My mother always said to me. “Elizabeth Turnin, when God closes one door, he opens another.”
Maybe my doors are warped, or hinged on the wrong side. They’re certainly not the ones with glass panes you can see through and get a glimpse of what’s going on behind them.
I met him while I was working as a bartender at "Bernards" on the Upper East Side. I was subbing for a friend who had to go home for a week because her mother was sick. I was there for the next couple of nights. I liked it; I'd worked there filling in before. It was an upscale place for successful men and women. A very nice restaurant, a big understated bar with large leather sofas and comfortable seats. Everyone was relaxed and friendly and left me alone to do my job.
He was tall, at least six foot two with black hair and brown eyes, good looking enough that you noticed. Broad shoulders and trim everywhere else. It looked like he worked out but didn't have bulging muscles, I liked that.
He was with a group of older men and women who were obviously above his level. But he was with them and that said something. From listening to their conversation, I could tell they all worked at the same company on Wall Street.
He was the gofer. Jumping up any time one of them wanted something. He saw me notice and kind of smiled shyly. We started joking back and forth about it.
He asked me. “Do you have an extra olive? Maybe a cocktail onion I can slip into my pocket, so I don’t have to make another trip. I know one of them is going to want an olive or an onion any second. I want to be prepared, just in case."
“You do have a waitress you know. She’ll get them those things.”
“But she’s not always there. Promptly, perfectly and precisely like they’re used to.”
“And that’s what you want to become?”
“Prompt, precise and perfect?”
“No, that would be foolish. A waste of my good education. Obviously, I want to become someone who has someone who is prompt, precise, and perfect. But I don’t think I’m going to make it with olive and onion juice running out of my pockets.”
He made me laugh.
He was smart. He didn’t ask for my number. He came back with flowers the next night when he was alone and did that!
“Tell me Lizzie." He said.
“God don’t call me that. You know I hate it.”
He scrunched his face up, stuck his tongue out then moved in the bed so I could get closer. Making peace without saying anything.
"Why do you want to know?"
“No particular reason. Saturday morning, Bloody Marys, breakfast in bed and conversation go together. Also, you’re going to have to give me at least a half hour before I’m ready again."
I blushed. He’d said that so I would. He saw me do it and laughed.
Teasing. “Such a prude on the outside Elizabeth, but certainly not when you’re naked in my bed.”
"I can’t help it.” I told him. And turned red again. “My whole life I’ve been brought up to think of this as being….at the very least….sinful.”
He didn’t laugh. I knew he wouldn’t.
“Me wanting to….” I said it out loud. “Have sex, to have you, you know....screw me.” I’d never been able to say anything like that before to anyone, but I could to him. Maybe even a little to myself now.
“Nothing wrong with sex Elizabeth.”
“Yes, there is if you grew up the way I did.” I was serious and he understood that. He always understood.
What could I tell him? How my mother and father raised me? Church, always church. If I was home now that’s how I’d spend my Saturday and Sunday. Not lying in his bed being happy and guilty and so many other things going through my head. Feeling all the things I’ve wanted my whole life. All of them emotions I knew I should be able to have but couldn’t before. But now some of them scared me.
Say to him how I’d been brought up to believe so many things were going against God. Always breaking some rule no matter how much I tried not to. So many rules. Never exactly sure what I’d done wrong, but knowing I had. And they all led to me being a terrible person who was going to hell in the end.
If I were back home in Virginia now, I would be kneeling in front of the pastor praying for forgiveness for what I’d just done with him. If I could even be forgiven.
Not being married, not being subservient. Having sex for anything but procreation. Allowing him to see me naked, not covered by a nightgown with at least a sheet on top of that. The lights always having to be out.
Wanting him to look at me with nothing on so I could watch him get excited. Knowing I had the power to do that made my whole body feel like it never had before. Letting him do things to me I should be ashamed of, and me doing them right back to him. Only because they felt good, no other reason. But the worst sin of all would have been me enjoying this. And no matter how I explained it to the pastor he would’ve seen through what I said and known I liked it. And that was forbidden.
I wasn’t going to tell him what his body does to mine. He can see it; I know he can see it. But I won't admit it because then he would own me. And I'm afraid of him because of that.
Give him my real history. No one explaining you actually have to put a penis into a vagina to have a child. That’s what having sex really meant. My mother could have told me at least that much. Somehow everyone seemed to think you would be able to figure it out on your own. The other girls in my church being as clueless as me. A bunch of virgins waiting for an immaculate conception that would never come. The shock of finding out what was expected of you on your wedding night. Was that a fitting bridal gift from your parents?
How it was awkward and terrifying and sometimes blissful fumbling with boys before I married Joe at eighteen. Feeling so guilty but never seeming to be able to stop myself. My body always betraying me. Making me do things I knew were wrong, but I wouldn’t stop because I wanted to feel something.
Knowing now how innocent it all was. Holding hands and a kiss on the lips. Maybe….maybe I would let them accidentally brush against my breasts. Never wanting to go too far but not sure what too far was. Was I going to tell him for weeks and weeks afterwards I thought I might have gotten pregnant? Just from doing that.
Always knowing I had to save myself for marriage to a man brought up like me. No one to tell me exactly what I was supposed to be saving. Sex for making babies and nothing else. No pleasure, no closeness. Women needing to submit and only that. And you don’t know why but your body understands that’s not right and never will be.
I wasn’t going to say I’d married Joe a month after graduating high school because I had to get away from my parents. He was a good person and didn’t deserve what I did to him. Poor Joe, the day I married him I should have been introducing him as my first husband. I knew it wouldn’t last, I planned it not to last. But I would never admit that to myself at the time. What kind of a person did that make me? When we started having problems, I was so naive I confessed it to the pastor. He told my parents. He told Joe’s parents.
There was counseling and prayer circles. Trying to control my ‘lustful nature’. My mother and father being so ashamed of me for acting this way.
Joe too. Saying I shouldn’t be trying to kiss him all the time. I was tempting him and that was wrong. I was scorned for trying to initiate sex with my husband. I did that one time and learned to never do it again. Proper wives didn’t act that way. Nobody ever told me how I was supposed to act. Certainly not my mother. My parents never missing an opportunity to let me know how they felt about the way I was behaving.
