My husband Eli didn’t get home until 2 A.M. He never bothered to call, and only muttered something-just before he crawled into bed without showering-about a deadline. He writes graphic novels: comic books for adults. I suppose his deadline was more important than our nineteenth wedding anniversary. And if it did finally dawn on him, no biggie, I’m sure he figured; after all, it’s not like it’s the twentieth. I stopped sticking “countdown to our anni” post-notes on the bathroom mirror years ago, because Eli said they were an insult to our love. He didn’t need the tacky reminders, he insisted. How could he forget the annual celebration of the happiest day of his life? And until last night, I have to admit that was true … although I have a sneaking suspicion that the placement of the post-notes earlier in our marriage acted as a positive reinforcement.
Yuck! The dog must have peed on our new sisal. God damnit! I stepped in the acrid puddle on the way to brush my teeth because I was bleary-eyed, having had only four hours of sleep, since I was worried sick about Eli until I heard his key in the door. I think he’s become incontinent. The dog, not Eli. Eli’s just somewhat immature. That might explain why he’s still into comic books. Can a man be in his second childhood at age forty-five? I should know this: I’m a psychotherapist. I guess it’s time to brush up on arrested development.
Our sixteen-year-old daughter Molly came home yesterday with a piercing in what I hope she still considers an obscure location. I regard myself as a fairly liberal mom, but I can only hope that the technician, or whatever they call them, was a woman. Is there such a thing as statutory piercing? Ian, our son, is my only hope for normalcy in this family, although I’m not sure that an eleven-year-old boy who already has a thriving career in musical theatre falls into what the red states would define as “normal.” So thank God we live in New York City where his jaded classmates are more jealous than weirded out when he gets to leave school early on Wednesdays to sing and dance on Broadway.
Our apartment is an unholy mess because everyone, including the dog, thinks it’s someone else’s job to pick up after them and I’ve always refused to become their full-time cleaning lady. The dog’s the only one who’s actually got a valid argument. My entire day is devoted to helping other people sort out their messy lives; when I get home, spent and exhausted from internalizing and absorbing the neuroses of a dozen different clients, the last thing I want to do is housekeeping! Gee, it sure would be swell to be able to kick back, have someone else fix dinner, and watch a couple of hours of mindless crap on TV while my children happily do their homework on their own. Is a bit of nurturing for the professional nurturer too much to ask? Complete disavowal of responsibility for a few hours every evening? Bliss! But I am definitely in denial for even entertaining the remotest possibility that this fantasy will ever come true.
It’s now 6 A.M. In an hour it will be time to descend to our building’s laundry room to begin the pro bono segment of my workday, helping my clients face, and hopefully resolve, their emotional crises. Believe me, I appreciate the irony.
“I slept on Ben’s side of the bed last night!”
“Whoa, sister!” This was quite a revelation coming from my 7 A.M. appointment, the usually reticent Faith Nesbit. She’s been one of my laundry room clients for a few years now, and it’s been an arduous uphill climb to get her to finally become comfortable discussing her most deeply personal and intimate details. There were times when I felt like I’d earned my Ph.D. all over again. And after all that, Faith still shies away from bringing up anything that bears even the slightest whiff of S-E-X.
“At the risk of invoking the biggest cliché in shrinkdom, how did that make you feel?” Clichés aside, it was the question I needed to ask, as Faith exhibits a classic, virtually stereotypical WASP tendency to talk around her emotions, rather than about them.
Faith was perched on the edge of the couch as though she might take flight at any moment and soar clear through the gap in the ventilation screen behind the washers, while I cleaned out the lint traps, dumping their individual contents into a ratty white plastic bag. “I’m listening to you, Faith,” I assured her. “I just want to get this done before everybody starts coming down here.” Even during these early morning sessions-which a California colleague of mine refers to as “kinda therapy,” meaning the variation commonly offered to acquaintances, friends, and relatives, as opposed to the more conventional variety conducted with those who are official patients-I find myself cleaning up other people’s messes in more ways than one.
