The doctor has a plan.
Bud, who has been feeling as though he’d been ordered to the principal’s office ever since he got the message that he should join May for this visit to her shrink, gulps before asking, “What? What is the plan?” He’s thinking shock treatment, he’s read online that it’s back in use, or maybe even hospitalization.
The doctor’s plan is that Bud should get his wife out more.
“Out?” says Bud. “Like—where?”
“Nowhere special. Family excursions.”
Relief. Not shock treatment, then. Or the hospital. But something he can actually do. “Sure. Of course,” says Bud.
“Good,” says the doctor, and stands.
It’s evidently time to go. Bud gets to his feet, glancing at May, who is staring up at her doctor. The doctor nods, and she stands, too.
They’re silent all the way to the car. He feels much better. He’d come almost certain of censure. He’s the husband, after all, and shouldn’t he have known? But the doctor made no mention of blame. He talked about depression. An agitated depression, he called it. He described drugs, reaction time, side effects. His voice was deep and Southern.
The first outing Bud plans is to a beach south of the city.
A quiet drive, the kids treating May like a piece of slightly dangerous china. Doesn’t stop them from fighting under their breaths about who is taking up the most space in the back seat, and who poked whom first.
The beach has many stairs that he hadn’t foreseen. Height is the enemy, anything higher than one story. The kids don’t know this—some success at least, in keeping the worst from them—and they whoop all the way down to packed gray sand.
He stays with her on the landing where she’s become stuck. Her word for it. He tries to read her eyes, but the drug has flattened her. They had to titrate the stuff to get to where she is merely not there. Absent, but in no danger, or less danger. Today her hair is back in a band and she looks almost like his May.
The wind grows stronger and the sea looks dangerous now, even to him. He says, “Take my hand.”
Obedient as a child—not their child, children you read about—she extends a hand, her eyes on the beach beneath the steps.
“Look,” he says, pointing to where two ferries are passing each other mid-Sound. “Make a wish.”
She smiles. He considers this trip a success.
To May it feels like boundless energy.
At least at first. She gets so much done, it’s amazing. Wonder Woman. Teaching three classes of incoming freshmen, working on her dissertation, making meals—even the children’s lunches—why shouldn’t they come home since we live so close to school? Doing it all. She cooks six nights’ worth of dinners and freezes them, thinking popsicle dinners.
But the energy grows fangs and she can’t sleep. The more she tries, the more she fails. It gets so she hears those first birds with dread.
All the little things she did every day without thought she now does deliberately, alert for errors, feeling as though she’s eating her heart.
How to keep this from the children? They begin to seek their father, and if he isn’t there, the comfort of their rooms. She tries faking it. No good. They are onto her. They know she is not, in some vital way, available.
The next to go are her senses. The sense of humor first, followed by her sense of smell, which has always been acute. Nothing has a scent, and so of course, no taste. Closing her eyes is terrifying. The darkness is total. A black dot that gets smaller and hotter as she gazes into it.
Bud asks her to describe it. But it is nothing she has felt before, so how can she? Watching yourself watch yourself. You have to be careful, just the slightest thing sets it off and before you know, your feet are five miles down and you’re perched on top of your body like a cat up a tree.
One night she watches a movie about a woman going mad, and knows the story is hers. Surely the responsible thing for a mother of three and an academic is to go to the internist, and she does. He refers her to a shrink after she’d had a hundred twenty pulse during the check-up.
The shrink is her age or maybe even younger. He has a strange hairline. It goes across his forehead in a grid. She wonders if he’s had his hair seeded, transplanted, plugged, whatever that’s called. In his Georgia drawl, he tells her that she is suffering from anxiety and depression.
Somewhat later, he says, “You have a truly terrifying conscience.”
True enough. Lately she’s been dreaming she’s implicated in murder, just not who, or why. She also dreams about bodies buried in walls. But, doesn’t everyone?
The doctor gives her drugs for sleeping, and sometimes they work. Then he announces that he is going on vacation. Sailing, he says. She glances outside and sure enough, summer has come.
Bud plans an outing to Foster Island, a wildlife refuge in the city.
Dogs strictly forbidden. Delicate habitat. The children cry, I’m not going, it sucks, poor old Ginger. He bribes with McDonald’s, which other kids get to do all the time.
The island is flat, the tall grass looks bleached by wind. A little disappointing, and he glances at her for a reaction. Nothing. Her posture seems to say, Just tell me where to stand.
He makes a game out of bird-spotting. She used to like birds. She doesn’t join in. The kids ignore her and fight over the binoculars. They ignore a lot, though God knows what is going on inside their heads, Troy and Heather, and Annie, the littlest.
