The Lives of Strangers
Betrayals, murder, and marriage in Salt Lake City.
The summer I moved to Salt Lake City, posters began to appear on telephone poles across the Avenues neighborhood where I lived, warning residents about a budding serial killer. Cats had been disappearing only to turn up later in the graveyard two blocks away, their throats cut and innards razored out. It was the work of a satanic cult or serial killer, the posters worried: someone was learning the craft of disemboweling pets before they moved on to larger prey, like human women.
The fliers were Xeroxed on retina-scorching yellow paper. I found them at the park where I took my dogs. I had just purchased my very first home: a large two-story Victorian with asbestos siding and something mysterious ruining the roof. In wind storms, a thin groan would emerge from the attic that could never be identified, the sound shivering up and down the boards behind the ceiling’s drywall. I had moved here for a new job and because of the divorce I’d gotten within the same month. Now my dogs were sick from the heat that rolled into the valley the same time we did, the two of them staggering and vomiting, sleeping in the shade of two tiny peach trees the previous owner had planted on the front lawn.
I was also breaking up with the man I had left my husband for. He was a Norwegian I’d met two years ago hiking outside of Bergen: tall, redheaded, older, a smoker. He produced sports shows for television and traveled often in America: over the course of a year, we met in hotels across the country. In between these times, the Norwegian would send vaguely incomprehensible emails that said things like “I want to shear my mind with you” or “I’m over the rainbow with kids for you.” Still, when he called, I’d shut my door and listen to him breathe over the crackling of our cell phones.
What precipitated our breakup was a series of emails I’d received from an Oslo girlfriend of his about whom I’d known nothing. She contacted me after hacking into his computer and finding our correspondence. It may be a morally dubious position to become enraged by the betrayals of a man with whom you have also betrayed your husband, but I managed it. What stunned me, if anything did, was the sense that one part of my life had just been viciously yanked out of concert with the others. For the past three years of my marriage, I had felt content, trusting and trustworthy. And then I wasn’t anymore. It wasn’t simply that I had fallen in love with someone else, though I had, or that I was only discontented with the life I shared with my husband, though I became so. I felt instead as if a small, hidden part of myself had overtaken the others, turning me into something terrifyingly unrecognizable.
It may be a morally dubious position to become enraged by the betrayals of a man with whom you have also betrayed your husband, but I managed it.
Increasingly, it was in this woman’s strange emails that I found the voice closest to my own. “I do not Know why I am doing this,” she would write in her awkward English late each night. “Why should I write to you? He never tells me about You though I ask him, and when I ask he says to me nothing. He says I am like Heroin, he is completely addicted. But he never wants me near Him any more.”
She would then go on to describe the long nights spent waiting, his distant demeanor, her confusion. Occasionally, I sensed a trace of my own marriage in her relationship: the unexplainable absences of her lover, the hours he spent away from her, claiming he needed time to be alone. Hadn’t my husband, too, increasingly absented himself once we got married? The woman’s voice was intimate, unnerving. Like the summer itself, it seemed filled with a quiet menace. The house faintly throbbed with it when I woke each morning: the memory of this woman’s last email lingering from my dreams, the heat making the badly applied new paint bubble in monstrous, udder-like shapes from the walls. July came, another summer storm blew in, someone taped a flier about a missing cat to my door. “Keep a lookout!” it declared. “Someone’s up to no good.” I threw it away and forgot about it.
And then, one morning, a woman disappeared.
Lori Soares Hacking went out early July 19 to run up City Creek, the canyon closest to my house, and never returned. Her husband, Mark Hacking, who had recently graduated from the University of Utah and been accepted to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill medical school, called the police when she didn’t show up by 10:30 a.m., as was her habit. On TV and in the papers, the pictures of Lori showed a slim woman with long dark hair and olive skin. Posters of Lori quickly proliferated throughout my neighborhood, in fierce competition with the mutilation posters which overnight multiplied, as if their creators knew the cat killer had some dire hand in Lori’s disappearance.