Being so confused because every boy I knew made sure I understood they wanted me. When I finally gave myself to someone it was in church sanctioned matrimony. I was wanted then, but always on his terms. And his terms meant when he felt like it, and only for having children. Quick and sometimes painful. Within 6 months I was so starved for affection, physical and emotional, that a pat on the head could make me cry. And I didn’t understand why any of it was this way. All the other couples I knew seemed happy. My husband and me and the pastor trying to work things out. No matter what questions I asked or how honest I tried to be I was always in the wrong.
Of course, everyone in our church found out. Sideways glances full of pity and condemnation at the same time. Don’t ever think religious people can’t be as small and petty as those who aren’t. They’re probably worse.
I’d read ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in high school and that story became my life. Only I would have had more than one letter sewn on my dress. "A" for adulterous. ‘B’ for backslider. ‘L’ for liar. ‘F’ for fornicator. The rumors started how I’d slept with other men. None of it was true but you can’t un-prove something that’s false to begin with. That hurt Joe terribly and no matter how many times I told him it was all lies I could see the doubt on his face. I’d thought marrying him would make things better, but it didn’t. They got worse and worse. I was too young to understand he was exactly like my father. It wasn’t his fault; it was the way he’d been raised. It was the way I’d been raised. I’m not so blind I couldn’t see the truth. It took two years before I finally admitted to myself there was no choice but to leave and that meant I could never come back. If I didn’t go, over time there was going to be too many pieces of me whittled off. Scrape scrape scrape until I was gone, or crazy.
I ran, and I’ve never really stopped.
The years after that when I was on my own and could do what I wanted. Other men. Never leaving me feeling anything but unsatisfied. And somehow ashamed and disgusted with myself. Until him.
I couldn’t say any of that, so I told him something safe. Something I could tell the truth about.
I smiled at him like it was a joke. Kind of funny or maybe a little pathetic being raised this way.
I said. “Sometimes I think my mother still lives in my head. The whole time I grew up all I ever heard was. Lizzie don’t sit like that. It’s unladylike. Always keep your knees together.”
“Lizzie don’t smile back at that boy. You don’t know what’s really in his heart.”
“Lizzie you’re the girl. It’s up to you to protect your virtue. The boys are going to try to tempt you, but you can’t let them. And whenever I asked why, I never got an answer. I got shushed or scolded. When I got older, I got slapped. When I got older than that I got hit…hard. And I never knew why. The only thing I was sure of was that men could never be trusted. Eventually even my father and the pastor fell into that category. My mother stuffed me full of fear and anxiety. She told me it wasn’t their fault, God made them that way. It was our job as women to help them be strong. To help them resist temptation by never giving into it ourselves.”
He shook his head in sympathy. I didn't like that for some reason. He asked me “you must have had friends you could talk about this with, didn't you?”
“Well sure, but they were all in my church. They were all the same as me. We never met anyone else. None of us went to public school we all went to church school.”
I hesitated and he saw it.
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“Come on, tell me Elizabeth.”
“No, I don’t want to.”
He said it again. He was trying to be cute. Wheedling. “Please, please tell me.”
He sat there quietly. Not saying a word. Suddenly the mood had changed, it wasn’t playful and funny anymore.
I got up and made myself a drink. I don’t know why. I couldn’t help it. I started telling him.
“I had friends, lots of friends. When I was eight and nine and ten, I think I was happy. Boys and girls could play together at that age, and we were like any other kids. We played tag and hide and seek. We built forts and clubhouses together. We talked about what good husbands and wives we would be when we grew up. How we would devote our lives to Jesus and be even better at it than our parents. Children really are innocent."
I stopped and he sat there waiting. Not saying anything. I started getting angry and wasn’t sure why.
I told him. “Fine, you want to hear this. Fine….I wasn’t a very good-looking child. I was always a little overweight, baby fat my mother called it. I wore braces. My face was full of freckles and my mother kept my hair tied back so tight I looked like a boy. I was awkward and self-conscious, but I had friends.”
I stopped talking. I looked at him. “Then I hit puberty.” I know I sounded bitter because I was. “Everything changed. My braces came off, somehow, I talked my mother into letting me let my hair out at least a little. I got breasts before everyone else. The girls who had been my friends since I was little started acting differently. The girls who had always been more popular now wanted me to hang out with them. I didn’t understand why. I knew I was the same person I’d always been, that shy awkward fat kid with braces. When I look in the mirror today that’s still who I see. Not what’s in front of me. That girl.
I got back into bed and pulled the covers up. He put his arms around me. I held onto him a little harder than I should have.
“All the girls I grew up with stopped talking to me. All the boys who had been my friends suddenly acted differently. They would push me down in the playground and be mean to me. They would beat me up. Either that or they wouldn’t leave me alone. Touching me where they shouldn’t and grabbing at me when no one was looking. As I got older, say thirteen or fourteen, certainly by fifteen, I knew it was because of the way I was starting to look.”
I caught myself and shut up. I didn’t want to tell him anymore. He didn’t say anything but somehow, I knew he was going to wait for me to finish. I was telling him things I knew I shouldn’t. Secrets I’d kept my whole life. I finally started talking again because I didn't want him to think I was afraid. So he would know this was all behind me, in the past. That it had nothing to do with my life today, but that was another lie. And I didn’t want it to be like this with him. I told him because I was trying so hard to be what he wanted.
“I knew who my friends were when I was ten. By the time I was a teenager I had no idea who was really my friend. No matter how nice I tried to be to everyone it didn’t make any difference. Every day I went to school I was afraid of who wasn’t going to like me anymore. Someone I thought was my best friend would suddenly stop talking to me. I would hear her telling other girls I’d been trying to steal her boyfriend. It was never true. I was afraid to have a boyfriend. My parents would never have allowed it. I know all of that happened because of the way I looked.
Then I told him something I’ve never told anyone. I wanted to shock him or hurt him maybe. Pay him back for making me say these things. Drive him away or bring him closer. I don't know.
"That's when it started. When I was a teenager. Somewhere between thirteen and fourteen.”
