Quarantaintment—Pandemic Diversions for the Homebound

 

FICTION

At a Loss

By Colin Brezicki

 

I sensed that Myra Strickland would be a challenge the moment she sailed into my office. She grasped my hand, announced herself, then swept over to my couch like she’d been here before.

Her outfit—white blouse open at the neck, tailored blue blazer, designer jeans worn tight like a second skin, oxblood ankle boots with stiletto heels—seemed more suited for combat than counseling.

As a grief therapist I’m used to clients looking washed-out and sleep-deprived, and so I try to provide a subdued ambience—recessed lighting, a potted philodendron in one corner and a peace lily in another, an ornamental waterfall to fill the silences.

The energy that swept into the room after her made me a little concerned for my peace lily. I tried to conceal my unease as I sat down opposite this pert, embellished forty-something. Spiky white hair like a cockatoo, hooped earrings and a diamond stud in the side of her nose. A cursive tattoo that began behind her left ear trailed away under her collar.

Her name now seemed oddly familiar to me, though I couldn’t think why.

She had lost her partner, so I thought to begin by asking her about him. But she jumped in before I could.

“I’ve never done anything like this, Dr. Drummond, so I’m a little nervous.”

I nodded. She seemed in complete control of herself.

“We’ll proceed a little step at a time, Ms. Strickland, I assure you.” Her smile already looked assured. “So, what do you think you would like to tell me about yourself and your partner.”

“Ethan. His name is Ethan. Ethan Starr.”

“Yes.”

She seemed to have forgotten his surname for a second. Now she hesitated.

“Can you give me a moment, Doctor?”

“Please. Take all the time you want.”

She stared into space like she was meditating. A good half-minute passed in silence.

“Ms. Strickland?”

“I’m sorry. Even over the trickle of your waterfall thing I can hear the clock ticking. Such a soothing tick. I’m afraid I drifted away.”

“The clock?”

“Your carriage clock. It gets inside your head. Hypnotic, really. Is that why you have it?”

“It was an anniversary gift.”

“Jade? Emerald?”

“Onyx, I believe.”

“I meant which anniversary. How long have you been married?”

“Twenty-two years. But let’s get back to you, shall we? Do you think you can tell me about Ethan?”

“He was my hero,” she said, gazing at the clock again. “Then, over time, he became someone I couldn’t really live with anymore. He resisted me, you see. It’s like he changed—evolved sort of—into someone I didn’t know.”

She seemed to be holding an abstract of her deceased partner at arm’s length and examining the meaning of it all—Hamlet with Yorick’s skull.

“Did he think you were trying to control him?”

I try to remain objective with my clients but I found myself beginning to sympathize with the dearly departed.

She looked at me. “Can I ask you why you say ‘do you think’ and ‘did he think’ all the time?”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware.”

“I noticed right away. I pay attention to the words people use, you see. So why do you do it—do you think?”

“Habit, I suppose. I like to invite my clients to speak without pressuring them.”

“No big deal. It’s just a little distracting.”

“I’ll try and watch that, then. Please, you were telling me about Ethan.”

“So, to your question, did Ethan think I was trying to control him. I don’t doubt it. And to be honest I sometimes feel a little guilty about not giving him more space. But he was so bloody-minded. Occasionally, I had to leave the room in the middle of an argument so I didn’t murder him. The thing was, he never admitted his co-dependency. Now it’s too late. For both of us.”

“You think he was co-dependent?” She mentioned the term like she fully understood the condition.

“He had the symptoms.”

“Which ones?”

“All of them. Anger. Denial. Obsession. Control. Sexual repression—with me anyway—no communication or trust or personal boundaries. You name it, he had it.”

“Did you argue a lot?”

“All the time. He’d even invent issues just so he could take the opposite side. Ethan was good at that—he taught politics at university, you see, and figured he knew everything. You could never tell him what to think. He was a rebel back in his own student days as well. Always bucking authority and leading protests. Green Peace. Afghanistan. Iraq invasion. You get the picture. He was arrested twice—public mischief, damage to property, that kind of thing. He’s an intellectual too, you know—a doctorate from Harvard, the whole enchilada—his students think he’s God, and his colleagues give him a wide berth. The university admin don’t like him, but if they were ever to dismiss him his students would riot.”

She spoke of him now in the present tense, not unusual for people struggling with loss. I returned Ethan to the past.

“What attracted you to him, do you think—sorry—what drew you to him when you first met?”

“He was a force. Dangerous but exciting—like Heathcliff I used to think, and, yes, sometimes I felt I was Catherine, attracted to him and repelled at the same time. Is that crazy or what? But his students and his politics mean more to him than I do. It’s like I don’t exist.”

She fixed her cold blue eyes on me.

“He had affairs, you know. After he started shutting me out. Oh sure, he denied his fling with the grad student, but I knew. I could imagine every sordid detail. The nights he came back smelling of sex and cologne. The text messages on his phone. I checked her out of course. Samantha something, I can’t remember now. Brunette and slim, gorgeous—I mean, who isn’t these days.”

“You met her?”

“Saw her. I started tracking his movements.”

“And he had others, you say?”

“Ethan gave off charm and libido. When I first met him I could get off just imagining being with him. Yes, he had others.”

I resisted asking what their own sex life was like. It seemed as complex as everything else. She was describing a deeply enigmatic relationship. Even now, the way she spoke of him like he was still alive, yet accepting of his death. So why was she here? She gestured the whole time she talked, her hands signaling like semaphores, eyes scanning the room as if tracking Ethan’s ghost.

I felt she was holding something back, and so I invited her to talk about how he died. I expected some sort of dramatic encounter—a jealous lover perhaps, or a vengeful husband. But it wasn’t like that at all.

She eyed me warily as she spoke.

“One afternoon as Ethan was crossing the street on his way to meet a colleague for lunch—or maybe another young bombshell for a roll in the hay, not that it really matters now—he was run over by a Number Ten bus and died at the scene.”

“When was this?”

What on earth difference did the bus number make, or her uncertainty about whom he was on his way to meet when it ran over him?

“It happened yesterday.” She looked at me like she’d just delivered a punch line and was curious to see if I’d got it.

I had. Finally. And I realized now why her name was familiar. Mid-range on the best-seller lists—though not for some time now.

“The driver wasn’t charged because Ethan was texting when he stepped off the curb. Totally in character, he died as he lived, consumed by whatever he was doing at the time. Writing. Teaching. Texting a colleague—or a lover.”

“Larger than life, in other words.”

“Your words.”

“What about yours?”

“They were all my words.” Her voice softened. “Ethan was mine, too.”

“Until he wasn’t anymore.”

“Yes.”

“So you did what you had to.”

“You can’t let them take over. I mean, you want a challenge, sure. But once he assumed control I couldn’t keep him. It would never have worked after that.”

“So you threw him under a bus.”

“What choice did I have?”

“And now?”

“It’s all dead. Gone belly up.” Her voice wavered. “I should have anticipated that. The others are zombies without Ethan, and I’ve lost the plot. Literally, I mean. This has never happened to me before.”

She gazed at me, her eyes misting.

“I have to let it all go and I don’t know how. So I need you to show me the way.”

We’re adapting to our unusual challenges, Ms. Strickland and I—she to a failed work of fiction, and I to a client grieving for the death of someone who never existed.

At least now we’re on the same page.