Halfway through, she sits down on one of the benches along the wood-chip path. He joins her.
“Warm in the sun, he says. “Feels nice,” she says, and his heart leaps.
At the end of the trail, they circle on back through the Arboretum, and then they go to McDonald’s, where she sits and smiles, as if what she is seeing is already memory.
While the doctor is out sailing, carefree on the sea in his boat with his strange hair and the rest of his life, May begins to feel better.
She does this by making rules. Lie in bed for eight hours. Make lists. Stop thinking so much. Take children on bike rides. The looking-for-eagles thing in Discovery Park. Rent canoes. Kayaks? Plan, but act natural. Smile.
Despite the lists and the planning and the smiling, she makes her first significant plunge on the stairs just outside her ex-office in Padelford Hall. She’s imagined it over and over and now here it is.
The stairs echo and people come. It’s nothing. Just a little spill, she tells the ballooning faces. A little banged up is all.
They look uncertain. She has no business there, having bailed on teaching and everything else. She explains that she’d just come up to get some books, somehow tripped on the stairs.
That night she tells Bud that she tripped over the dog’s bed, which wasn’t where it belonged.
“You sure?” asks Bud.
She looks straight at him. So easy to be cold when she feels like this. The drugs level everything, and the doctor claims this will make her better one day.
What she doesn’t tell the doctor is that the only time she feels anything is when she’s either thinking of plunging or actually doing it. Then it’s as if she’s paid off a huge debt. She’s buoyant. Lighter than air.
At Bud’s job, everybody knows.
He’s sure they’re sympathetic, and curious. He would be. But all the same, he’s ashamed. If he’d done the husband part right, it wouldn’t have come to this. If he hadn’t worked so hard, cared too much about clients. About learning piano—how silly, at his age.
Jerry drops by his desk one day. “So. How’s it going?”
Not spoken in a jaunty way. Ten years older, Jerry had his own problems. Drugged-out kids, divorce, cancer a few years back.
“Oh. You know.” That’s how he starts, but how he ends is with his hand over his eyes.
“Whoa.” Jerry sits down. “Hey, Bud, maybe you should ask for some time off.”
He waves this idea away. Last thing he wants is to sit at home. Plus the doctor recommended that they keep life as normal as possible. Only, more outings.
“Thanks—I appreciate it, I do. But, better if we keep to the routine.”
Jerry nods. “I get that. Fake it till you make it.”
“They call it a reactive depression. Losing out on this job she’d just set her heart on, you know? I told her, I said, Hey, it’s a job. On top of her mom passing. She says she’s being selfish. Because of the kids.”
He leaves out the part about the miscarriage. It still doesn’t seem real to him. He had no idea that she was pregnant. They always used birth control, since the time they didn’t is called Annie. The whole thing was odd. “You’ve closed me out,” he’d said, after she told him she’d miscarried in the middle of the night.
“Look,” she’d said. “Accidents happen. I’m sick of talking about it.”
When they hadn’t talked about it at all.
Jerry stands now, head bowed. “Well, you know—anything, Bud, and I mean it, I’m good for it, you have but to ask, my friend. And Beth, too.”
And he leaves, waving one hand behind him as he walks away.
The doctor has a white noise machine, and each visit May tries to find it. Otherwise, why not hear the traffic out on Aurora Avenue, busiest arterial in the city?
Every time she asks the doctor where his white noise machine is, he just fixes her with that look.
One window up high, a branch against it. On his wall just below the window, a mask like she saw at the Burke Museum, made entirely of shells. Makes her shiver.
The doctor insists that she say what she’s thinking, so she tells him she was wondering where she’d seen that mask, but then she remembered. On campus, at the museum.
He won’t be diverted. He has the one obsession: that she promise no more plunging. He uses her word. To respect her choice, and she respects him right back for it.
But she can’t vow anything. “How can I possibly predict the way I’ll feel? Can you?” she asks.
Silence. The specialty de la casa. She turns from him to look up at the window with its single branch. He doesn’t know her, he doesn’t know that she likes life to swing along like the two strong arms of someone walking. All of this—the room, the silences, the mask—is just making it worse.
Besides, hadn’t she made it perfectly clear? She didn’t just lose a job. This was payback. For letting her mother die. No. Worse. For being glad that fetus didn’t make it. For crimes against humanity.
“You’re very powerful,” the doctor had said. “People die from your thoughts.”
She slides her eyes over his walls again. The room is remarkable for its absences. No calendar, no clock. For this reason, she memorizes the date each time she sees him, because the days all run together, and she also wears her watch with the face turned inside, so that she, too, can control the time.
Thirteen minutes left. Today is the twenty-second of November.