"All of them. At least everyone I knew. Even the sixteen, seventeen and eighteen-year-olds. The grown-ups, my teachers, and yes, the Pastor too. Sometimes now I think the looks were worse than when they tried to touch me. That hand that really didn’t need to be on my shoulder to make a point. Brushing against me in crowded hallways when we both knew there was room to pass. Always pushing in a little bit closer than they had to. My whole life it’s been like this. I didn’t really understand it when I was young, but I do now. And in some ways that makes it worse. Today it’s an arm around my waist that doesn’t belong there. Someone taking my hand, or my sleeve, or anything they can grab hold of, pretending to help. Their palm on the small of my back, pushing me up that last step. It’s not affection or concern. They don’t mean it; they never mean it. It’s momentary possession. If I balk or try to stop them, I’m the bad person. It’s me who’s snotty and stuck up because l look like this. Everyone knows good looking women have it easy. Everything falls in our laps. We never have to work for it.”
I stopped talking but he nodded at me to continue. I told him more. I think I wanted him to know it now. To finally say it out loud to someone.
“When I’m in a crowded place like the subway I’ve learned not to sit in a seat unless it’s between two women. If I sit next to a man, he’ll keep moving closer. Spreading his legs so they touch mine. Every time the train jerks with a stop or a start he’ll pretend it’s making him slide that tiny bit closer. Pressing his shoulders and arm into mine. Trying to paste his whole body against me. It’s not my imagination. If I sit next to another woman, it never happens. It’s like women’s butts are made of glue and men’s are made of Teflon. Even if there’s an empty seat nearby some guy will stand in front of me holding the handrail. They always try to put at least one leg against mine, sometimes both. There’s enough room they don’t have to do that. They wait until the train starts rocking and use that to brush their legs against me. No woman has ever done that. As soon as I get on, if I see there’s no safe seats I head to a corner and put my back against the wall. That way no one can get behind me. I’ve learned…. standing where I can be surrounded is a nightmare. One guy is always trying to get his arm or his elbow close enough to push it into my breasts. Another will turn his back so he can press his butt against mine. The worst ones….God….the worst one don’t even pretend. They rub against me and try to push into me. I can feel them getting….um, you know….excited. It’s disgusting. If the train is packed during rush-hour I have to wait until the next station to get away from them.…the subway….God, the subway.”
I’d hesitated again but my head was on his chest so he couldn’t see my face. I was hoping he’d missed it. I wasn’t going to tell him about that. I went on as quickly as I could, trying to cover up.
“On the buses or in an elevator. Waiting in line at the DMV or for a movie. If I stand somewhere too long, like in a lobby waiting for a friend, or maybe an airport. Anywhere there’s seating. There’s a guy. It’s always someone different but he’s always the same type of guy. He’ll move from the back row to the front to get a better look. If he’s sitting in the seats that are farthest away from me, when I turn around, he’s sitting in one closer. I play a game but it's not a fun game. I keep moving. A roving ducking target. The really bad ones follow me around. What do they think is going to happen? That I’ll walk over hand them my phone number and tell them to call? Say I’d like to have sex with them sometime? Do they think I’ll drop to my knees and give them a blowjob right there, or anywhere, or ever?”
I couldn’t believe I’d said that out loud. I know my face was red again. I knew I'd had too much to drink and should shut my mouth but couldn't stop telling him these things.
I looked up at him. I was sure it was okay. He hadn’t noticed me hesitating a minute ago when I was talking about the subways. I was safe.
I went on. “I told you in the beginning it’s their eyes that are worse than anything about them trying to touch me. I know they’re looking even when they pretend they’re not. Sometimes underhanded and sneaky. Quick looks and guilty faces if I catch them. Sometimes they stare and don’t care if I see. Mostly some hunger they don’t bother to hide. That I can handle, I’m used to it. I’ve been looked at that way before I was sure what it meant. Once I got old enough to understand I learned to ignore it. But sometimes….sometimes, I know it’s more than that, it’s not just wanting to go to bed with me." I shook my head and stopped talking.
“What is it?” He asked.
“They hate me without knowing why. They hate me because in their minds they’re too old or too young. Too fat, bald, short, tall, poor or just plain stupid. The reason never matters, it’s just a reason. I know what it really means, that look.”
“I’m what they can never have because something is wrong or lacking in them. I’m not a person, I’m a thing. They measure themselves against that thing and don’t like what they see.”
“And I’m not like that. I’m a human being. If you talk to me, I’ll talk back to you. If you’re nice to me, I’ll treat you the same way. But I almost never get that chance because they’ve already made up their minds. If they can’t have me, they’re going to hate me for the way I look.”
I stopped. I had to stop. I got out from under the covers and made myself another drink. I knew that was a mistake but didn't care. He lay there, waiting. I sat on the edge of the bed so I wouldn’t have to look at him. Somehow, I felt ashamed for saying all those things about myself. It sounded like I was bragging about how good looking I was, and I didn’t mean it to come out that way. I was trying to explain things to him.
He let me finish my drink and quietly said “tell me the rest about the subways Elizabeth.”
I froze. I know he saw me do it. If he’d had any doubts about me keeping things back, I knew they were gone.
I stayed where I was so he couldn’t see my face. I might lose him if I told him. Somehow, I knew I would if I didn’t. And I had to tell the truth now. He was too smart. He would know if I lied, even a little. Leaving something out was the same as lying and we both understood that.
So, I told him. Because I felt I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to have a chance of keeping him. He'd told me more than once how much he hated lying.
I stammered a couple of times. I didn’t know how to start. I finally said. “It was the first summer I moved here. It was so hot. It gets hot at home but not like here. The humidity you know.” I took a deep breath. “I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Just trying to stay cool, not trying to be sexy or anything.” I looked back at him. “I want you to understand this was before I knew better. What the subways could be like.”
He nodded. I turned away again.
“I was in a completely jammed train waiting for what the conductor announced was a ‘police incident’ at the next stop to be finished before we could get moving. We must have sat for at least thirty minutes in the tunnel. The power had gone out, so it was only those dim emergency lights that come on and the air-conditioning had stopped working. We were packed in so tight together there wasn’t anything I could do. I hurt from pulling my elbows in. From hunching my shoulders and pushing my legs together. Holding my breath and my stomach and squeezing my butt together. Trying to make myself smaller inch by inch. I was stuck in my tiny space. Trying to protect myself……kind of what I feel like now….”
