Artemis Press, my original publisher, will always have my gratitude for putting it out there first, back in 2002. (They are no longer in the biz.) And I’ll never forget my first unsolicited review, submitted to their website from a mental health professional soon after publication. From “A Reader in Wisconsin,” these words articulated for me what I had actually set out to do:
Whether you’re a therapist yourself, have ever gone to a therapist, or have ever thought of going to a therapist, you’ll really be able to relate to a lot of the experiences in the book Minding Therapy. Some of the scenes were funny and made me laugh, others brought tears to my eyes. The whole book was really just about being human, and was another one of life’s teachings that we’re all very vulnerable creatures, and any one of us might discover that seeing a therapist and getting an objective viewpoint can give us some direction we aren’t able to find on our own.
Daryl’s burnout was something I could relate to as a mental health professional–she had me shaking my head in recognition, and laughing at the same time. I found myself underlining many passages in the book that I could relate to from personal experience. And it just reaffirmed to me that my thoughts and feelings were perfectly normal. I’m not the only one who gets sick of people and their problems (including my own!).
I highly recommend this story to every lesbian, to every woman–heck, to everyone! It was a fun read, and hard to put down. My thanks to the author, and one question–when is the sequel going to be available?!
Another major hoot was finding an Amazon “Listmania” by “Fiction Editor” that ranked Minding Therapy third in a top-ten list of “lesbian books to keep you up all night”—in the same company, for instance, as Katherine Forrest‘s classic novel Curious Wine. The reviewer stated about Minding Therapy, “If you’ve ever been in therapy, as either a client or therapist, this wildly funny and satirical story will leave you in stitches.”
And then there was the review from FriedSocialWorker.com (yes, this website actually exists!). An excerpt:
What I appreciated most about this novel was the way in which the author weaves the problem of burnout into the overall context of the therapist’s life. Burnout rarely occurs in isolation, does it? It occurs in the midst of all the other burdens we carry through life.
If you’ve ever worked in mental health, you’ll appreciate Daryl’s one-liners and sarcastic running commentary as she freely shares her views on community mental health, clients, supervisors, family, and just about everything else!
DESCRIPTION OF THE NOVEL
Where does a therapist go when her own problems get out of hand? Shouldn’t she find a shrink to call her own?
Meet Daryl Stone, a therapist who’s more likely to rely on wisecracks, talk shows, and food to get her through the day than to seek professional help. By the time she meets the woman of her dreams—if only she wasn’t also a therapist!—she’s well on her way to a meltdown.
After attending the funeral of the father she never knew and discovering that her mom has lied to her all her life, Daryl finally reaches out for help. Highly cynical, however, and self-conscious about being a therapist-who-is-also-a-client, Daryl would rather skirt the deeper issues, preferring instead to find the quickest fix.
When things don’t proceed as expected, Daryl impulsively quits therapy, reverting to her original self-help mentality. And she almost loses her girlfriend for good! It takes this and a major confrontation with her mom to slink back to therapy and finally let herself get the help she needs.
EXCERPT OF MINDING THERAPY: Chapter One
“So, if I get any calls today, tell everyone my own shrink bought me a one-way ticket to the psych ward of my choosing.” Having delivered this morning’s wisecrack to Carole, the sociable secretary I share with every other therapist in the unit, it’s up the stairs to the communal kitchen with its so-solid soda machine.
“Hey, Daryl, can you change a dollar?”
“Sure, but only if it wants to change.” This quip is made on command to a co-worker I know solely from these frequent forays to an otherwise foreign territory, the administrative floor.
Cold metal container of Diet Coke now obtained and clutched in hand once again, I rush back towards my office. With a quick flip of the tab and a refreshing sip, I skim the record of the first client of the last day of my week, then jump up again and approach the waiting room nearby. I already know she’s there; on my route a minute before, I’d seen a somewhat familiar face through the glass partition that separates them from us.
I try to overcome the nagging dread and get down to my business at the Center, the part I like the best, seeing my clients; though, being forced to see way too many, imagery relating to assembly lines now abounds in my dreams. Next thing I know, precisely at nine A.M., a chipper, eager-to-please factory-mental-health persona of my own invention is greeting my lucky client and leading her to the windowless cubbyhole I proudly call my own. We assume our positions, my chair wheeled to come out from behind my desk, which borders the wall, and she in the only other comfortable chair afforded me, so that she and I are now face to face, no more than a few feet between us.
“Nice to see you again! Let’s see, you were able to file that restraining order against your husband?”
“What? No. I mean, I don’t know what you mean…I’m not even married!”
Oh, you only live together. Well, it has been a few weeks since I first met you. “That’s right. You told me you were afraid to marry your fiancé – your sexual issues.”
“Well, I’m not actually engaged to my boyfriend, but I do have a little problem with…hey wait – I haven’t even told you about that!”
“Nooooo…I don’t suppose you have. But I could tell. I’m a licensed professional therapist with a good deal of experience,” I say with mock pomposity in order to attain some needed levity. It doesn’t work. “Now, let’s talk about that further.” This time I’m going for sincerity and warm interest.
“Okay. I mean, do I have to, Daryl? That’s not why I’m coming here!”
Oh. Right. “So there’s something else you’d like us to address this time?”
“Remember I told you that my father…”
“Right! He was just hospitalized and was on a respirator…”
“My God! He is? I knew they wouldn’t tell me if anything ever happened! Maybe I should…wait! How would you know anything about my father? Do you know my stepmother? She comes here, doesn’t she? What did she tell you? What’s going on?”
Though I can hardly speak, I do have to take responsibility. “I’m so sorry! This…this has never happened to me before – I must have been confusing you with someone else!” I hope that someone hasn’t also had the misfortune of discovering this, me clueless all the while. “Let’s start over, okay?”
If Paula T. was more sophisticated about therapy, or had more self-esteem, she’d have my ass kicked by the Powers That Be at the Center or she’d sue me for idiocy or she’d get up and leave. Instead, she seems to forgive me. I am a nice person, after all, and kinda charming in my own way, and I do genuinely like my clients – she must realize that.
“Those flashbacks – they’re really getting to me. And they are affecting my sex life, though I wasn’t thinking I wanted to talk about that. I don’t know if I feel comfortable…”
“That’s entirely up to you. We can explore whatever you’d like.” Inadvertently, I’ve opened up a door for her. I can’t be so bad after all.
“I guess you people can just pick up on these things, huh? That’s pretty good!”
I smile modestly and take another sip of Diet Coke, telling myself reassuredly that yes, I can handle whatever comes my way. The last thing in the world I want is this burnout thing affecting my clients.
Unfortunately, my next session is with a guy who’s not making enough progress to suit anyone who really matters. This is Ronald’s fifth of the six sessions he’s initially been allotted by his insurance, which would be perfectly renegotiable if six weren’t also the magic number the Center would like me to observe as his limit, considering this is supposed to be a simple adjustment disorder. “I can’t believe she left me,” Ronald moans. “What am I gonna do? Why’d she have to do this?” The same questions I’ve heard in the previous four sessions.
Listen, Daryl, listen, I tell myself. Point number one in Therapy for Dummies – sometimes it’s harder than others.
Here’s an interesting fact: just because I do occasionally forget doesn’t mean I don’t listen. Every once in a while I have to remind clients of this. And I’ve heard Ron’s particular refrain before so many times, from so many bazillion other clients whom I’ve seen in the past twelve years or so, I could never forget. Somebody please tell me I’m making this up and that I’m not really consigned to listening over and over again, day in and day out, for the rest of my life, to the same old tired themes.
What on earth could I be getting from this? I ask myself as he continues his monologue. Certainly it’s not the money. In his job as a construction foreman he probably makes more than I ever will. And I bet he has at least six years less education than I do, meaning – among other things – no hefty student loans to pay back month after month until he’s eighty. And to top it all off, he could probably tell his woes to a passerby on the street and get the same results – or even better.
