My Almost Date With A Serial Killer

For starters I was his type, a lean, long-haired brunette. And we had proximity, both of us were at the University of Washington at the same time. Although he was older than me, we both graduated in 1972. Plus I was into older guys. We would’ve passed each other on the paths between buildings, crisscrossing the quad, and later, Mt. Rainier rising in the distance behind us like a great white ghost, we might’ve sat near each other on the bench around the fountain, a respectable space apart.

He probably wouldn’t have had friends who’d introduce us, although I hear he was quite the charmer when he wanted to be. So maybe I drop my pen and he picks it up for me, flashing his smile, those dazzling white teeth. Impressive alignment, good orthodontia, a parent must’ve loved him enough at one time to put braces on them. He’s a bit movie-starish for my taste, clean-cut and chiseled, expensive hair; I was more into grunge—bearded hippies with ponytails, bell-bottoms riding their hipbones. But I had a thing for loners, sensitive-seeming guys, as it was usually the aggressive, overtly sexual ones who went for me. What I’m saying is, I would’ve smiled back.

Maybe Ted and I arrange to meet at the Last Exit after classes are done for the day. Turns out his schedule syncs with mine; how about that for a coincidence! Serendipitous, I might’ve said in a flirtatious voice, he might’ve winked. So later we’re drinking our Constant Comment tea—mine with a little milk and sugar but he’s all about the straight. I order their scrumptious cinnamon apple pie à la mode, ask him if he’d like a bite. He would, he says, a big one.

He leans over the table closer to me, something a little sharp on his breath, cloying, a hint of formaldehyde? Which do you prefer, he asks me, crowbars, ropes, or handcuffs? Definitely the ropes and handcuffs, I tell him. I’m thinking sex play scenarios. Hard to imagine how a crowbar would enhance an afternoon’s delight. How about deserted trails? he asks. You like the Cascade mountains?

Oh Ted, I’d say. I love a man who’s into the wilderness.

Truth of the matter is I was way too busy being hung up on someone else to go scouting our campus for hot looking serial killers, and this someone else in turn loved someone else. I mean, how to introduce Ted into all of that? My boyfriend’s girlfriend was named Uma Calabrese. Calabrese, I said, what kind of a name is Calabrese? Like my mom always asked when I brought some guy home. Ching? she’d say, what kind of a name is Ching? Only she’d make two syllables out of it, cause duh, it’s obviously Chinese. Which was her point. She wanted me to date white boys, but I said that limited the playing field too much. Being a tall girl already cut out a good three quarters of the male dating population; you have no idea how many short guys there are until you believe you can only date dudes your height or taller, which was the perception back then, some 1970’s social decorum hanger-on from the 1800’s. My theory? So we couldn’t peer down at their prematurely balding heads.

Ted was 5’10 and that’s cutting it close, as I was too, which meant for our date I’d have to wear a completely flat sandal—I’m picturing him as the type who’d be into gladiator sandals on women, the way those leather straps wrap up the ankle and around the calf. I see him using his dazzling teeth on those puppies, taking the strap into his mouth and unraveling it right on down the leg. Now if I was into tall serial killers, I’d have gone for Edmund Emil Kemper III at 6’9”! He was known as the coed killer, and I would’ve been a coed right about the time he was gunning for us. He has a high IQ, 145, which might be why he liked college girls. Who knows? Before he dismembered them perhaps he had a stimulating intellectual conversation with them, asked them their opinions about the Vietnam War, quoted Sartre, Nietzsche, weighed in on Einstein’s contribution to quantum theory.