The uproar over what, in a larger city, might be considered a minor event was likely due to the most recent Salt Lake City crime that had captivated national attention. Less than three years ago Elizabeth Smart had been spirited away from her parents’ home and turned into a homeless religious fanatic’s spiritual “wife.” Because she had been photographed at local parties and had often been seen less than three miles away from her home, as when almost discovered at the downtown public library, clad in a white dress with a face veil and guarded only by a mentally unstable older woman, the city now felt as if it were undergoing some collective self-shaming ritual.
The abductor’s belief that God had prophesied that he should take multiple wives seemed reminiscent of early Mormonism and this, combined with the extensive sexual abuse the girl had suffered, cast a lurid light on a case that was deeply embarrassing to the largely LDS city. Fears of becoming the butt of another national joke made Salt Lake residents hyper-vigilant, determined to find Lori Hacking before she was killed or, more awkwardly, found wandering in some manic trance outside a downtown McDonald’s. Within hours, groups of volunteers began to patrol the Avenues and City Creek neighborhoods, shouting Lori’s name.
These patrols went past my home three times a day, attracted, it seemed, to the house next door to mine, owned by a hoarder who refused to prune back his trees. The house was buried behind a mass of peach and plum trees, Russian olives, Trees of Heaven, one or two wormy apples, and an unhealthy patch of aspen. It looked like the perfect refuge for a pedophile. I was out in the front yard, waist-high in a clump of overgrown Mormon tea I was cutting back, when two women carrying fliers stopped by my house, both wearing large sun hats — one pink, one brown.
“Do you live alone?” the woman in the pink sun hat asked.
I thought it was a strange question, but I answered in the affirmative, assuming (speciously, as I scolded myself later) that because the questioner was a woman, I wouldn’t have to lie. The woman held out a flier with Lori Hacking’s face on it.
“Do you know this girl?” she asked.
I said no but that I’d heard about the case, at which point the two women began to relay the various facts they’d collected. First, this young woman (“girl,” the brown sun hat kept insisting) had been missing now for two days and no one had heard anything. Second, she was less than 120 pounds. Third, she’d said she’d been accosted by a homeless man the last time she went running alone. Did I do that? the women asked me. Did I like to go out jogging alone?
“Yes,” I replied.
“Oh no,” the women murmured in unison. It turned out that this was exactly the wrong thing to do. Did I know how long the canyon was? Did I know how many bends and kinks lay in its road, how much of the area was hidden by trees? Did I know that mountain lions hunted there, along with packs of coyote and even black bears?
“And she was tiny!” the pink sun hat added. “How much do you weigh?”
The women peered at me, skeptically appraising me. In truth, at the time, I was likely the same weight as Lori Hacking. Stress and heat exhaustion had kept me from eating; this, combined with over-exercise, had whittled me down to an uncomfortably low weight. Over the last months of my crumbling marriage, I would go for long, self-punishing runs so I wouldn’t have to face my husband.
Now here I was, feeling sweat flush through my thin T-shirt, down my back, pooling in the slight gap in the waistband of my shorts. My face was red from spending the last half hour wrestling with a shrub, and now my arms had sunburned. I was a wreck and looked it.
To my amazement, the pink-sun-hatted woman’s face begin to tremble. She looked as if she were about to cry, and the woman with the brown hat put her hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“Promise me,” the woman in the pink sun hat said. “Promise me you won’t run by yourself anymore.”
“Sure,” I said stupidly, not bothering to tell her that I knew no one in the city; even if I wanted company, I would have been out of luck.
“Good,” the brown sun hat said. She and her friend continued to stare at me. My long dark hair, sweat and dirt staining my knees. “You know,” she said, peering at my face, “you look just like her.” And then she and her friend walked away.
The incident shook me, but not much. People often tell me I look like this friend or that, coming up to me in bars with a stranger’s ID to startle me with the realization that I could look so much like someone else. I just have that kind of face: one that seems familiar to everyone. One of the reasons I fell in love with the Norwegian was that he never seemed to mistake me for anyone else. He didn’t flatter, and he didn’t sugar-coat. He wanted “to really see me,” as he once said, and when we were together, he spent time cataloguing, dispassionately, the various curves and scars of my body.