With a co-pay of only ten dollars per session, Ron probably had no need to lie about his income on his Center questionnaire, which means I could look it up after he leaves. Only the non-insured, often the more economically deprived with debts up the wazoo, have to hope no one will try to verify their responses. That we do still operate on the honor system is a throwback to an earlier era, the one when we apparently trusted people, when community mental health oozed a desire to help the needy, the indigent. Give me your mentally disturbed, your poor…Give me a break. Though it’s yet to be inscribed on our purported not-for-profit portals, if you won’t pay dearly for your mental health, we won’t have food on our tables.
More private clients, that’s what I should have. Two or three a week is nowheresville if I ever want my own practice. Unlike the Center, however, it’s not the revenue I’m after; it’s the satisfaction of running my own show, seeing clients who’ve chosen me as their therapist versus this place in their general neighborhood – clients who are more motivated, who care about their progress in a more visible way. If only I had the energy to develop a bigger practice. But how can I do that and work here full-time, too?
I can’t continue this reverie forever. Change your mannerisms, Ron – give me a sign that you need me. Ask me something. Anything. I’m quick on my feet – or my ass, which I’m on so much, it’s currently spreading to North Dakota. Hey, if I’ve missed the context, I’ll rely on my excellent reflective listening skills: “You want to know what to do now that she left you.” This will stall for time. Or I can turn the question back on you: “What would you like to do? Why do you think she left you?” After all, everyone knows that the therapist, not being a magician, doesn’t have all the answers.
But here we are, needing some answers real fast, and it’s the same old song. Well, why wouldn’t he be repeating himself – I’m listening to it, aren’t I? I mean, he doesn’t know I’m not. Then again, I guess there’s no one redirecting him.
So, I’ll have to jump in. “How ‘s the medication working?” Both the Center and your insurance company, Ron, are looking over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, wanting big-time to see the right results so you can be discharged pronto.
“Well, you know, I don’t think it is working,” he replies a little too testily, I can’t help but notice. Maybe I had unwittingly cut him off, or maybe he’d already said this earlier and I missed it. Or maybe he’s plain irritable. That being a frequent symptom of depression, I’ll have to jot that down later, that his condition may be worsening. Sufficient grounds to plead for more sessions on his behalf.
Wrapping things up, including a re-referral to his Center psychiatrist, Dr. Carlin, to check on his dosage of Paxil, I’m free again. For ten whole minutes – minus those few extra seconds I gave him in order to finish his sentence. Free to do his progress notes, free to find out what important calls have come in for me, free to prepare for the next client, free to blow out my brains while I have the chance.
A little suicide humor. I’ve been using it a lot lately. If it sounds as though I’m angry with my clients, I’m not. Really. I’m angry with myself. That guy could be me, hating the way I feel – in this case about my career, not my marriage or divorce – being stuck in a rut with no foreseeable way out. Not that I don’t love a good rut – every single day the same tuna fish sandwich for lunch – but this is indeed a terrible rut, a deep black stinking hole, a scary cavern of horrors, that kind of place clients often describe before they finally do what they have to in order to get better.
Well, maybe it’s not all that bad.
While waiting for my student, Molly, to arrive, my other supervisee, Julie, the one who actually gets paid to be tortured by me, drops by with her annual self-evaluation. Soon we’ll meet to compare notes on her work performance and she’ll get to see the glowing report I’ll write on her. If there were such a thing, she’d easily be Employee of the Year, having higher productivity than anyone, not just in the Adult Unit but also in the whole agency, meaning that she sees the most clients per month; whereas my productivity, by the way, is ever waning. She’s also continually open to learning. She comes to me about anything she’s unsure of, and she’s receptive to my guidance. While she makes my job with her a snap, I can only speculate that she wishes she also had the ability to whip me into shape. I sense that she thinks I don’t like my work; I can’t let her know it’s not the work itself, but the agency and the whole mental health field and what’s happening to it that I can’t stand. But – Julie likes me anyway. And she’ll like me even more when she finds out I’ve managed to get approval for her to attend the Psychological Trauma Conference. It’s a truly rare day when money is granted at the Center for continuing education, even though we need it in order to maintain our licensure, which is required in order to maintain our jobs.
“By the way, Julie, Molly wants to lead the women’s issues group, but as a student she can’t do that on her own and it was supposed to start a couple of weeks ago.”
“And you want me to co-lead with her and help her organize it and set it up?”
“Would you? That’d be great! But with her semester ending in May, Molly might not be able to be there for all the sessions…well, you’ll handle it. And I’ve been trying to work on the stress management series for Employee Assistance, but–”
“Oh, I got some great ideas at the EAP conference – could I help?” That’s the one they wanted me to attend in Colorado on my own dime – and I don’t even ski – whereas Julie aspires for special certification in Employee Assistance, so I let her go instead.
“Fantastic! And I have some new cases to assign – there’s a dual diagnosis, an obsessive-compulsive, and, oh yeah – a mildly retarded woman who’s apparently been abused in her group home by a night-shift counselor. Could be kinda tricky.” And if you don’t take them, they’re all mine. I used to take pride in my penchant for the more challenging cases; now I think I’ve been an under-appreciated fool.
“Sure, Daryl! Just put the forms in my mailbox and I’ll book them. Oh, listen, I have to run. I don’t want to keep my next client waiting and she often needs some help with her wheelchair. So, thanks! I’ll talk to you later!”
I thought I’d given Molly, who now sits before me, a simple task. Look at our adult waiting list, I basically had said, the one that’s increasingly unmanageable, and determine which prospective clients need to be called so they know we’re at least thinking of them. I’d even refrained from joking about developing a line of Hallmark cards for such an occasion: Thinking of you…going crazier by the minute!
Now she’s supposedly finished her task. “Many of these poor people have been waiting for months to get seen!”
No fucking kidding, I feel like retorting. “Yes, I thought I’d made that point to you, Molly. Hence, our concern about them. Did you manage to organize them by the length of time they’ve been on the list?” Something neither my own supervisor nor I had felt like doing, so it had made sense to dump it on the student.
“That’s not what you said! You said I should prioritize their needs!”
“No. If I used the word prioritize it was in connection to how long they’ve been waiting. So, what did you do?”
“I figured out who were the sickest and put them on top.”
Oh, I see. Molly’s own special triage. Tell me your problem, and I, a lowly student, will tell you how important it is.
Molly’s a regular wonder girl, all right. You have to wonder how she got accepted into graduate school in the first place. Or why she chose to abandon the promising career she already had in butchery. Or why she still smells as though she just left the meatpacking plant. Or why and how, just last year, her husband not only divorced her but also managed to take the kids away from her. Though I do have my suspicions. Lo-ser, I hear a voice in my head say against my will.
“But Molly,” I say after skimming her conclusions, “you’ve got marital and family problems on top! What happened to the people with the more severe conditions?” Any fool would know to use the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as a guide even if she was dumb enough to be doing the wrong thing to begin with.
“Oh, they’re in there. But, you know, if they’ve been that seriously wacked-out for that long, I think they can hold on longer than those with more acute problems. We can save someone from a divorce, but can we as easily save the ones who are crazy?”
Well, that depends – save them from what? Killing themselves? Obeying the voices that tell them to kill someone else? I don’t hear myself screaming this out, but I do feel the crevice my teeth have excavated in my tongue.
Though the last thing I need today is to counsel someone like Molly towards finding a prize place on a therapy waiting list of her own, I know I must. Her own problems continually get in the way of her work, and even though we’re nearing the end of her field experience at the Center, I reluctantly have to ask myself, what becomes of her then?
When I arrive in the lunchroom, Helen and Tina are already there, saving me my usual place at our small round table.
“What do you think of us being forced to run two groups per week?” Tina directs to me. “Helen and I were both saying we can’t handle more than the one we’re each doing now.”
“Well, that’s one more than me. I have better things to do than find more reasons to put people into…What is it with them and groups! They really think it’s more cost-effective? They’re wrong! Just think of all the time and energy it takes to put one together! And a lot of them wind up failing anyway! I’m not gonna do it. And at the next meeting, I’ll definitely take a stand. Jeez, it’s always something!” I finish and zero in on Helen’s disbelieving expression. “What? I mean it this time!”
“Daryl Stone, you always go on and on like this and then you sit there in meetings and don’t even utter a peep! You’re passive-aggressive, Daryl,” Helen Rosenthal announces as though this won’t hurt my feelings one whit. Perhaps she’s aware, after all, of the dislike I harbor for her but try to disguise.
