This probably isn't what you're expecting on our first visit, not exactly a litany of symptoms or something truly helpful, but it's been on my mind ever since I made the appointment. I'm at this Fourth of July celebration, and I point out my most recent therapist to Charlie, my second husband, from whom I’m semi-separated. “Near the soft-drink stand,” I say, “in the striped shirt.”
Charlie looks across the way, does a double take, and says “You’re kidding! Gee, somehow I don’t feel quite so threatened anymore.”
Charlie’s expression is subtle, but I read it as a mix of surprise and amusement, and I take exception, as if he's laughing at me along with taking a dig at psychotherapy in general. “So he’s a little stereotypical, what with the Van Dyke,” I say. “What’s your problem?”
“Van Dyke?” Charlie turns around to look again and laughs out loud. He pulls me close to him and points toward the drink stand. “I thought you meant that guy.”
Then I see him too, a huge, circus tent of a man in a shirt of vertical stripes—wide, fluorescent bands of lime green, hot pink, and banana yellow. He wears a sailor hat from which flutters a small American flag, and shouts something to a man dressed in army camouflage several yards away who walks over and slaps a low-five greeting into his hammy palm.
I start to laugh too, but not until we have turned to conceal our faces. Because we're each thinking through the scene that had briefly occurred to Charlie—of me, tense and apprehensive, taking myself weekly to a small, claustrophobic room half-filled with that striped shirt, confiding my fears and confusion under that tiny flag—we continue to laugh. Now, we know our laughter, which isn’t meant to be unkind, is unkind. We also know we’ll never be able to tell our friends about this mix-up. How could we be that cruel? So we sink down onto the grass, bursting with secret mirth, and my side gets a stitch.
That’s how I remember it, my stomach muscles hurting, the grass tickling my legs, Charlie’s lovely, wide face all open and pleased with us. I try to focus on things like that about people who touch my life in more good ways than bad. He knows I miss him. We talk on weekends. I honestly don’t know if I want him back for good or just for safe sex.
* * *
At the hospital, I had a lot of time to sit and wonder about what had happened to my friend Francis. Seeing her broken and helpless made me feel weak and sick to my stomach. No matter who the bad stuff is happening to, I end up taking it personally, like I can’t put me aside and just be there for someone else.
When her husband, Tony, called to say they’d been in an accident, I responded like a receptionist in an emergency room—where did it happen, how long ago, what’s her condition now, what do the doctors say? But the calm wasn’t real—maybe part shock, part sham. All the while I felt as if I would faint any minute and hated myself for being weak and self-concerned.
I hate Tony more, for having hitched his wagon to her star, for not realizing—or not letting on that he realizes—he didn’t hold a candle to Francis. She was brilliant, and not just because her I.Q. stretched past 170. She carried the wisdom of the ages in her. As human beings go, we were all in her dust. I first met her at a sports-car rally, liked her down-to-earth nature and deep laugh. We worked for the same publishing house, but were in different departments. In fact, she pretty much ran things in research and development up on fourth while I was just getting a leg up in advertising down on second. We would meet in the lunch room or power walk beside the river, and I would confide in her about the attacks worsening, about dropping and not knowing where the bottom was. For a year and a half, she’d been my safety net.
It wasn’t even Tony himself who brought her down; it was Tony out of control, snoot-full of white dust, barreling down a wet street as they argued about something he won’t talk about now. He must have known I kept wishing they could switch places—he could be critically injured, she could be coming in with reports of transfusions, MRIs, calls made to family members.
While I sat there by her bed, I must have flipped through a dozen magazines, but none of them told why good women get mixed up with worthless men. The same sort of blind spot that allowed Tony to sidle up alongside Francis is probably what keeps me from seeing what flaw there was in her that allowed her to marry so stupidly. And so I get stuck with him, strutting in and out of that room in his officious way, as if in being next of kin he was at long last the main event.
When the doctors finally gave her a 5-percent chance of surviving, saying her mind wouldn’t ever come back, I realized I was waiting for a dead person to lose her power supply so I could get on with life on the outside. I tried to cry but couldn’t. I blame it on my anger at Tony, but I didn’t cry when my mother was killed either, not for two months. It’s a control thing. The third morning, before Tony could come at me with his newly-acquired medical babble and pointless statistics, I walked out of the hospital and didn’t look back. I saw in the paper how she hung on another week before they pulled the plug, and the obituary was predictably disappointing. The weekend of the funeral, I went to visit my grandmother in another town. If Francis no longer has to put up with her insufferable husband, why should I?