“You have freckles,” he told me, observing a fact that my husband — knowing I hated them — politely ignored. “Your right knee cracks. One of your eyes is larger than the other.”
After ten years with a man who remained blindly polite about my appearance, who overlooked the food flecks on my face and the giant pimple on my chin, who would pretend not to notice if my breath stank — or my anxieties over whether he found me attractive since he avoided our bed — who never, I screamed at him once in couples counseling, ever dared tell me what he really felt or wanted — there was some relief hearing a man say he thought my eyes were too small, or that the long plunge of my back reminded him of a tree stripped of its bark.
But since we’d broken up, the Norwegian had taken to flattery, trying to win me back. “You are beautiful,” he would declare on the phone, and I would roll my eyes. He wanted me to move to Norway, he said. But why would I? As deluded as I’d been, I wasn’t insane. It was easier, somehow, to read the emails his girlfriend sent, which seemed — in their cloaked anger and bewilderment — less like an indictment.
“Hello!” these messages would begin, their exclamation point a bright stab of greeting on my computer screen. “I have to tell you more Truth. The Truth about this man we know!”
It seemed that he had promised her that they would live together. “He has Promised this,” she wrote, “but I do not think he tells the Truth.” She was thirty-eight years old and had a son from a previous marriage. She had known about me all along. Was I surprised by this? No. I was only surprised she had waited to tell me. Then I knew why she waited; he had told her that I was moving to Norway as a way of leaving her.
“He is a liar and not worthy of you,” she wrote. “But do you think he will come Back to me?”
“She is crazy,” the Norwegian pleaded over the phone. “You cannot listen to her. She is completely insane!”
“I think I know how she got that way,” I replied angrily.
In my stories about the two of them, I imagined this woman sitting in her kitchen, waiting. She was pretty, blonde, wearing dark, fitted sweaters.
At home alone, taking a late-afternoon cold shower, I saw, as I passed the bathroom mirror one day, a face that looked putty colored, blank, my neck muscles strangely slack in the heat. It was three o’clock in Utah, midnight in Norway. By now the woman would be in bed, most likely awake. I spent hours imagining the two of them together. I knew the Norwegian visited her when he wanted, an hour or two very late in the evening, after dinner at a bar or during the weekends perhaps. In my stories about the two of them, I imagined this woman sitting in her kitchen, waiting. She was pretty, blonde, wearing dark, fitted sweaters. When the Norwegian visited her late at night, she would make sure the door to her son’s room was firmly closed. She’d scratch and claw at him in bed, trying to keep a piece of him, trying to make him aware of her. Look at me, I could hear her tell him. Look how unhappy I am! In my fantasy, I imagined that he liked how intense and grateful her motherhood made her for his presence.
Is this what she wanted? I wondered, staring into the mirror: not to drive me away, but to make me consider her? Alone, I listened to music while drinking a glass of water, imagining the life of a woman an ocean away, pacing around a half-lit living room, terrified by the depth of her solitude.
It was the third day of Lori Hacking’s disappearance, and the news in the neighborhood was that the police were running groups of volunteers to search the canyon. The husband, Mark Hacking, was regularly on TV now, teary and white-faced. Everyone was suspicious of him, even more so after the evening he was found, crying and allegedly naked, running through the streets. But if there was anything the residents of Salt Lake seemed most unnerved by, it was the possibility Lori Hacking had been assaulted by a stranger. This was far more frightening than the statistical likelihood that Mark Hacking, a tall, athletic, bald young man who was otherwise physically unremarkable, had murdered his wife in a fit of rage. Pale-eyed and ruddy-cheeked, Mark appeared both bland and strangely repellent on TV. I thought at the time my dislike of him had more to do with the word husband than anything about Mark Hacking himself. Post-divorce, I wanted nothing to do with husbands.
