CW: The following contains sexual violence.
“Almighty Gods, if all we mortals want,
If all we can require, be yours to grant;
Make this fair statue mine, he wou’d have said,
But chang’d his words for shame; and only pray’d,
Give me the likeness of my iv’ry maid.”
Pygmalion and the Statue – Ovid’s Metamorphoses
The first time I saw Helena Gray, she was slitting her husband’s throat with her kitchen knife, leaving him to bleed out on the bed which they had shared for so many years. The last time I saw her, she was doing the exact same thing, in the exact same setting. Only this time it was real.
Other than that, there was really no difference between the two incidences. I always imagined the moment when Helena, that gorgeous blonde woman, would triumph over her criminal husband in a physical duel over the kitchen counter. My sweet Helena, with her Bambi eyes, and as innocent a soul as only Mother Theresa could ever claim to have, forced to commit the most horrific act of murder in her own purple-pink kitchen, with her own hand-sharpened kitchen knife, an everyday object never meant to cut ties between past and present. My sweet Helena was never supposed to be anything other than a respectful, beautiful wife. But that was only until her husband had tried to rape her in her own home.
I’ve pictured this moment a million times, always adding one extra detail, until the picture became so real I could not tell reality and fiction apart. Helena Gray, the picture-perfect woman, made it onto a film production studio in New York City, where she slit the throat of her rapist husband for the last time, with a swift and stable movement of her hand, defying thirty years of obedience and chastity. And she did it with elegance.
On the first day of filming, anarchy rules the set. Production assistants and cameramen are still desperately trying to find their places (or mostly, where they could stay out of the way) and even the director himself seems very uncertain about the tricks of capturing key moments in the story. He can use my presence on the set as creative insight, even though he must have been very reluctant the first time the producer suggested contacting me for finer details.
“Arthur,” he calls, finding me in the back of the studio where I’ve been observing the filming. “I need your take on this one. You’re the author of the book, you know better than fucking anybody else here. How do I make this murder credible?” He looks burnt-out already, like a dog that has been blunderingly trying to catch a butterfly for the last two hours straight.
I answer with confidence. “Easy. You keep what you got the first time. It was perfect.”
From his drooping eyelids I can tell that he does not believe a word, but I couldn’t care less. I am taken aback by the presence in the room that outshines anybody and anything else that stands in the way. Her.
The perfect Helena Gray. Her teeth which she never shows when she smiles, and her tiny hands which she never pulls into fists. She who handles this goddess of a character with such grace and such respect that no one else could improve upon, let alone replicate. She who single-handedly conquered any doubt I have ever had about my novel’s film adaptation, because I knew that as long as she was playing the lead, everything would be fine. She who ends up a murderer due to circumstance would be brought to life by Aphrodite herself, like Pygmalion’s sculpture of the perfect woman, Galatea. She was my own, sweet, little Galatea.
There was nothing in the world that would stop me from getting her.
“So, how did you come up with this story?” she asks, sipping on a small cup of cardamom coffee in a narrow, New York City alleyway. If only she knew how long I have been waiting for this day to happen. From the first complimentary emails I sent her, praising her performance, to the follow-up emails in which she would ask for insight on how to do better (to which I only said to be herself), this day has been in the making for several excruciating months. Emails turned into iMessages, iMessages turned into phone calls and casual conversations on set, until I was certain there was no way she would say no to a date. With women like her, wooing takes careful planning and utmost patience.
“You know… life?” I am usually not one to share inspiration behind my novels. The ways of the mind are sometimes better off hidden from outside observers.
“Surely life is not so atrocious. Is it?”
“So, what is really behind the whole idea of an innocent girl-next-door going rogue and murdering her husband?” The gorgeous actress flashes her deep brown eyes at me in a manner so mischievous I nearly fall out of my chair.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t expect our first date to be this profound,” I say, reprimanding her lightly. Everything about her is the way I imagined Helena to be. Everything except for the black leather boots she’s wearing, which I find quite unfashionable. I wish she were wearing beige moccasins instead. They’d be humbler. And neater. Exactly like her.
