Summer 2008, #15
       "Convenient Acts of Human Behavior"
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Easy Go

     by Mary Beth Caschetta

Fire engines screamed through the streets the summer John moved out to think things over. What was there to think? Gangs of children unloosed water hydrants, sprayed graffiti, and littered the avenues long after the day had burnt out the sun. When I realized it was just the weather 末 summer, to be exact 末 I did what anyone would do: I shut the windows, pulled the shades, started making demands. Chinese food, stacks of laundry, groceries from around the corner. An entire life, I found out, could be ordered over the phone. Men came in every color to carry the world through my door.
        It was marvelous: an urban version of heaven.
        To pass the time, which was at a standstill, I watched reruns on the local news: a war, two kidnappings, a film clip about cows. Every time I flipped on the channels, cameras zoomed in, big moony eyes rolled in their sockets, an ugly map of warts and splotches, a muzzle foamed with fear. Across that cow's dumb forehead was the suggestion of collapse, cowbells lowing, udders swaying. Somewhere in Canada, which seemed so close, a farmer stepped aside as if he'd never heard of a gun.
        "These creatures are not mad," said a voice-over monotone in a French-Canadian accent. "These cows are merely ailing."
        For the big finale, the cow went down. A ton of bovine bricks.
        What kept me tuned in, night after night, was a willingness to participate. The thought that my unswerving eye could somehow change the creature's fate; I wanted to make a difference. Besides, it was the sure sign of things to come: sinew and muscle, panic and frenzy, the six o'clock news. I watched the same disaster night after night.
        In the meantime, I worried about the situation: What if neurological malfunctions were transmitted by milk in the carton? What if they didn't find a cure? Riveted to John's television, stuck to his love seat, I took this thinking one step further. What if I had refused to let John leave? What if I'd bolted the door to stop him from going to Chicago to the annual psychiatrist's convention, where he'd inadvertently stumbled across a former patient of his -- the mild adjustment disorder he'd left me for? Wouldn't things be different today?
        It's not what you think, John said.
        Not a defenseless neurotic, it turned out, but a renowned professional: Shrinks seeing other shrinks. It's not unusual, John said. He called it supervision. I pictured a factory line where workers wore protective goggles in case super egos got out of hand or somebody's psyche threatened to jam up the works. Frankly, I'm not so sure I'd have recognized a suspicious-looking woman in a hotel lobby. And that's the trouble; that's life: A gigantic loop of uncertainty. You get caught up in the spin, while outside your window the world creeps steadily forward. In my case, the weather cooled, the children disappeared. First snow, then ice.
        The only drawback to my new lifestyle was the sound my apartment made when deliveries arrived, an incessant buzzing that seemed to signal that someone had made a terrible mistake.
        Strange disease, cattle mad as hatters. Something had to be done.
        My mother called on the phone. "Meet me for coffee."
        "You don't listen, Mrs. Robinson," I said.
        My mother protested, "I have something important to tell you."
        "I can't leave my apartment."
        "Well, I can't tell you over the phone," she said. "It has to be in person."
        "Mrs. Robinson," I said. My palms were sweaty. "I can't do it. I'm losing the battle."
        "Nonsense," my mother insisted. "We've only just begun to fight."
        I hung up the phone. It was likely that professional help was in order. I sketched it out carefully: a Jungian, three modern analysts, a Freudian feminist, and a New Age healer. Let me be clear. I needed some insight, a little consultation. For purposes of confidentiality 末 you could never be sure 末 I used another name.
        The Jungian 末 a colleague of John's 末 offered obvious advice about the collective unconscious. The feminist 末 despised in most social circles 末 accused me of surviving childhood sexual abuse. Several of the unimaginative analysts droned on about abandonment. And the healer I found in the yellow pages summed it up best by saying, "Psychically speaking, I think you're fucked."
        Over the phone, Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo -- the psychiatrist, renowned in her field as an expert in panic -- was soothing, but offered no professional opinion. "We'll discuss everything when you get here," she said, agreeing to see me first thing the following Tuesday. "You can get here?"