I wanted there to be something wrong with Mark Hacking, as much as I also wanted the worst, most exotic scenario to have unfolded: that Lori had been spirited away by a stranger, attacked after taking a turn too fast during her run, or having slipped and twisted an ankle. A stranger comes to help, notes the woman’s slim waist, her runner’s legs. He holds her arm and steadies her, then pulls her to him, murmuring something that she instantly, unconsciously, recognizes as threatening. She starts to pull away. He pulls back. And then everything after.
Night after night, the city and I imagined her killed repeatedly: imagined her bludgeoned first by her husband and then, unsatisfied with this scenario, dragged off into the bushes by a watchful maniac. In retrospect, it’s shocking how much time we spent publicly speculating about the ways in which Lori Hacking died, what kinds of tortures had been meted out and suffered. It was as if we enjoyed it, watching the news each night solely for the purpose of hearing more about the case, talking about it with neighbors, everyone eager to discuss it, to imagine her — bloodied, beaten, even sodomized — as one particularly revolting man hissed to me at the dog park — almost as if she deserved it, this imaginary hell we placed her in, over and over.
It was a death that hovered between two possible men, one the husband, the other the stranger, and our responses depended on whom we believed to be the more real threat. Over the first week, perhaps the news made both men become strangers, to Lori Hacking’s family at least if not to us, as certainly a woman could never have married a man suspected of being her potential murderer. In the same way, the image of Lori Hacking herself also became estranged from the reality of who she likely was. The story of her disappearance was fueled by the perception of her innocence: news reports continually referred to her slight frame, her childlike appearance, as if she were little more than a child; as if to mention the fact that she was a woman who had decided to run alone one morning — as she did every morning — would suggest that perhaps she had not only courted danger but invited it in, that she was an adult who had actively participated in a life in which something so awful could happen to her.
In retrospect, I think my own infantilization of her in my imagination — aided by the news’s vague, dreamy descriptions of her — was also self-protective. What woman is not aware that she is subject to harsh public judgement for the consequences of her independence and desires? Obviously, I wanted to confirm my own innocence in a crisis I had initiated. I, too, wanted the answer to lie with either a husband or a stranger. I didn’t want to have been the source of so much pain myself, pain that was even now radiating out in an ever-widening circle that could overcome a woman I’d never even met in a country far from my own.
In retrospect, I think my own infantilization of her in my imagination was also self-protective. What woman is not aware that she is subject to harsh public judgement for the consequences of her independence and desires?
I told myself I had made a choice between a wrong man and a right one, though in reality I had only been choosing between one kind of life and another. But if I wanted another life, why couldn’t I have articulated that before pressuring my ex into a wedding about which he himself had been so skeptical? Why couldn’t I have changed my mind without the need to lie to someone I respected, hiding emails, sneaking away on “work trips” to meet another man in different cities across America, so that I could tell him that I loved his voice, to hear him tell me, “I love more than your voice”?
Ironically, it was my ex who best seemed to understand this indulgent, self-rationalizing need. Two weekends after I moved to Salt Lake, he drove the dull six hours from Laramie to Utah, ostensibly to visit the dogs, but mostly to sit on my porch and talk. That Friday, coming back from a store, I found him sitting on my porch, my two dogs going nuts inside the house, noses pressed to the slobbery window.
“Sorry,” my ex said, handing me my mail. “I didn’t have keys to get in and calm the dogs.”
“You shouldn’t have keys,” I said. “We aren’t married anymore.” But I opened the door for us both and let him sit down. He wanted to talk, he said. He wanted to hear my take on a woman he was seeing. She’d told him she could see the two of them married someday. He was worried, he said; he wasn’t sure he wanted to think again about marriage, maybe he had started dating too soon after our divorce. Was two months too soon? Was nine weeks?
For hours, he kept talking. His new girlfriend seemed both manipulative and unconfident but I was hardly the person to tell him that. I knew he really wanted to discuss what had happened in our marriage: Was it obvious that it should have come apart? Or was what happened merely an act of wilful, momentary cruelty on my or both of our parts that had no meaning, as our decision to marry had perhaps no meaning, as our love for each other, even now, had no purpose or design?
