I told my therapist that the reason I was going crazy was because of how many stories I read everyday that consisted mostly of conversations between a first-person narrator and his unnamed therapist.
I explained that the character is always named Frank or Bill and he has a tragically ordinary life. Frank or Bill probably smashes a plate, or drowns a rabbit on purpose, or is haunted by his wife’s miscarriage which is actually somehow his fault because he was screwing his secretary while simultaneously thinking about screwing his younger sister. The therapist always says something vaguely unhelpful and then bills him for the hour. Frank or Bill is annoyed and returns to watching Brewers games while fantasizing about his secretary and drinking beer or possibly whiskey and making cryptic observations about sunflower seeds or maybe his wife’s tomato plant, which is wilting. He might go for a drive later and make even more cryptic observations about people he passes. He might talk to someone in a bar, but more likely he will sit alone and describe the grainy wood on the barstools in a fairly creative way. He will then go see his therapist again.
It’s a cheap trick, I told my therapist. It’s just a way of showing exactly how neurotic Frank or Bill is, and how he’s a different kind of neurotic than every other character featured in the short stories that end up in the slush pile at The Review but how he’s at the same time very ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that the reader ought to sympathize with him despite his neurosis, and scorn the therapist’s advice. Inserting the therapist creates what seem like moments of conflict and tension into a story about some guy’s wife’s miscarriage. Then the author doesn’t need to create any real conflict or tension and he can just write about Frank or Bill’s ordinary and neurotic thoughts, and his ordinary and neurotic routine, which are probably actually the author’s own ordinary and neurotic thoughts and routine.
My therapist looked at me blankly. She asked me if there was any significance to this Frank or Bill character, and if perhaps he had something to do with my brother. I said no, and she billed me for an hour.
My brother is dead. His name was not Frank or Bill.
I went home and read T.S. Eliot for a half hour and then felt like a good person because I’d been reading T.S. Eliot for a whole half hour, though I hadn’t really been reading it so much as skimming it and thinking about if I should pick up my dry-cleaning or wait and get it later.
Then he said something about mornings and evenings and afternoons, and then there was this line:
“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”
I stopped reading there because something tugged in my stomach. I spent the evening imagining the line. What it would be like to lay coffee spoons down, in a long trail stretching right from the couch in front of my TV back, back, back to a beach in New Hampshire where we stood in November and the freezing ocean in after-the-rain light, and then back even further to a cornfield with tissue-paper husks and a treehouse with cigarettes stuck in the floorboards and an open roof that we insisted upon. I imagined walking along that glistening trail of spoons that would perhaps be crusty with brown-stained sugar, which would be okay. I wondered how many spoons it would take, to go back that far. Twenty years, forty years—how many spoons?
I went and picked up my dry cleaning then.
I told my therapist two days later that the other cheap trick in the stories I read is when the author pulls in some small portion of a famous author and tries to make it relevant to Frank or Bill. Look, Frank or Bill read Nabokov and it explains something very important about his neurosis!
I then told my therapist I’d been reading T.S. Eliot, mostly to impress her. I told her about the coffee spoons line, and how I liked to picture it. She seemed not that impressed by the T.S. Eliot thing but pretty interested in my description. She wanted to hear more things that I wanted to walk back to, besides the beach and the cornfield and the treehouse, so I told her that I would lay spoons around the perimeter of that lake we used to drive around late nights when we first got back to Iowa from Vietnam and neither of us could sleep.
She said that this was very interesting, and she could tell a lot of things from my descriptions. Like what, I wanted to know. She said it was important that I told all of my memories from the “we” perspective, without ever mentioning who I was with. I told her that the name for the “we” perspective is the first person plural. She looked at me with raised eyebrows and said yes, but who makes it plural? Your brother?
I ignored her and told her I needed to leave early, because I had plans. She raised her eyebrows and billed me for an hour anyways.
I went home and I thought about reading more T.S. Eliot, but I didn’t have the energy so I turned on the news. Watching the news also makes me feel like a good person, but not quite as much as reading T.S. Eliot. The news said: BUSH TO ADDRESS NATION TOMORROW in big red letters. Then it said: CASUALTY COUNT HIGHER THAN REPORTED IN AFGHANISTAN and there were pictures of helicopters and fire in the desert. I started to feel dizzy so I reached for the remote. I had forgotten why I never watch the news.
