Photo Art by Michael Dooley
Thou shalt not judge. It is a precept we therapists embrace quite seriously. All of our clients cannot present with the ground-breaking potential of Freud's Little Hans, or Breuer's Anna O., or Eve and her multiple faces. Most have quite ordinary lives and the predictable concerns: meddling parents, tyrannical bosses, troublesome cars, spouses with waning sex drives. Who but the most erudite snob would dismiss these vexations as irrelevant or boring? Not me, I'd like to declare, but the client who most seriously pushed me in that direction was my Friday four o'clock, Chip P.
He didn't look or act like a Chip. He should have been named Mortimer, or Bartholomew, or anything else to suggest someone of nerdy self-importance and intensity, whose idea of a deep conversation was wondering what would happen if the moon fell on his head. He actually brought this up one day, not quite in those terms, but in that particular way of his, which was to propose something one might have mused about in high school, and present it in intellectually-laced tones somewhere between thoughtful and over-caffeinated. Exact quote: "Have you ever wondered what would happen if the moon lost its angular momentum? Questions like that just come to me. The visuals would be incredible. Depending on where you were standing, the disk would just get bigger and bigger, until finally it broke apart and annihilated Earth."
"What would it mean to you if that happened?" It was all I could come up with, but at least the topic was a break from his usual fare, his repetitive, albeit valid, ruminations about work: his boss, the long hours, unreasonable deadlines, the asshole in the next cube, exorbitant parking fees. From a purely worker's perspective, I was right there with him. But were these the existential quandaries for which I endured four years of graduate training, struggled through Civilization and its Discontents and Jung's overreaction to a scarab?
But then one Friday, everything changed. He walked into my office, took his regular position in the parabolic chair, and calmly announced, "I'm in love."
It was a woman he had met on a singles hike, who taught high school in North Berkeley. After they had fallen in step for a while, he apparently proffered one of his specials: "Have you ever really thought about rain?" Evidently, she had. She revealed that sometimes during a storm she would get in her Subaru and watch the fast-falling drops splash on the sunroof. The two of them stuck together for the rest of the hike, and by the end of it were joining voices in that old Credence Clearwater song, which paraphrased Chip's original question.
"We ended up at her apartment. We didn't make love, but we talked so long, when I finally looked up at her clock it said 11:30. But you know what? It was really about 10:00. She has this chronic issue with lateness, so it's set about an hour and a half fast."
It was those final words that loosed a vibration in my chest like the crescendo of a thousand kazoos.
A minute later he said her name, "Minna H."
I knew it before he said it. For an ill-fated six months, Minna had been the love of my life, a beam of hope after the rigors of my second divorce. She was the long-sought sylph who got my jokes, egged me on through stories about things that happened when I was eight, listened with a buddha's silence, and whose eyes could shine like backlit sapphire when making love in her ultra-soft bed. It was intense but short-lived, finally flaming out about two and a half years before Chip's revelation, and no, I was not yet over it.
From that point forward, I had two obligations: 1. A frank self-inventory as to whether I could dispassionately continue to treat him. 2. Inform my client of the conflict. He had a right to know, and once he did, he understandably might not want to continue.
A better version of myself might have discharged both those responsibilities immediately. But the unvarnished truth—I was already ruing how it might play to a future ethics hearing—was that before shutting things down, I wanted to learn a little bit more.
Had they made love: Yes, it was on the third day after they met. He even revealed the method of contraception.
What she was like: She loved teaching, loved the kids, had an incredible sense of humor and suggested to him that he was one of the few who really got it.
I pushed for more, but eventually he veered off and was back to his boss and the asshole in the neighboring cube. At some point, I realized we were five minutes over his scheduled time, so now was the moment to tell him. It was the moment I had to tell him. Tick. Tick. Tick. But who on this earth, with its stable moon, has not experienced a moment when they just could not bring themselves to act? And as his footsteps receded down the hall, I was once again weighing testimony to that ethics hearing looming in the future. The defense I came up with was "I froze."