“Alright, mister. Keep your secrets, then.” She giggles, clearly aware of how attractive she is in this moment.
“You know what? Fine.” I give her a withering look, so she knows how far she’s pushed me. “It was my ex-wife.”
I can tell the answer is not what she expected. We know little about each other’s history, to be fair. Maybe it’s just time to reveal another layer of myself.
“She left me for my best friend,” I add, blushing slightly.
We sit silently for a couple of awkward seconds, but then she sits up straight, grabs her cup of coffee, and continues the questioning.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but if Helena really is inspired by your ex-wife, she must’ve been one hell of an old-fashioned woman. I have not seen a good housewife like that since my grandmother, and even she would have beaten the ass of her husband a lot sooner, had he been so disrespectful toward women, or people in general. I honestly didn’t want to take this role until I read the book again and realized that everything she did, she did out of love. Dangerous, toxic, self-absorbing, blind love. Even the murder. That crowned the entire character arc for me, ‘cause what else yells self-love more loudly than the sacrifice of the thing you get all your self-worth from. So, what I’m trying to say, is that if your ex-wife really was like her, I feel sorry for her and I hope I’m doing justice to her character. Am I, by the way? Am I acting on set like your ex-wife would have acted in life?”
“Yes. No. Wait, no you’re not.” This suggestion troubles me. “I think there has been a little confusion there. You’re definitely not playing my ex-wife. In many ways, Helena Gray is exactly the opposite of what she was like.”
“You wrote my character to be the opposite of her?” she asks, stirring the remnants of her cardamom coffee with that thin piece of wood they give you nowadays at coffee shops. “Why?”
“Because I wanted her to be likable.” She smiles at that. “No, really. I wanted Helena to be perfect. Someone who would never leave a guy for his best friend. Someone who cares about others in the most genuine of ways.”
She puts the cup down and gives me one of those reassuring looks that stay with you like a warm blanket in winter. The same look I saw countless times on Helena Gray’s face as she came to life in my imagination. Now she is sitting in front of me.
“Well, I’m really not sure if Helena is perfect. But there definitely is a lot of depth to her, despite my first impression. And who is the husband in the story? The rapist? Is that your old best friend?”
“Oh yes, a hundred percent. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much fun I had writing his death, and also, just making him as unlikable a character as they come.” She smirks again. Then she reaches into her coat’s pockets and takes out a pack of Red Marlboros, the strong kind. Something is wrong.
“You want one?” she offers generously, but I’m thrown off by the absurdity of the situation. Helena would never smoke, and never in a million years would she offer me a chance for voluntary self-harm. She would make sure I was healthy and smelled good, like her.
“No, I don’t,” I say. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to smoke that either.”
“Jesus, okay.” She puts the cigarette back in the pack and lets out an annoyed sigh. “I’ll smoke it later.”
“It’s not about that, Helena. I just never took you for a smoker.”
She looks at me, quickly, eyes squinted in suspicion, but I pretend not to notice and let the moment pass. This is the first time I accidentally call her by the wrong name. Or at least, that’s what she believes.
When you stay in an imaginary land for as long as I did, things in the real world become blurred. That is one of the reasons why I had a hard time believing that the picture-perfect woman was interested in me. Even after several dreadful dates.
This is the first time I go up to her apartment. Her film (our film) will premiere tomorrow in cinemas countrywide. Should people see what I see, this woman will be famous in no time. But right now, we are alright. It’s safe for me to walk up to her apartment on Elizabeth Street: no one will care.
She meets me on the sidewalk, coming straight out of the Starbucks in front of her house. It’s weird how I never see her without coffee in her hand. I laugh to myself at the fact that her minor caffeine addiction fits her image perfectly. As she walks up to me, I anticipate a kiss on the cheeks but she only smirks devilishly. Instead, I envision Helena with her Starbucks latte in her hands, possibly bringing me some too. I am fairly disappointed with how things are turning out.
But it isn’t only the coffee that’s throwing me off. Something about this woman is not right. Something is different.