I looked up and told him. “I want to stop.”
All he said was. “No.” He sat there shaking his head.
I couldn’t tell if he was angry or not.
He could see I was almost pleading with him. I didn’t want to do this. I asked him “all of it, please don’t make me tell you all of it?”
“Sorry Elizabeth, at this point I want to hear it.”
I should have gotten up and left but I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure he’d let me come back if I didn’t tell him.
I went on. “There was a man behind me. He was in shorts too. Those big loose kind. I could feel them against my bare legs. I was pressed in so tightly by everyone around me I couldn’t even turn to see what he looked like. I didn’t know if he was young or old, handsome or ugly. I honestly think in the beginning he was trying to give me some space, at least as much as he could, but there really wasn’t any way for him to do it. He was….his you know…. his penis was pressed up against my butt and he started to get excited. I could feel it. I could feel him trying to pull away but every time he did, I guess someone behind him would shove him back. At one point he leaned in next to my ear and said ‘sorry, sorry’. I nodded my head at that. I’m sure he saw me do it. It was getting hotter and hotter in the car without the air-conditioning. We were both sweating. I could feel my back sticking to his shirt. I’m sure he couldn’t help it, he was getting, you know, erect. Please believe me. I think it was because I knew he’d tried to be kind. He even said he was sorry. It was just the circumstance we were in. I don’t know why but at some point, I started pushing back against him. It was something that was happening without me really knowing why I was doing it. I’m not pretending I’m innocent or anything like that. I did it on purpose. I wanted to….Then something changed. He wasn’t trying to be polite anymore. He was, you know, insistent. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t want him to stop….I did it, Okay. I did it. On purpose because I wanted to. I didn’t want him to stop because of what was happening to me.”
“What was happening?”
“I was excited. Like I’ve never been before in my life. I was getting….so turned on I could feel myself getting…..” I stopped talking.
“Getting what Elizabeth?”
“Please don’t make me say it out loud.”
I could tell he was angry now.
“Say it. I want to hear it. And don’t lie.”
I was getting angry too. At him for making me say these things. I practically spit it out. “Okay, I’ll tell you the truth….I was so wet I could feel my panties were soaked. My nipples were hard. Is that what you want to hear?”
“Yes, now tell me the rest.”
“I will, but please don’t hate me.”
I froze because I could see him touching himself under the covers. I don't think he knew he was doing it.”
I turned away. I didn’t want to watch him do that, but it was also his face. I’d never seen that expression on it before and didn’t like it.
I rushed to get it out. To get it over with.
“I found his hand and pulled it around. I put it over my shorts in the front so he could touch me. I reached behind me and started um....um, started doing the same thing to him, but it wasn't enough for me. He knew what I wanted because I kept trying to pull his zipper down. I couldn't do it with one hand. He did it for me. He wasn’t wearing underpants….I was kind of shocked at that, I hadn’t expected it. But then, but then I could put my hand around him, and it made me so much hotter. I started playing with him. He was so hard. We did that for a couple of minutes, but I wanted more. I managed to turn around and face him. I would have put him in my mouth or inside me by then if there would have been any way to do it in that dirty hot stinking subway car.….I’m telling you the truth, all of it. We were pressed so tight together. I opened my shorts so he could stick his hand down them. He was using his other hand to squeeze my breasts. I’m sure some of the people on the train knew what was going on. That made me even crazier for some reason, the thought of them watching. He finally stuck his fingers in me and made me….made me have an orgasm. That had never happened before with a man, only when I was, you know, doing it to myself. The train was starting to move. He kind of nodded at me like it was his turn. I don't know, I can’t explain it, but I wanted something. I reached down with both hands so I could take him out of his pants. I put him under my shirt so no-one could see and pressed myself against him. I held him with my hand and slid him up and down on my stomach. We were so sweaty and sticky and wet...I rubbed him until...until….you know….he did it all over me.”
“And?” He said.
I screamed it at him. “Leave me alone. That’s enough.”
He screamed right back. “No, and?”
I put my head down and told him. “He got out at the next stop and disappeared.”
I looked up again and kept staring at him. Trying not to cry. I didn’t want to let him see me do that. “You know the rest. I can tell you do. He had a wedding ring on. I saw it when I turned around. I didn’t care, it didn’t stop me.”
“That’s not what I meant”
I was squirming now. Physically. I could feel my body doing it. I knew he was never going to stop until I told him.
“Oh god, I know that’s not what you meant.” I wanted to curl up and hide somewhere but instead I said it out loud. “Yes. I did it again. I went back to the subways. Always with different men.”
“How many times?"
“Oh please…. please don’t ask me that.”
I put my head down. I couldn’t look at him “Two or three.”
“Was it two, or was it three”
I could tell he didn’t believe me. I couldn’t fight anymore. I gave up. “Four, it was four.”
He knew I’d told him the truth now. All of it.
“But I swear, I stopped a long time before I met you. I knew how wrong it was.” I was begging him when I said it. He could tell.
I was done. I was crying, almost hysterical. And angry, so angry at him. I started to hit him with my fists. He grabbed my arms and pulled me into bed and held me till I stopped fighting. Then he rolled on top of me and pushed my legs apart so he could get inside me. I hated him and loved him at the same time because of the look on his face. He could feel how ready I was and knew why. And he liked that. For a second I thought he was going to tell me he loved me, but he didn’t. I wanted that more than anything.
And I hated myself. Because I couldn’t pretend I didn’t like it when I told him what I'd done with other men made him want me.
She really is like all the talking heads, newspapers and magazines make her out to be. Better looking in person than pictures. She’s more than attractive, actually beautiful. The reporters got it right. Her hair is blonde, and her eyes are green with gold flecks. Her skin is flawless, and she has a figure like a beauty queen. Classic features.
I would never call her eyes “dead”. Every story about her does, but they’re wrong. When I looked into them, they were the most alive eyes I’ve ever seen in another human being. Feral and savage and frantic. Lost, beaten, triumphant and confused. All at the same time. But also horrified. She was horrified at what she was doing. That’s how I knew afterwards she was still a human being. Because I saw her eyes. I have a daughter about her age. It broke my heart. She would have broken any father’s heart.
