Fiction by Elizabeth Scott
Jeremy clicked himself into the seatbelt and said, “She’s totally on my side.”
I didn’t even know where to start with that because a) When was the last time he had any experience with a therapist and no, that meeting with the stupid tennis coach is not the same thing; and b) No, she is not.
“It’s not a competition, “ I said.
On the way home I was thinking that was dumb, making the appointment the day before we had to leave for Thanksgiving with my family. But like I told the therapist, I was hoping she could help us (him) because I know how stressful it is for us (him), my family that is, and maybe we (he) needed to figure out some strategies, gain some tools, etc., etc.
As soon as we got home he kicked his shoes off just inside the front door and turned on the TV. “Storage Wars.”
“Are you packed?” I said.
“Why did you have to make the flight so fucking early?” he said.
“So you’re mad,” I said.
“Brilliant,” he said.
My father doesn’t really get Jeremy. For one thing, it’s the sideburns. He doesn’t get the concept of ironic facial hair, or really ironic anything. My brother, Tim, came home from his freshman year in college with dreads. My mother was still alive then and I could hear my parents fighting behind their closed bedroom door all night. But that’s Tim. Tim always threw them into stroke-level tizzies. He insisted on going to a college with no grades—it was that college or nothing. My father was convinced he would come back as a Sandinista or a Moonie and they even had a preemptive meeting with Father Lucca, probably to plan a deprogramming. Turns out he wasn’t a Sandinista but he did decide to major in Gender Studies. You can imagine.
I actually don’t love Jeremy’s sideburns either, but I’ve never said anything because most of our friends are like that. Maybe not hair-wise but, for one thing, the way they dress. They all know multiple ways to tie scarves and they wear John Deere hats and tee shirts that say things like “Manifest Destiny.” All the boy-girl couples look like lesbian couples and their tattoos are trees, or the infinity sign or something that references Murakami. I can barely pull off a flannel shirt. When I met Jeremy, my usual outfit was boot-cut jeans and a turtleneck sweater, hair in a ponytail, scrunchie and all. He was so much cooler than I was and I thought, how great, we’ll round each other out, teach each other things, we’ll be these amazing people that are, like, everything all at once.
That’s what I told the therapist, that our main issue was that Jeremy didn’t think I was cool enough, wished I were a different person, more like him and all his pork-pie hat friends. He just needed to see my side of it, that things like ultimate Frisbee and skateboarding are not cool they are just downright stupid, every grown-up will tell you that. The thing he wasn’t getting was how we compliment each other, what I bring to the table, at which point he threw out his arms in exasperation, looked straight at the therapist and said, “See what I mean?” Okay, maybe that was the hint of a nod she made but she absolutely was not on his side.
* * *
My father still lives in the same two-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch I grew up in, where he moved with my mother way back when they were first married, where Tim and I shared a bedroom until he was ten and moved into the basement, which wasn’t even finished. Neither of us has lived there since we left for college and when was the last time we were all together? It wasn’t Christmas, or Thanksgiving last year. Dad’s bypass? It must have been mom’s funeral. Tim lives in Berkeley, which might as well be the moon for as often as he comes home. And also the moon in all the other ways too. I do a little better but since Jeremy and I have been together, most of the time I come alone. Now I have to kind of earn it, his coming along. Not exactly guilting him into it. Just having an airtight case no one could argue with, like my mom’s funeral, which of course.
There are only a couple of places to be in that house. There’s the kitchen and that only holds one person. My parents’ bedroom—now my father’s—is off limits, always has been, though it’s hard to imagine what could possibly be so private in there since they just didn’t seem like the kind of people who would ever own or think or say anything remotely embarrassing. My old room is now kind of a shrine, my mom’s sewing, ironing, knitting, quilting and knick-knack room, everything exactly as she left it, even the careful-they-are-very-fragile Hummel figures still safe behind glass. And then the living room. That’s where we all sat: me, my father, Jeremy, Tim and a girl named Tamsen. When Tim introduced us he said that he met Tamsen in Muir Woods on a survival camp weekend which was surprising because it didn’t look like Tamsen could survive a weekend at the Marriott. She was reed thin and almost transparent. Her skin looked like it had been bleached. Her eyes the palest blue-gray, so light and watery they hardly registered as color and her hair the color of sand. But something weird was happening with the men, with Jeremy and with my father. They took one look at Tamsen and something weird was definitely happening. Jeremy took the chair next to her, nowhere near any place where there was room for me. In fact, no kidding, he practically turned his back on me. My father scooched up to the front edge of his easy chair, leaning toward her with a look on his face that made him look twenty years younger. Not only twenty years younger but something I’d never seen before. It’s like I’d never noticed that he was a man. Tim broke what was gearing up to be an awkward silence by telling us that Tamsen could read the I-Ching and would anyone like a reading? My father said, “The itching?” and I don’t know, maybe that was his idea of a joke—but god, no, that smile, that man look on his face, I think it was his idea of flirting. Tamsen reached into her backpack and pulled out a gigantic book, asked if anyone had three coins and said who wants to go first? Jeremy, who by the way, never wants to play charades or scrabble or guitar hero, dug in to his pockets and said, “Quarters?” “The humbler the better,” said Tamsen. He looked at me and said, “Pennies?” which I guess was his way of asking me if I would do him the great favor of getting up, going into the kitchen, finding my purse, and digging around for three pennies, which I did because I could still hear the therapist ask me if I think I do a good job of paying attention to what Jeremy really needs.