My dinner that night was chicken wings and a Bloody Mary, well actually two, at the Blaise Pascal bar on Shattuck in Berkeley. The clientele was mostly male with a scattering of women, one of whom was a long-haired Filipina wearing John Lennon glasses and tight khakis, who struck me as being within reach of my dating market value, but this was not the night. The thing about jarring coincidences—perhaps I should not have bad-mouthed Jung—is they put one in a state of expecting more. So I sat there a worried man, half-expecting a succession of current clients to come traipsing in to observe me, Bloody Mary-fuzzed, lips smeared with chicken wings glaze, scrunched in the disinherited posture of someone who had arrived by boxcar.
It was in a bar such as this where I had first met Minna, some five years back. I was new to therapy, my most recent employment before grad school being a seven-year stint as a cab driver. Minna had actually been the first to start talking, asking about the paperback copy of Naked Lunch at my elbow. She had wide awake blue eyes, long brown hair, and front teeth that seemed recently whitened. The book had been lying there when I arrived, which I explained, though I was familiar enough with its contents to say something like, "I understand it's quite psycho." It was my use of the word psycho which segued into the identity of my profession, which produced the smiled "wow" I usually get upon such revelations. Minna, however, seemed far more interested in the cab-driving portion of my resume, which she deemed as somehow heroic: iconoclastic young man, off the grid, clearly smart, throwing cultural norms and career status out the window. So naturally I rolled with that, even if the absolute truth was that most of those years had transpired during the span of my two failed marriages, when I was not in shape to apply myself to anything.
Up to this point, I had not detected anything special about her, but then we got into a vein of conversation which I would wager had never transpired between any two beings on earth. It concerned an old Bobby Lane song, "Last Dime." It was the story of a teenager who had lost the phone number of his new romantic interest and was reduced to pathetically throwing coins into a payphone, calling every Thomas in the book. The line we teamed up to deconstruct went: "Thomas, Thomas flies past me, page twenty to thirty-three."
Me: Why couldn't he narrow the search by her first name?
Minna: Maybe she still lived with her parents.
Me: But how big would a town have to be to have 14 pages of Thomases?
Minna: And if it did have 14 pages, would the first one occur on page twenty?
Me: Maybe it was one of those goldrush towns where everything was owned by a single family.
Minna: Or maybe the town just had a weird ethnicity.
We milked this for several more minutes, and it got funnier and funnier as we polished off our drinks.
A half hour later I was walking her home. She lived in a two story stucco building on Woolsey Street in Berkeley. When she invited me up, the therapist in me worried about "boundary issues," but the cab driver said, "never pass up a fare."
The apartment was a bit messy, pillows strewn randomly, and clothing draped over most every chair. The prints on the wall were of that modern variety I never related to: triangles tipping at various angles—so what?—rectangles colliding and blending colors at the point of overlap.
When she served us both tea, instead of an extension of what we had imbibed at the bar, it assuaged my worries that she was a boundary case, despite my knowledge that the linkage was entirely illogical. It was I who first violated that adage from dating 101: never dump on your exes. In this case, the victim was wife two, her rigid dictates about handling the recycling—shame on me—though I did manage to quickly stop myself. Nonetheless, this might have been what opened the gates for Minna to expound upon the flaws of her own ex, Leon. He was a something-or-other in microbiology, apparently brilliant, but Minna's main complaint was he was emotionally unreachable. "The closest he ever came to opening up was to share his excitement over an article in Science News. The man couldn't tell you what he was feeling if his ears burst into flames. But I was still hung up on him. I loved his feet. Sometimes I would sit there rubbing his arches while he dropped a hand on my neck, and I'd feel, well, this safety. I was ignoring my inner knowledge that he was never really committed. But it hurt. And do you know why the asshat finally dumped me? It was during a period when I was getting frequent migraines that were constantly scuttling our plans. He couldn't deal with it. I asked, 'Isn't this something we can work through?' He pretty much told me, 'No, you get headaches, jerk.'"
On the word jerk her lip trembled, and I used it as an excuse to clasp her hand, which I had been wanting to do for the past several minutes. To my relief, she tightened her grip and a minute later, I was stroking her arm.
"Would you like to spend the night, Connor?" she asked a half hour later. The clock on her wall said 11:45, which of course it wasn't.