I did my tour in Vietnam forty-five years ago. I know what combat is. What’s surprising is how quickly all those instincts can come back. Unused for decades but apparently still hiding down in that animal part of you, there when you need them because something in your brain knows you’re going to die before the rest of you realizes it.
I saw her through the plate glass windows before she walked into the diner. For the rest of my life I’ll never understand why all that registered was a beautiful young woman, not what was on her face. The gun was already in her hand when she came through the door. She stopped in front of Bob and me and pointed the pistol at my face. I was sitting all the way back in the booth, almost by the window and couldn’t do a thing. Something flickered or glitched or ticked in her. Some sane or insane switch went on, then back off. I saw it, I really did. It wasn’t like she was trying to make up her mind. It was as if things weren’t quite right, or something should have been different. But it was only for a second.
I was looking at her but could also see Bob. Before I could even think “don’t do it” he lunged for the gun. She took a step back and shot him in the face. The people in the booth next to us started to move. I’ll never know if they were trying to help or scrambling to get away. The girl couldn’t have known either. Maybe in her mind they were trying to stop her. I guess it doesn’t make any difference now. She shot all three of them in the head. I watched her mouth the words two, three, four. She was counting bullets, not people. I knew it, I’d done the same crazy thing in firefights that were going horribly wrong. You wanted to make sure you had one round left for yourself just in case.
She pointed the gun back at me. There hadn’t been time to do anything. It takes less than a second to pull a trigger.
A waitress who had stopped dead a couple of feet to the girls’ right jerked into motion. I think she was trying to get behind the counter. It’s what saved me. Maybe the girl thought she was going to grab her. She swiveled and shot her. I watched her mouth the word “five”.
I was moving this time the moment she pointed the pistol away from me. It was the smell that unfroze me. Diner smells. Pancakes, eggs, coffee and a tiny bit of disinfectant suddenly replaced. Charnel, something no one will understand unless they’ve been there. The smell of blood, bone, brains and tissue torn apart. Gunpowder and adrenaline. You can smell adrenaline. No-one will ever convince me you can’t. Broken pieces of human beings.
I’m in my early sixties, but I’m an ex-Marine and I’m big. I took her down brutally and fast the way I had been taught to almost half a century ago. I didn’t realize I’d broken her arm while taking the gun away until I pushed myself off her and stood up. She looked strange lying there with her wrist snapped and bent back. Her hand almost touching her lower forearm.
The gun was a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson. A six-shot revolver. Very reliable, they almost never jam on you the way a semiautomatic can. I’d owned one myself years ago. I broke the cylinder open and took the last bullet out. I remember thinking to myself “no more shooting, no more shooting". I needed to unload that gun.
The girl on the floor made some kind of sound and I looked down. She was staring at the bullet I was holding then looked in my eyes and said “six". I think she’d been bringing the gun up towards herself, not in my direction when I tackled her. Because of the way she said it I realized who the sixth shot was supposed to have been for. Her, not me. I put the bullet in my pocket and watched her eyes follow it then come back to my face. We stared at each other. She made no move to get up. I was standing over her shaking. I think we were both surprised to be alive. I know I was.
I could tell from the look she was giving me I must have said something to her. It was that kind of quizzical face you get from someone when they’re trying to figure out if you’re serious or not.
She finally said, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t shoot you.” She sounded surprised herself.
“You asked me why I didn’t shoot you.”
I didn’t remember asking her anything. I really looked at her for the first time and realized she was a little older than I’d first thought. Closer to thirty then twenty.
We both looked up and out the windows at the same time because we could hear police sirens.
She told me, “You better put the gun down somewhere.”
I looked and it was still in my hand. I didn't move.
She waited a bit, then said a little louder. “The gun. Put it on the floor by the door.” The sirens were getting louder.
I stood there staring, still not moving. She seemed to sigh a little in exasperation. She started speaking to me in a voice that made me understand she thought I might be a little slow. “Put the gun in front of the door where the police can see it and keep your hands out at your sides, so they know you’re not armed. If you don’t, they will probably shoot you. They'll see me lying on the floor. You're standing over me with a gun in your hand.”
She saw me start to finally understand and nodded. I could feel myself coming back to a little bit of normal. At least I got what she was telling me. I did what she said because I realized she was right.
After I put the pistol by the door, I looked at her and asked, “your arm?” I was starting to feel guilty about doing that to her, she looked small and vulnerable lying there. Certainly not a threat anymore.
She glanced down at it and didn’t say anything. I knew it was going to be really painful when the shock wore off.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Slowly, very slowly her lips turned up at the corners and she started to smile. I smiled back a little, but it was automatic, there was nothing behind it. She kept looking at me until I realized how absurd what I’d just said was. She saw me get it and started laughing quietly to herself, almost giggles. I still don't understand why, I couldn’t help it, I started laughing too. Neither of us could stop. We got louder and louder.
The police didn’t shoot me, but they must have thought they had two lunatics on their hands. By the time they felt safe enough to come in, we were hysterical. Some of it probably even sounded like real laughter to them.
The police have a tough job. I know it and respect them for it. No hard feelings, they made the wrong assumption. Putting myself in their place I’m sure I would have done the same thing. When you shoot someone in the head it’s not like the movies. A nice clean hole and a little bit of blood. A large caliber weapon like the one she used literally makes the head explode.
We were both covered in brains and blood and I was the only one upright. It took a while to sort everything out. Even the police seemed to have a hard time grasping it wasn’t me who shot all those people, but the girl on the floor. There were other witnesses of course. People seemed to appear out of nowhere. Waitresses from behind the counter, customers from under tables.
Paramedics had arrived with the police but there really wasn’t much they could do. You can't fix someone without a head. They did the best they could with her arm and pronounced everyone else dead.
Reporters were there from the local news channels. I live in a small village called Fleming on Long Island. About twenty miles from Manhattan. The reporters were kept at bay, this was an active homicide scene. It was the biggest story that had ever happened in the area and the small-town press people were going nuts. They knew the major news channels from New York were going to show up any minute and take the story away from them. I was sympathetic, I knew some of those men and women personally but didn’t seem able to care very much at that moment.