Back to Uma Calabrese. When I asked my boyfriend what kind of a name Calabrese was, he said it’s Italian, that the Calabreses are the only Italians in Fertile, Iowa, where he’s from (Fertile, Iowa, I kid you not!). I said, huh, that’s weird, it’s not like there’s a shortage of Italians in America, is there? I mean hell, look at all the Olive Garden restaurants pimpling the American landscape, although in those days it was probably The Old Spaghetti Factory. He said Uma told him Calabrese meant oyster, and there was definitely a shortage of oysters in Iowa. Well, I’d give him that, though Uma sounds like a Swedish name, I said. When I told my mom about my boyfriend—that we call him Fink because his last name is Finkelstein, my mom said, oh, Jewish. How did you ever meet him? As if it would take some strategizing to meet a potential Jewish boyfriend in a university with 32,000 undergrads enrolled.

I met Fink in a friend’s dorm room our first year at UW, and he invited me to a Grateful Dead concert the next night. Figured I owed him after that, I mean it was The Dead, for chrissake, so when we got back I took him to my dorm room and had sex with him. Those were the times, and concerts weren’t cheap, you felt like you should contribute something to the occasion. He was immensely grateful; said he’d never even seen his girlfriend’s naked body. One thing led to another and during our second year he moved out of the dorms into an apartment, then invited me to come live with him. He told me—just to be upfront, he said—that while he’d forever be in love with Uma Calabrese, he and I could still have some fun, he said, as he’s peeling off my jeans.

I don’t think being Jewish meant one thing or another to Fink, he wasn’t a religious guy. But the thing that drove him into a frenzied passion, like you might get with some of those revivalist types, where they’re all babbling in tongues and waving their arms about like a bunch of grasshoppers, is how badly he wanted to have sex with Uma Calabrese.

As Fink told it, Uma came from a long line of over-achieving Calabrese sisters, we’re talking a Harvard educated physicist, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, a renowned heart surgeon, the person who invented DIY carpet cleaners, and then there was Uma, who’d shown no particular talent or aptitude for anything. Uma was one of those beautiful depressed girls, whose perfectly symmetrical face, with large, almond shaped hazel eyes, stared mournfully out of the frame on Fink’s nightstand. She had a precious little throat with a string of pearls around it, and I fantasized sometimes, after Fink had pulled out of me, rolled over and fell asleep, reaching into that frame and yanking those pearls so tight around that smooth little throat I’m choking her. I mean what the hell, is it sadness that’s so seductive to guys like Fink? When you look at the pictures of Ted’s victims most of them are smiling. Well, maybe that’s one of the differences between a sociopathic serial killer and your everyday melancholic depressive.

Or I could’ve introduced her to Ted. Her hair was a pale, honey brown—he generally went for a darker brown—but no way was she a blonde, and she was eating-disorder slim, far as I could see, the girth of a stalk of wheat. Ted, I’d say, meet Uma Calabrese. She’s from the only Italian family in Fertile, Iowa.

I think one of the biggest reasons Fink was so obsessed with Uma was because she wouldn’t give it up. She’s too depressed, he’d say, like this was an acceptable rationale for holding onto your virginity. I’m pretty sure Fink was thinking of her when he was doing me. I must’ve seemed like a slut-for-all-seasons compared to Uma. But I let him think it. Don’t get me wrong, not a day went by that I didn’t want to steal her picture off his nightstand and drown it in the bathtub. But I couldn’t quit him. His wonderful hands, I mean I was even into the guitar calluses on his fingers, and his smell—god, how did a guy smell that good? It was like some aphrodisiac that rendered me brainless, all logic flew out of my head when he was on top of me, including when he suggested doing nude photos of me because I was so hot, he said, which years later showed up on-line at a pay-per-view site, and my colleague at a former Meaningless-Day-Job (who shouldn’t have been on said-site, so we had a mutual shut-up agreement not to mention it), told me he saw nude photos of me.

Ted would’ve never done this; he was all about covering up the evidence. Although apparently during his later years in Florida, he kept some decapitated heads around in his apartment, displaying them on a shelf like trophies. That was when he let his ego get the better of him, the impulse to show off, always a hazard in one’s career trajectory.