By Chip's next visit, I had spent considerable time obsessing over my lead into the delicate matter of our shared romantic history. Several phrases had been tried and rejected, but so far I had not come up with anything better than, "Listen, Chip, there is something we need to discuss."
He arrived promptly as usual, but before taking his seat, he started to speak, somewhat agitatedly, about the fact that he had accidentally bumped another car while parking. "I got out and looked for damage. There was one little scratch—micro—I mean you'd probably have to be looking for it, so I decided not to leave a note. But now I'm thinking I should have."
"Listen, Chip, there's something we—"
"Actually, Doc,"—I hated it when he called me Doc—"I didn't come today to talk about parking. There's something else, kind of critical—about Minna."
"I think she's seeing other people."
"What makes you think that?"
"Hell, think it? I know it."
There was something about his emphatic head bob on know it that didn't make him look too smart. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and say, "Please never do that on a date!" It also made me feel sad for him, even protective—he just didn't seem deep enough for Minna. Thou shalt not judge. Thou shalt not judge. But what I asked him next did not come from judgment but a greedy, unfettered appetite to know more.
"Why do you say you know it?"
He took on a thoughtful look, as if waiting for the evidence to assemble. "I was over at her place watching television. She got up to go to the bathroom, and I noticed this paper poking out from under a chair. It was this local, lefty thing, turned to the relationship pages. I knew I shouldn't, but I started to take a look. She had two ads circled. Two of 'em. One guy called himself 'Chopin Lover.' The other described himself as 'just as comfortable in blue jeans as a three piece suit.'" He poked a finger into his mouth in the universal gesture of vomiting.
"How long have you been seeing her?"
I made a face—you can do a lot in therapy with faces—which was intended to dramatize the absurdity of expecting that someone would cut off all other possibilities in their life after two weeks. But at the same moment I was making this face, I was also reliving my first spat with Minna. I had been in the bathroom, finishing some last-minute flossing and preparing to rejoin her on the bed where she had last been seen injecting her contraceptive cream.
There was a small table across from the toilet, and on top of it I noticed a day-old section from the Chronicle, a piece of unopened mail, and a copy of Science News. Naturally, it was the Science News that immediately drew my attention. The label was addressed to a Leon Cleaver, in Livermore. Since the post office no longer included dated postmarks on printed material, the only clue as to when the magazine had arrived was the date on the magazine itself. It was a date in the future, which made it the current issue, still ahead of the pull date. So, was she still seeing this guy? The question blew through me like a rude wind. After one month, I did not feel I had the standing to demand an answer, but I needed to know. Perhaps I could meander toward it in some indirect way that would have the appearance of casual conversation, but threading that needle would breed more pressure than I was prepared to handle. Then I had a brilliant idea. What if I just walked out of the bathroom reading it? Then maybe, with no effort on my part, she might blurt out something like, "Oh, yeah, that was Leon's. He still drops it off." Or, "Oh, yeah, that was Leon's. He just came back for some things. I guess he left it."
I reentered her bedroom in my knee-length bathrobe with the magazine turned to a page I had actually started to read. "Hey, did you know Pluto has these four small moons that nobody ever knew about? One of them rotates so fast that if you stood at the equator, you'd possibly go flying off into space.
Her first words upon spotting the magazine were, "Oh, shit."
"What's 'oh, shit?'"
"Come on, Connor, you carried that out here with a purpose,"
I sat down on the bed, knowing she had me. "Do you still see him?"
"Like it's your business."
"Well... sort of. I mean, I'd like to know."
"Well, some day I'll tell you. Look, he and I are still on good terms. How's that?"
"Good terms? That's all you're going to say?"
For a minute we just looked at each other. Then she added, "You know what. I'm not in the mood."
Neither was I, which more or less negated my reason for being there. I put my clothes back on, trying not to look too pouty about it, but it probably came off that way anyway. Her bedroom clock said 11:50, but doing the clock math it was only 10:35. But when I got back to my car, the clock on the dashboard said it was only 10:12. Apparently, the clock in her bedroom was even further ahead than the one in the kitchen.
"So what do you think, Doc?" asked Chip.
I looked up, realizing he had just asked a question I hadn't listened to. A scan of my recent memory returned nothing.