Like I said, it’s a small town. A couple of rules got bent that probably shouldn’t have, I’m glad they did. One of the cops whose kids went through school with mine picked my wife Susan up and brought her over. That morning she had been running late and told me to go ahead, she would meet up with Bob and I there. She’s a surgical nurse and works in one of the hospitals near us. Afterwards she told me she’d never seen anything like this.
On television where I think too much of the world gets their view of reality, police work is nice and neat and orderly. Not in real life. I was interviewed four or five times by detectives and other officials. Someone had opened up the diner’s office and that’s where I spent the rest of the day and a good part of the night, telling different people the same thing over and over. The few times I went out for something I could see the girl, they had her sitting up in a booth. She had to have known I was there but never glanced in my direction. There was a woman with a badge on her belt who I assumed was a detective talking with her every time I went out.
Finally, sometime around nine at night they were done with me. The police must have taken the girl away, she wasn’t there as we left. Jail or a hospital I guessed. As Susan and I were heading out into the parking lot to get my car the woman I’d seen interviewing the girl came over and introduced herself.
She stuck her hand out and said, “I’m Detective Wilson.” I shook it and introduced myself “Gary Winters and this is my wife Susan.” They shook hands. She looked at us and said “I know what a terrible long day it’s been for both of you, but may I please borrow your husband for a moment. I promise it will only take a couple of minutes."
Susan didn’t do it so anyone could see, she’s too well mannered, but I knew in her head she was rolling her eyes. It made me smile to myself. We'd been hearing a moment or two all day that stretched into hours. We glanced at each other and my wife said, “I’ll wait in the car” and left us alone.
“Okay, Gary." She smiled tiredly. "Thanks for your time. Obviously, I can't discuss what was said but the only way I could get that girl to talk to me was by making her a promise. I’m keeping it now." She shook her head. "Not that I got much out of her.”
I didn’t say anything, just raised my eyebrows. She nodded and continued.
“She made me promise to tell you something." She took out a notebook and flipped through the pages, found what she wanted and said. ‘The sins of the children are to be laid upon the father’. “She made me write it down so I could tell it to you exactly. Does it mean anything to you?”
I slowly shook my head no. I wasn’t operating at one hundred percent and both the detective and I knew it. She put her hand on my arm and said, “if you think of anything please call me.” She gave me her card and turned to go but I grabbed her sleeve.
"Wait a second. That’s wrong. It’s a quote from Shakespeare and it’s supposed to be ‘the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children’. Are you sure you wrote it down correctly?”
“I’m sure. I knew it was wrong. I asked her the same question. She asked to see my notebook to make sure I got it the way she wanted.”
We stood there looking at each other shaking our heads. I asked the detective if the girl was crazy.
“By my definition anyone who shoots five people in the head is crazy.”
She was turning to go but I stopped her again. “What's her name?”
“What?” I was sure I hadn’t heard her correctly. Even in the bad light of the parking lot I could tell she was embarrassed. “Oh God, I’m sorry. Elizabeth, her name is Elizabeth Turnin."
She tried to explain and apologize at the same time. “I’m sorry, that was inappropriate. One of the reporters must have started calling her that or one of the uniformed cops. I don’t know. They were all saying it when I got here.” She shrugged her shoulders and I realized how tired she really was. “It just kinda stuck.”
I told her. “It’s okay, good night”, I turned and walked toward my car. I heard her say one more time “sorry”. I glanced back and nodded but kept walking.
I got in the car. Susan and I have been married close to thirty-five years. Good years. As soon as I sat in the seat the first thing I asked her was “you okay?" Everything else could wait. She nodded her head yes.
"I'm sure. Thank God for Bill.” Bill Myers was our friend the cop who’d shown up at the door to let Susan know I was alive and unhurt. He wasn’t sure if she had heard anything yet. He brought her over in a patrol car or she wouldn’t have been able to get near the place.
We sat there in silence together for a little while. I hadn’t started the car yet. We both knew what came next and I think we needed a little time to regroup.
Finally, Susan said, “poor Greta" and her eyes filled with tears. Greta was Bob’s wife, my very good friend Bob who had just had his head blown off in front of me.
Greta and Bob Balsam have been our friends and neighbors since we brought our house and moved into the neighborhood over twenty-five years ago. Bob is, or was, I already hated thinking of him in the past tense, a recently retired high school teacher. Greta is a nurse like Susan but had semi-retired and now works for a group of doctors in private practice a few days a week. She used to work in the same hospital as Susan but in neo-natal.
As you get older it might seem to younger people your life is getting smaller, but that’s not true. Yeah, you don’t go out as much. They are right when they say you’re not trying new things the way you used to. What young people don’t understand because they haven’t got the years behind them is those are choices you consciously make. You try all those new things out when you’re young so you can find out who and what you really like later on.
Susan and I didn’t like Bob and Greta, we loved them. They were as much family to us as our own brothers and sisters and they felt the same way. We had to go over there.
Susan was already figuring things out. I let her do it. We both know she’s better at this then I am. There’s also something about nurses’ people don’t grasp unless you live with them. They deal with death all the time so they’re good at it. It’s why it never occurred to me to stop her from coming into the diner. You’ll never survive as a nurse unless you find a way to put your feelings aside and deal with the situation at hand. I’d watched Greta and Susan do it before. I knew Susan was doing it now, I didn't know if Greta would be able to this time.
She started talking but she wasn’t asking me, she was letting me know how things were going to happen.
“Her kids won’t be able to get here until tomorrow.”
We knew they lived out of state. They would have to fly in. “We’re going to pick her up and bring her home with us. She can’t stay in that house alone tonight. Not tonight. Not the first night. She’ll have her kids tomorrow. That will help.”
She was almost talking to herself now. “She knows you’ll make the arraignments with the funeral home.” I didn’t bother to acknowledge it. Those were the things I was good at. As two close couples we’d already been through enough emergencies together between children, old and dying parents and day to day disasters to know who did what.
She stopped suddenly and started really crying. She pointed out the car window on my side and I turned and looked. It was Bob’s car. Someone must have pulled out while we were sitting there, and we could see it now. A red 1970 mustang he’d brought when he’d graduated college. He'd kept it like new all these years. It was his toy.