On the drive home, I finally understood that I was angry with her, that she had let me down. It’s like one of those Rube Goldberg contraptions, where the pinball rolls down a ramp and breaks an egg which slimes down into a cup that sinks and flips a switch that starts a music box that plays “Send in the Clowns” and has a ballerina pop out that swivels an hourglass 180 degrees, so that the sand pours out a tiny hole, and so on. Marry stupidly, and it affects a lot of people, not just yourself. Same with dying. Or losing your mind.
* * *
The first time the world tilts, I’m sitting in a jurors’ box. I don’t know what’s wrong, just a dizziness that pulls the room in on me and makes my feet sweat, something that has never happened before. I’m usually cold. My hands are sweaty, too, and I can’t get enough air. I’m excused from jury duty—they still send me a check for $17—and nothing else happens. The next week at work, while I’m explaining the spring ad layouts to the design group, the room tilts again, and I have to sit down. I blame my new glasses.
Then when it really hits is after a party in the country during which Charlie and I drink hard liquor and I feel a little out of it because we haven’t been getting along and I don’t know that many people there. It’s on the ride back home. Stars are out, just a crescent of a moon, and as I stare at it, I seem to telescope up through the blackness. All of a sudden, I’m thinking about my aunt who was once locked up in a padded cell and given shock treatments, and the world just crumbles away up to my left foot. Everything that direction is abyss, like standing next to a moon crater, with a flood light swooping in from the rear. I’m terrified but I don’t know what of.
As I describe this to the doctor, a regular M.D. the clinic has assigned me to, he’s sitting close enough I could spoon lunch into his slack mouth. He’s mastered rapt attention, but failed boundaries. He’s so close I want to scream. Mostly I want him to be a woman, which I think might ease my immediate discomfort. I tell him this, so he tells me about himself—about his humanness and vulnerability. He says he wants me to trust and be comfortable with him. I ask if he’s considered a sex-change operation. He laughs, but I don’t. This is how I finally know how sick I’ve become. Normally I laugh a lot, mainly because I think life is pretty absurd, plus I’m a great one for teasing people I like. But when I look to the left and see that I’ve gone to the moon again, nothing is funny anymore.
* * *
My mother was terrified of mud on rainy nights, of driving through it and getting stuck. But when she dies, there is no mud as far as the eye can see, only a shimmer of crushed glass and ribbons of rubber unfurling toward a bashed up telephone pole. At first, I am continually surprised that she is actually dead. Once, I pick up the receiver, dial her number, and the sudden awareness that her voice will never be at the other end again reaches into me like a fist that twists my insides. Missing her is like a bruise that never goes away, her absence always recent history, always within reach. And I’m surprised at how often I reach back into that sorrow with a longing that temporarily answers my need to be connected to her again.
Everyone else remembers how beautiful she was, and considerate and wise, but I've discovered that my best memories of her are of three occasions when she looked delightfully comical—on a roller coaster, on the sofa one Christmas morning opening a present, and in a photograph of her descending church steps in a shower of rice after her second wedding. On all three occasions her mouth and eyes were stretched wide open with surprise and delight. I think of those times and long to crawl back up into the lap of joy and well-being. I want to be right again with no memory that anything was ever terribly wrong. I sometimes wonder if death might be like that.
Other memories are confusing. Allowing them to play out makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m being disloyal. Mother and I were alone for long stretches because my father’s work took him away. Old photographs show how devoted she was to me. But I remember how on an outing to a root beer stand she told me to stop singing so we could listen to my cousin, she had such a sweet voice. Another time I remember unintentionally making a scene by refusing to take a piece of candy that was offered me by one of Mother’s canasta buddies. I stared into that blue dish of Russell Stover soft centers, stupidly shaking my head over and over because I’d learned not to make my desires obvious, not to impose, so that the more I wanted something the harder it was to admit it. The politest kid on the block. All Mother’s friends wanted to take me home with them, “Don’t you want to come and be my little girl?” they would say, and “Don’t you have beautiful eyes!” A simple formula—stay quiet and bat your eyelashes. Works with teachers, too, and boys, anyone who doesn’t expect very much of you anyway.