“You do like to instigate, pal – without following through.” Whereas I barely tolerate Helen, Tina’s my only confidant at the Center, by far the best clinician in the Adult Unit – besides me on a good day – and I can tell she’s trying to walk the tightrope of aligning with Helen on this issue without alienating me at the same time. “But that’s okay. We don’t take you seriously anymore – and we still love you.”
Let’s be real. You both expect more of me. It infuriates you that behind my mask of ever-present wit, right-on dissections of agency mismanagement, and promises to assert my various brainstorms and schemes, I’m a wimp. “Okay, so maybe I am too inhibited to say stuff to everyone at once. But if pressed, I’d go right to Madeline herself and tell her one-on-one just what I think!” Madeline’s the Executive Director; none of us therapists has much contact with her.
“No! Don’t do that! I mean, that certainly won’t be necessary. Why would you go that high up? We – either Tina or I – will bring up our opinions in staff meeting. I have to go. I have some calls to make.”
“Boy, is she antsy! What’s her problem?” I ask Tina. It’s not like her to not stay and chat about her newest hair care product or pry for more state-of-the-art Center gossip. “Is it something I said? I hope?”
I have to admit – I was burnt before even coming to the Center last year. Migrating here, therefore, made even less sense than all the other times I’ve jumped ship and changed jobs after finding myself frustrated, unfulfilled, and interviewing elsewhere. Next stop, some place where I can fall back on pre-collegiate skills like flipping burgers and making ice cream sundaes. Some job where your mistakes are something you get to eat. Yeah, just what I need.
Only Tina knows the real scoop on my burnout, or what she calls “compassion fatigue”, a term she read somewhere. And I don’t even have to say that much about it. Luckily, though, she believes my general competence and commitment to clients can make up for it. With a tendency to bring out the best in people, she obviously doesn’t know – and I don’t have the heart to tell her – how warped her projections can be sometimes. Either that, or she’s living in my past. Like everyone else except my poor clients like Paula, she doesn’t get to see me in action.
It was during my first week at the Center that Tina and I bonded instantly over lunch, despite being seated totally across the room from each other. A boisterous commotion, apparently inspired by an out-of-control client down the hallway, had sparked a mass exodus of concerned staff, leaving only me, Tina, and three now-emptied tables between us.
“Why’d you stay?” she’d asked when we’d made eye contact, mine rolling to get to their destination.
“I haven’t finished my lunch. You?”
“If somebody needs me that badly to save their day, the least they can do is make an appointment,” she’d responded with equal weariness. And that about sums her up: though solid, responsible, and hard working, she too has her limits.
Following lunch, my feet shuffle toward Joe’s office. He’s the head of Adult Outpatient Services and the guy I have to go to for my individual supervision. Because of my level of expertise, which far surpasses his, I don’t have to do this on a weekly basis like everyone else in the unit, all of whom, though older than me by varying numbers of years, are less experienced in adult mental health. If only he were a worthy mentor, a guide, a sounding board. Instead, he’s a jerk, a formality, a laughing stock. On his fast track to middle management, having majored in social work administration, he apparently forgot to practice some real therapy on real people. Ironically, he’s younger than all his supervisees, at least five years junior to my 34 years – and he’s the only man. So, naturally, as in past jobs, we women become less all-around important, being lower in the pecker order. And they call social work a women’s profession…
I present a case he’s expressed particular interest in, ostensibly because he was covering Emergency Services the night she first showed up, desperate for safety of some sort. But I suspect it’s more related to a simple case of the hots. She’s 25, beautiful, and vulnerable, and she has a boyfriend about 20 years older who’s “good to her” except when he’s slapping her around.
I’m already closing the case and Joe’s appalled. “What?! Did the abuse stop? Did she leave him?”
“N-oo…Sandra seemed to want out, but after a few sessions of focusing on that, she no-showed.”
“And you tried to reach her?”
“Of course!” Well, I did make a couple half-hearted attempts, totally afraid that thoroughly nasty man in her life would answer the phone, but no one was there. Then I almost wrote a letter, but I remembered that she didn’t want to be contacted at home because he didn’t know about her therapy. Then I panicked because I realized my earlier calls might have been detected by caller ID – it’s the type of thing he’d have – and when he traced my calls to the Center, he would have totally freaked out on her. Unh – I can’t even think about this. “I did everything I could.”
“I think you have to get her back in here, Daryl. Don’t you?” he asks in a what’s-the-matter-with-you tone.
“Well, I wish she could use my help, but something apparently made her stop coming. And I can’t do anything about that, Joe. Why? What would you do?” As if I care.
“I certainly wouldn’t have let her end therapy.”
Do you ever listen to yourself, Joe, you reasonable facsimile of her manipulative boyfriend? “Let her? I don’t have any control over what she does about therapy or even if she gets hurt again.”
My eyes start to fill up. When I try to continue my argument, the crying overtakes me.
Joe looks at me as though he can’t believe his eyes – or mine. Not willing to expose myself to him for what I am, a tender and meek pussycat incapable of defending myself against one unfair verbal assault on my abilities from a married so-called professional who’s thinking with an organ that isn’t a brain, I conjure up and reel off a myriad of other possible woes I’ve supposedly been holding in until the right occasion to lose it came along.
“Supervision with Molly is so hard, and I’ve been working too hard – I mean, without vacation, and I’m in a lot of p-…” I was going to mention menstrual cramps, but I decide to draw the line. “I’ve got some…personal…things going on.” That’s the ticket – vaguely hint at distress so private he’ll never ask for more, nor would I know what I’d say.
“Is there anything I can do?” he now asks kindly.
Yeah, be sympathetic like this all the time, don’t badger me about my cases, give me a year off…”No, they’re…my problems.” The implication being that he has nothing at all to do with my malaise. What a laugh! How cliched, not to mention reminiscent of my role in past broken relationships, especially the ones with males: the whole tired It’s not you, it’s me. I just need some space right now. Well, make that forever. But really – it’s not you. You can’t help it that you’re inherently unlikable, that time spent with you is hollow and insignificant not to mention days or weeks or months of my life that I’ll never get back.
While wiping my tears away, I can barely fight against the immobilization that’s come over me, my misery now amplified by having allowed someone I don’t even respect to listen to my pseudo-confessions, warped words barely skimming the surface of what truly ails.
It suddenly strikes me that there’s no time like the present to tell him my proposal. I have nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain if Joe is really in my pocket – er, corner – right now.
“Joe, maybe there is something you could help me with. I’ve been thinking about a project which I could start here…”
“Really, Daryl?” I can imagine him thinking: Is that really you, Daryl? Who are you and what have you done with my increasingly disgruntled supervisee, the one who, albeit diligent enough and almost functioning as my unofficial though never-to-be-recognized-as-such assistant, has never shown any team spirit or interest in fresh programmatic ideas?
“Well, maybe it’s far-fetched, but it has to do with us seeing more gay clients here.” Not to mention bisexual and transgendered and everything else that’s politically correct to include, but just keep going now, Daryl, it’ll be easier if you don’t overdo it or look for a reaction yet. Though I’m out to all my colleagues at the Center, some handle it better than others. Joe, for one, makes his discomfort obvious.
“You see, I don’t know, um, if you realize this, but there are a lot of people out there who won’t come to a place like this because they’re afraid the staff won’t be sensitive or accepting.” Like remember the time, I could query, that you tried to tell a gay teenager how he should dress so that he wouldn’t attract the “wrong kind of attention”? I know about this only because Ryan wound up in my office after his overdose, refusing to see Joe and eventually explaining why.
“So, you know,” I plug away, “we’re not reaching maybe ten percent of the community out there. I mean, how often do any of us get clients who are admittedly gay or lesbian? It’s much rarer a phenomenon than it should be. If they absolutely have to, they’re probably seeking help here but without divulging their orientation, which the staff isn’t picking up on enough. And, you know, most are employed – they’d be full fee.”
At that, Joe’s eyes light right up. I said the magic words! What makes me presume the widespread employability of gay people, I don’t know. Maybe because we tend to have to be self-sufficient, given our lack of support and rights in the world.
