A Story by Kathy Coogan
Five Smart Women +
One Thieving Husband +
One Small Plane =
Leah completed her application to E-Harmony but her index finger hovered over the send key. Her coffee turned cold, its black surface cast with an iridescent oily film as she brooded, deciding.
Her friends had insisted, believing that she had to get back on the horse. It was this or the blind dates that they would arrange. Double dating at 35 seemed too pitiful. So after the physical pain of Henry’s betrayal had finally dulled a little, she caved, sighed and hit send.
When Leah met her first computer-arranged date, she imagined lyrics from My Fair Lady; not, “I Could Have Danced All Night” but cruelly, “He oiled his way around the floor oozing charm from every pore.”
He was nice enough looking but she wished that she had specified “no piercings.” He wore a small loop earring in filigreed gold, which hypnotized her. It wasn’t centered in his lobe, instead was punched through so high that the earring didn’t dangle, rather it gathered up the fleshy ear lobe like a sling or a fish hook.
He tugged at it constantly, nervously. Leah wanted to suggest that he take it out if it was uncomfortable. She thought of the pleasure of removing too-tight shoes. She knew she was being uncharitable and unfairly judgmental. Her experience with Henry had ruined her. It was just too soon. She wanted to be home alone, taking no risks ever again.
She had trouble letting go of what she had with Henry even when it was proven to be a charade. She convinced herself that theirs had been the perfect love, forgetting the little prickles of doubt that surfaced on and off from the beginning; forgetting their lackluster performance in the bedroom. She blamed herself for the false starts there and glorified Henry’s other assets as a balm to her doubt.
The shock of Henry’s embezzlement from her and at least four other women rocked her. There had to be some mistake. She defended him, believing herself an accidental, unintended victim; smarter, prettier and more lovable than the others. She believed his lies so much longer than the rest. As her brain saw the numeric proof of his crimes, her heart thought it might have been worth it.
Henry had charmed and fooled women for so long that Judge Elvira Sherman, his unlucky draw, gave him the maximum sentence. When Henry, still confident of his power over women whined, “But your Honor,” Leah thought the judge might cave. She was a woman after all. But Judge Sherman had just waved for the Sheriff to take him away. In handcuffs. For twenty years. Henry’s beautiful face corrupted as he snarled , “You bitch…”
The trial had slowly opened Leah’s eyes. She had endured the humiliation of meeting the other women and hearing Henry’s other aliases: Ted to the real estate broker from Des Moines; Sam to an assistant to the Governor of Arizona: Allan to the dentist from Akron and Jacob to the botany professor from New Jersey. The women all bore a visible similarity to Leah, not as close as sisters but maybe workaholic first cousins.
Leah hadn’t testified against him. She was his last victim, still too numb and blindly unconvinced. She still thought she’d wake up and find Henry smiling beside her. At the trial she had sat far away from the other women.
She had watched them speak clearly and bravely from the witness stand, cringing when she realized that their stories were her story, their sweet nicknames and love-games were hers. Up until then, she had considered these women rivals. She now understood that they were all interchangeable pegs in his puzzle.
His real name was Richard, Richard Harlof. He had swept them all off their feet, into his bed and then into hurried marriages. Their speeding biological clocks and his astute intuition about each woman had impaired their judgment and invalidated the warnings of their friends.
Richard Harlof hadn’t varied his game-plan. What worked for one had worked for them all. The police found near-identical photos of each of the women shyly posed wearing a red lace camisole, just one more humiliation to be exposed.
The most awful revelation: it was the same red lace camisole. He had given it as a gift to each of them, retrieved it, telling each woman that it wasn’t “her style” then saved it for the next photo op. The camisole and the pictures were his souvenirs that he unwisely kept, his arrogance letting him believe that no one would ever figure him out.
When he was taken away after sentencing, the women gathered in a victorious group-hug as Leah watched from across the aisle. The red-headed one approached her and said, “Hi I’m Nan. Don’t feel too bad. It took me a long time, too.” She handed Leah her card and said, “Call me if you ever want to talk. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We just loved the wrong asshole. If you think about him at all, it helps to think of him by his real name: dick– with a small d.” So it wasn’t just Leah who had been unsatisfied in that area.
But Leah continued to be ashamed. She remembered disparaging her loving blue-collar family to her urbane, polished husband. Her first Christmas after their elopement, Leah had taken Henry home to meet them. Her close-knit sisters never said a word about being excluded from the marriage ceremony. They were willing to open their arms to the man that Leah loved.