"If I told you what I thought, what would that mean to you?" Hey, I'm no rookie.
"No, please, let's not do that game. I mean, yes, we'd only been together two weeks, but I thought she was falling into this thing in the same way I was. Those were the signals I was getting. I really was."
I acknowledged what he said, then explored previous episodes of abandonment: his mother losing him in a store, his best friend moving, former romances, good and bad. By the end of it he was getting a little teary, which to a therapist is much like applause. Ah, we got somewhere! Struck some node! It wasn't until he stood from his chair, perhaps responding to some Pavlovian impulse, that I realized we had gone past our time. His eyes were still a little moist, and for a moment, he looked like he was primed to launch into a parting hug—something I had asked him never to do—but instead he simply stood and faced me. "This was really good for me. I'm so appreciative that you drew me out."
I had not forgotten my prepared "Listen, Chip" speech—it was still in my brain, cocked and loaded. But given the immediate circumstances, I just could not bring myself to pull the trigger.
I drove home repeatedly mouthing, dumbfuck, dumbfuck, dumbfuck. I should have told him. Unless he and Minna actually managed to break up before he got home, how long could it be before he happened to mention my name? I imagined my future ethics hearing, now seeming more certain than ever….
Ethics guy: So how long before you told him?
Me: I was going to do it in the next session. I'd been seeing him for years, and was working up to the separation.
Ethics guy: Yes, you've stated that. But it looks like he beat you to it with his complaint.
My dinner that night was four unheated hot dogs, consumed while standing in front of the refrigerator. I washed it down with a 20 oz bottle of Diet Coke, and perhaps it was the caffeine that loosed the adrenaline that dispatched a wave of self-pity. Of course I would lose my license! The universe knew I was not a real therapist. My true calling was cab driver—heart and soul—this whole therapist identity was little more than a self-delusional sham. But this was being taken care of, and soon things would be restored to their natural order. I needed to take my mind elsewhere. I turned on the tube, but after scanning interminable channels, found nothing of interest. I considered masturbating, but who to insert in the fantasy? One of the wives? A girl I remembered from high school? Lady Gaga? When I realized that the face floating up, and drawing upon me most compellingly, was Minna's, I slapped myself in the eyes.
Saturday morning, first thing: I went online and called up the web site of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, more commonly known as CAMFT. The site offered considerable verbiage on the topic of "boundary crossing"—therapists who act in other roles: ministers, professors, financial advisors, and worst of all, lovers, but nothing specific to my situation. They did have a legal hotline—free to members—which would enable me to talk to a lawyer, but the last thing I wanted at this point was to leave a trail.
I ended up calling my former thesis advisor and grad-school mentor, Dr. Philbian Sternweiss, who was still listed on the campus web page. I had only spoken with him once since obtaining my master's, but halfway through explaining who I was, he cut me off with, "Oh, Connor, Connor, of course I remember you. To what do I owe the pleasure?" He had pronounced the last syllable of my name as though it rhymed with "nor," something I did not recall from that previous life, but the overall joviality of his voice—perhaps slightly aged—was the main quality of interest to my nerves.
He listened patiently to my dilemma, but I was not sure what to make of it when his first response was an avuncular, "Heh, heh, heh."
"So, I searched the CAMFT web page," I told him, wanting to show that I had done my homework. "I also searched the Association of Psychological Scientists site as well, but I didn't find much."
"Next time search 'small world boundary crossings.' I've seen it referred to that way in papers, though I doubt what you're talking about has a formal name. Look, stuff happens. Tell me this—can you honestly say that once you learned the identity of your client's, uh, love interest, everything you did from that point was solely with your client's benefit in mind?"
"I tried, but I'm going to be honest here. The woman in question was not a neutral matter for me. I can't say I took in every word with clinical dispassion."
The length of his pause after "I see" had a yawing counterpart in my stomach. But then he added, "Look, you're human. And it's not surprising you didn't find specific references on the CAMFT site. If you schtupp a client, that's pretty clear. But your incident falls into a much vaguer area, and some of that vagueness is intentional. There was a time when ethical infractions were more spelled out, but we've moved away from that because we don't want to reduce all ethical decisions to a hard and fast checklist. Did you do harm? Did you act in an exploitative manner? That's really what it comes down to."