The second time my ex came over he was passing through town on his way to a conference. We agreed he would spend the night at my house, and when he arrived I took him to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Mark Hacking had recently been hospitalized in a psychiatric care unit for what the news was calling “exhaustion”; people in the restaurant were gossiping excitedly about this as they waited for tables. My ex-husband and I sat in a booth and laughed and talked, nervous to be spending an evening alone with each other. Our nervousness must have registered as attraction, because an older couple came over to our table on their way out. “Excuse me,” the woman said. “We’ve been watching the two of you all night and have a bet about this. Are you on your first date?”
I could hear the dogs barking, worrying something violently in a stand of garden poppies. Something red and torn, like a ripped jersey, in their mouths.
My ex put down his beer and I looked at the table. The couple were in their seventies: short, prim, both smiling hugely at the thought of seeing the tender beginnings of a relationship.
“We just got divorced,” my ex replied.
“Oh,” the woman said. Her husband put a hand on her shoulder to lead her off. “Oh, but,” she said, looking up at him and then at me, as he pushed her toward the door. “Oh. Oh. I’m so sorry to have interrupted you both.” As she turned, I saw a cloud of red flush across her face.
I was blushing too. The woman’s questions unsettled me, presented me with my most feared image of us: one in which we had been caught wilfully destroying something that, to a stranger’s eyes, looked fine. To come back into each other’s lives — even at intervals — to rekindle some of our old intimacy in order to answer questions whose meanings, though shared, were essentially private, now appeared delusional.
Back at home, my ex and I watched the news to avoid conversation. A story came on about urban pet care; briefly, almost as an afterthought, the female reporter mentioned my neighborhood’s sudden rash of cat killings. My ex grunted. “Cat killings,” he said, and turned to look out my window. “Like those things on the fliers. You ever get scared?”
“Never,” I lied. There was no point in telling him how the house shrieked during wind storms, or the fact that the hoarder next door told me only yesterday that he’d confronted a man sneaking around my house, peering in each of my unshuttered windows. I wanted to talk to my ex, but I didn’t want to tell him everything. To admit that I was occasionally afraid of my new surroundings might suggest a kind of vulnerability about my life that he could feel protective or anxious about, and about which I might have to feel even more guilty.
My ex finished his drink, stood up, and went to bed. When he left the next morning, I walked into the yard, where I could hear the dogs barking, worrying something violently in a stand of garden poppies. Something red and torn, like a ripped jersey, in their mouths. I chased them off, yelling at them to drop it. They ran to a corner of the yard where they stopped and peered back at me, anxious and hungry-looking. I bent down and poked at the remains. A long, thin haunch in yellow fur. It looked like pieces of an animal.
It turned out the rumors were right: The police were organizing search parties in City Creek. Volunteers were told to turn up Saturday morning and be slotted into groups assigned to search particular areas. Curious, I walked down to the mouth of City Creek. City buses had been loaned to drive groups of volunteers to the farthest reaches of the canyon. In Memorial Grove Park, where volunteers gathered, I saw hundreds of eager searchers, mostly women, milling in groups by a long line of organizers’ tables. Everyone was excited, clutching sun hats and bottles of water, each with a Xeroxed map and time sheet. “Stick to your highlighted area and your time limit,” the volunteer at the organizers’ table droned as she passed out maps.
“Are we the first people to search?” a young woman in white beside me asked, pointing to her assigned area.
“No,” the volunteer replied. “People have been searching all morning and yesterday. But you never can tell. Maybe somebody missed something.”
I was assigned to a group that included a number of older women and one man around my age. When I got on the bus, the young man leaned over his seat and started asking me questions: How long had I been looking, had I been here all morning, did I have a boyfriend who was also in on the search party?
Caught off guard, I stammered out a few answers until a younger woman in a camisole top joined our group. The man, even more eager now, immediately turned to her to ask her the same questions. Had she known Lori personally? Had she heard any rumors? What was her name? Did she have a boyfriend out here today also looking?
