“Hmm,” Karen Raylor says as she takes another bite. The mushroom tacos are delicious, but she has to decide what to tell Rochelle about herself. Rochelle has made a great impression. Karen likes her and wants to share something. She quickly deliberates between her dead husband Brad, her beloved Nana, and Mercer. By the time she swallows her mouthful, she’s decided.
Karen takes a small drink of water, swishing it to dislodge any taco bits that might be stuck in her teeth. She knows the action is kind of goofy, but she hasn’t felt self-conscious about doing it in many years.
“I also have history with an ex,” she starts. “A bad-news kind of ex, like your ‘Joe’. I’m going to call him ‘Mercer’ because that’s the jerk’s name.”
Rochelle snickers, but Karen feels that she shouldn’t have lowered herself to using a derogatory label with someone she’s just met. Nothing happens in a vacuum, Nana had told her. If you let yourself be angry or petty in one moment, it’s easier to be angry or petty in the next, and you might spread that negativity to others. Also, dear, try to focus on positive things and always look for the good in people.
Karen feels a bit irked at recalling that particular advice and thinks, There’s nothing good in Mercer, Nana. The guy’s a toxic landfill.
Now, Karen, she can imagine her grandma saying, everybody has good in them. Find it and embrace it. If they mistreat you, get them out of your life like you did with Mercer, but don’t write them off as ‘all bad’. Thinking of even a single person as ‘all bad’ can erode your view of the world and wither your desire to be part of it.
Karen’s not sure if she agrees with Nana’s assessment this time, but she’s already paused the conversation for a few seconds longer than she should have, and she doesn’t want to stretch the silence into awkwardness.
“Well, I met Mercer when I was twenty-one. I had dated a few guys by then, but they were nice, as was mostly everyone else I had spent time with, except for a few kids in grade school. You know.” Rochelle smiles, clearly understanding.
“Mercer was different,” Karen continues. “I mean, I thought he was nice at first, but it was really just a headstrong passion for life that came from doing whatever he felt like. That, and he liked my body, so he gave me attention, but only moderate attention. Guys before him, even though they had pleasant demeanors, always seemed like they were thinking about sex. Mercer seemed to have more control of his impulses, like he was interested in sex some of the time but could ignore it other times. Turned out he could be just as feverish about it as other guys that age (he was twenty-five at the time). Yeah, just as feverish… but also clingy. Sex with him was great during but weird and needy after.
“Anyway, Mercer totally tilted my worldview. He was just so sure of himself, and almost everything he suggested seemed like fun. It truly was one of those whirlwind romances. At the same time, he had this darkness about him, magnified by the neediness that only surfaced after we had sex. But I was totally okay with his dark side. In fact, it only seemed to make the relationship better. I’m naturally a nurturer and a fixer, and before him, I had helped many friends with their problems. I picked up a lot of advice and insights from my grandma Nana, and I like to listen and observe, so people just open up to me. Unfortunately, although I didn’t know it at the time, I had become arrogant in my ability to help others, and I thought I could help anyone. Mercer was the first person who seemed to resist my armchair-therapist babbling. Sometimes I did help, and other times he would get mad at me, but that only made me want to help even more, like I just wasn’t doing it right and could help him with anything if only I could do it better.
“Well, within a few months, we were sneaking off to Vegas to get married. That trip was the perfect culmination of our relationship to that point. He called most of the shots, and we did all kinds of crazy things, at least things that were crazy for me: gambling, drinking, messing with strippers. It was exhilarating even while the back of my mind was waving a hundred red flags. We got matching tattoos — each one a snake winding around a heart — right before going to a chapel.”
“Wow,” Rochelle says, her eyebrows up. Karen can tell she’s sympathetic with present-day Karen, not judgmental of what past Karen did.
“Yeah. Well, that was about the end of the whirlwind. In fact, the change was almost immediate. We went back to our hotel to consummate the marriage, and instead of having our usual sex that was physically great followed by him getting clingy, he started by saying I was a dirty bitch and that he was going to treat me like one. I laughed at first until I saw he was serious. Then he hit me and forced the encounter. Thankfully, it ended almost immediately. He went to the bathroom to clean up and I redressed in about ten seconds and bolted from the room barefoot with my purse. He probably thought he had too much of a mental hold on me for me to run, and I even surprised myself by having the courage to do it, but I tell you Rochelle, if I hadn’t, he probably would have killed me within a year. But, back to the hotel.
“I was just to the end of the hall when he yelled, ‘KAREN!’, and I was so used to following his lead that I stopped and fell over as I turned around. The mask of rage and murder on his face was scarier than anything I’ve ever seen or heard of, worse than any psycho or monster in any movie. I thought he was going to kill me right there on the floor of that hotel. He yelled again as he started sprinting, even louder, which thankfully brought several people out of their rooms. One was a man who was apparently experienced in fighting, because he tripped Mercer, who fell hard. He came up screaming, just totally out of his mind, and charged. The man uppercutted Mercer’s jaw and punched him in the stomach so hard that Mercer fell over and puked.