“You really don’t need to go to all that fuss and bother with the lint traps, Susan,” Faith chided, her patrician cadences still reminiscent of her Back Bay upbringing, even though she’s lived in New York City for decades. “It’s Stevo’s responsibility.” Stevo Badescu is our building’s superintendent, and is notorious for slacking off whenever possible. “Whenever you need the man, he’s positively nowhere to be found. It must be the Gypsy in him,” she continued, as tart as a freshly harvested cranberry.
“I’ve been living in this building for forty-nine years, you realize, almost a decade before you were born! Ben and I moved in right after we were married in September of 1957—it was our first and only apartment—and I would swear on my mother’s Bible that the supers have gotten steadily lazier over the years.” Faith studied her wedding ring for a moment. “You know, I have a feeling that Ben-wherever he is—” she added, glancing up at the grungy ceiling, “is planning a wonderful surprise for what would have been our fiftieth.”
I recalled that Ben Nesbit had passed away just a few weeks after he and Faith had celebrated their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. They lived down the hall from me at the opposite end of the building. Every once in a while I’d be in the hallway when the Nesbits’ door would open and Ben would emerge with a waste basket in hand; Faith would stand at the doorsill, looking at him adoringly. He would give her a gentle peck on the lips before heading the fifteen steps or so to the little closet that conceals the trash chute, while Faith watched his every movement, brimming with affection. Their little ritual always brought a smile to my lips. Eli was never that romantic, even when we were dating. He’s never even liked to hold my hand.
I dumped the bag of lint into a metal trash can and smiled at my client’s attempt to avoid discussing a difficult subject by changing the topic. Some theorists believe that a therapist is supposed to allow her clients to ramble on indefinitely, even if it results in an avoidance ad infinitum of the important, though frequently painful, issues at hand. They think it’s our job to wait it out patiently until the client decides she’s ready to confront the hard stuff. But clients are individuals, not theories. And Faith needs a gentle nudge back onto the rails because she’s the type of person who feels the need to make demonstrable progress in every session. At least her tangent concerning Stevo had been short lived. Not too long ago Faith would have remained on the subject of the super’s indolence for ten minutes. She was making progress. Progress is good.
“This is really exciting, Faith! I want to hear all about your stretching out like a queen on the king-size,” I said, washing my hands and seating myself on the chair beside the couch.
Faith caressed the arm of the sofa, tapping at a stain on the faded floral upholstery with a lacquered nail. “You know I enjoy working with you Susan because I don’t feellike I’m getting my head shrunk. It feels more like we’re just dishing the dirt down here. I couldn’t walk into a therapist’s office. This set-up is much better. No receptionists who are reading their novels behind the front desk and secretly thinking ‘that woman who dresses in purple all the time is crazy; no wonder she needs counseling,’ no ferns in the corner or modern art on the walls. No fancy diplomas reminding the clients how well educated you are. No credenza displaying third-world artifacts to subtly demonstrate your open-mindedness. But I’m never sure how I feel about having a therapy session on my own couch,” she added, reminding me that some years ago, when Ben had finally convinced her that it was time to get a new sofa, she had donated this one to the laundry room so the tenants could have a pleasant place to sit while they did their wash.
“You know my tendency for parsimony,” she chuckled. “I’m a classic New England tightwad. And I just couldn’t bear the idea of spending all that money on a new piece of furniture when I could have had my girl run up a set of perfectly lovely slipcovers. But Ben was right as usual.” She gazed lovingly at the mauve and aqua calla lily motif. “I loved the pattern—I still do-but it never quite fit our décor. It really belongs in a Miami Beach condominium.”