Then one day Fink comes home from his classes early, while I’m trying to scrape together ingredients for a spaghetti sauce, using a stray can of tomato soup we had lying around with V8 juice as the base. This would definitely not be a Calabrese family staple. How about Bacos? I ask him, you think Bacos could work in the sauce?

Fink shrugs, says he’s not really hungry, then says he has something to tell me. He motions me to follow him into our living room, sits down on the couch, then lifts his guitar off the coffee table and starts plucking random chords, which he does when he wants to avoid my eyes, gazing at frets instead.

What? I ask him.

Uma’s coming to visit for the three-day weekend, he says, raptly examining his fingers as they slide down the guitar’s strings.

Here? I say, like in this apartment?

He nods, looks sad—Fink’s good at that, being a depressive, only his moodiness is all about not being able to lay Uma, which he equates with a deeply tragic love for her. He plays songs on his guitar about unrequited love, mournful, whining ballads, where would-be lovers end up dying of a broken heart, or a really gory accident.

Then he asks me if I could stay somewhere else while she’s here, so she doesn’t know he’s living with another chick.

My eyebrows practically shoot off my forehead. But what about all my stuff? I ask (like this is my only concern with the plan!).

Could you take it with you, Lizzie? he says.

I look around. There’s my clothes in the closet, my shoes all over the place, depending on where they land when I kick them off, ditto socks, books with my name in them scattered throughout our brick-and-board shelves, sprawled haphazard on the floor, short piles of them like stacks of pancakes on the dining room table, pictures of me, my family, girl décor here and there, including a lavender and pink queen-sized quilt on the bed. Also, I don’t have a car to put any of this in.

You going to steal me a Foodland shopping basket? I say. You expect me to walk down the Ave dragging this shit, my quilt, a suitcase full of my clothes and another with all my books?

No worries on the books, he says, like he’s already figured everything out—I’ll just tell her I got them at a used bookstore.

You’ll get cold in bed without the quilt, I say dumbly.

I don’t argue or pitch a fit. Technically it is his apartment, his name’s on the lease, though I pay him half the rent every month like clockwork. I don’t even show him how much he’s killing me inside, like how during the weekend he went home to see her I about cried myself to death. Every time I thought about his beautiful hands holding hers, Uma inhaling his scent, I died a little more. But you get used to tucking these feelings away, sweeping them under the bed because, OK, I’ve been with enough guys to know that love scares the crap out of them, not their own love—when they are in love they act like they’re the only person in the world who’s ever felt this way—but the idea of someone loving them, they’re lacing up their running shoes. And since I’m in love with Fink, but he’s in love with Uma, the only part of this sick equation that’s unanswered is who’s Uma Calabrese in love with?

So instead of fighting a losing battle I suggest we join forces, pool our resources so to speak and pretend I’m his dead brother’s former girlfriend—make that fiancé—from when he was a student at UI, who came to Seattle for a job interview and needed a place to stay. He can hardly turn me away now, can he? Being it’s his dead brother and all. We can put sheets on the couch, I tell him, hide my other shit, and I’ll take my clothes out of the closet and stuff them into a suitcase, make it look authentic. In return I would score Fink some righteous weed (it was the seventies after all and Fink was a devotee) and advise him on matters of love, ways of encouraging Uma to want to be with him.

For clarification, his dead brother Jonny wasn’t technically dead, we didn’t think. He wrote a rambling letter to the family agonizing about how he could no longer be part of such a “brutal and unethical enterprise,” and then went AWOL from the Vietnam War. His dad said Jonny brought shame to the family, that no Finkelstein runs from a fight or from his country; then his dad said that Jonny is dead to us. Which made his mom start drinking and crying a lot, while his dad just yelled at his mom about how ashamed and saddened he was. Listening to Fink tell all this I thought how you would never have guessed there’d be so many depressed people in Fertile, Iowa. I mean, who took the heart out of the heartland? I asked Fink.

Fertile takes its wars seriously, he said.