        I wasn't so sure: it had been a few months, and there were windows to secure, lights to turn off -- there was the stove! -- especially the stove. There were papers to straighten, rugs to align, fringe on the bedspread. I tried to conjure the pleasure of sunlight, the feel of cold air sharp in the lungs.
        On the appointed morning, I awoke before dawn and dressed quickly. There was a lot to do: I had to brush my teeth, brush them again, feel the stove to makes sure it was cool. I had to sort through outfits for warmth and style -- windows, rugs, and bedspread. I had to check the lock with the key. Go back through one more time, and check it again.
        By 7:40, money in pocket, shoes tied, and a scarf for the cold, I was ready. All that awaited were the stairs, which could be tricky, sidewalk cracks, always a challenge -- and the Manhattan-bound F. Outside, Brooklyn was as dingy and glorious as ever, which seemed to me a very good sign.
        An hour later, on lower Broadway, I was standing in the hallway outside an office, waiting. Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo arrived, fresh from the cold, seven minutes late, and greeted me with a tight smile.
        "Good morning!" -- she said, without mentioning the time. As it turned out, she was shorter than me, plumper, her lips nearly purple. "It's icy for November!"
        Her key had trouble fitting the door.
        Breezing through a freshly painted waiting room in doll-sized pumps, she flipped on lights, a white-noise maker, classical music. Finally, she came to her office, and flinging open the door, offered me a seat in one of two opposing leather chairs.
        "What can I do for you?" she asked, holding a little spiral notebook in her lap.
        "My husband's left me," I said.
        "Husband?" she repeated softly.
        "Yes, but he won't go through with it."
        "Won't go through?" she said.
        "He won't let go," I said. "Won't finish the act."
        She cocked her head. "What do you mean?"
        "He leaves messages. Says I need help, says I'm too much; there's medication. Really, at this point, I don't see that it's any of his business."
        "How long has it been?"
        "He's been gone a few months, but our marriage..." -- I shook my head -- "Long before that."
        Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo wore her hair in child-like ringlets, though she was older than I was, possibly 37. "Maybe he still loves you."
        Toward the back of my throat, a tiny pilot-light flickered on, bright hope rising like smoke; it made me cough: "Not the way I want," I said.
        "He doesn't love you the way a man loves a woman?" She had a curious habit of emphasizing certain words, as if they contained an extra, almost undetectable, syllable.
        "There are lots of ways to love," I said. "The way a boy loves his dog. The way fish love water."
        Her face puckered: "Do you still love him?"
        "What's that supposed to mean?" I said. "I'd take him back, wouldn't I?"
        "Yes, of course," she said. "I see."
        I had been watching her mismatched teeth, wondering what her fillings were made of. A dentist once told me that mercury was what was wrong with people. If everyone simply removed all the little rocks of poison from their molars, the world would be a calmer place.
        Dr. Monsalvo cleared her throat: "I'm asking a different question."
        I leaned forward, brushing invisible lint from my jeans.
        "Love?" she probed.
        Sometimes at night when I turned out the light for a few hours of tossing and turning, I sensed John standing stoop-shouldered in the doorway. In the morning, a split second before opening my eyes, I could feel him lying in bed. Surely that counted for something.
        "I still love him," I answered.
        "But?" she asked.
        "But things got tedious," I said, "Unromantic 末no one ever prepares you for that. I didn't like his stuffy friends; he didn't like the way I kept the house cluttered with papers. Is that love? How's a person supposed to know?"
        She thought this over: "Maybe you answer the question by being unable to do so."
        "I didn't love him the right way," I offered. "I collected too much junk, refused to answer the phone when it rang, made off-color jokes to his colleagues. I'm not like you." At this, she raised a neatly groomed eyebrow. "People in and out, telling you their secrets. You must know what's true."
        "The truth can be difficult," she said, graciously.
        "Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty," I muttered.
        The doctor's red-blonde ringlets bobbed ever so slightly as she said, "Come again?" She cupped her ear with dainty white fingers.
        "Heisenberg posits that the very act of looking for the truth changes the truth. You can never really be sure of what you've got, even after you've found it."
        "Maybe it's simpler than that." Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo held her ground. "Maybe it's just time to move on."
