Authors: Leslie Carroll
My husband Eli didn't get home until two A.M. Heâ¦
The first actual laundry-doer of the day was aâ¦
“I don't like de sound of daht cold, Susie. Aâ¦
Alice looked totally stunned. “Eric Witherspoon lives here now? Andâ¦
“I think it'll be good for me, y'know?” Talia said.â¦
“We checked out other agencies, but the rules seem toâ¦
Molly evinced no interest in trekking out to Brooklyn forâ¦
I'm convinced that all school guidance counselors are churned outâ¦
“If Mala Sonia ever gives you a prediction, you shouldâ¦
With an expectant look, Claude handed me the pale greenâ¦
The weather gods favored Claude and Naomi with a brilliantâ¦
“Well, Stevo could give me no good reason why heâ¦
Then again, many people espouse the philosophy that things canâ¦
“You will never in a million years believe what I'mâ¦
Mala Sonia flinched. “You know I just interpret cards,” sheâ¦
Lucky for me, the rest of the day became unexpectedlyâ¦
Right after Christmas, I sat down with Anna, my supervisorâ¦
“Look!” Talia brandished her cane. “I almost don't need itâ¦
“I apologize for being totally bleary-eyed,” Alice said, ensconcingâ¦
“You are looking at a happy woman,” Meriel announced whenâ¦
Amy immediately realized that she'd forgotten something, apologized profusely, andâ¦
My husband Eli didn't get home until two
. He never bothered to call, and only muttered somethingâjust before he crawled into bed without showeringâabout 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,
I'm sure he figured,
after all, it's not like it's the
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 trueâ¦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 the answer to 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 six
. 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 seven
. 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 clichÃ© in shrinkdom, how did that make you feel?” ClichÃ©s 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 sessionsâwhich 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 patientsâI find myself cleaning up other people's messes in more ways than one.
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 1957âit was our first and only apartmentâand 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 Benâwherever he is,” she added, glancing up at the grungy ceiling, “is planning a wonderful surprise for what would have been our fiftieth.”
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
like 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
This setup is much better. No receptionists who are reading their novels behind the front desk and secretly thinking âthat 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 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 slip-covers. But Ben was right as usual.” She gazed lovingly at the mauve and aqua calla lily motif. “I loved the patternâI still doâbut it never quite fit our decor. 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 bedâ¦inâ¦”
“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 bedâthe left side as you face it, so I can answer the alarm clock as soon as the damn thing ringsâsince 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, andâ¦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 nightâeven if you did it in your sleepâand 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 knowâ¦” Faith chuckled at her own unexpressed thought. “At first I felt very guiltyâthat 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 nowâat this momentâI must say that I feelâ¦a little bit selfish, but also somewhat
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 pleasureâthat'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 aâ¦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
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.