“Well, Daryl…that’s…an interesting idea. Why don’t you outline your specific goals and plans in writing? Then I can take the proper time to review it and get back to you.”
Sleepwalking back to my office, Joe and I being through with each other, I ponder that although his response doesn’t exactly smack of excitement, neither is it an automatic thumbs-down. I should take this go-ahead as a sign to feel more optimistic about my future here. In fact, this should be lifting my spirits right about…now. I tell myself to wait a little longer for that unfamiliar feeling to kick in. It doesn’t.
Shock. I must be in shock.
In this well-earned mixture of mind fogginess, fatigue, and general despondency, I confront the rationalizations of my next appointment, my two o’clock. “But, Bobby, you’re playing it risky, don’t you think? How about going back to your 12-step program?” I urge.
“I’m just using coke occasionally. Come on. I’m doing fine at work. It’s not like before; in fact, I’ve sold more cars this month than in a long time. I feel great!”
I’ve either got to stop drinking this stuff right from the can or reduce my intake – I feel quite a belch coming on. More energy is needed to suppress this than to do the clinical work I’m supposed to be doing right now. Well, at least there’s caffeine in this one.
“But you’ve tried this before – remember? And you found that you couldn’t control your use the way you’d hoped? Is that what you want to see happen again?” What I want to see happen is for this session to end soon. I’ve not only got to pee, I have to get another refill before my next client.
“No! But I can handle it this time.” I sense he’s exasperated with my line of questioning.
“So this time is different? It’s all or nothing with you – you know that. Why don’t you at least call your old sponsor?”
“Oh, please! I’m not in the mood for all that shit! He’ll just tell me to get back to meetings – for Christ’s sake, I’ll have to hear all that God talk, hug all those pathetic people…”
“Yeah. Okay. It’s not for everyone.” Group togetherness – the misery loves company philosophy – isn’t always the answer. Ask my food issues group, the one I just quit.
“Ya got that right!” he asserts, proudly pounding his booted foot onto the floor, seemingly pleased at last with me.
On this note I give up and let the rest of the session run its unproductive but congenial course. B’bye, Bobby. Maybe the rehab wardens will let you drop me a line next time.
One minute before three, while hurriedly reading over Rita M.’s referral sheet, I find that her employer, a manufacturer of chains, considers this a “job jeopardy” case. I see Alex Trebek saying, “She did a no-no at work.” Who is Rita M., Alex? I confidently give my answer in the form of a question. I’ll take Job Jeopardy for $500, Alex.
I hate these kinds of referrals. It’ll mean, among other things, that she probably was coerced into coming here and that I’ll have to find the time to be regularly accountable to her supervisor regarding the progress she would never care about making if it weren’t for the threat of losing her income.
After fetching her from the waiting room and offering her the chair, easily ceding to her first prize for most wanting to be anywhere but here, I try to get us rolling.
“Is it true that you spit at a co-worker?”
“Yeah.” No eye contact.
“Can you tell me more about the incident?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“Ed. My supervisor. The a-h who sent me here.”
“Oh. He gave information to Intake, but I need to hear it from you. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“I don’t wanna be here, ya know. It wasn’t my fault. They make me mental – they should all be here!”
“You don’t like your job?”
“What’s ta like? It’s an assembly line.”
“What about your co-workers?”
“Got no use for ’em. They’re all a bunch o’ creepy assholes.” This full usage of her favorite term for her co-workers is evidently a slip, so she asks me to pardon her French.
“Why don’t you leave?”
“And who’s gonna feed my kids? You?”
I sense that she’s warming up to me. “Well, I meant…maybe there’s a different kind of job for you out there.”
“Right. I’ve been doin’ this for nineteen years. I’m not goin’ nowhere.”
“Maybe you could learn to express your anger differently, then.”
“I’m not angry! Why does everybody say I’m angry? I’m just pissed off most o’ the time!”
“Well, let’s work on that, then.”
“If I hafta.”
Following Rita, I have time to learn that Ellie, a joy of a human being who’s been wonderfully appreciative of her therapy with me, has left me a phone message about canceling her next appointment. I assume that Carole, who in addition to her secretarial duties also serves as receptionist and all-around unofficial head of Information Central, simply neglected to write down the part about Ellie wanting to reschedule. When I return the call, however, she fumblingly proceeds to inform me that she’s actually doing so well that she’d prefer therapy ended for now…if that’s okay. Knowing she’s fully capable of making her own decisions, that’s all I need. “Sure. That’s great. Just call if you need to come back,” I express with sincere sentiment, my baser instinct only kicking in afterward, when I hasten to cross one more name off my client list. Who knows why I enjoy this so much.
Carole’s buzzing of my intercom catches me in this dastardly act. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed a slight startle reaction lately when such annoying noises intrude; it’s as though no phone call can be a good one. “Your mom’s on line three,” she announces.
I obediently punch the third button on my phone. “Ma? It’s me!” I shout, temporarily forgetting, as I so often do, that a long-distance call, in this case from the Midwest to New England, doesn’t mean out of earshot. “Everything okay?” Can’t be – she never calls me here.
“Well, I do have some bad news…I’m very sorry to interrupt you at your work, but I thought you’d need to know about this. How’s your day going, Daryl?”
“Ma! Tell me!” Jeez, something horrible has happened, and she’s making small talk.
“It’s your father. He died last night.”
“And?” What? His good-for-nothing ghost is howling at your door? What’s the bad part?
“The funeral’s on Monday.”
I’m not in the mood for this. “What am I supposed to do? Get someone a card? How about you – would you like a sympathy card?”
“Daryl…” She stops. She’s crying!
“I didn’t think you’d be upset, Ma!” No, I just didn’t think. “I’m sorry. Really. What can I do?”
“I was hoping you could make it down for the services, that’s all. But never mind.”
“You were? You mean you’re going? Oh, I don’t think I can do that – with work and all. That would mean a couple days off.” From this job that, for any other excuse, I’d happily bound away. You say you stubbed your toe and need me to drive hundreds of miles to Kentucky and do all your chores? I’ll be there!
“Everyone else is going, you know.”
“Everyone? Who’s everyone?”
“Well, that’s different, don’t you think? Jack’s his brother; Dougie’s his nephew. They must have had feelings for the guy. Jack anyway.”
For all I know, Jack was still in touch with my father. At the very least he and Grandma were contacted as next of kin. Mom, on the other hand, hasn’t been with him for, oh…how old am I? About thirty-four years, give or take some months she was pregnant with me before he bailed. But she’s so close to Jack, and so am I. He’s like an uncle to me. I mean, he is my uncle, but he’s also the closest thing to a father I’ve ever wanted to have.
“And Dougie’s going to the funeral to support his father – and me. I’m sure they both expect to see you too.”
Somehow I can take the guilt I’m supposed to be feeling and shove it. “But, Ma, I have nothing to wear.” Though I mean this, owning nothing but jeans and various pants and tops I wear for work, even I realize how stupid it sounds at a moment like this.
“Oh, Daryl, I’m sure you have a nice outfit you can wear. You can wear slacks to funerals these days, you know.”
“You sure?” My experience being severely limited in this area, my knowledge of dress codes is nil. Similarly, though with considerably more deliberation involved, I’ve avoided weddings too. However, whereas people I’ve known have chosen to get married, no one I’ve known has yet chosen to die. Which remains true. I think. I never knew my father. No doubt, though, so my life could get even more ridiculous, he did make the inconvenient choice to up and die now rather than later.
“Of course. A couple of girls wore them to Dougie’s wedding. Remember? Oh, I forgot. You couldn’t come for that either.”
“Listen, Ma. I have to go. I’ll think about…I’ll get back to you, okay?”
Really, Daryl? What’s to think about? This is amazing. You don’t go pay your respects to some father you never even knew. And if you’re my mother, you don’t go honor a dead so-and-so who a zillion years ago married you, got you pregnant, left you for no good reason, then married someone else. What’s she thinking? And doesn’t she remember that she’s the one who banished him from me to begin with?
Another cut-in from Carole jolts me back to the real world. “Da, while you were on the phone, you got another call. Pamela Sharp. She preferred having me inform you versus leaving voice mail. Thought you’d get the message quicker this way. She said you have her home number.”