“Like you with Joe, that was my exit. The people who helped me called the police, who came while I was still a sniveling mess. They hauled Mercer to jail, him struggling and yelling my name. Within a few days, I was heading back home, marriage annulled. I got the tattoo lasered off after it healed. Mercer stayed in Vegas, earning nine months in prison for assaulting me and resisting arrest.
“The story made its way here to Riverside. Despite our city being large, it was kind of a thing for a few weeks, and I had to stop answering the door because of reporters. There was a brief resurgence when Mercer got back six months later.”
“Only six?” Rochelle asks.
“Yeah, it surprised me too. Got out early for good behavior. I was floored by that. Mercer, good behavior? The same Mercer who did whatever he wanted? Guess he learned how to put on appearances in prison, but I never believed for a second that he had magically become some kind of good citizen.
“Anyway, when he came back, I had to deal with a few reporters again, but that was it. I didn’t hear from him in any way. I continued leaning on family and friends, and I slowly healed, but I had a skepticism for life that was lacking before. I was still positive and wanted to help others, but I knew that I shouldn’t align myself with people too quickly and that I couldn’t help everyone.”
“Life can be a harsh teacher,” Rochelle says.
Karen chuckles. “It sure can.”
“Thanks for sharing that, especially after mentioning that you usually don’t align yourself with people too quickly anymore.”
“Not usually,” Karen says, smiling before leaning over her plate to take another bite.
After recounting her youthful relationship with Mercer, Karen feels the gravity of it crouched on her back like a gargoyle. Rochelle seems to sense it and keeps the remaining conversation topics light. By the end of lunch, the gargoyle has vanished, and the women have shared a few heartfelt laughs. They part ways, saying they’ll see each other again at class next week.
As Karen drives home, the fall day turns gloomy with a moderate rainstorm. Tree bark soaks up the countless drops, turning darker and making the brilliant colors of the slowly dying leaves stand out even more vividly. Karen meanders, in no hurry to get home. One street is lined by twin rows of elderly maples, their sprawling branches creating a magnificent yellow blaze. The sight of bright yellow leaves against rain-soaked branches is one of Karen’s favorites, and nostalgia surges in her mind. It brings back a chain of some of her best memories, all of them in the fall: trick-or-treating as a kid, wandering pumpkin patches with her mom and dad, baking pies with Nana, the casual, back-road trips with Brad. It’s the happiest Karen has felt since Nana died a week earlier.
The memories are their own rainstorm, soaking and nourishing her mind. But, like all storms, it ends, and her thoughts return to the present. She’s dismayed to realize that Mercer weighs heavily upon her again, the gargoyle back in place. Karen tries pushing him to the thick, soundproof prison cell in the back of her mind, but it doesn’t work; he’s already there, or at least his voice is. She realizes it’s not his persona she’s battling, but rather the memories of what he did fifteen years earlier. Stepping back from her own thoughts and feelings as they grow more bleak, Karen understands that she’s actually grappling with her own persona from the past, the Karen of twenty-one who was vibrant and trusting and naive and thought she could fix Mercer Evans but instead went sliding down slopes of enticing chaos into a pit of helplessness.
Karen Raylor practices her deep breathing.
In, slowly. Relax the sinuses and the muscles of the head.
Out, slowly. Unclench the abdomen.
In, slowly. Loosen the fierce grip on the steering wheel.
Calm body. Calm mind.
Karen continues her relaxation breathing all the way home, soaking in the visuals of the trees only with her subconscious mind, driving on autopilot. She’s simultaneously detached from her body and fully aware of it; the same is true for her awareness of the other cars and people she sees. She feels like the most careless driver in the world and also the most cautious.
When Karen enters her home and repeatedly runs her hand down the back of the jubilant Mr. Totsley, she’s still so peaceful that the real world almost seems an oddity. Checking herself, she knows she needs to do something to plug back into it. Her first thought is a movie, which she dismisses. Escapism won’t help me reconnect, she thinks. But, the idea of cleaning the house or spending time in her stained glass art studio seem uninteresting to the point of disgust, and her mind keeps returning to a movie.
Well fine, she thinks. A movie it is.
“Come on, Tots,” Karen says as she walks to the kitchen to get some water before heading to the living room. “Let’s find a movie.” The cat meows his excitement, although Karen knows he cares more about the bag of treats on the microwave than her collection of movies, and she enjoys giving him a small handful.
Kneeling on the floor, the eight doors of her wide, custom-built movie cabinet open, Karen looks at the genre labels.
Chapter 7 Choice: What kind of movie should Karen watch?
- Adventure (20%)
- Comedy (20%)
- Dark Comedy (20%)
- Drama (0%)
- Romantic Comedy (40%)
This poll closed on November 27th, 2017.