Some of you will remember this story. It was ten years ago, and I was employed then as a forensic psychologist in Marin County. Much of my work involved talking to criminals, then testifying as to their sanity in a court of law. On the afternoon this all began, for example — that afternoon when I blacked out in Sara Johnson’s apartment — I was scheduled to examine a man who’d been accused of strangling his wife.
Because of that incident, and all that has happened since, I know many people will be suspicious of anything I put down here. Jake Danser is not to be trusted, they will say. I have ulterior motives. I pretend to be whole-hearted, confessing minor flaws to hide a deeper evil.
I am not innocent of everything, I admit. I was thirty-seven years old then, vain in the way of men at that stage of life, wanting to own the world and feeling that I’d reached a pivot point, a time of reckoning. At the same time, I had my own predilections and my own past, and these things bound me in ways hard to escape. Maybe those old emotions, coming again to the surface, triggered the incident that day at Sara’s apartment. Or maybe the cause lay elsewhere. I don’t know. I can’t say for sure.
On that afternoon, I met with Sara Johnson at her apartment in Sausalito. Sara was an attorney, ten years younger than myself. She worked for the public defender’s office, and we knew each other on account of a case I had taken regarding an aging schizophrenic who refused to take his medication. My testimony had kept him out of the asylum, and Sara admired me for this. She was a wholesome girl, idealistic and straightforward — except for the fact she’d been meeting with me these past weeks, surreptitiously, in back offices, elevators, closets. Furtive encounters that had been building in intensity, so now we were together in her apartment, having stolen away for the afternoon.
I made a couple of drinks, preparing them carefully. Vodka for her, gin for me.
She sighed deeply and went into the kitchen. When she came back, her glass was empty.
"That was quick."
"The Mori case, it’s all anyone’s talking about," she said. "Did you see that spread in the paper? "
"Angela Mori was a beautiful woman," Sara said, and there was something like envy in her voice. She and the dead woman were about the same age, from similar backgrounds, with high cheekbones and the look of privilege. "You knew her, didn’t you?"
"Let’s not talk about Angela." I lowered my voice. There was a catch in it, the briefest stutter. "You’re a beautiful woman yourself, you know."
"I’m alive, anyway. I have that going for me."
She turned to look outside, down the hill through the jumble of telephone wires that looped over the gray streets toward the harbor. If you looked hard, you could see the sailboats small and white on the bay. It was a typical Marin County day, a little windy and blue with the sun shining hard off the water and cars glinting by on the road below.
"Jake," she said. "What are we going to do?"
I circled behind her then and put my hand around her waist and placed my palm on her stomach, touching her white blouse. I kissed Sara’s neck and felt her back arch toward me, and had for a moment the sensation of something shifting within my head, the blood rushing. I caught a glimpse of us in the mirror. Sara’s blonde hair, her small breasts and long legs. My own blue eyes, my black hair: longish, just graying, pulled back in a pony. I put my hand down into her skirt, her eyes closed — and in that moment I thought about my wife.
"What are we going to do?" Sara asked again.
Though she was not a naive woman, it was a naive question. Her eyes were still closed. The look on her face said she was moving towards some secret place within. We fell onto the bed. There was a delicious coolness about her body, a tautness. My thoughts drifted. My wife again. Our beautiful house out at the point. . . our beautiful things. . .
Then I thought about Angela Mori, and the morgue photos I’d seen splayed across the desk of her husband’s attorney.
Sara and I had not undressed yet. She was in her office clothes, a skirt cut at the knees, a blouse that unbuttoned in the back. She ran her fingers on my collar, then down the length of my tie, touching my belt. Soon things between us grew feverish. I lifted her skirt. She clutched me tighter, excited. My tie was undone, and the end of it got tangled between us. I pulled the tie off and it snaked across her chest, and somehow it got wrapped around her wrist and my wrist, too.
"Your eyes," she said to me, "they have a life of their own. The way they glimmer."