Pammy’s my only non-therapist pal, a distinction I value enormously. No psychobabble from her lips, no misplaced confidence in the power of therapy or its practitioners, especially since she once lived with one intimately, even more especially since said ex-lover, Liz, a woman I used to work with, screwed her royally. Pammy’s my kind of gal – the Anti-Shrink.
Tonight’s the party for her thirtieth birthday. I have to go. And maybe it will actually be nice, I’ve been thinking, to meet some new blood, to mix with other women like Pammy who don’t care about such things as mental health and well being. She knows all kinds of people, has had more jobs since college than I’ve had private clients, just about. Though currently falling back on her economics major – some sort of technical writing thing – she’s also working on her real estate license and trying to put together a rock band. Highly energetic – wired even – Pam perpetually finds herself overly busy but too into her life to care.
I reach her after one ring. “Pam! Getting ready for the big bash?”
“Don’t call it that! I’m weirded out enough as it is!”
“Why? You love this stuff!”
“I guess. Well, I just wanted to know if you were coming.”
“Don’t I always do as I say?”
“But you didn’t say! You never called me! If you hate the horn so much, why don’t you at least get email?”
If one more person asks me that…“I was supposed to call? But you told me your plans and I said I’d be there! Remember?”
“But then I sent invitations. Oh, never mind. I’m glad you’re coming, Da.”
“So, what shall I bring? You need any help?”
“Well, I am afraid of not having your type of food – considering I never know what that is – and no, Liz is here.”
“Liz your ex? What about her beau? What’s going on? Or can’t you talk?”
“You rock, buddy! See you later!”
As if Pam should even consider getting back together with the woman who supposedly loved her, but said goodbye because she suddenly remembered a prior commitment to men. A no-good has-bian, the skinny little bitch, is basically what we called Liz when Pammy was so grief-stricken she couldn’t eat for months.
As if my mom should even consider asking me to go look at the guy who, though he didn’t know about my fetushood when he left, eventually learned of his paternity but never looked back. Deadbeat Dad. He could have at least helped financially. But all my mom had to do is say get lost and stay lost and that’s what he does. So now he’s lost for good. Big deal.
I’m not going. No way. This is so absurd. Crazy-making, as we say in the biz. I’ll call Ma soon – tomorrow. Right now, I have to get out of here so I can go to the bank, buy a card and a gift, maybe get some new jeans, and prepare myself mentally for socializing, party animal that I’m not and never will be.
**** **** ****
As expected, I’m at my usual loss for what to do with myself. I’ve already deposited my liter bottles of Diet Coke on the table and exchanged superficial greetings and comments with those who cross my path. While engaged in a futile search for food that doesn’t reek of chick peas, beans, legumes, or items I wouldn’t even know how to identify, I’m accosted by Jess, a brash older woman who once asked me out at a shindig much like this a few years back when I was brand new to coming out. Having graciously taken no for an answer, she had moved on to find the current love of her life, never seeming to begrudge my disinterest in her, as here she is in my face, as she’s been again and again ever since that fateful day.
“Hey, Daryl, have you met Angela Martellucci yet? The new gal I told you about before? She’s new to this area?”
You told me about someone? Yet another setup attempt, Jess? My eligibility and ongoing singlehood drives these lesbian types crazy and, indeed, seems to pose a desperate challenge to the many matchmakers in this small women’s community. Frankly, I am not amused, preferring autonomy as I do. Though I must admit to being flattered by their evident view of me as desirable on behalf of other unattached women everywhere.
I brace myself for the inevitable necessity of disappointing Jess, as, unlike regarding herself, she’ll surely advocate diligently for the unknown underdog dyke who’s perceived to be less than whole without me by her side. “No, I don’t think so, Jess. Why do you ask?”
“She’s here, and I think she came with Liz, but it can’t be that they’re together ‘cause Liz is seeing Pam again, you know.”
“For real? How do you know?”
“Well, look at them! Don’t they look like they’re together? And when Terry and I arrived – we were early – Angela answered the door, and Pam and Liz were alone together. And I don’t mean in the kitchen.”
I make it stop with a wave of my hand and a “Whatever.” I’ll get the scoop from Pam herself later. Just get to your point, Jess.
“Well, anyway, Angela’s a therapist who works with Liz.”
Great – another uppity Littleport Mental Health person. My agency is located in the county west of Littleport and serves a population neither as large nor diverse in ethnicity and economics.
Jess continues, unaware of my internal opposition. “In some other part of the agency, I guess – and for the longest time Liz didn’t even know Angela was gay. She’s not at all obvious – you’ll see what I mean. But when Angela actually moved to Littleport–”
“Whoa! You can actually stop right there, Jess. I’ve sworn off dating other therapists, social workers, counselors, do-gooders…”
“So, who said anything about you dating her? I’m just telling you about the new kid on the block.”
Right. “Well, good, because I don’t even want any more of those types as friends – especially therapists! So who do you know here who builds houses or delivers mail or something?” Jess herself is a nurse, another too-related field.
For the next twenty minutes, I receive the low-down on every other available woman at the party, as Jess subtly points them out and offers biographical sketches à la People magazine. This proves fun for the sheer sport of it, but gets me nowhere otherwise, as neither do I possess the nerve to initiate small talk with anyone I don’t know nor does anyone thrill me enough on first inspection to employ Jess to do the dirty work. As I’m thinking this, an enchanting and fresh face catches my eye, its attached body coming our way with Terry, Jess’s lover.
“Jess, you’ve been holding out on me,” I accuse through pressed lips, as though I’m suddenly a ventriloquist and she my dummy.
“You weren’t interested,” she hisses back.
I’m looking – no, gazing – into the liquid brown eyes of Angela Martellucci. Pretty Angela. She with the dark, wavy hair, cut fashionably and to the chin. Possibly the sweetest smile on the face of the earth and the fullest lips I’ve ever not kissed. I barely notice Jess and Terry scurrying away from the scene of this well-choreographed introduction that unexpectedly will shake my world.
“Well, Angela!” I boldly venture forth. “May I call you Angie? I just have this thing about…well, it probably started with Mommy. It’s the ie thing at the end and I’ve never gotten over it. Some kind of infantile fixation Freud missed. I’m actually jealous – no, envious – of people who can do that with their names. Obviously I can’t. ‘Darylie’ just isn’t…”
That grin that covers her face and her engaging giggle are two of the factors that maintain me on the course of this unbelievable ramble. I feel encouraged. Boy, if Angela only knew about this wicked social anxiety of mine – otherwise known as shyness, when you haven’t been brainwashed day in and day out to view ordinary problems as pathological conditions. Then again, Angela’s a therapist, too – she can see right through me.
Finally finding the off switch for this incredible incessant babbling machine, I throw up my hands and sputter, “I’m not usually like this, Angela.”
“You can call me Angie, Daryl,” she replies with a hint of flirtation and the implication of conferring upon me an honored privilege. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into this.
“Okay, you asked for it, Angie. Can we go sit somewhere?” I hear myself asking, automatically steering her away from the food tables so as not to be too distracted by those increasingly disturbing hunger pangs.
Comfortably ensconced in Pammy’s small den, away from all the others, I’ve now switched gears to lending my full attention to Angie.
“Since I was promoted to overseeing Emergency Services…”
“You do that?” I gasp. “You’re kidding! I could never do that!” I’m having an ER moment – sometimes I think I watch the show mainly to remind myself I could be committed to a worse vocation. I notice only now that she wears a pager, the very protuberance of which underneath her gauzy sweater makes me go weak in the knees, as I empathize the horrors of having to be summoned away with a moment’s notice from a party – not to mention away from me – in order to go save someone.
She doesn’t seem offended. “I absolutely love it, Daryl! It’s so exciting – fast! Keeps me on my toes. Of course, I don’t do much of the direct services now; I do more supervision and management.”
Well, at least there’s that. We’re into different things in mental health. She’s a big shot and I’m a peon. She’s crisis intervention and I’m benign neglect. I bet in school she actually loved her social work studies. Whereas I, on the other hand, even then fought tendencies to scorn the overly helpful, all those classmates who thrived on targeting everyone in the world as being needy of their special guidance. And Angie’s enthusiasm, if not sufficiently infectious when stacked up against my defenses, is surely doggoned cute.