So, Fink picks up Uma from the bus station, then drives her back to our apartment building where I’m peeking behind the curtains, watching her get out of his car. She’s in a short, belted wool coat that fits her like shrink-wrap; it barely covers her tiny skirt, from which two skinny, black stocking-shrouded legs dangle like strings of licorice. Her hair glistens in the winter sunlight like she’s sprouted a head of tinsel. As I hear them coming up the back stairs, I panic. What if she asks me stuff about the University of Iowa, places me and Jonny went to that sort of thing? I’ve never even been to Iowa. Also, how in god’s name do I fulfill my promise to Fink, advising him about ways of encouraging her to want to sleep with him? Well, technically that shouldn’t be hard as there really isn’t any other place for her to sleep, since I’ve got the couch. But he expects me to wave a magic wand, something that will make her want him in that bed?

In retrospect, I’m thinking, what would Ted have done in this situation? I’m guessing he had no problems getting women to sleep with him, I mean if you’re readily equipped with rope, a crowbar and handcuffs. He’d just bludgeon them, handcuff them and tie them up; apparently, he’d even removed the backseat from his VW Beetle so they could lie down on the floor—no was not an option.

Hell, if he hadn’t been such a psycho, we really were a good match—I even drove a VW Beetle during my college years at UW! It was a pretty ancient one though, 1957, his was a 1968. One night I was asked to give my aging and rather portly poetry professor a ride home in my VW bug from a reading event, and since the door on the passenger side was permanently jammed, he had to slide his considerable bulk over the handbrake between two torn-up seats to land in the passenger seat. Once he caught his breath, though still wheezing a bit, he asked me if I had named my car and I said no. He suggested Adelaide Crapsey. “The absolute worst poetess in America, back in the 19th century,” he decreed. He thought my VW Beetle was at least as decrepit as that. I suppose Ted’s would’ve felt like a Mercedes-Benz in comparison.

Once inside our apartment, Fink introduces me to Uma at the top of the stairs, and when she offers me her cool little hand to shake, I notice her perfectly manicured nails, like shiny pink shells, and a tinkling gold charm bracelet with unicorns on a wrist the size of the tube in a roll of toilet paper. Wow, I thought, who even wears charm bracelets anymore? That’s how we rolled in Mill Valley, California, anyway, but apparently not in Fertile, Iowa.

Uma Calabrese felt like she was from another planet—how could she date a babe like Fink and not want him? Plus, come on, wearing unicorns on your wrist when you’re twenty? I could only imagine what Ted might’ve thought of her; well, actually I couldn’t. She’d either be the ultimate prey or he wouldn’t bother, too easy. The guy was smart, if a sadistic motherfucker.

Scoring weed meant walking up and down The Ave, with its cafes, pubs, bookstores, and theatres, its townies, druggies, frat boys and failing UW students, looking like you’re in for a score. Then the dealers whisper their wares, mostly pot, LSD, psilocybin, speed, even poppers. Although asking for those could get you in trouble, as they are a known sex drug, amyl nitrate (when it’s not being used for heart patients). I’m looking for my friend, Paul, who’s failing UW and actively dealing when he’s not going to his classes. Eventually I run into him and he sells me a lid of pot. You expecting a busy night? he winks. I roll my eyes. Not for me, I say.

Back at the apartment while Uma’s taking a shower, I give the pot to Fink. He says he’s had a change of heart, and no way can he be the one to get her stoned—she has to want me straight, he says, and she has to initiate things. Wait, I say, you had me buy you pot to get Uma high, so she’d desire you? He shrugs, well not when you put it that way. Then he says, but what about you, Lizzie? Could you do it, smoke with her?

Me? I say. What, I suddenly appear with a joint when you’re about to go to bed and invite her to smoke? No, I shake my head. I said I’d score you some weed because you love good weed, I didn’t say I’d get Uma to smoke it, so she’d have sex with you. Well, you said you’d encourage her, he tells me. Yeah! I snort, like maybe pointing out how hot your biceps are from playing your guitar, that kind of encouragement! I’m not as amoral as you seem to think.