        I thought of my apartment, crammed with John's things: his suede jacket, his over-sized jeans, golf clubs, an entire library on Freud, Bowlby and Melanie Klein. My policy was no returns without return. Sometimes I walked around the apartment in his shoes, rolled socks pushed to the toe to make them fit. But Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo couldn't have known that -- and even if she did, what could she make of it? Just an over-stuffed apartment that could have been anybody's home. Anybody.
        "Where would I go?" I said. "I can barely make it out of the apartment as it is. There's a lot involved in leaving, a lot to do."
        "When someone you love betrays you," she said, "the world becomes a dangerous place."
        "Yes," I said.
        "An unknowable place," she said.
        "Yes," I said.
        "And there may be other things, as well," she continued, "things about your personality, things under your control, perhaps even things about your childhood."
        I relaxed into her leather chair. "Well, of course."
        Her eyes lit up, and I imagined what it might be like to kiss her.
        "Anything particular come to mind?" she said.


        When John first told me he was leaving, I quit my job and started hanging out in the emergency room at New York Methodist Hospital on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn.
        "What under Heaven?" my mother wanted to know.
        "I'm thinking of becoming a nurse."
        But in truth I was seeking a better perspective and ended up making a few friends worth mentioning: a one-armed taxi driver, the lover of a lesbian with an infected nose ring, and a young man with a heavy accent who was searching for someone named Jerry they'd somehow misplaced. "He was here yesterday," the admitting nurse said, browsing through the database. The young man seemed encouraged.
        "Jerry's heart is always attacking him," he told me, "but he's never disappeared before."
        In Emergency, all emergencies were treated equally. The wife of a man with a gun-shot wound was allotted the same number of minutes behind a flimsy white curtain as the mother of a daughter who'd attempted to slit her wrists, or the hypochondriac, who usually arrived mid-morning -- a regular like me -- with coffee to share. "Anything good happen yet?"
        We sat unmolested in a row of orange chairs all day, and took turns napping.
        "What's it about?" the hypochondriac finally asked.
        I pointed through the glass at John, who was standing in the street, looking surprised. He'd spotted me on his way home from work quite by accident; I could tell he hadn't really been looking.
        "What are you doing here?" he said, sadly.
        Everyone turned and looked when I indicated a sign on the wall near the automatic doors: Emergency Waiting Only.
        "Waiting," I said.


        I reserved judgment when Dr. Monsalvo stood up abruptly at the end of the session. Following her lead, I walked close behind, trying not to displace the red-blonde curls on her head with my heavy breathing.
        "I'm glad you came to see me," she said sincerely, though I bet she said that to everyone.
        "How much do I owe?"
        "We can discuss that." She inched away. "Same time next week?"
        She was preparing to shake hands when I plopped in a seat near the water cooler. "I need a minute."
        Dr. Monsalvo nodded kindly 末 "Take your time" 末 and turned toward someone sitting near the window in galoshes; I wouldn't have thought to wear them. There hadn't been rain in months. A nervous twitching woman at the far end of the waiting room cleared her throat.
        "It's nice, here," I told her. "I'm coming back.
        The woman glanced briefly at me, then turned her knees away.


        Soon my apartment started whispering John's name: his brand of dental floss stuck to a shower tile, his inky handwriting boxed inside an abandoned crossword puzzle. Sitting down to watch the news, I thought I smelled his cologne coming in through the air vents.
        Over the phone, my mother grew adamant. "Get rid of the bastard."
        "I can't. I feel him like a ghost."
        "An exorcism, then!"
        "Who do I call for that?" I asked. "A priest?"
        "The Salvation Army," she said, coughing with another nasty cold.
        "Are you okay, Mrs. Robinson?" I asked tenderly. Despite my own problems, I worried about my mother.
        Her answer came quickly. "Depends who you ask."
        That's when it dawned on me that Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo was a genius; her subtle cure already taking hold. All at once, I was cleaning out the cupboards (John's cereal, his wheat grass, his ginseng tea), tying up his clothes in bundles and packing them into garbage bags (golf shirts, running pants, neckties in every pattern and color). I even lined his shoes neatly along the walls, until it seemed as if a dozen husbands were standing impatiently outside the bedroom door.
        The minute I called to have his stuff hauled away, I panicked and hit redial.