“And that’s why you moved here?”
“I should have moved to Littleport from Boston when I took the job – that grueling commute was driving me crazy! And I do have to be more available to my staff now.” She tells me about the apartment she inherited from a colleague who got married and moved out, but who still owns the house. Because Angie’s willing to manage the property, including having approval to tend its showcase gardens, she’s got a great deal for a place that’s so near the bay.
“Do you live there alone, Angie?” I hope, I hope, I hope.
“Sure do. But I was living with…I just left this situation. I’d been broken up with my ex-lover for a couple years, but still in her house. It was time to put that further behind me,” she says with what seems like a fake-it-’til-you-make-it air of quasi-assurance.
So she actually lived with her ex…kept living with her despite a breakup. This stuff never ceases to amaze me. Of course, I’ve never had that significant of a relationship that I can put myself in her shoes. I’ve wanted neither a live-in lover nor even a plain old roomie. I love my solitude too much.
“How long were you two together? As a couple, I mean.”
“About ten years. And when you’re together that long, separation is really hard – you know? And she owns a spacious home, so…”
“Wow! You must’ve been twelve when you got together!”
“You’re funny, Daryl. No. About twenty-three. So don’t bother with the math – I just turned thirty-five. So, how about you?”
“Thirty-four.” And still consistent in my attraction to older women, if only by a hair this time.
“No, I meant, do you live alone or what?”
“Oh. I live ‘or what.’ Just kidding.” Though not being funny. “I do live alone – the only way to go. Really suits me.” Even if you can’t handle it yourself.
“Is your family nearby?” Angie asks, seemingly continuing her psychosocial assessment.
“My mom’s in Kentucky – Louisville, that is. Not the hick part.”
“What? Oh…” The father question. I brace in order to give her my automatic statement on this subject. “Well, I never had a…It’s a long stor…” Hey, wait a minute – I don’t have to do this! It’s so simple! I back up and deliver a new line: “He’s dead.” That’s all there is to it! Hey, I love this! And I’m looking too happy!
“Oh! I’m sorry!” she says with an expression that probably bespeaks more alarm at the smirk on my face, than the fact of his demise. Experienced in witnessing the devastating emotional effects of the cruelties of this world, she probably thinks I murdered him after years of being victimized by his horrendous abuse and now I’ve turned my life around so I can help others like myself. Or, she thinks I’m a heartless wacko.
“Don’t be. I’m not.” I’m not helping any. Though I feel badly that Angie seems bewildered, I don’t want to get into it with her either. Now I wish I could take back the he’s dead and start all over.
“I never knew him, Angie. Uh, listen, there’s something I have to tell you.” I proclaim this as seriously as I can improvise.
“What is it, Daryl?” She looks truly concerned.
“I hate veggie food and no one even brought a damn pizza that doesn’t have spinach or other vile green stuff on it and if I don’t eat soon I’m gonna keel over.”
“Oh, Daryl! You’re so silly! Well, shall we go de-spinach the pizza or something?
A smiling face so sweet I could binge on it. “Or…how about dinner out in the real world?”
“Now? Oh, I can’t, Daryl. I came with Liz, and I’d like to help her and Pam clean up afterwards.”
And now you’re supposed to say, but how about a raincheck? Not that, need I remind myself, the last thing I don’t need on this earth is a date with a therapist who loves her work.
“Oh, right. I have to spend some time with Pam, too, before I leave. I guess…well, I’ll catch ya later. It was nice meeting you.” Like I just met someone’s kindly aunt who I’ll never see again and it’s perfectly all right with me.
“You too, Daryl!” she replies, as we both jump up from the couch. But before she makes her getaway, she gets a full-body hug neither of us could possibly mistake for the casual indifference my previous verbal failure belied. I run off to find Pammy or some food or both.
I find her in the kitchen as she’s pulling open the freezer to retrieve more ice for drinks. When cartons of Ben and Jerry’s catch my eyes, I almost forget why I’ve sought Pam in the first place. I lunge for celery sticks to gather the strength to address Pam about Liz.
“So, it doesn’t take a genius to see what’s going on with you and Liz,” I say quietly. “What’s up?”
“Da, she wants us to get back together!” my pal responds excitedly.
“But you’ve come so far – you’re really out there now! How’s Liz the Non-Lez gonna deal with that? How’s her boyfriend gonna deal with that?”
“That’s so over, Da. And she’s been majorly loosening up about the gay thing – we’re even going dancing tomorrow night.”
“In public? That’s outrageous!”
“Daryl, she wasn’t that bad! I’ve missed her to the max, you know. We’re going to try dating. We never really did that.”
What a concept. “Well, guess what? I met someone, and I think…well, I think I’ve probably already blown any chances of dating her.”
“Who? What? What happened?”
“Oh, never mind. It couldn’t work anyway.”
“Why not? Stop withholding from me – who are you talking about?”
“She’s a social worker, I hate being a social worker; she’s a knockout, I’m not; she’s into commitment, I’m her worst nightmare; she’s thin and fit, I’ll never be…”
“You are so down on yourself sometimes! What’s that all about?”
“I have just had the worst day! I can’t deal with this anymore! I should go take a dive off the old drawbridge…”
“Please don’t – you might ruin my rep as a new volunteer at Samaritans. Did you know that April is one of the busiest suicide months?”
She’s gotta be pulling my leg, I quickly figure. The thought of Pam fielding calls from the severely depressed would be truly hilarious, if I were in the mood to consider this more thoroughly.
“Is it work again, Daryl? What’s up?”
Yeah. That, too. I can’t stand it, Pam!” Tears well up, to my surprise, and I find a hunk of garlic bread within my grasp to turn to.
“You’re freakin’ me out now, Da – why the hell don’t you go see someone?”
“Go see…? Oh, please! Therapy? I don’t think so. Me? See a shrink? I either know everyone out there or I’ve heard bad stuff about them. Whoa! I am hearing you right? You’re recommending therapy?”
“Didn’t I tell you I took that mini psych course? Man, people’s minds are so…”
“Were you serious about the suicide hotline? How’d this happen?” From self-pity to self-preservation in the blink of an eye.
“Well, I realize now that I’ve always been into this kind of stuff in my own weird way. Well, just look at me and who I care the most about – I’m a virtual therapist groupie!” And now she thinks I’m not fit to be in the ranks of those she aspires to be. Excuse me for being in the middle of a psychotic break. I guess I came to the wrong person; you were supposed to ignore my woes or minimize them or cheerlead me back to an unexamined life.
A giant headache overpowers me and makes me beg off any further discussion. Yeah, I do need a head doctor all right. As long as it’s not the Pammy kind – ever.
“Go lie down on the bed for a while.”
“No, I think I’d feel better in my own.” I want to go home. “I’ll call you, okay?” When I turn around to go, noticing the throng that will need to part for me in order to escape through the front door, I stop in my tracks. “Okay if I scoot out the back?”
**** **** ****
The pain in my head must be from not eating, I conclude while driving back home to my apartment in Parklane, on the opposite end of town from Angie’s higher-rent Bayside, about a half-hour northeast from Pammy’s place.
Pizza – pizza without the green crap fills space in my head also currently occupied by agony. Pizza is what I order, having already ripped down the Do Not Buy Any Junk Food sign on my dashboard as I pulled up to Antonio’s. Extra cheese, sausage, and pepperoni – enough bad things to restore some happiness, temporarily speaking.
People like Angie put me to shame. What a great body she’s got – slim but curvaceous. Sure. Those vegetarians can consume sprouts all day and never have to worry about their weight. When your own preferred fare involves anything that contains inordinate amounts of unhealthy but flavorful substances, it’s not so easy.
Though we’re about the same height, 5’7″ or so, we’re definitely not the same size. I could never in my lifetime hope to wear her clothes, though she, on the other hand, could easily throw on one of my shirts if she happened into an unplanned sleepover at my place sans jammies. What am I thinking? She’d never want to touch this body, much less see it naked. And in the heat of passion I’d surely crush her to death. Then again, it might be worth it – sorry, Angie, just couldn’t help myself – you should’ve known better than to get all hot and bothered, I’d tell her mangled corpse. Besides, you thin people all deserve to die.