"So that vagueness works to my advantage?"
"Well, yes and no."
"Because harm and exploitation are vague enough terms to be open to many interpretations. Look, I'm not saying you have to worry, but you do need to be aware that, ultimately, anybody can raise a stink over anything. I'll give you an example. A few years ago, in a rural community, a therapist I won't name thought he was giving a break to a chicken farmer client of his who had come upon hard times and could no longer afford his therapy. So Therapist X, we'll call him Dr. Stupid, agrees to continue the therapy in exchange for 500 chickens, which his wife uses to start a small chicken farm of her own. This works out fairly well, until a virus spreads through the region, infecting several strains of chickens, but not Dr. Stupid's, who temporarily looks like Dr. Smart. The value of his chickens goes up. But guess what? The client wants part of the action, as the chickens were now worth more than the agreed upon price. In addition to that, the client now had fewer chickens with which to compete against Dr. Stupid."
"So what happened?"
"The client successfully sued."
As soon as I got off the phone, I thought of calling Chip and being done with it, but I decided to wait past the weekend. With that call tabled, I still felt a need to talk to someone, but who? The only friend I could think of who did not have a tendril in my industry's rumor mill was currently out of the country. Wife one might have been an option, but given some of our issues, I didn't think the subject matter would play well. Had I been treating myself as a client, I might have asked, "Well, Connor, who would you most like to speak with right now?" If the truth be told, and if she didn't happen to have a role in the drama, the most honest answer would have been Minna. Maybe it was just those clocks that led me to believe she had a feel for life on the emotional edge. Or was it our quirky talks, or her unguarded emotionality? Once in bed, for no particular reason, she threw her arms around my neck and whispered, "You can tell me anything," followed by a tongue in my ear. If any revelation came to mind, it seemed wholly unworthy of her gusto, but my penis got the point, and I felt genuinely heartened by her declaration.
It turned out Minna and I did manage a reconciliation after the Science News debacle. Our makeup summit occurred at the Metropol Café on Telegraph, one of the few places open past nine that night. "Look, I'm going to be honest about this," she told me. "About once every three months, Leon and I meet for one of those still-on-good-terms lunches, and that's when he handed me the magazine."
"You don't need to explain."
"No, I do, because you whined and put your clothes back on like a bitch. Anyway, I'm totally over this Leon thing, but as you may have observed, every now and then there's still a rawness that kicks in. I guess that's what happened that night, and it affected my reaction."
"And I was feeling raw about you."
She reached out and squeezed my hand, eyes watering. "We've both been raw, dipshit. I think it's part of our connection."
On Monday morning, I had a light client load, and after fortifying myself with a cup of coffee I called Chip. After six rings, his outgoing message kicked in, and I hung up, deciding this was not best handled by voice mail. In the evening I called again and had the same experience. Tuesday morning was the same. At some point, I decided I owed it to Chip to have this conversation in person, but didn't want to wait until Friday. Idea: I called again and this time left a message stating I had a scheduling conflict on Friday, and could he come Wednesday instead? I waited hopefully for the rest of the week, but the call was never returned.
Friday at 4:00 found me waiting faithfully in my office. When Chip still had not arrived by 4:30, I picked up the phone and punched in his number. This time the phone was answered, but the voice was a woman's, and I immediately knew who it was.
It is a known phenomenon that when hit with an unwelcome blow to one's bearing, individuals will invoke a reflexive denial, attempting to invalidate what they see unfolding. In the current instance, a part of me was constructing a case that perhaps this was not Minna. It was someone else, confusing me with a male named Dick. In the end I still knew better.
"So I guess we still recognize each other's voice."
"What you did was pretty crappy."
"Look, I just—"
"You didn't say anything. Chip told you my name the first session after he and I met, and you never said anything."
"You're right. I owe Chip an apology for that. Can I just—"
"And then you sat through a second session and delved even deeper into his sexual experience with me. Me!"
"This is what therapists do."
"Really? They use their clients to check up on people they've fucked?"
"That wasn't what I was doing. You know that. Can I just talk to Chip?"
"He doesn't want to talk to you."
"I just need a minute."