I sat there thinking about him and how much fun we had in the Mustang.
For some reason everything seemed to stop for a second. I got really worried.
My wife was saying something, but I interrupted her.
“Sorry Susan, remember Kenny was supposed to meet us for breakfast. Where is he? Has he gotten in touch with you?”
Kenny was our son.
She got a guilty look on her face. “Oh, shit honey. I forgot to let you know in all the confusion. He called me and canceled at the last minute. Said he had too much work and had to go into the office to catch up.
"He's fine but worried about you. So is Jessica." She was our daughter. "Both of them are coming tomorrow. I told them not tonight. We were exhausted."
I guess it was a delayed reaction. She started shaking. I went to put my arm around her, but she looked at me and said “I’m okay, as long as Kenny and Jessie are alright, I’m okay. I must’ve talked to both of them five times on the phone, I'm sorry I forgot to tell you.”
I told her not to worry about it.
We sat there together in silence for a while and she finally asked me what the detective had wanted. I explained what we talked about.
My wife said to me “how cruel.”
“I said, how cruel. I don’t care if she’s crazy or not. Killing all those people. Asking the detective to pass on a message to you. Listening to you explain all day how calm she was afterwards. I might not know her at all, but I do know one thing, she’s cruel.”
There was so much in those two words.
There wasn’t anything else to say. I started the car. It was only ten minutes to where we lived.
We were coming up our block when I heard it. Susan peeped. I was so tired I might have let it go but she'd put her head down, I knew what that meant.
When you’re young and get married you think you know everything about the other person but you’re wrong. It doesn’t all come out at once. Where would be the fun in that? It took us both awhile to understand we had more in common than we thought. Other people might have called what we found funny inappropriate at best.
I ’d been in a lot of fighting and seen a lot of death close up. She’d chosen a profession that guaranteed a certain amount of gallows humor. People deal with terrible things differently. Susan and I found out we share a macabre sense of humor we never let anyone else see. It’s our way of coping.
“What?” I asked.
She kept her head down, she was trying so hard not to laugh.
She finally looked at me. “Oh crap, Elizabitch. I like it.”
We both started laughing. It was a hard-desperate kind of laughter. That’s when I started to hate that young women a little. Mostly because she’d killed Bob and those other people. A little selfishly because I like my quiet life and knew that was over for the foreseeable future.
A beautiful psychopathic female mass murderer. Something entirely new for the press. Elizabeth Turnin was instantly and forevermore famous, or more accurately, infamous. The first woman to pull out a gun and commit multiple murders like men have been doing since before I was born. At least the first one in our information age.
The headlines on the front pages couldn’t be high enough. The video segments long enough or the breathless commentary dramatic enough. One particularly clueless commentator said it proved women had finally achieved parity with men.
I found it all sad and pathetic except for one part. I took an admittedly immature delight in watching everyone squirm for the first couple of days until they could figure out what to call her. Americans must have their labels and the press were trying their best. They just couldn’t seem to agree.
They tried to name her after the diner. ‘The Tick Tock Killer.’
More followed. ‘Blonde Death, The Headhunter, Lethal Liz. The last one almost made it. A couple of articles used it.
It finally bubbled up from the bottom. ELIZABITCH. The tabloids started it first. The better papers followed, spelling it “ELIZAB****H”. It wasn’t until an anchorwoman with a lot of credibility pronounced it on air with all the gravitas accorded her position. Then everyone knew it was okay to say it out loud or spell it without asterisks. As Detective Wilson had told me, “it just kinda stuck.”
I thought it was ridiculous. Bitches hurt your feelings; they don't blow your head off. But it was glib and easy and that’s what the press needed.
I waited it out. The entire collective media has developed the attention span of a preschooler. I knew they would eventually go on to something else until the trial began.
I was the main witness for the prosecution and obviously not allowed to give interviews. Something I had no intention of doing anyway. None of that kept the press and media from filling pages and airtime. I was proclaimed a 'Hero'. A Vietnam vet who stopped a killer from destroying who knew how many more lives. My neighbors were interviewed. People I haven’t spoken to in thirty years suddenly popped up to proclaim “I wasn’t surprised to hear it. Gary was always a take charge kind of guy.”
Of course, those things called facts never seemed to get mentioned. The police had duly and truthfully reported there was only one bullet left in the gun when I took it away from her. That she had no extra cartridges to reload and shoot more people with. Somehow that never seemed to get talked about. Neither did my friend Bob, or what it did to Greta and their kids.
I was beginning to think it was supposed to have ended in her suicide and that never got talked about either. You would have thought one of those smart people covering the story could have figured it out, but they didn't. At least they didn’t say anything along those lines.
I guess it was inevitable. Those lawyers you see on television after a sensational case claiming victory, even if they lost, wanted in. By the time she came to trial Elizabeth Turnin ended up with one of the top defense attorneys in the country. There was so much negative press towards her there were rumblings from the federal government about stepping in and trying it as a capital case. New York State no longer has the death penalty. Almost every legal expert agreed the feds had no chance. Those laws are pretty specific, mostly having to do with terrorism and drug cartels. Not young women shooting up diners.
I’ve never had anything to do with the criminal justice system. All I can say from a layman’s point of view is it’s confusing and convoluted. Everybody knew she was guilty and was going to go to jail. It didn’t mean the path to that endpoint wasn’t without its hurdles for all involved.
Her attorney entered a plea of not guilty. There was maneuverings and grandstanding. Postponements, dirty tricks each side accused the other of. Evidence that was misplaced, evidence re-found. The district attorney and Elizabeth’s lawyer played as much of it out in the press as they could. Who in this day and age doesn’t like publicity? The judge kept threatening to slap them down, but both were smart and experienced. They knew what they could get away with.
The judge was a good one. Fair to both sides and he kept things running smoothly.
My day, or days in court went about as I had been told they would. The district attorney and his assistants had gone over my testimony with me again and again. They tried to prepare me as best they could for the cross-examination. Elizabeth Turnin’s lawyer was good. He tried everything he could to twist my words and make me look bad. I didn’t take any of it personally, it was his job.
His problem was that it was all pretty simple and that’s the way I kept it.