"The window to the soul," I joked.
"Do you believe in it?’
"Sometimes. Other times, I don’t know."
"That job of yours," she said. "All those crazy people. The criminals. It must be hard."
She fell silent for a while. Her body was tight against mine. We were moving toward a deeper, more convulsive rhythm.
I pulled up and glanced down into her face. She wrapped her legs around my haunches. Then suddenly, she laughed. It was a deep laugh, from a deep place, sleepy and provocative. She was in some ways a reckless woman.
I pulled away.
Out the window, there were low clouds coming down the hill. White clouds, fog really, and before too long that fog would come rushing down. The wind had already begun to nag at the rooftops. I was familiar with that nagging breeze — it hounded my house, mine and Elizabeth’s, on the other side of the point, over in Golden Hinde.
"What’s the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing. Let’s slow things down. Make the time last."
The room held a vivid luminosity. The curtains, Sara’s toes, her blouse draped over the chair — all were etched with light, an aura not unlike that which precedes certain types of seizures. It was often there for me at such moments, like the glow of the sun after it slips over the edge of the world. Entranced, though, lost in the moment, I sometimes did not recognize its presence until afterwards, in memory, so I cannot be sure even now, as I write this down, if it was there at all.
Sara rolled toward me. "We’ve been meeting like this for a while now," she said.
"Not so long. A few weeks."
"It wasn’t what I had planned, you know. This kind of thing, with a married man. I have a boyfriend."
"He wants to get serious with me."
"You told me that, yes."
"So what are we going to do?"
"I have to go over to the Correctional Facility this afternoon."
"That’s not what I mean."
She was astride me now, and I reached up to touch her breasts. She yawned. The drink catching up with her. It was a strong drink — I knew how to mix them — and she’d taken it down pretty fast. My tie hung over her neck, draped like a scarf.
"Your wife, Elizabeth, she knows, doesn’t she?"
"I don’t think so."
"She will. Sooner or later."
I said nothing.
"So, what are you going to do? About us?"
Maybe that was the trigger. Sara’s question. The anxiety it produced. I was confused, torn between two women. I still loved my wife. Or maybe it was simply something gone wrong in the soft mass of the brain. Something induced by the way she moved, eyes closed, straddling me — a kind of sleepy, drowsy, circling motion, as if she were slipping into a vortex and I was at its center. She didn’t speak. Her head slumped and rolled back a little.
What happened next, exactly, it’s hard to describe. I remember lying on my back, with Sara straddled over me. My grip was easy one instant, my hands gentle on her shoulders, then my grip tightened. I felt her resist, I saw her panic. My muscles were paralyzed, locked, and I could not open my hands to let her loose. I felt the convulsion. I lifted my head, looking into her eyes, trying to speak her name, but then she pulled away. I tugged back. I was clumsy and our heads butted, one against the other. Then I must’ve gone into a full fit. I went black. For how long, I’m not sure. I came back slowly, still in darkness. I could sense her movement in the room, hear her talking, but I could not move, and then the spell was broken and I was up, sitting on the edge of the bed. (I closed my eyes and saw a shadow inside myself, a little man moving within the shadow of another little man moving along the edge of a dark plane.) Sara stood across the room, bare-chested, holding the phone in her hands. She still wore her gray office skirt, hiked and rumpled. Her lip was bruised, badly, and my nose was bleeding.
"What happened?" She kept her distance, but her look was as much puzzlement as fear.
I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. After such incidents, it takes a while to get back your tongue.
"Are you all right?"
"You really scared me."
Outside I heard a siren. An ambulance on its way up the hill.
"I called emergency," she said.
In another minute, the paramedics stood at the door, knocking. My voice returned, audible but faint. A kind of croaking. "I guess you better let them in," I said.
Sara grabbed a robe, something silk with a lace fringe. Held it close at the collar. I grabbed my pants from the floor.