An older woman directly across from me caught my eye and grimaced. She jerked her head in the young man’s direction. “Crazy,” she mouthed.
I smirked and nodded my agreement. It did seem crazy, trying to pick up women at a search for a woman who’d likely been murdered. But in terms of crazy, the young man’s behavior wasn’t far off from that of the rest of the volunteers’.
When our bus dropped us off at our assigned spot halfway up the canyon, a heavyset woman with flaming red hair declared that she had “a strong natural feeling for disaster” and began circling a small pond into which the canyon’s creek drained. Shallow but wide, covered with a thick lace of scum, the pond seemed an unlikely place to hide anything as substantial as a body, but the woman kept patrolling the area, muttering about her “sixth sense for doom.”
Another woman with square-lensed sunglasses latched on to me immediately, asking about my height, my weight, telling me how much I resembled Lori Hacking. Did I run here, too? she pressed. Did I live alone?
It seemed that all of us in the group were crazy in one way or another, and as I peeled off to focus on the area circled on my already well worn sheet of paper, I began to wonder why I’d come. I certainly had no expectations of finding Lori Hacking. I didn’t even know what evidence to look for: the organizers had said only that we shouldn’t disturb whatever homeless campgrounds we might come across.
People lived here among the miles of scrub oak that ringed the canyon’s river; there were smaller and larger homeless encampments that had been set up over the summer. The people themselves had already been ushered out by police, the organizers said, and if we could be respectful, and not tear through their belongings or take anything, that would be good. I hadn’t understood what the organizers meant, so when I hiked a steep hill toward what looked like the mouth of a cave, I was surprised to stumble into a small clearing filled with bundles of clothes, three tents in disrepair, a crudely fashioned fire pit. There were dishes, too: bits of crockery, empty cans, a knife. It was startling, because it was an area close to where I went running on the Shoreline trail that snaked through the canyon. All this time, I marveled, staring at the rolled sleeping bags, I had probably been not five feet away from a dozen strangers, likely men but also women: strangers who saw me though I knew nothing of them, who lived all this time just out of sight, but not out of reach.
Looking at the torn shirts, the plates, I felt, suddenly, embarrassed. There was no reason for me to be here, outside my own curiosity about a case in which I had only a passing, prurient interest. I thought of the woman in Norway, sitting at our ex-lover’s computer, sifting through his emails, all in the hopes of finding — what? Something she was afraid she already knew.
I stepped gingerly over a rucksack someone had already torn through, its items scattered on the ground. Beside it was a pair of jeans neatly folded, a book, a baseball cap. I looked away, not wanting to disturb more than I already had. I walked back out of the canyon toward home.
Two weeks later, the police arrested Mark Hacking for murder.
Of course there had been mutterings in the news: Hacking had been spotted buying a new mattress early on the morning of his wife’s disappearance; reporters were having a difficult time finding evidence he’d been accepted into Chapel Hill. The police had long suspected Mark Hacking of the murder, but lack of evidence and mounting public pressure to find Lori had encouraged them to run the volunteer searches. While residential volunteers combed the canyon and local landfills, the police pieced together the details: Mark Hacking had never gotten into Chapel Hill. In fact, he hadn’t even applied, and for the past few years had been faking his enrollment at the University of Utah, going to school each day and even writing papers, all the while never registered as a student. Lori found everything out one night and confronted him. They argued, she wept, and then, out of shame or fear of being exposed, he shot her in her sleep and dumped her body in a Dumpster outside an LDS church a block away. Then he went out the next morning, bought a new mattress, and called the police.
Over the weeks, more details trickled out, and, Salt Lake being the near-hamlet that it is, I met people who had either known or worked with Mark Hacking. One of the stranger stories came from a physician I met at a bar who’d worked at Uni, the same hospital ward where Hacking did. “He used to show me papers he’d written,” he told me, as we drank our glasses of wine and made small talk. “He asked me to look at his spelling. He said his grammar was never any good.”