We walk up the stairs, which look cheaper than what I’d imagine an actress in New York would have in her apartment building. Helena would feel so uncomfortable if she had to walk these stairs at night. She stops and turns to the door on the second floor, and I happen to glimpse the code she types into her door lock. 6491.
Unlike the staircase, the apartment itself is exactly what I imagined it to be. No. It’s exactly like Helena would have wanted it to look like. This thought comforts me a little, but my uneasiness remains.
I see what it is as soon as she takes off the maroon beret hat she’s wearing, revealing the bob cut I’ve seen many times, but which I now have trouble recognizing.
“Did you change your hair?” I ask calmly, even though I am appalled by the ginger color. How did I not notice it immediately?
“You bet I did. Do you like it?”
“Sure,” I lie, but I can tell from her frown that I’m not convincing. “Why did you dye it?”
“Well, for one, I missed it. And also, I think it’s hot.” She flips her hair, clearly expecting some positive reinforcement from me. She’ll soon be very disappointed.
“What do you mean, you missed it?” I’ve only ever known her as a beautiful, blonde woman, her hair as bright as the light in her eyes.
“I was born a redhead, silly!” she says, smiling, then grabs my collar and pulls me in for a kiss. It’s alright for her to do it, we’re alone. Normally I’d enjoy this.
“What’s wrong? Did I do something?” She pulls away a little, sensing my lack of passion.
“I just don’t understand why you would dye your hair back to red, that’s all,” I explain.
“Oh my fucking God, Arthur.” She pulls away coldly, picking up her phone from the coffee table and typing rapidly. She’s mad, but she will calm down in a few minutes. Helena is a forgiving person too—I mean, when she’s not murdering her husband—she never stays angry longer than necessary. What sense is there in fighting when you are stronger together than apart? Helena knows that.
“I’m gonna go take a shower,” she huffs, and practically throws her phone onto the couch on the other side of the room. I’m unsure if this is a sign for me to leave. I don’t want to. So I sit down on the couch and go through her phone instead. 6491. It works on the first try. She is exactly the type of woman who would only want to remember one random combination of numbers. Dangerous, but convenient.
Her texts confuse me to the extent that it makes my stomach lurch. It is both exciting and saddening. “I can’t fucking deal with this right now. He thinks I’m his perfect little girl Helena and it is actually sick. It’s schizophrenic, fucking scary.” She’s texting someone named Esther Kim, whom I suppose is a friend of hers. I’ve never heard of Esther, but she’s only a side character; she doesn’t matter in the story of us.
She comes bolting out of the bathroom much sooner than I thought she would—having not, in fact, taken a shower—and she sees me checking out her messages. She doesn’t say anything, just crosses her arms and raises her eyebrow in that typical elementary school teacher way, which reminds me a little of my mother, a thought that I do not welcome warmly. In this moment, I am acutely aware that shit is about to go down.
You’re sick in the head, Arthur. You’re engaging in invasion of my fucking privacy in my own fucking apartment and dare to look me in the eye and say that I’m the problem? My stupid hair dye is the problem? We’ve literally only been on a couple dates and you’re going through my damn messages. So forgive me for not giving a shit about your inability to get it up for redheads.
She was furious about the phone, but all these emotions do not come out at once unless they’ve been buried there all along. The wound is open, and the blood is flooding over our relationship.
You don’t desire me. You desire what you perceive me to be, not who I truly am, and that, Arthur, is purely hurtful. I ran off with him because he saw me for what you never saw me for. A real woman, not just your obedient wife.
The thing about love that I most atrociously dread is that it never works out on its own, unless one of the parties is making a conscious effort to keep the fire alive. It does not come easily, and it may also happen that a true love never comes.
Do you actually believe that I’m like her? That I’m like that stupid bitch Helena? Let me let you in on a little secret. She. Is. Not. Real. And I am definitely nothing like her.
Helena Gray. The epitome of the narrative that was inspired by love that never worked out. Love that never assured me of my own importance, that never engaged with my most profound desires. Helena, the perfect woman, the remedy for the exact pain which created her. She never picks fights, never gets in the way of anybody, except when she feels threatened. Except when it really matters.