It wasn’t until junior high that I began to surface as a dare devil and tease, when I discovered the secret camaraderie of females, the underground of “who we really are when the others aren’t paying attention.” By then, Mother had my step-father, and they had a successful business. We had assumed the typical postures of the average, middle-class American family.
I discovered that the girls’ gym was my medium. In that all-female stretch between the lockers and the far basketball goal, anything could be said and wished for, and cleverness was rewarded with laughter and invitations. That’s the period when Mother said I went away without ever leaving the room, that all kids do it; one day the adults look at their teenagers and notice there’s really no one home, and then three or four years later they’re back. You can tell by their eyes. And not long after I got back—once the drinking and flirting and running around looking for that illusive party in the sky where a good time is had by all tapered off, after that desperate quest for acceptance funneled down to a relationship with a young man with potential—Mother and I became very, very close.
We had six good years of lunches and shopping and old movies and card parties and trips—and when it became the season for such things, a frothy white wedding. And at the best moments there were her large, dark eyes shining with delight, her mouth wide open in surprise, the laughter that I can no longer remember the sound of, now frozen on film in my step-father's basement in another part of the country.
* * *
I wonder about sleeping with Charlie while I’m seeing others. He knows, even though we never talk about it. I’ve been a prude, and I’ve been promiscuous. Neither seems to fit, although I’ve enjoyed the promiscuity more. Mostly it’s about experimentation, maybe even numbers, not satisfaction.
As a bride, when I mistakenly believed my days of flirting and romantic intrigue were at an end, I spent one morning counting up how many boys had kissed me—upwards of eighty—and then how many had carried me in their arms—around a dozen. It’s about attention, probably—or connecting, at the very most. When I’m at work, leaning forward at the layout table and aware of the man next to me, I become conscious of the taper of my back as it dips into my waist, the round slope of my hips as I lean a bit farther into my work, and I imagine the man’s hand placed just so on my back, the warmth steaming into me, pinky and ring finger slipping below my waist as I bend into the layouts, hand and arm encircling my ribs as I straighten to explain a new advertiser’s desires.
Some people feel it in their guts or heads. For me, the void registers along my rib cage, and sometimes I think I truly understand that there aren’t enough arms in the world to make up for whatever it is that's missing; other times, I think I’d like to try them all on anyway. But it’s only numbers.
* * *
In Seattle visiting an old school friend, I read an article about a man who decided to kill himself on the floating bridge over Lake Washington. It was during the early morning hours when the traffic is usually light. I try to imagine what he was thinking as he sped toward the middle of the bridge, the calmness—or perhaps exhilaration—as he rushes toward what he thinks to be his altered destiny, considering at what point he will jerk the steering wheel and hurl the metal coffin toward its watery grave. But while that scene is playing out, he notices an irregular noise coming from the car and becomes curious. By the time he recognizes the sputter of an emptying gas line, the moment has lost its punch, along with the car, which wheezes to a stop just off the bridge on the Seattle side.
Some of the people interviewed about it for the article say it’s an example of the hand of God intervening, others say it’s evidence of fate always having its way. A doctor says it’s typical of a depressed person’s inability to focus on completing a task. I think it’s pretty funny, and pretty much how the majority of lives go—that hopscotch from pain and despair back to absurdity and finally the inevitable laughter in the face of it all.
I take the underground tour while I’m in Seattle. Correction, I take one third of it. First there’s an above-ground, riotous overview on the short-sighted early founders who kept building too close to the water, where tides and mud slides kept the first buildings in the drink. Then there are three treks down into some of the earliest buildings, now at basement level. They’re in three adjacent but not-yet-connected areas, so that the tourists must keep popping back up in a new spot and tunneling under again, like groundhogs.
By the time we have all wended our way down to the first gathering spot, a damp, musty theater, I know that this is a mistake. I do my usual mental gymnastics to keep myself level, estimating the length of the tour guide’s lecture, moving around the group to edge nearer a set of stairs that looks to be the way out. I bend down and use my finger to part the coating of dust over the stenciled plank flooring, to put myself closer to the earth in the event that I really do pass out.