She walked in the door, shot five people in the head, and I took the gun away from her. There’s not a lot to argue with when it’s put that way. The prosecution put on three other witnesses who were in the diner at the time. They may not have seen everything I did but together they were able to corroborate most of it.
But here was the thing. Apparently, the last conversation Elizabeth Turnin had with anyone that made any sense was with me. And I sure didn’t see it that way at the time. Everything I’d testified to about what she said to me was gone over again and again.
I was told by the district attorney her lawyer was originally going to try to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Apparently, that went out the window when he heard what had been said in the diner. After that he knew he couldn’t do it. I was truthful about the whole thing. It was obvious I was the one who was nonfunctioning, not her.
I got to know Patricia Wilson the lead detective on the case better. I liked her, she was professional and thorough and whatever she thought of Elizabeth Turnin personally she never shared with me. She did her job. We had a lot of conversations over those months. It was also obvious she hadn’t gotten a thing out of Elizabeth in the way of explanation. Nobody did.
As people become comfortable with each other they let you know things they probably shouldn’t in a professional capacity. By keeping my mouth shut and listening it became clear nobody, including her lawyer was able to get any reasons out of her about why she did it.
Her whole life came out in court of course. She was originally from a small town in Virginia. Twenty-seven years old and had graduated from high school. Married at eighteen and divorced at twenty-one. No kids. Aside from stealing the pistol from her boss’s safe and using it to kill five people she was never in any trouble before this. The girl hadn't ever even gotten a speeding ticket for God’s sake.
Apparently, her upbringing was very religious which made it even harder to understand why she’d done this. To everyone, including me she seemed like a typical small-town girl. Every single person I spoke to who had anything to do with her said she was polite and well mannered. She just wouldn’t answer any of the questions they asked her. She would sit there with a blank look on her face and not say a word.
Psychologists for both sides were brought in and gave basically the same conclusion, phrased in different ways. She was completely sane and completely uncooperative. The two sides disagreed on what particular personality disorders she was exhibiting but it didn’t make any difference in the end.
By the time I was done with my testimony I could tell the jury was going to convict her. There really wasn’t any way for them not to.
Her attorney never put her on the stand. That was a little unusual. All the other lawyers told me in this kind of case it was the only way she might be able to save herself from a life sentence. Not that she wasn’t going to go to jail for a very long time. But maybe not her whole life. I found out later her lawyer was afraid she would do what she had been doing up to that point. Sit there without giving anyone a word of explanation. I guess it was a roll of the dice for him. Let her talk and hang herself, not say a word and hang herself anyway.
She was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
It didn’t begin to bother me until it was over. I can see now I was too busy at the time. When I finally had some breathing room to think I realized there were too many things that didn’t fit together the way they should. Listening to all the experts involved I understood I still saw her as a person. I’m pretty sure they weren’t doing that.
Not because they were bad people. Probably just the opposite. Everyone involved had worked hard to attain their positions. I could tell from dealing with them they were all decent people who really felt they could do some good. Make a difference in society and maybe make things a little better for others. Put criminals in jail or set innocent people free. Two sides of the same coin.
It wasn’t lack of empathy or humanity on their part, but because it was their job. It was something they did every day. I understood all of this because of Susan. She went to work and part of that included people dying. It certainly didn’t make her less sympathetic or more hardened to those things than other people. Probably the opposite, but in her world it was routine.
Routine is a very two-edged sword. It can be helpful. Letting you do things almost on autopilot. You do your job better and become more efficient. You don’t really have to think about things. Your conclusions are pretty much set about what’s going to happen because you’ve done it so many times before. But it can also become routine stuffing people into a gas chamber. Maybe an extreme example but not without precedent in recent enough history.
I knew every single one of the professionals involved saw her as convicted the second they finished reading her file. Guilty, because she was. From the moment she pulled the trigger to the moment the jury came in with a verdict, she was a commodity. A product to be fed into one end of the criminal justice system and out the other. And every one of them knew within certain parameters what the conclusion was going to be. Of all the people involved I was the only one who’d actually seen her close-up while she was killing.
It was a long time ago, but I’ve watched other people while they were doing the same thing. Some of them liked it. I know I’ll never be able to describe in words how much they disgusted me. Elizabeth Turnin wasn’t one of those people, I was sure of that. None of those professionals knew what I did because they hadn't seen her in the diner.
Almost everybody completely loses it their first couple of firefights. You really don’t have any idea what you’re doing or what's happening. Chicken without a head syndrome. I saw a lot of guys die by making incredibly stupid mistakes they'd been trained not to. Standing up while bullets were whizzing over their heads or not hitting the ground the second they heard firing start. It takes a while to get good at anything and that includes killing other people.
Elizabeth Turnin was horrified she was shooting people but was doing it anyway. I was sure I had that right.
She was good with a gun. Obviously, to me at least, she must’ve practiced somewhere. Everything she aimed at she hit. That’s harder to do than most people think. Especially when it’s another human being who's moving.
I’ve had enough experience to know your memory in firefights isn’t always accurate. Because I have that experience, I’ve learned to remember what my body did. A lot of people who’ve lived through a war will tell you the same thing. Your body will move, or sometimes more importantly not move, before you know it’s happening.
I know she was reacting, not thinking when she shot Bob. I could see it was automatic on her part. She had pointed that gun at my face and stood there figuring out what she was going to do next. It wasn’t till Bob and those other people moved she started firing. That’s what set everything off. I have no idea what would have happened if everyone had sat still. I do know she could have killed me instantly and everybody else if it was supposed to just be a slaughter. It wasn’t. I don’t know what all of it meant, but I do know it wasn’t killing for killings sake.
I did nothing when she was shooting those people in the next booth because she was still watching me out of the corner of her eye and some part of me understood that. She would have turned the gun on me in a heartbeat if I’d so much as twitched. I know from experience once you start firing it’s very difficult to stop. Everything seems like a threat at that point.
I was finding it more and more difficult to reconcile what I knew to be true, and the generally accepted story. This wasn’t a random act the way her attorney tried to make it sound. I trust my instincts. I know when I’m right.
Things had not gone as she wanted them to.
I also had no idea why I cared.
She was in jail for the rest of her life. I was free to go back to mine.
But then I got the letter.