After his arrest, Mark Hacking’s insistence to the police and the courts that he had no idea why he’d done what he did was something the public found frustrating; his repeated “I don’t know,” which the papers so often quoted as his defense, irritated and intrigued us: of course he knew, because how could you not know why you wanted to kill your own wife? Articles proliferated in the papers explaining the disordered personality’s need to create and maintain a narrative of an unimpeachable self, even to the point of violence. It explained much, but I was still bemused by this as a motive for murder. Wouldn’t he, I thought, have been even the slightest bit relieved when his wife discovered his secrets? In the end, wouldn’t it have been a respite from all those exhausting rituals that comprised his deceit? My own need to tell my husband about my affair had been a pressure in my belly and chest that increased, hour by hour, day by day, over the course of months, until I felt as if I were breathless. But perhaps this was what differentiated the less-studied liar from the kind Mark Hacking was. For most, a lie is the thing that hides ourselves from ourselves: in that, it becomes intolerable to live with over time.
And yet, what really constitutes a lie when the narrative of a lie often becomes more deeply true? I don’t mean to suggest that Mark Hacking didn’t violate his wife’s trust, or that he became a pre-med student because he had so long imagined himself as one. Still there are stories or half-truths, even outright lies, that we create to explain so much that happens inside of, and during the failures of, a life. The comfort we derive from these fabrications may be transitory or unfair, but they also provide us the means by which we can continue to survive.
“I don’t know,” Mark Hacking repeatedly insisted, and in his inability to acknowledge himself as a perpetrator by ascribing to himself any conscious motive, he provided the public with both the refusal of his guilt and a poor psychological dodge. The case was over, but the catharsis we publicly and privately sought was not: his refusal to provide a reason left what happened to Lori Hacking still tantalizingly open.
No matter how much of myself I projected onto this woman or my former lover, in fact there was no story capacious enough to contain us all. What happened had happened. I could claim responsibility, but never really would know.
In an odd synchronicity of events, the week that Mark Hacking was arraigned in court, a neighbor reminded me of an article he’d seen more than a year ago about the sudden disappearance of cats in the valley. It seemed that foxes were known to attack cats; it was likely, he told me, that the Avenues cat killer was probably a growing fox population that had moved into the cemetery. It seemed likely: the summer was scorching, so many animals had already abandoned the arid foothills in search of more food and water. And a fox’s razor claws, the neighbor shrugged, could certainly do the same work as knives.
New signs were posted: fliers with a blurry photo of a fox dashing between gravetones, someone’s large block handwriting above it: “Not a Satanist! Keep your $&^%* cat indoors!”
The simplicity of this explanation for Salt Lake’s other “murders” only increased our public disdain for Mark Hacking. I have no control over what happened that night, it seemed he was saying, and I — like so many other voyeurs of the crime — found myself further titillated by this answer. Implicitly he was inviting us to imagine any explanation that we liked. Once more, we could replay the horrible scenario; again and again we could take part in Lori Hacking’s murder, if only in our imagination.
And yet wasn’t his response also honest, an echo of my own cry the night that I confessed my adultery to my husband, standing in the doorway of our kitchen, where I watched him throw plate after plate to the floor? Hacking could have said more but would that have been more honest, suggesting, as it must, that perhaps the inevitable fact of confession is that all the effects and intentions of our honesty are, at the least, indescribable? He didn’t know, he didn’t have the language to express or contain what he knew, just as we didn’t have the empathetic means to understand it fully. Perhaps, in the end, Hacking was right: there was, ultimately, no answer. Reading about the trial, I began to think of the Norwegian and his girlfriend, the way I tried to imagine them together and apart: her rages over the fact he was in love with someone else, his attempts to extricate himself. I imagined these things because I had wanted to defend them by identifying with them, the way I hoped someone else — perhaps my ex-husband — might understand and justify my own behavior. But no matter how much of myself I projected onto this woman or my former lover, in fact there was no story capacious enough to contain us all. What happened had happened. I could claim responsibility, but never really would know.