Thanksgiving is coming. She used to cook the big dinner, she actually enjoyed it. The chopping and the little details were like meditation. It’s only days away and she’s not done a thing.
She could order a turkey.
She tells him her thoughts about cooking a turkey. Isn’t that what he always wants?
He really can stare without blinking for the longest time. She smiles, remembering staring contests Troy has with Ginger the Lab.
The doctor raises his brows, but she doesn’t share this with him. Too many words.
“It sounds like a lot of work, a turkey dinner,” he says.
He’s being ridiculous. He’s turning her into an infant. Can’t make dinner for her family? Really?
He says that a lot of people are happy with buying a roll of chocolate chip dough and baking cookies, they’d call that a successful day.
He begins to pick at his hairline, which makes her want to scream.
“I know you’re not suggesting that I feed my family chocolate chip cookies for Thanksgiving?”
His gaze says she is being literal again. But that’s how it is these days. Black and white, good and evil, up and down.
Bud takes them all to Thanksgiving dinner at the Georgian Room.
He hadn’t booked early enough and that’s what’s available. Way too elegant for the kids. The white linen napkins, the fancy waiter, the wine poured so not a drop spills.
She sits like a statue, wearing a hat. A tam, he guesses. Gray. She looks like a cute mushroom.
Seeing her, the girls had disappeared giggling into their room, then shown up at the front door with their own hats.
He looks at his family now and smiles. Everybody digs into the turkey and trimmings, except for her. The waiter asks if Madame’s dish is to her liking. She frowns at her plate. Bud is certain she’s thinking the waiter is asking if the china is to her liking.
“We’re fine, thanks,” he tells the waiter, and when the man leaves, he switches plates with her and eats some of hers. A string trio appears. The children moan.
Between Thanksgiving and winter vacation, she breaks her wrist.
Nobody sees. She says she can’t remember, but what she remembers is that it hurt like hell. The concrete, outdoor steps on campus, down to Parking level L.
A student finds her. The bone is set at University Hospital. Bud is summoned. Big, big fuss.
That night she sleeps in the guest bed. Not really sleep. Starbursts in the brain, fizzles, little pops from the pain pills.
Next morning she hears him vault out of bed to rouse the kids. They come in after their oatmeal to stare at her wrist. Annie sucks two fingers and Troy scowls, his face blotchy.
Poor little boy, she thinks; so angry.
“Does it hurt?” asks Annie.
“Of course it hurts, dodobird,” says Troy.
Bud hustles them out. Every time he looks at her, she feels his disappointment. He calls the shrink.
The doctor threatens the hospital, his hole card, bumps her medicine up instead, and she zombies out for two weeks.
It’s Ginger who finds them.
The dog leads Bud to the fence, then sits on her haunches, pleased with herself.
He rushes home to get May. Her wrist is better, but he still walks Ginger and does the laundry and signs the permission slips.
May is in the little breakfast area, staring out the back window. She calls it trancing and claims she’s always done it.
“There’s something you have to see,” he says.
He goes ahead, to be sure they’re still there. Hens. Exotic hens of every type, majestic and comic, and as brightly plumed as tropical birds; here, in a lean-to back of a sports tavern.
“Wow,” she says, leaning in.
“I know.” He can’t stop watching her. The tip of her ear lifts, she’s smiling so wide.
Now she’s looking beyond, to the ramshackle business end of the tavern. Garbage cans, a rejected mattress.
“A half-mile from I-5,” he says.
“Amazing.” Still smiling, but squinting a little, too, because the air is bright.
They walk back home in silence, but companionable. He thinks of asking if they should take the kids to see the hens, but doesn’t. Too much, too fast?
This thing is making May very very impatient.
She’s always been healthy, so who is this malingerer?
The shrink orders long hot soaks. “Are your thoughts racing? I want you to stay in that bath when they’re racing.”
But the water gets cold, she says.
“Run hot water then.”
Why can’t I be like other women, you don’t understand—I’m hiding from my own kids? The whole world knows it, she tells him.
“The whole world?” he says.
One afternoon she decides to see the remake of Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender. A bold move, she thinks as she gets ready. She liked the book, a thousand years ago.
But the time is wrong and she has over two hours free, red meat for the jackals.
I am living at the end of my own leash, she thinks. Just like Ginger. She begins to cry, which isn’t part of this thing. Its principal characteristic is a cold dryness. Dry ice, complete with vapors.
People at the bus stop in front of the theater are shifting eyes her way. A number 49 UNIVERSITY pulls up, doors gasp open. She gets on without discussing it with herself, steps on a foot. “So sorry.”
“No worries,” a voice says.
On the University Bridge, her sphincter tightens, imagining the water below. Funny she hadn’t considered bridges, because this is a city of them. Surely more bang for the buck than a staircase.