“You’re avoiding again, Faith,” I reminded her, noticing that she never appeared to stint financially when it came to her wardrobe. Her pieces were all perennials from the top designers, always in various shades of purple: from lilac to plum, from lavender to violet. “Are you sure you’ve never cheated on your income tax, because, damn, you can be the queen of evasion.”
“Well, you know, my generation never much went in for psychotherapy. We think that it’s an admission that you’re cuckoo in the head and need fixing, or else it’s a silly luxury for silly, idle women; so it takes some getting used to for this old bird.”
“Old bird, my ass. You’re so active you put us middle-aged slackers to shame.” We didn’t have too many more minutes left in Faith’s session so I had to nudge her again. “Faith, you’ve been in therapy with me for four years already. You know the drill by now. We can still do some good work before I have to unlock the door.” Like a scolded child, she stopped fussing with the arm of the sofa and, much chastened, primly folded her pale, graceful hands in her lap. “You dropped one shoe; it’s time to let go of the other. So spill,” I prodded jovially. “Last night was the first time that you slept on Ben’s side of the bed … in …”
“Four years,” Faith admitted sheepishly, the color rushing into her already rouged cheeks. “I feel rather foolish about it all. Making such a fuss over it, I mean. A real tempest in a teapot.” She took a breath, then exhaled very slowly before speaking again. “I have continued to sleep on my own side of the bed-the left side as you face it, so I can answer the alarm clock as soon as the damn thing rings—since the day Ben died. I’m seventy-two years old, Susan. And I’ve never been very good at adjusting to change.”
Finally, with five minutes to spare, we were talking about something important. I leaned over and took Faith’s hands in mine. “There’s no change without risk. And risks can be painful because there’s always the possibility of failure. Last night, you took a risk to change old behavior patterns, and … guess what! You survived to talk about it! So, it’s not a tempest in a teapot, in fact. We can get very lighthearted from time to time; that’s the way I like to work down here. But I’m not kidding around. You took a really big step last night-even if you did it in your sleep-and you should feel terrific about that.”
“Well, I guess you’re never too old to learn a new trick, despite the adage. My goodness, I’m chock full of them this morning. Adages. You know …, ” Faith chuckled at her own unexpressed thought. “At first I felt very guilty—that perhaps this meant that I was finally moving on.”
“Why did progress make you feel guilty?” I asked gently.
Faith studied her wedding ring again. “Because I thought that Ben, up on his celestial plane, was probably still thinking about our upcoming anniversary, while here I am, suddenly hogging our conjugal bed. But right now-at this moment-I must say that I feel … a little bit selfish, but also somewhat empowered, I suppose you could say, as though this is the first time in decades that I’ve done something entirely for myself. Guilty, yes, but like a guilty little pleasure-that’s how it feels.” Faith grinned mischievously. “Like having a second helping of dessert when no one is looking. For years I was Ben’s part-time office receptionist and did it mostly because I hated to be alone all day. Separation anxiety, I suppose you’d call it. Ben was my world. I missed him every moment he was out of my sight. When he used to go golfing on Wednesdays, I worried myself sick if he was late in coming home. Then I cared for him after the stroke, even when he didn’t seem to recognize me anymore, but I maintained that vigil until the day he died. And because I was never unhappy a day in my life, I didn’t actively consider that there might be any alternatives to an existence spent almost exclusively in service of my husband’s life and career. Naturally, I’m aware of the Womens’ Movement; I read DeBeauvoir and Friedan and Steinem; I just didn’t feel as though I were reading about myself. I’m not what you’d call a … militant person, Susan. If I’d grown up in Boston in the mid-eighteenth century instead of the mid-twentieth, I would more than likely have been perfectly content to pay the Stamp Tax.” She checked her watch, an old Piaget that she thinks keeps far better time than the cheap clock above the door. She’s probably right.
“Two more minutes.” Faith rose, opened her dryer, and inspected her clothes for dampness. She tut-tutted and closed the door, inserting another quarter for an additional cycle of permanent press. “What the devil is that?” she asked me as I unloaded my washer, transferring an armload of colorful sodden garments to an empty dryer. “Those couldn’t be yours, could they? You don’t wear those sort of prints.”