        "Listen, I know time marches forward, " I told the Salvation Army, " but what if it goes too fast?"
        "You've got the wrong number, lady," the receptionist said, and hung up. Maybe he was right. I didn't call back.
        When the movers arrived, I had to resist an urge to hide in the hall closet, to fake my own absence, because who would believe that? If not here, where would I be? So, I let them in to take John's things -- everything, except the black-and-white TV and an old futon. Progress, I could already tell, was being made.
        Then it was time to put Dr. Sylvia Monsalvo's medical expertise to good use. I called my mother, but it rang and rang. I decided to start with something small, a solo trip out on the town: a movie at the local theater. Counting from my apartment to the lobby, I made it all the way to the 68th step before I even considered turning back.
        It was 7:33. Still early.
        The movie started at 8:00. I knew; I'd consulted the listing, written it down, called to corroborate. Standing by the mailboxes, I tried to decide: Go or go back? Apartments like mine were always bursting into flames: I'd seen it on the news, people tumbling out to the streets, arms filled with possessions and pets. What would I say to the neighbors? The police? Fire-fighters standing in sooty array?
        At that point, anything I'd done differently might have changed my fate.
        The apartment was secure -- dry, cool, tight as a drum -- although it may have been the act of checking, the chilly air rushing in behind me, that stopped an electrical fire. Heisenberg, after all, might have been more than just a flash in the pan.
        Here's what happened: Rounding the corner at precisely 7:42, and not a merciful second sooner, I smacked into John. A matter of timing. The middle of Brooklyn. He was doing what he does; he was leaving, exiting the charming Italian restaurant where he and I used to order the pasta special 末 spaghetti carbonara. This time, though, he was with her. She was tiny, clad in fur. She stiffened against the chilly wind, intent on keeping that animal's pelt around her shoulders. Her hair was red; it was flaming. Her hands were white, flailing.
        Of course he was with her. If he hadn't been with her, he'd still be with me. What did I expect? I tried to keep my stride. I was late for the film. Let me be clear: I was not the one to propose a conversation. He flagged me down like a taxi cab.
        "This is Sylvia," said John. "Sylvia, my girlfriend. I think you should meet her. I think it's time."
        As a moon rose over the brownstones of Brooklyn, her tiny jaw dropped every so slightly.
        "Dr. Monsalvo," I said, respectfully.
        She pressed her eyes into mine, then looked at John, then back at me. She stammered, tucking a sprig of strange red-blonde hair behind her ear, slow with a dawning realization.
        "You knew?" she said, accusingly.
        John looked confused.
        I couldn't explain.
        "You, you." She pointed a finger. "You knew."
        My answer was a quiet one: "There are other interpretations."
        Her face grew stormy, as she gathered her thoughts and finally expulsed them all in a rush of air from her pouting lips. "The reason he's still calling is to keep you from going over the edge."
        "The edge?" I asked John. "Is that a technical term?"
        John stood perfectly still, stoop-shouldered in his effort to discern the exact topic of conversation. He looked at me sadly. "I'm sorry to hear about your mother."
        "What's that?" I wanted to know, panic rising. "Some kind of Freudian insult?"
        Just then, Sylvia Monsalvo stepped in. "Do you know what you've put him through?"
        "Him?" I asked. "Aren't you supposed to be worried about me?"
        "When you changed the locks on your apartment," she said, "he had to buy a whole 'nother wardrobe."
        There was no use arguing. "'Nother," I informed John, "is not really a word."
        "You need help," she held my gaze. "You need serious help."
        "I'm getting help," I said. "I'm seeing you."
        "Insane," she said after a long pause, but it was too late for a diagnosis.
        John blushed, scraping his shoes, and sheepishly tugged at his new girlfriend's sleeve, to pull her away. Immediately, she clutched his elbow, as if to steady them both. Standing on the sidewalk together in Brooklyn, together in the flesh, they looked kind of nice -- attractive and comfortable -- I hadn't expected that.
        "We won't keep you," John said, and I knew it was true.
        I reached the theater without a moment to spare. The board behind the glass booth said everything I needed to know about the world.
        The movie had started at 7:45.




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