“Ok,” said Tamsen. “A question.”
“A question?” said Jeremy. “You mean out loud?”
Okay, I knew what that meant. If he left me would he find someone hipper? Maybe someone who likes poetry and dogs? Like maybe Tamsen, would she run away with him?
“You can just write it down,” said Tamsen. “Sacred privacy.”
She’s so cool. Jeremy, my father, Tim, me—we were all thinking it. She’s so cool.
We got a brief rundown of the way the whole thing works and after Jeremy wrote his question, Tamsen told him to throw the three pennies, that’s what they say, throw, though it’s actually more like just dropping them on the table.
She studied the pennies, made some scribbly lines in her notebook, and said. “Again.”
Jeremy did the whole thing for a total of six times and Tamsen looked at those pennies like they couldn’t be more fascinating. Made six lines of scribble in her notebook and said, “Let me sit with this.”
* * *
Dr. Wendy was recommended by Haley who does my hair. She said that she went three times with her boyfriend, well her ex-boyfriend, and said it was so helpful but I guess I didn’t stop to do the math on that one. Jeremy was reluctant, to put it mildly and I left out the part that that’s what she liked to be called—Dr. Wendy—because no maneuvers in the world could match up to how uncool he would think that was. Haley suggested I tell him that her boyfriend—her ex-boyfriend—felt like someone was finally listening to him and that’s what I should tell Jeremy because all men feel misunderstood and criticized so he’d probably eat that up.
* * *
Tamsen was busy studying those squiggly lines and flipping the pages in her giant book. Looking so intent. So serious. The three men, they were bewitched, eyes stuck on her as if they might miss something momentous if they looked away for even a second.
“Are you ready?” she said.
Tim was looking so proud, like he’d created this spectral creature, this gift he’d bestowed upon us. And my father had somehow found it in him to ignore decades of Reader’s Digest-reading, cranky old man and now he’s interested in the I Ching? But for me it was different, this space between the question and the answer. I know this feeling. It’s the same feeling I had when my father called after my mom’s surgery. In this empty space between the question and the answer is all the awful possibility. That immense, gaping space that opens up before you careen into a dark that transforms your forever.
But the look on Jeremy’s face, all expectant and Christmas eve-y. The space that halts my breath must be so different for him; the possibility not awful but eager and expansive.
Tamsen had the big book open to the page that has all the answers. She said, “This hexagram is a reminder to draw a line around yourself for your relationships to succeed.” (Dr. Wendy said we were enmeshed.) Jeremy nodded. She went on: “Now is a good time to clean closets, clear the clutter from you life.” And then, I don’t know but it really did seem like she looked right at me when she said, “Metaphorically.” Jeremy leaned even further in. And finally, “Discover your line in the sand and only keep company with those who elevate you.”
I’m not sure about Dr. Wendy. What could she actually understand about me, about us, anyway. I saw what was on her desk. Two pictures. One: a picture of her with a man who must be Mr. Dr. Wendy in ski clothes and helmets and it looks like they are on the tiptop of some impossibly remote mountain, and two: Mr. and Dr. Wendy holding hands, falling happily through the blue sky, suspended under a candy-striped parachute. My parents thought any kind of sport was too dangerous. We had a badminton set one year but Tim hit me in the back of the head with his racket so it only lasted a week before the set went into our annual garage sale. Every day my mother sent me off to school reminding me to be careful. Not I love you. Not have a good day. Be careful. Even as a grown-assed, married woman, she ended every phone call reminding me to be careful. Tamsen probably skydives.
When Jeremy and I met he liked that I was that way, sensible and reliable and down-to-earth, at least then he did. I was predictable. I was always early to wait for him, followed through on every last thing. “I can always count on you, kid,” he said. When I tried to talk him out of playing soccer after he twisted his ankle or insisted on taking him to the emergency room when he had that bad headache two days in a row or when I cried all night after he told me he was thinking of getting a motorcycle, I said, “It’s because I love you,” and he said, “I know. I know you do.”
* * *
My father and Tim and Jeremy formed a perfect semicircle around the luminescent, survival-school, impossibly cool Tamsen. Whatever it was that she had to offer him—a prediction, a warning, a fortune, an out—it was all hanging there in the air. Tim took Tamsen’s tiny hand and kissed each finger. My father picked up the huge I Ching book and turned the pages as if yes, this is where I will find my answers, this is what I have been waiting for my whole careful, square, fretful life. And I don’t know the last time I’ve seen Jeremy look, what, so content, so at rest. Maybe that’s what Haley meant about men wanting to feel understood. I don’t think he felt understood at Dr. Wendy’s; in fact, it was the opposite of contentment on his face during the whole session, on the way home, that night, on the airplane, in the cab on the way to my father’s place, all the way until Tamsen.
No one said a thing. It was so quiet that somehow I could still hear the sound of the pennies landing on the decades-old maple coffee table. We just sat there, absorbing it, the foretelling of it all, while the three prophetic pennies lay on the table, Lincoln staring up at my husband, setting him free, free, free.