She gets off on Fifteenth and heads for the U Bookstore.
Inside, too much of everything. People, noise, books. She catches herself on a table of reduced calendars. The floors here are wobbly, or something is.
A face pops up. “Hi. Amy. From 201.” A girl says, pointing at herself. “You proll don’t remember, winter quarter, last year?”
Last winter. Rows of student faces, nights of pacing, everything a long way down.
“S’okay,” says Amy. “It was a big class.”
“But you’re so kind, that’s just so so kind,” she tells Amy, not something she planned to say.
Amy is looking at her. “So are you teaching this quarter?”
“Not this quarter, no. Maybe in the spring.”
“So,” says Amy. “Well. Great seeing you. Hope I didn’t startle you or anything.”
“No. No worries. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
That night Bud is pleased. “You could’ve called. I could’ve picked you up.”
I didn’t need picking up, she tells him. Leaving out the bridge, not to spoil this moment when he looks at her like a human being and not a puzzle to be solved.
She’d frozen mid-span, it’s true, but then she came unstuck. Seeing kayakers move through the water was like music, and she caught the rhythm and walked all the way home.
One Sunday, Bud suggests a ferry outing.
May is reading on the couch. She puts her book down on her chest. “Where?”
“Bainbridge?” He waits.
Maybe a ferry isn’t such a great idea. She had a panic attack last winter when they went over to the Peninsula. She’d come out a different door from the women’s room and they found her wandering the car deck.
They used to love ferries. Once they even saw a pod of orcas. Eat popcorn and hope for whales, that was the ferry routine.
“Listen,” he says now. “We could drive up to Mount Si for the day?”
She just looks at him, waiting for the rest. He could kick himself. He should simply present a plan.
“If we’re not going anywhere,” he says at last, “I should take Ginger for her walk. She looks like she really needs it.”
They both look at the dog, panting in the doorway.
“She needs it.” May lifts her book to read. The Compassionate Life.
He doesn’t leave. She puts her book down again. Smiles. “You still here? Go”
On her last day with the doctor, May asks for one piece of advice.
“Really,” she says. “I know it’s against the shrink rule book, but just say you did.”
His gaze is long, and then he says, “You might try taking your thoughts with a grain of salt.”
That was two weeks ago. Unsteady on her legs at times, but last night she slept through with the antidepressant’s smallest dose, and this morning she actually ate an egg. She hadn’t been able to look at one since that night. So much pain for such a little thing, like a bloody egg yolk when it slipped out of her and into the bowl. And how glad she was to see it, and how sorry later to be glad.
She has a plan. Bud has taken the kids to bike around Greenlake and she is going to make dinner. Liver and onions. A first, because family meals have been a minefield.
She stands in the doorway. Breathe. This kitchen is neutral. The floor is not heaving and the vertigo is from holding your breath.
Everything is ready to go. She lines up all the ingredients. This is better. Ignore the yammering heart and the fear of being afraid.
Next, her mother’s skillet. Every time you use it, think of me. But her wrist throbs from the weight and what she’s thinking of is lying there with it broken and knowing Bud would come. His face. The children.
She closes her eyes and reels in all that black space.
There is the moment just before plunging that is perfect. Everything sharp and clear. She’s left her life behind, neatly folded on the bank, and now she’s nothing but forward motion, and soon, she’ll be nothing at all.
The problem is, she thinks as she opens her eyes and regards the onion; it’s another lie. Once you’re here, you’re here, even the physicists say so.
Time for the butter. Some cooks swear by bacon fat, but it masks the organ flavor, which is the whole point. The butter smokes and burns almost immediately. You forgot the olive oil.
She swipes the pan off the heat, into the sink. Now you’ve done it, another mess. Her eyes water from the smoke, such a lot of smoke.
But then, a moment of swishing under a stream of water and the pan’s clean.
So start over. And breathe. This time, butter and olive oil and lower heat.
Time to unwrap the liver, which has bled into the butcher paper. The dog arrives, following her nose, eyeing the liver.
She chops the onion, plops it into the hot grease, and backs up. Nothing worse than a grease burn.
The smell of onions cooking fills the house. She remembers with a happy start her special trick: a little fresh sage. “And salt,” she says to the dog, sitting at her feet on full alert, because you never know, liver could slip. One, two, three rounds. The mistake of many cooks, not enough salt.
The dog is watching with her caramel eyes. Saliva drips onto the floor. “Sorry, none for puppies,” she says, but thinks again, drains off some of the pan juices, and dribbles them over her food.
Now the dish has to cook itself. While it does, she sits on the stool and watches the dog eat every last kibble, then lick her bowl in a way you could only describe as grateful.
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