"He's crushed, Connor. He's crushed, and he wants to file a complaint."
The line went dead. I sat in my swivel chair, my heart still pounding, as I pointlessly gave myself back and forth rides. The moment I got home, I mixed myself a strong gin and tonic.
The weekend was interminable. On the following Monday, I contacted a lawyer—a man named Riley York, whom I was referred to by the CAMFT legal service. His offices were on Webster Street, one of the most aggravating areas to park in all of Oakland. He looked much different than he sounded on the phone: short, sinewy, stringy red hair, the kind of weathered face you might see on one of those seafaring guys in a commercial, explaining why he can't afford to get a sore throat. It was the first appointment in my life that began with the offer of a drink, which turned out to be an apple brandy.
"So your past kind of jumped up and bit you," he said, sitting on the edge of his desk, which made him seem taller than me, since I was seated in a chair.
"It would seem so."
"Let me start by calming you down. No one's threatened to sue you. So far it's only the prospect of a complaint."
"That's correct—so far."
"This ex of yours, is she hot?"
My face must have reflected due shock, as he immediately pleaded for leeway with an upraised palm. "I'm asking this with a purpose. Whether this ends up as an ethics hearing or a lawsuit, everything is going to come down to how pure you were upon first hearing the name of your ex from your client. So, I'll ask you: you're sitting there listening to sexual details about your Melissa—"
"—your Minna, doing it with someone else. To what extent would you say you were absorbing this—not in a clinical way—but in a guy way."
I held up my thumb and forefinger, pinching off an inch of space.
"Okay, since I didn't see that confessional gesture you just made, I'll just go on and inform you about the law. Legally, there is no prescription that would explicitly govern what was required of you once your coincidence came to light. But certain factors could still be pertinent. Pretend for the moment I am Commissioner Bulge Bottom at an ethics hearing. 'Yond Connor—'" He set his voice to a deeper octave, intended to sound slightly comic. "'When you asked your client about sexual activities with your fiancée'"—He winked on the word fiancée—"'was that before or after this coincidence had been exposed?'"
York issued a low whistle and shook his head. "So you understand that you have two potential plaintiffs here?"
"Because when you asked about your client's sex life, you were also asking about the sexual activities of your ex."
"You can't separate the two. Jesus. Would anyone reasonably interpret it that way?"
"Let's just say we're in a certain climate."
"So, I'm fucked."
"No, no, no. I'm just giving you the worst case. You know what? I'm crappy on intake. Let me repeat what I said at the beginning, to which I should have given more emphasis. You don't know they're going to sue you. You don't even know they're going to file a complaint. Yeah, I know they said that, but people blurt out threats all the time. You know how often they actually follow up?" He mimicked my thumb and forefinger display from earlier.
"Okay. But what if they do?"
"Sit tight. Any contact you have with either of them can only make things worse. And for God's sake, don't do any more apologies. You've already tried that. If anything does happen, give me a call."
"Alright." I stood, and he flipped me his card, afterwards asking, "By the way, by any chance do you have Native American blood?"
"Why are you asking me that?"
"I'm just looking for a wrinkle here. If anything did happen, it wouldn't hurt if you were a protected class."
"I would never use that."
He gave me a look that saw straight through me. Inasmuch as I was still a practicing therapist, I have since used that look on clients.
THREE YEARS LATER...
So I sat tight. York was right. The complaint never came, but this does not mean I wasn't constantly feeling its weight. According to the state website, an aggrieved client had seven years to file a complaint, and my mind was constantly tracking the time. I would find myself counting the months at any number of random moments: in the bathtub, during a root canal, while passing the tissue box to a sobbing client.
However, I can unequivocally state it was not at all on my mind that night two weeks ago when I sat at my computer, surfing Amazon, trying to find a charger for my phone. A chime announced the arrival of an incoming Facebook message, which turned out to be a friend invitation from Minna. My breath caught in my throat as something cold and tongue-shaped slurped the boundaries of my solar plexus. From past experience, I was well aware the Facebook algorithm sometimes pumped these invitations into the ethers, often without the sender's knowledge. The safe thing to do—the smart thing—the thing Riley York would undoubtedly have counseled—would be to entirely ignore it. But Riley York didn't know how paranoid I was. Nor had he heard the counter-thesis, which was rapidly assembling in my brain: suppose this contact from Minna had linkage to that moment when she had called me a dick? York had his profession, but I had mine. I knew how people could hold onto resentments for years, nurturing them, coddling them, embellishing them, until finally something in the cycle snapped. And on the chance that Minna did send this invitation, and that it was motivated by the kind of anger that culminated in ethics complaints—ignoring her could only make things worse.
