of your books. There is only a chain. And the apex predators at the top and the prey at the bottom get it the easiest: to be one or the other. Then there is every other sad sack of shit in the middle who must live with the contemptible reality that they are both predator and prey, and the only difference in these roles is the bite, size, and sting of the foe they are facing. They cower and run in the face of a larger opponent, and, given the opportunity, will strike out at a weaker one. There is no commitment to an identity. Just a temporary fling with a momentary role.”
I hated nature films as a kid. Why anyone would willingly film or watch one animal rip another beyond recognition was beyond me. What a horrifying proposition.
“I’m definitely the prey,” I weakly quipped.
He suddenly took my left hand from off his arm, and brought it brusquely together with my right. With one hand pinning both of my hands together, he gently enveloped my throat. I stood still, limp and paralyzed, but never took my eyes off of his, even in near darkness.
“That. That right there is exactly what I see. You are a futile combination of both extremes. You are equally committed to both identities without being any good at either. Somehow you’ve survived, though poorly. But, despite your confusion, you’ve never slid into the opportunistic shape shifting hyena so readily embraced by much of the world.”
I pulled one of my hands out of his and feebly gripped his forearm. Though his fingers were clenched around my throat with only a fraction of their strength, I was powerless to move them.
“So what does that make me?” I asked bleakly.
“Great. I’ll let my therapist know you think so.”
He let go of my throat and took a step back away from me.
“It also makes you potential.”
“Potential for what?”
“Most anything. Go to bed. Get some sleep. I will be here at eleven tomorrow morning to pick you up.”
“‘As Elliott awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, she found herself transformed in her bed into a gigantic insect-like creature,’” I croaked.
“But at least you’ll have slept. See you in the morning.” He picked up his coat and left.
I never made it to my bed. I sat down on my couch underneath the large drapeless window, and slowly fell into it. Surrendering to the moonlit night sky, the sound of the heater, and the vast ocean of feelings and thoughts in which I was struggling not to drown, the stars went out one by one as I was consumed by a sleep that spirited me away into the depths of my unconscious. I dreamt of surreal landscapes: emerald planets, ephemeral will-o-the wisps flittering in and out of my line of sight, movement unobstructed by gravity, and multiple purple moons. In it I was floating, searching for Jason in a fictional intergalactic multiverse that intimated the kind of infinite possibilities for which I had no idea I was capable.