A sudden vivid memory of my mother calling me that, amoral, but it was about death, not sex. My baby brother had just started walking at eleven months old; someone hadn’t secured the latch properly on the stairway gate and he fell down the stairs. There were only about four stairs—a split entry house—and he seemed fine, didn’t even cry much. Our mom put him down for a nap and he never woke up. He’d hit his head apparently, though it didn’t even look bruised. I was eight, old enough to understand that death meant gone forever, and I loved my brother. My sister and I used to play house with him, and I’d schlep him around like he was my doll. But for some reason I couldn’t cry, not even at his funeral. Weeks later a scrawny, starved looking cat started hanging out on our porch, and when my mom refused to let me feed her or bring her inside, I broke down and howled. Lizzie, she snapped, you didn’t cry when your baby brother died but you cry for a stray cat? That’s positively amoral.

Well, me neither, Fink says, I’m not amoral, and I tell him I know this about him. And I do, damnit! God help me but I’m crazy about this guy. I tell him maybe if he leaves a joint on the night table, she’ll light it up herself before crawling into bed. Or maybe just lying next to him will be enough for her to want him, I say. I mean, the chick isn’t entirely devoid of hormones, is she?

At that moment Uma waltzes out of the bathroom in a cloud of sweet-smelling mist. She’s in a pink chenille robe with matching slippers that have bunnies on them, her hair wrapped in an aqua towel. Sleep tight, I whisper to Fink, then head for the living room couch. The vision of them strolling into the bedroom together and closing the door would kill me; figured I better be the first to exit while I still had breath.

I fell asleep immediately, having underestimated the strength of Paul’s pot, which I sampled, of course, before giving it to Fink. Paul’s Plus, he called it. The way I remembered it, it gave me a crazy dream, featuring the badass serial killers of the late sixties and seventies, Ted, Kemper, Son of Sam, and even Charlie Manson! Charlie’s a gun and knife man, and Son of Sam was also a gun guy, whereas the other two were into bludgeoning, along with their various tools for dismembering. And rope, lots of rope. Then I see a soldier behind a tree, figure even in the dream it’s got to be Jonny, though I’d never seen an actual snapshot of him. I’m worried about him though; he’s got Fink’s soulful face, and clearly some considerable ethical and moral concerns about the war, what if he steps into a bad scene with these psychopaths? I see he’s got an AK-47 on his shoulder and I realize he’s going to take them out! Jonny, the serial killer killing superhero! They’ll love that in Fertile, Iowa. I see a parade in our boy’s future.

The next morning at breakfast I’m looking from one to the other of them, trying to see something that will give me a read on how the night in our bed went. Uma’s in her pink robe and Fink’s cooked up a pan of oatmeal, then pours us all a cup of coffee.

So, I say to Uma, did you sleep OK? Fink shakes his head and frowns.

Oh yes, she says, like a log. That was such a long bus ride from Fertile.

Uh huh, I say, well I don’t know if you’re a pot smoker, but they say along with giving you a good time it helps you sleep.

She giggles. Oh, I don’t need any of that sort of thing. I’ve got my natural high. I raise an eyebrow at Fink. Either this girl is so depressed she doesn’t know she’s depressed, or he’s pegged her entirely wrong. How did you sleep? I ask him.

He glares, just fine, he says. No regrets.

I pick up all our cups and bowls to do the dishes, and as I reach for Uma’s she lays that cool, manicured hand with the dangling unicorns on my wrist. I’m so sorry about Jonny, she says in a low, whispery voice, as if she doesn’t want Fink to hear.

I smile at her, then at Fink. I don’t know what you’re talking about, I tell her. Haven’t you heard? Jonny is a real-live superhero!