I vow once again to work harder on improving my relationship with food – as opposed to this twisted, uncertain path I’ve been taking to the most gradual, most unnoticeable weight loss ever achieved by one human being. I know I can do this. I need to understand the subversive role played by my emotions. Instead of trying to relieve such feelings as boredom, disappointment, frustration, and anxiety by overeating, I’ll have to stop – experiencing any of these, that is.
Which, under certain circumstances that I’m still trying to ignore, will be impossible. Not that I want to have feelings related to Albert dying – and not that I do. This is all Mom’s fault – her and her expectations. She could’ve kept this little news tidbit to herself, like she usually does. Go to the funeral without me, you guys – have a blast. Just leave me out of it. That’s it – just do what he would have done. Worked for him, didn’t it?
The next morning, I awake with intrusive thoughts about Pam’s suggestion regarding me and therapy. What a traitor! When she got dumped by Liz and went on and on about it, did I tell her to go find a shrink? Of course not! And why not? Frankly, I don’t think it even occurred to me. That’s what friends are for. I listened to her. I helped her. She didn’t need a shrink. Why can’t she do the same for me? As if I’d let her, even if she knew how – I mean, having an interest is one thing, doing it is another…
What I’ve got to think about now is the funeral. While usually my head or gut points me in the right direction, this time they cancel each other out. My head says, What’s to consider? He was a no-show at your birth; you’ll be a no-show at his death. My gut says, This is the last chance you’ll ever have to make a connection.
My head follows with an even better question, Who needs a connection with a dead man? My gut wisely reserves its right to not have to defend itself.
So, how do I decide? Do I call my best friend, Jeanette? No, she must already be in Florida with her boyfriend, having what many of the kid-oriented covet, a school social work position and the spring breaks and other built-in vacations that go with it. And now she has all that and Leon Alvarez too, a man who was actually mine first. While still in industrial-strength denial, during my last-ditch efforts to like men – one more in a long series in my lifetime of self-defying feats – I had met him through mutual work acquaintances. Another social worker, of course – a good guy and cute as a button. While Jeanette was seeing someone from the gym where we both briefly spun our wheels and where I was still flirtatious heterosexually from time to time – yet in my core apathetic, thus trying to divert all my best picks to her – Leon had expressed interest in me. I couldn’t resist that Jon Secada thing he had happenin’.Over our first drink, however, all I could think was how great he’d be for my best friend who, when left to her own devices, never winds up with the right kind of guy.
“Leon,” I’d said, “I think I’m a lesbian.”
“Really? My ex-wife is a lesbian!”
The Cliff Notes: whereas Gail Alvarez eventually presided at my sexual coming out, Leon Alvarez eventually became the best gift I’ve ever given Jeanette – for which she’s eternally grateful, if also decreasingly available to its donor.
Back to the situation at hand: is it Pam I should call? No, she’ll want to know more about last night, not to mention that she’ll want me to be genuinely pleased that she’s reconciling with Liz, whereas I’m too busy mourning the passing of not only her singlehood but also her purported aversion to psychotherapeutics.
How about a self-help book? Let’s see what I’ve got here. Well, The Road Less Traveled could be referring to the one to my mom’s house, which means I should go because lord knows I don’t go often enough, not that she ever comes to see me. But then there’s Codependent No More, daring me – in an overly controlling way, if you ask me – to detach from my mother’s needs and focus on my own. Another cancellation process.
The mammoth Women Who Run With the Wolves – couldn’t get through it, but its title, now that I think about it, might contain a good suggestion. Surely they’ll turn on me – attacking and killing me in the process – and I won’t have to worry about anything at all anymore.
Or, maybe Oprah covered this topic recently and if I pore through all my as-yet-unwatched videotapes I’ll come across “Wussy Good-for-Nothing Fathers Who Can’t Stop at Simple Abandonment and Have to Up and Die All of a Sudden Too.”
Or, why not try something altogether different like talk radio – yeah, someone like that media shrink, Shirley Peters, M.D., the goofball I finally got to see in human form this week on the Today Show selling her latest book, How Can You Stand Yourself? All I hear from my clients these days is Dr. Shirley says this and Dr. Shirley says that.
The effects of a bluesy Bonnie Raitt playing in the background on a cool, rainy day, and several substantial meals in my tummy before it’s legitimately even dinner time, are that I’ve now transferred to my bed, where I lie fully clothed, my heavy eyelids threatening to shut out all ability to concentrate on the dilemma at hand…
…”That’s not the answer,” Dr. Shirley berates the caller. “It’s the problem. You need to put down the drink, and then your life will get better. Thanks for calling!” she snaps.
I need a quick solution too, I’m thinking as I reach for the phone. “Dr. Shirley, I need you!”
“I’m delighted to hear from you. How can I help you, Cindy?” Not only do I have an alias, but my voice has been pitched to a higher register, making me sound like a child prodigy – or maybe a child, period. One who’s so impressionable I had to mimic Dr. Shirley’s delivery.
“My father died and I don’t know what to do!”
“Loss is always hard, Cindy. It will take time. Let yourself work through the grief process.”
“But I have nothing to grieve! I never even knew him!”
“We often feel that way, Cindy, about the ones we love. But you knew him better than you think.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No, I…look, I just need to know if I should go to the funeral.”
“Of course you should.”
“But I didn’t know…I mean, I didn’t love him at all.”
“Don’t be such an idiot! Will he know if you’re there or not? Thanks for calling! Who’s next?”
How terribly rude, I think, as I awake surly as hell. Of course he won’t know! That’s not the point! It’s the others who’ll know, the others who’ll care. And Mom wants me there. Funerals aren’t for the dead, they’re for the survivors, a client of mine said not so long ago. And Mom, the ultimate survivor, doesn’t really ask for much these days.
**** **** ****
I did meet “Dad” once – through Jack, Dad’s divorced older brother. But I was a little kid and all I remember is a feeling of confusion. Like, why did Jack lower his voice to a whisper when he told me this was my father? Why didn’t this man live with me the way Jack lives with Dougie some weekends? Why didn’t Mom ever want to tell me stuff about him?
Actually, most of what I ever knew about Albert came via Dougie, Jack’s son and my adored older cousin, who had no clue in our early childhood that the man he called Uncle Al was my estranged father. Nor did I get it either, even though Jack at one point became fond of telling me privately on occasion that Albert cared about me and wished he could see me. What’s stopping him? I once almost asked, though the more I heard from Dougie, the less I warmed to the notion of being in this Albert’s company anyway.
“Uncle Al smells funny.”
“Uncle Al doesn’t know how to drive. He had a bad accident.”
“Uncle Al’s wife is a floozy. What’s a floozy?”
“Uncle Al ran over a cat and showed it to us. Gross!”
“Uncle Al fixed our toilet. That’s the kind of stuff he does when he goes to work.”
Though Mom never volunteered one word about him, she sometimes gave responses, curt as they were, to my father questions.
“He was a plumber.”
“He couldn’t handle responsibility.”
“He’s remarried and has kids with her now.”
“He didn’t know I was pregnant when he left.”
“You’re better off without him.”
“That chapter of my life is over.”
Eventually I stopped asking, and both Dougie and Jack stopped offering bits of information here and there, so that one day, when I was a teenager, I suddenly had to take notice of the complete and total absence of the mysterious father-man called Albert. When I then went through a diary-recorded phase of wanting to meet him again, this time making him accept me as his daughter (a mission which necessitated bugging the hell out of my mother) I finally found out the real reason he was missing in action: Mom wouldn’t let him know me. Simple as that. Not that she had any ongoing contact whatsoever with him, but somehow she’d laid down the law way back when and all the key players must have known it.
The ensuing epiphany was a snap: if he’d ever really wanted me as his daughter, he would have made more of an effort to fight her on this. After all, my mom’s a good person – reasonable, loving. She’d do what was right in the end. She’s the best mom there is. So I had to thoroughly reject him, symbolized most by my wanting to change my last name from Stone, his name, to my mom’s birth name – until I followed this in my mind to its logical conclusion and realized what I’d forever be stuck with: Unsworth. Might as well have announced to the world that though I used to be a rock-solid-sounding kind of gal, now I’d become un(s)worthy, a zero – all because I’d never had a father, of course.