She proudly introduced her new husband to her parents, while explaining, no, she and Henry wouldn’t be staying in her tiny old bedroom. They would stay at the Hilton downtown. And would it be too much to ask to seat Meg’s and Barb’s kids in the kitchen this year so they weren’t all crammed around the dining room table?
She apologized to Henry in advance for her mother’s Stove-Top dressing and green bean casserole and had caught Henry’s eye during her father’s sentimental Irish O’Hallmark toasts. When her dad had insisted after grace that everyone state what they were most grateful for as the mashed potatoes grew cold, Henry had put his arm around her shoulders and said, “Why your lovely daughter, of course.”
And why not? All the lavish gifts that Henry dispensed had been paid for with his secret excursions into her accounts or with new pre-approved credit cards in her name but cleverly sent to a "new" address. Leah had very good credit but no clue about Richard's deceits. But he hadn’t fooled everyone.
After opening the polished leather wallet, monogrammed so that it couldn’t be returned, her dad, wearing his red Santa hat and his new Ohio State sweatshirt, had leaned across the huge pile of gifts to shake Henry’s hand and said, “Pog mo thoine.” Henry beamed, assuming that was Gaelic for thank you. Everyone else knew that it was her father’s favorite Irish expression, “Kiss my arse.”
As Leah and Henry were leaving, her mother had taken her aside and whispered, “Honey, be careful.” Leah had assumed she meant driving back to the City. Later she knew that her mother meant much more than that. Sophisticated Henry hadn’t fooled her unsophisticated mom and dad at all.
Leah’s decree of divorce was an automatic by-product of his bigamy, trigamy and so on. Her annulment papers were awarded by the Catholic Church not long after. Going through the antiquated formality of the annulment process was a gift to her daily-mass-and-communion parents. They had never said I told you so.
As the year passed Leah had a series of E-Harmony dates, which failed badly not because of the men but because of her resentment and self-hatred. She saw a therapist who suggested that she needed closure. Leah decided that she needed not just closure but to slam the door in Henry/dick’s face. Revenge is what she wanted.
She called the red-head and asked her a few questions. The red-head, Nan, hesitated, then answered and laughed out loud when Leah told her the plan. She agreed to contact all the other women who Leah now called by their names, too, Elizabeth, Maureen and Sandy.
They all got on board with the plan. Leah used her experience as a market researcher to develop a questionnaire which they all completed. Leah compiled the data. She wasn’t surprised at the conclusion. After some string pulling, Elizabeth, the Arizona Governor’s staffer (and Richard Harlof’s second victim) arranged an unusual visit to the prison in Scottsdale. The visit would coincide with the prisoners’ time in the outside exercise yard.
The five women met at the prison gate and this time Leah hugged them all. They passed through security and were greeted by the assistant warden, one of Elizabeth’s old college friends. As they were ushered into the warden’s office, Richard Harlof was already seated at a table, his legs shackled to an O- ring in the floor, but his hands free and folded. The women lined up in front of the window.
He was surprised to see them but quickly recovered, bowed his head to them as if he were royalty and said, “Ladies?” Leah looked at her watch and waited. The women stared at Richard Harlof. No one said anything. Richard Harlof stared back then said, “Why are you here?” as if they were uninvited underlings. No one said a word. Leah looked at her watch then nodded to the warden. The warden nodded to the guard who indicated that Richard should stand.
Richard was instructed to walk to the farthest extent of his leg chain. He faced the window just as they all heard the sound of a plane approaching. They all peered out at once. The plane was circling around the perimeter of the grounds. It was unable to fly over because of security restrictions but it was close enough that they could see that it was pulling a banner.
Even Richard Harlof leaned forward. He could see the prisoners in the exercise yard all looking up, using their hands to block the bright sun. One by one the prisoners started laughing and pointing upward, turning in circles to follow the small plane and the large banner's path.
Richard said, “What’s going on?” No one said anything. They all waited for the banner to be parallel to the window. When it was finally visible, Richard gasped. The banner read, “One small dick (Harlof): eleven years, five women and not one orgasm.”
If he could have spun around, he would have but the shackles prevented him. His face, which had gone soft in the year in prison, got ugly with his sputtering. The women started laughing and even the warden and the guard chuckled. With her cell-phone, Nan filmed a video for You Tube panning the camera from the banner to a close-up of Richard’s mottled, furious, impotent face.
The guard pushed Richard Harlof back into the chair, holding him down as if he were a child having a tantrum, while the women filed out of the office. They had a reservation at the best restaurant in town where they would have lots to talk about. Leah would have plenty of time to fly home for her next E-Harmony date on Friday. She found herself looking forward to it.
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