My ex came back to visit two more times that summer before both of us agreed, implicitly, to stop. By then, we had dropped the pretext of him wanting to visit my dogs or needing to attend a conference. My ex would simply show up unannounced on my porch with his overnight bag and a sack of groceries, the label worried off his beer bottle while he waited for me to come home.
“I need to tell you,” he began on the last evening we spent together, “those first months after our marriage, I used to fantasize that I lived alone. Even before you did what you did, I stayed away. I didn’t want to be at home.”
He paused and leaned over to scratch my smallest dog’s ears. “When we got married,” he said, “I wasn’t sure I could handle what that meant, but I promised myself that I would always be in your life and you in mine. After a few years, it felt like the only way I could keep that promise was if we weren’t married.” He sat back, a look of exhaustion on his face tinged, also, with surprise. Whether from not having believed he could reveal such a thing to me, or whether it was the first time he knew it was true, I wasn’t sure. He had never, as I implicitly knew but had felt too guilty to admit, wanted to be married to me. It was not an excuse for my behavior, or even a complete explanation for our divorce, but he was offering me a kind of forgiveness.
“It’s fine,” I told him. And closed my eyes.
There were, of course, other reasons he could have given. And I could have told him other stories about us, too, provided other perspectives of and thus apologies for our marriage. Instead, for a moment, I considered reminding him of the trip we’d once taken to Toronto together. We stayed a whole weekend in an old Victorian hotel, never leaving except to get dinner. We spent two days making love. We were so happy that it took awhile for us to notice the screaming. Somewhere, a few floors below, a woman was shrieking at someone in the building. At first, we thought it was another guest at the hotel having a lovers’ quarrel, then it became clear it was coming from next door, from the apartment where a dim light burned through orange shades, the pale color dappling the brick of the building across from us. My husband walked, naked, to the window. I followed, crouching beside him at the curtains. A dark shape flickered behind the shades. “Alone!” a woman’s voice shrieked. “Leave me alone!” The figure paced, stopped, paced again. “God fuck you!” the voice howled. “God fuck you!”
Down the street, a dog barked. We waited for a response, a door to slam, a dish to be thrown, but nothing came.
My husband called the desk clerk to see if someone might go over to calm her. I waited by the window. The woman had been screaming for over an hour now, and her voice was ragged, as if the lining of her throat had been rubbed away with shards of gravel. “Alone!” it howled. “Leave me alone!”
So much for romance, my husband muttered. I shrugged and padded back to our bed, which had cooled now, the sheets and blankets twisted on the floor. We tried to kiss but found it impossible, listening to the woman’s death rattle of a shriek. I pushed my husband away gently and he stopped, curling beside me. We spooned in the dark and listened to the woman, who was sobbing now somewhere below us, pacing back and forth before her orange light.
I could have reminded him of this story. I could have told him more and more until, over the hour, we became unrecognizable, inseparable from these memories. Perhaps it would have been simpler to lean against his shoulder, to slip back into the cold waters we had both managed to drag ourselves out from. I fantasized about taking his face between my hands: What would it be like to marry this man again, a man I barely understood to begin with, to start our love not from hope but from the origin of our disappointment and regret? It was dangerous to think we might love each other more by requiring less of each other, that in reality it had been our lack of feeling that kept us, in our intimacy, pushing and clawing. In that sense, our divorce now resembled our marriage: an anxious, continuous friction that bound us officially, yet also — even more deeply — kept us apart. My ex-husband had been right: for us to remain in each other’s lives as we’d promised, we would have to become strangers to each other.
My ex-husband looked at me, brow furrowed, as if he wanted to say something more. But I don’t know if he did, or what he would have said or thought. And, out of love for him, I never asked.
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Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography entitled Intimate; and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope andAnimal Eye, which was a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Balcones Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, a NEA Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Tin House, in two editions of the Best American Poetry series and on National Public Radio among others. She currently teaches at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of the community web history archive project Mapping Salt Lake City. See more at www.paisleyrekdal.com.
Josh George is a painter based in Virginia who has shown in New York City, Boston, Scottsdale, Aspen, Kansas City, and many other locations. See more at www.joshgeorge.com.