And why, out of self-respect, didn’t she reclaim her own name after such a brief marriage? Maybe it had something to do with her thing with Jack, whatever that thing might be. He’s been great to both of us, I do know that much.
Then there’s Dougie. I haven’t seen him in years. We were so close way back then. I think I actually wanted to be him – then I’d also have had a dad like Jack. Not to mention white-male privilege and the right to love girls, things I didn’t yet consciously understand as such.
I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to go home and be with those guys. I’ve got to see what they do with all this.
Unable to sleep anyway, I get in the car in the middle of the night to drive the too-long trip to Louisville. With great relief I finally arrive at Mom’s condo late in the afternoon. I plop down my overnight bag as I wait for her to answer the doorbell. Instead, Jack is the one who greets me. “Daryl, dear! You’re here! Nina said she didn’t think you were coming!”
“Oh. Sorry about that. I thought I’d surprise her.” He shakes his bald head in wonderment and gives me a great big bear hug, the kind I’ve come to rely on from him in my adult years. “So, is Dougie here too?”
“No, he and Stacey are at her folks’. You’ll see them at the funeral tomorrow. They came up from Richmond yesterday morning.”
Stacey, my cousin’s wife, is one of the reasons that I grew away from Dougie a long time ago. Though he always had a predilection for prissy girls, Stacey takes the cake. Her current claim to fame is as an ultraconservative anti-choice activist who also hates the queers. At least Dougie didn’t try to force me to attend and publicly support a union that sickened me. I’ll always love my Dougie, but I’ll never get over his defection from the Wonder Boy of my youth to the I-Married-a-Super-Republican Boy of our maturity. To this day, I have no idea if Stacey knows about me.
Jack and Mom’s relationship: now that’s another thing I’ll probably never understand. With him always in and out of our lives, vacillating back and forth from intense periods of companionship with Mom and me to infrequent contact, my main assumption has been that he’s needed breaks from her – as though all men do; at least, unlike Jack’s brother, he’s always returned. In times past, times when he and Dougie and me and Mom had all been together and having a blast, I’d sometimes get Mom aside and ask why they didn’t just get married.
“It’s not like that, Daryl,” was a typical response.
“Well,” I’d push, “you’re all over each other sometimes.”
“So you’ve never heard of affection?”
“It’s not as though you ever date anyone else, Ma.”
“I don’t need to date,” she was known to say, giving me the impression I could forego that type of unwelcome activity as well.
“Don’t you wanna get married again?”
“Yeah, it worked out so well the first time.”
“Well, you can’t just give up.” I usually didn’t get this far. I basically knew that she could. And that she had.
“I tried it once and that was enough. That’s so hard to comprehend?”
“But it’s not normal to not have love in your life.” I was afraid I wasn’t normal either. So, I was more likely to keep this to myself than to push the issue.
“I have you, dear.”
“I mean people your age.”
“I have plenty of girlfriends.”
Who get on your nerves and whose invitations you often refuse in order to hang out with me. “I mean a guy, unless of course you’re one of those.” I’d actually only added this line once, as a taunt the last time I ever broached the subject a couple years ago. Back when I had no idea what it meant, she’d used a similar phrase about one of her female teaching colleagues. And no matter what she tries to say now in superficial support of my sexual orientation, I know she sees me too as one of those.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she’d said, totally missing or ignoring the possible impact on me.
When I find out from Jack that Mom’s out shopping, we sit down at the kitchen table while I refresh myself with the flat Diet Coke Mom has surely kept as a souvenir from my last visit. She herself prefers her eight glasses of water per day, as prescribed by all the most respectable diets.
“Gramma will be coming tomorrow, huh?” That’s his mother I’m referring to. Gramps, interestingly enough, also died at a young age, so I barely remember him, and my mom’s parents, and likewise her brother and his family, live all the way out in California and would have no real reason to be here, like me.
“She’s holding up pretty well. But I think she’s very distraught, poor thing. None of us had seen much of Al since you and Dougie were little. They’d moved to Kansas, you know.”
“Oh.” That explains some things. “And how are you doing with his death?” I interview him as though I’m his bereavement counselor and not his niece.
“It just shouldn’t be, ya know? Here I am sixty already – he didn’t even make it to sixty. Much too young. He was healthy – or I thought he was. I guess I really didn’t know.” Jack falls easily into the role of a client who can’t look me in the eye.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“Eva, his wife, says he died in his sleep. She didn’t know ’til the morning.”
“Looks that way. We didn’t talk much about it. She was crying a lot, and I’m sure she doesn’t feel comfortable…” He lowers his head, seemingly uncertain what to say, how to end his sentence.
“Comfortable with what?”
“Oh, she doesn’t know me that well.” Jack gets up and walks over to the counter, where he finds some dirty cups to put in the dishwasher, as though he’s in his own house. I figure the whole death thing has him rattled.
“Well. I’m really sorry, Jack – for you,” I say to his back.
While I’m upstairs unpacking, I hear Mom coming in the front door and run down to see her. “Surprise!”
“Awww, I knew you’d come, hon. You’ve never let me down yet! In fact, that’s why I ran out for these extra things.”
“Ooh…more Diet Coke! What more could I ask for?” I tease, actually displeased as always by her food selection. Not one item from the bakery or candy sections. You’d think that for a special occasion a little treat would do no harm.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I could ask for a hug, Daryl.”
“Well, put down the bags, then, Ma. Don’t wanna squash the goods.”
“I don’t suppose you could try to help your aging mother.”
“Right – what a use job – you’re in better shape than I’ll ever be. But if it makes you feel better to act helpless…” Ever since she was hitting her forties and discovered bulges and other fleshy parts she’d never bargained for, Mom’s been a workout nut. Previous to then, dieting by itself had kept her at her desired weight whenever the scale tipped too high. Now, in her post-menopausal stage, she’s never engaged in more strenuous aerobics and muscle building. The last I heard, it’s tennis with the gals, cardio-kickboxing, and the gym apparatus that apparently multiplies in her spare room, my bedroom for the night. Earlier I’d thought better of hanging my clothes on one of her more elaborate machines – something straight out of an infomercial – the automatic reaction instilled in me by my own doomed experiences with such things.
Following dinner, Jack declines my mom’s invitation, ostensibly in favor of meeting up with Dougie and clan, to lead us on one of her walks in the neighborhood. So, it’s just the two of us. Though I’d rather be horizontal, I give in to Mom on this one; otherwise, she’ll go it alone and that means that much less time alone with her before the funeral.
After the requisite chitchat, I have to ask: “Mom, why are we doing this?”
“Because it’s good for you. I don’t know why you don’t exercise, if you really want to lose weight like you say you do. Are you still into that diets-are-no-good-for-you thing? How in the world can you lose weight if you don’t cut down what you’re eating?”
Mom personifies the dieter’s mentality. Unlike me, Mom believes that deprivation is a good thing. Somehow, against all scientific logic, it works for her. “It’s not like that, Ma. I do have to cut down, just not so…rigidly. But that’s not what I meant. The funeral – why?” I try asking à la Bryant Gumbel.
“He was your father, Daryl. That’s why.”
Oh thanks – I forgot, I stifle. “Ma, I hope you realize this means nothing to me personally. If I had died first in a freak accident or something, he wouldn’t be here for my funeral. Why am I here for his? And since when was I supposed to care about him? I don’t get it. This isn’t what you wanted, is it?”
“I don’t expect you to feel…”
“How could I? Do you actually feel a loss after all this time? You feel grief?” Good grief!
“It’s a big shock – and that’s all I have to say right now.”
Case closed. And that’s no big shock, I think to myself. I feel more confused than ever. Am I here because he’s dead to me or dead to her? Who’s this supposed to matter to? She must be recognizing her unresolved grief. She better not expect me to have any feelings about this tomorrow. All he was to me was an almost-anonymous sperm donor. That’s the kind of father I have to grieve. The five stages of grief – I could do each in a minute flat. Maybe a few seconds. Maybe less. Make that definitely less. Done.