You’re living a lie, a delusion. I actually feel sorry for you. I am sorry I could not be your perfect little Helena whom you wrote to be your damn girlfriend. I am sorry you’re incapable of moving on from the trauma that was your ex-wife. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the antidote for her. But I will never, ever be your perfect little girl, and you’d better accept that too.
All those grievances, all the insults she shouted at me, they were merely the byproducts of an overly emotional happenstance. She did not mean them. Or if she did, she got it wrong. Out of the two of us, she’s the one possessed by delusions. Pygmalion carved the perfect woman out of ivory, then prayed to Aphrodite to bring her to life. If I did anything wrong, I did it for love. I carved my own Galatea out of words, and I saw her come alive through Deus ex machina. She is of my making, and she will know it too. I’m going to prove her wrong.
I hatched a plan.
The idea of Helena was born out of revenge. Her purity replaced the memory of my wife with something real. But it wasn’t the obedient, caring girl-next-door image that made her real. It was the eventual descent into crime. To protect her life. To protect her virtue. But now all of it was under threat.
The midnight air in her apartment building’s staircase is chilling. I’m almost dizzy thinking about what I’m about to do. It’s peaceful for an October night, but still, it is dreadful to imagine an attractive woman having to walk dirty stairs like this.
Helena knew her husband was a bad person. When he lost thousands of dollars on a bet to a loan shark from LA, she turned a blind eye. When he got accused of rape by his secretary of three years, she pretended not to hear. When the police department came knocking on the door with a warrant to search the house for the heroin he was suspected of possessing, Helena stood her ground, and remained loyal to her dickhead of a husband until the very end. It was only when he came home drunk as a skunk and tried to force himself upon her as she was trying to retreat into the bedroom and close the door on herself that she could not stand it anymore. Her own safety and purity is where she drew the line. It was only by accident that the kitchen knife was lying on the counter where her husband held her in a chokehold.
She is not yet at home. I press my ear to the door, but I don’t hear a thing. She’s not supposed to get home from the gala until after one. I take my time with the preparations. 6491.
Kitchen knife on the counter. Curtains drawn—no need for anyone to watch me prove her wrong. Now I just need to sit down on the tall velvet couch facing the television in the dark and wait for my living sculpture to walk right into my trap.
She doesn’t return until two. When she turns on the lights, I’m motionless, not a single molecule of air leaving or entering my lungs. She doesn’t notice me until I grab her neck from behind.
I push the woman of my dreams, the work of my life, my imagination’s magnum opus, onto the counter, and force the entirety of my body weight on hers. She tries to scream but I have her trachea in a grip so tight that no voice exits her mouth. She’s struggling, but she’s not fighting back. So I unzip my pants, and lift the skirt of her dress up with my other hand, while she’s desperately trying to tear the hand on her neck away. When she sees what I’m about to do, her entire body shivers and panic fills her Bambi eyes. She lies silently for a moment.
The next thing I know is that the roles are reversed. There’s a strange, metallic taste in my mouth, but I’m unable to make a sound. I stumble back, falling to my knees, grabbing the handle of the kitchen knife that sticks out the side of my neck. I’ve seen this happen a million times.
My sweet Helena is holding her palms in front of her mouth. I know damn well she never expected she’d be caught up in a deed like this. She never imagined she’d be involved in murder. But I did. I will bleed out in a few seconds, and I’ll never see her gorgeous, innocent face again, and as much as that hurts, I remain unfazed, for I know I’ve won.
There is no greater pleasure in life than the assurance of having created art that has, owing to some fateful disposition of circumstance, come to life. I feel the unbearable cold creeping up my spine as I stumble to the ground face-down, but one thought settles on me like a warm blanket, bringing a pleased smile to my face otherwise consumed by agony. The woman in front of me, the bane of my existence, the instrument of my death, is my very own Frankenstein. She is the perfect sculpture made of words, manifested in flesh, most incomparable to any other woman. She is in fact my sweet Helena. My very own Galatea.