She let the paramedics in. The first was tall and earnest, a bit breathless from the stairs. The second was a skinny little brute who looked as if he belonged on morgue detail. They took the scene in, glancing from one of us to the other.
The skinny one regarded me suspiciously. He turned to Sara. "Is this some kind of domestic squabble," he said. "Do we need a cop out here?"
"No," I insisted.
Then I staggered through an explanation. How as a kid I’d suffered from Hayes Syndrome. Or Blackout Syndrome, as it is more commonly known. Sudden fits — not seizures exactly, but something close. The child goes suddenly still, holding his breath, eyes open. Sometimes, the incidents go on for an inordinate amount of time, the skin turning blue, the veins bulging. Ultimately, they are not serious. They pass on their own. The biggest danger comes from the onlooker, the inclination to panic, to shake the victim: to force breath back into the body. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Because the victim will thrash and rage, all the while unseeing, unconscious.
Usually Hayes Syndrome fades with time, though it has been known to linger through adolescence, even into adulthood, reappearing at times of emotional stress. I explained this all to the paramedics. I did not say, though, how there are other specialists who insist it is not a syndrome at all but rather an excuse — a pretense developed after the fact, as explanation for violent behavior of which the perpetrator is fully aware.
"I suffered an attack," I told the ambulance driver. "Sara didn’t know what to do. She tried to restrain me — and I guess we must have smashed heads."
The paramedic turned to Sara. "Is that what happened?"
Sara rubbed her wrists where I had grabbed her. She looked pretty shaken. I was embarrassed. I am not a violent man, I wanted to tell them, but I held my tongue, knowing the situation appeared otherwise — and the more I protested, the more they might disbelieve.
"He’s telling the truth," she said at last. "I saw his body seize up. "
The driver had wandered into the kitchen. He came back with the empty vodka glass in his hand. He sniffed it.
"You two been drinking."
"No," said Sara. "I mean Jake had a drink. One. But I didn’t have a drop."
I looked at her in surprise.
"I poured it down the sink," she explained.
I nodded but felt betrayed somehow. I remembered how she’d looked in bed above me — full of torpor, sleepy-eyed, as if on the edge of tumbling into a deep languor — but when I’d grabbed her shoulders, she’d jerked up pretty fast. Sober as a pin.
The skinny one took Sara aside now, going over the story with her in private. The other one helped me clean up my nose. He examined me a little bit, shining a light in my eyes, taking my pulse, my blood pressure. "It might be a good idea to come down to the hospital with us. Get an emergency CAT scan. Test things out."
The skinny one came back. He shrugged unhappily, as if disappointed Sara had not changed her story. They loitered around for a while, trying to persuade me into going to the hospital. I refused.
When they had gone, Sara sat beside me on the bed. The wariness was still there but mixed with something else. Concern, maybe. Compassion. She put her hand on my hand, and I felt the confusion well up once again.
"I’m sorry," I said. "Maybe . . ." I stammered, looking for an explanation.
"I don’t know. I can’t say. This situation, the way things are with you and me."
"What are you saying?"
"Maybe it’s the case I’m working. Sometimes, these things, they get inside your head. They twist you around."
"You frightened me," she said softly.
I put my arm around her. She was still edgy, but she seemed comforted in my presence, in the slow return to normalcy.
"I’m sorry," I said again.
"There’s something about you," she said, "I can’t resist."
She laughed a little. Then she kissed me with more sweetness than you might expect. She stroked my hair in back, adjusting my ponytail, fiddling. I touched the back of her head, too, and stroked her, telling her again how beautiful she was, how she reminded me of a girl I’d seen once, in a field of flowers, in an elevator, in a barroom, somewhere, once upon a time. She was a sweet girl but there was another side of her, too. She liked the sense of danger, the darkness underneath. I tasted her lips. I pulled away. I looked around. The aura was gone from the room.
Copyright © 2004 by Domenic Stansberry.