While down there I dig through my purse for a Xanax and swallow it dry. The concentration that’s required to suck together enough saliva to force it all the way down my throat distracts me, buys me a little more time, and I make it. I emerge at the street level right behind the guide, where I complain of a sore knee and tell my friend I’ll wait for her at a nearby cafe, amazed at how many ways I can find to disappoint myself.
When I get back, I tell Charlie about it, self-disgust still peppering my words, and he tells me I’m hard on him, but that I’m downright mean to myself. I think about that all the next day. He’s right that if I had seen someone else having a panic attack, or in a faint, I’d have felt compassion, gotten them out of there, reassured them that there was nothing to feel bad about, these things happen. Now I wonder, when did I get so hard on myself, and when did Charlie get so smart?
* * *
I keep telling what’s true, but I’m never sure if I’ve gotten to the truth. Even when I try to add things up—the inability to acknowledge how much I really want things I can't bring myself to ask for, mother’s fear of mud and her migraines and tranquilizers, my gut-shredding fear of angry voices, father’s great distances, uncles falling-down drunk, the questionable family brain chemistry and low self-esteem and panic attacks all laced with my mother’s gifts of laughter and grace, her mother’s wisdom and humor, my father’s peculiar genius and stepfather’s strength of character, my estranged husband’s faith that I’ll pull all the pieces together, present them to him as his reward for his perseverance, the army of worthy people who keep marching through my life regardless of my fits and failures—I don’t get the picture.
It’s like a recipe with some essential ingredient left out, a body with no connective tissue—like bone soup. Just when I finally get to the other end of a bridge or a stoplight turns from red to green and the terror subsides with the adrenaline—when I’m relatively certain nothing disastrous is going to happen—instead of feeling relief or even godforbidjoy, a sense of emptiness will drift across me, and I move on down the road wondering what the point is after all. I think about that a lot. If I were my mother, my next birthday would mark the last year of my life.
* * *
It’s the height of the tourist season, and Charlie spends as much time out on the tracks and in the trains as he does in his office scheduling the runs. He stops by Friday night with an aura of oil and warm metal and dust. He brings wine and macadamia nut pie, says we don’t have to talk, but can if I want to. I tell him Patty, a former, favorite therapist, says we should make love with wild abandon. It’s a game I subject him to, “Patty says . . . .” “Patty says I should take care of myself right now, that I can’t take on the problems of the world, including, unfortunately, yours.” “Patty says that if you really care about me, you’ll wash out my lingerie by hand and bring me bonbons.” “Patty says you need to scratch a little to the left and not sigh to let me know you’re bored with the rib-ridged terrain of my back.”
When Charlie finally responds to one of my Patty says with, “Oh yeah? Well Biff says—” I cut him off with “Oh, Patty says you musn’t listen to Biff!” We laugh, and I know that I am doing better, that the best health monitor for me would be a laughter meter. We do what Patty says, and after, as I lay curled in the warp and wave of the tangled sheets, I’m as placid as the ocean on those days when nothing seems to be going on beneath the surface, and life seems supportable again.
I keep wishing I could talk to Patty about the man on the floating bridge; I’d like to know whether she’d call it a failed suicide, or serendipitous, or a subconscious rally of the will to live in someone not truly resolved to checking out. I’d like to talk to her about Francis, too, the images of the accident that I keep playing out through the black morning hours, the way they get spliced into reruns of the accident that killed Mother, so that the two of them, strangers in life, have this fatal meeting in the special feature that plays over and over in my head, their heads snapping back and forth in unison as they’re flung about like rag dolls in cars spinning out of control. But Patty is states away now, and even if I offered to pay her, I feel that to call her after all this time would be an imposition. And anyway, I'd have to ask for what I really want.
These days I can pretty much meditate myself to sleep, but I haven’t yet figured out how to get my body out of bed and hurling through the grayness of morning before my head clicks on to the wrong channels.
I don’t know if Charlie’s right that all the pieces will eventually come together, if I’ll discover one day that there have been enough arms, if that left side of the moon will ever fill back in. Patty never said. Nor any of the others, five in four different cities, now. So this is all I know to do, just keep gathering up the loose ends where I find them and offering them to my therapists, like so many little hopeful bouquets.