“Oh, God, no. Besides,” I said, holding up a pair of hideously striped pants, “I don’t think I could get one of my legs in here!” We both laughed at the folly of trying to squeeze myself into the tiny trousers. “No, they’re not mine. They’re Matilda’s,” I said.
“Matilda. The little homeless lady who likes to camp out in our vestibule.” I raised my hand chest-high. “You know who I mean-she’s about Ian’s height,” I said.
Faith clapped her hand to her mouth in shock. “Her? You’re doing a homeless woman’s laundry?” I nodded. “The woman who smells so much?” Faith wrinkled her well-powdered nose.
One of the reasons I became a therapist was to try to improve people’s lives in some way. And I extend that self-imposed mandate beyond my clients to the world at large whenever I can. “Well, Matilda will smell considerably better with clean laundry,” I said. I’m not sure whether Faith’s snobbism is generational or cultural, but it does take a bit of getting used to for dyed-in-the-wool Upper West Side liberals like me.
“I always thought the phrase ‘clean laundry’ was an oxymoron,” Faith mused. “Goodness, I shudder to wonder what Matilda’s wearing now.”
“Actually, she’s wearing one of Molly’s castoffs.” My mother, bless her Eisenhower-era heart, always thinks that Molly should dress like a girly-girl, so she buys her all these cute print dresses, which my daughter would never be caught dead in. Molly’s aversion to looking feminine is the least of my worries, however. I wouldn’t care if she dressed like Darth Vader as long as she went to class. She’s dangerously close to flunking out of high school, her SAT scores were in the toilet, and at this rate the only college she’ll get into is the sort of two-year community program that is compelled to offer remedial classes to the incoming freshmen. My daughter is a very bright girl; it’s just that at age sixteen she’s still going through the terrible twos. I don’t expect her to spend her adult life saying “pass me the scalpel” or “my client pleads not guilty, your honor,” but I really never considered that she might end up asking “do you want fries with that” until it’s time for her retirement. The fact that it’s looking entirely likely that Molly will never use her inquisitive mind and her expensive education to make much of herself disturbs me greatly, no matter how permissive and progressive I like to believe I am.
Faith looked me in the eye. Her own were the watery gray of the Hudson River during a storm. “Is something the matter, Susan?” she inquired forthrightly. “I’m not one to pry,” she continued, breezing past the irony, “after all, my mother was born when Victoria was still queen of England, and she taught me that it’s impolite to poke one’s nose into one’s neighbor’s business-but you look tired. Where’s that wonderful husband of yours when you need him? And don’t tell me he can’t stop drawing his silly comic strips in time to come home for dinner.” Faith had just hijacked the final seconds of her session; our roles had suddenly become switched and my client had begun to analyze me, a countertransference that’s not entirely uncommon when both the counselor and the client feel open and comfortable enough to connect on a deeper level. “You tell that man you deserve to be pampered!” Faith exhorted. “That’s what I told Ben from the day we were married, and he never gave me a bit of guff about it, no matter how tired he was from looking at his patients’ G.I tracts all day. You make sure Eli comes home at a civilized hour. He should offer you a foot massage and pour you a generous glass of whiskey to give you some zip, and then simmer a nice Scotch Broth or a pot of good solid mushroom barley soup to give you some nourishment.”
Perhaps unwittingly, Faith had touched a nerve; pushed one of my buttons. “Scotch Broth? Faith, it’s nearly July.” Whenever someone is very nice to me, especially when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable, it always makes me cry. “I’m all right,” I said, blinking rapidly. I turned my head away so I could regain my composure. “I’m so sorry about that. And unfortunately,” I added, looking at the grime-covered clock above the doorway, “it’s time to stop so we can let in the masses.”