After 12 revisions, I ended up sending her this email:
Today a Facebook friend invite from you arrived in my inbox. I know FB often pumps these things out randomly, so perhaps you didn't intend to send it. In any case, this struck me as the perfect opportunity to say hello.
I hope everything is well.
P.S. I don't really do FB. As you might imagine, for a therapist it could be maddening.
Five minutes later, I got this response.
I did send it. Is there any chance you'd like to meet for coffee?
There's something I'd like to say.
I very much appreciate your offer, and I truly wish I could accept. Given everything that transpired three years ago, well, let's just say the connection remains a little fraught—on both personal and professional levels. I'm sorry I have to pass, but I'm sure you will understand.
I never did send that email. All of the aforementioned paranoias carried the day, though my better judgment remained on alert. I drove to the meeting with Minna having an imaginary conversation with Riley York:
"You realize you could be getting entangled with a nut case."
"I don't believe she's a nut case.
"Good. Now tell me again about her two clocks."
It was me who arrived first at the Metropol Café. Minna walked in five minutes later, wearing tan slacks and a printed top, with a design like floating keyholes. Her hair was now pinned back, a tidier look, though I preferred the waterfall of curls that once hung down to her neckline. Upon spotting me, she immediately smiled, which helped settle my nerves, as this was not the game face of someone primed for a battle.
"So, it's been a while," she said, taking a seat and unhooking her purse from her shoulder. From this distance, the keyholes on her blouse resolved into penguins, all with tiny dots for eyes, and the straight, grim mouthlines of creatures who led tough lives. "You look good. I hope this isn't making you feel weird."
"I've discovered I always feel weird. Could I get you some coffee?"
"How about a glass of wine?"
I left the table and came back with a glass of house white for each of us, even though I was also halfway through a latte. Once I sat, Minna took a sip of wine, then regarded me over the rim of her glass. "I don't know if this reduces the awkwardness, but just to get it out of the way, I'm no longer seeing Chip. I'm back with Leon, another fun fact, which probably cements my reputation with you forever."
I can't say I took that news without a degree of deflation, but it was a relief to have it dispensed with. "Did you return his Science News?" The joke felt risky, but it made her laugh.
"I get them all free now."
"I guess that's a benefit."
"It is. Did you ever see Chip again?"
"I really can't answer that. It's a confidentiality thing."
"Wow. It sounds like you're in the CIA."
"Sorry about that."
"So, Minna, dumb shit, what was it you wanted to tell me?" It took me a second to realize that this was intended as an imitation of myself, hypothetically addressing her. I responded with one of my faces from therapy, which essentially translated as, "Go on."
"Now that I'm sitting here, I realize how nuts it's going to sound. I've carried this for three years. I've really felt bad about that last contact we had. Isn't guilt what you guys traffic in? I mean I was furious at the time, and all that venom came out. I'm sorry it ended that way. And I'm sorry I called you a prick."
"Actually, it was a dick."
We both laughed. Under different circumstances, one of us might have clasped the other's hand.
"Our relationship was whatever it was," said Minna after another sip of wine. "It should have rested in peace. But with that Chip thing popping up, it was as if the universe decided it was the perfect time for a macabre joke. I didn't even see Chip that long... oh, that's right, you can't talk about it."
"That's okay. I'm just grateful he never filed a complaint."
"You can thank me for that."
"What do you mean?"
"I talked him out of it."
"Why on earth would you to that?"
"I don't know. Let's just say I was pretty raw during the time we were together."
"So was I."
"I know. We both were. Doesn't your field have a name for that kind of connection?"
"Raw-sync syndrome." I said authoritatively.
"I'll toast to that bullshit," said Minna, comically raising her glass. "Anyway, I guess that answers your question."