That was all a long time ago, of course. I moved out of Fink’s apartment that spring, into an extra bedroom Paul had in his. Paul got his shit together, stopped dealing drugs and failing out of school and I started dating him. Those days. One moment you’re desperately in love and the next you’ve moved on.

Fink never came back to the university after our sophomore year. The summer after my junior year I was back in Marin County doing retail at a trendy little clothes shop in San Rafael, earning money for my senior year, and I came home to a call from one of my college friends—she’d heard that Fink killed himself; that’s why he never came back to school, she said. That made me sad for quite a while, poor bastard, he really had been hopelessly lovesick, like in the ballads he strummed on his guitar. Uma Calabrese, who’d left our apartment after the long weekend was over, unicorns and chastity intact.

I don’t know if Jonny ever made it home again to Fertile, if they’d welcome him if he did. At some point, a decade or two after graduating, I realized I couldn’t have had the serial killers killing superhero dream when I thought I had it, as at least one of the killers hadn’t been captured yet. It was 1975 when Bundy was caught, the first time, and maybe I had the dream then, but remembered it later as being part of the Uma Calabrese weekend. Long-term memory is a fickle thing, somewhere between the real and the wish. Maybe something in me needed to redeem Jonny. He understood Vietnam was not his fight. Sometimes courage means not sticking around. Chalk it up to the craziness of the times, the powerful pot, the hopelessness of loving someone who loved someone else. I don’t recall what I dreamt that night, maybe nothing. Maybe I slept the sleep of the dead.

Ted Bundy was executed in 1989, in the electric chair at Florida State Prison. His biographer described him as a “sadistic sociopath who took pleasure from another human’s pain and the control he had over his victims….” At the end he’d lost his appetite, it seemed, as not only did he refuse to specify a last meal the morning of his execution, when they gave him one anyway, a traditional breakfast of steak, two eggs over easy, toast with jelly, milk, juice and coffee, he never even took a bite. I wonder if he smelled the lingering aroma of this meal as they marched him toward his death: cooked meat, eggs growing cold and gelatinous, the dark, burnt scent of the coffee.

Years later and growing old, with sorrow so thick in my throat sometimes it feels like I’ve grown a second tongue, I’m thinking about my own losses one evening—a husband who left me, our son who became a drug addict, only comes home when he needs money, my parents who died in a car accident, just days after 9/11, baby brother, long gone, and last summer a heart attack stole my sister. Seems like more leavings in my life than I had imagined possible. I visualize the porch of the home I grew up in, and I see my mother pacing it, back and forth like she did after losing my baby brother. She would walk and stare out at Mt. Tamalpais, her arms wrapped around his baby blanket, humming, pacing, rocking a bit as she walked, as if she could still hold him, safely asleep in her arms. She never did quite recover from that loss, what happens sometimes when the ones we love are gone too soon.

I open my messages on my laptop and see a new contact request from a Mark Finkelstein. It takes me a few minutes, we never called him Mark, plus I had believed him dead! But it’s him, it’s Fink. Moved out of Fertile, his message says, living in the Colorado Front Range. Was just checking, he wrote, after all these years, to see who’s still around.

Staring at the message, trying to decide if I want to respond, I’m struck by a vision of Fink, hunkered down on our old couch, a rare Seattle late afternoon sunlight slanting into the window, illuminating the room in a golden haze, dust motes like tiny stars drifting over his head. He had just finished explaining to me about the quality of his acoustic guitar, its type of wood, the shape of its slender neck, and had begun strumming the guitar; his look of concentration, brows knitting together into an almost frown, became soon enough a kind of rapture, trancelike, as he worked his way into a blues tune, eyes closing, fingers flying up and down the neck. At that moment he was not yearning for Uma, missing his lost brother Jonny, or even conscious of me, watching him. The weary world of wars, both overseas and of the heart had disappeared. Nothing but the music, those long, spidery fingers plucking at the strings, dancing over the frets.


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