I was at work on a Wednesday and the other three readers and I were drinking coffee and reading, like every day. I like the other readers, who are all much younger and smarter than me. Addie especially, who must be still in college, or barely graduated. I think she went (goes?) to Michigan because I don’t know why else she would be reading unsolicited submissions at a literary magazine near Ann Arbor for very little money. She seems like she’s been other places, or else she’s just beautiful which I confuse with worldly. I would like to take her on a date if she were not something like thirty-five years younger. I probably would anyway, if I weren’t afraid to ask, and if she’d say yes, which I doubt.
I was in the middle of a vampire story, which was getting very gruesome very fast. It was not the sort of thing that gets published in The Review, so I was doodling in the corners with my red pen while I read and didn’t absorb. Addie asked me what I was drawing. I showed her my picture, which was a coffee spoon. It just looked like a regular spoon, though, so I had to explain. I’ve been reading T.S. Eliot, I told her. There’s that line about coffee spoons.
She said, “Mmm, I know that line. What is it? I have known them all already, known them all, have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons. I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” She smiled.
I thought about her naked and then I was embarrassed so I started talking a little too much about how I wanted to line up the spoons in a long row and then I stopped because my rambling embarrassed me even more.
She smiled, and said, “That’s funny, that’s so interesting, that’s not how I picture the line. I like to think about dipping a coffee spoon into a pool that is kind of my life and measuring it out in big spoonfuls.”
Colin, another reader, who I also like except for the fact that he is in love with Addie, said, “Addie, you have such a vivid imagination.”
He is not handsome, I don’t think, but he is young.
She laughed quietly, and said, “Oh, no I don’t, it’s Eliot who has the imagination, I just like to read.”
And I could tell Colin was thinking about her naked too, so I went back to reading about Esmerelda sinking her teeth into Jorge, who screamed silently, while they talked a little bit.
I told my therapist during our next session that another stupid thing in most of the stories I read is how Frank or Bill is always thinking about sex. Like, he’ll see a fifteen year old girl in a gas station and think about her naked and then spend a while feeling bad about it. Or else he won’t feel bad about it at all, and he’ll figure out some way to get her to go home with him. Those are the stupider stories, because you’re basically just reading the author’s sexual fantasies which are never very imaginative and often gross. The girl is always younger and the sex is always unfulfilling because Frank or Bill is neurotic and guilty and hates his ordinary life, but he still thinks about it all the time or does it all the time because that’s just how he is.
My therapist was not as embarrassed by this as I thought she would be. She asked me if I thought sex was unfulfilling. I said I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t having any. But you’ve been thinking about it, clearly, she said, as though she knew. I was annoyed that she knew, so I said no, I’ve been reading about it a lot. The weird part was that all of a sudden I started thinking about having sex with her. I hadn’t noticed before that she was attractive, but she had these big eyes that were kind of blue and kind of green and I thought about her naked.
So she couldn’t tell, I told her that my sister was coming over for dinner.
She smiled, and said that’s good, that’s good, are you looking forward to it?
I wasn’t, but I told her I was, and then I thought maybe I should ask her to dinner with us. Then I thought that would be inappropriate, and so I asked if she was doing anything for dinner. I think it came out a little weird, because we’d just been talking about sex.
She said, no, I don’t have any plans, I’ll probably make myself some food. Nothing fancy.
I wanted to ask her if she lived alone but I thought maybe that wasn’t a normal question so I didn’t. I had this sudden memory of looking into a window when I was a kid. This woman’s back turned away from me as she sliced cucumbers—tomatoes? Thin arms and a bony back, hair pulled up. I couldn’t remember who the woman was, or where, but it made me think of the therapist making nothing fancy for dinner. I didn’t tell her.
Margaret was already there when I got home. Hi, we said to each other, and then she said she brought dinner. “Have you been eating okay? I really wish you would call me more,” she said while she started taking things out of her bag.
“Okay,” I said.
It’s Margaret’s fault about the therapist. Last time she came over, she said that I was emotionally scarred, and that, God, it’s been five years and what am I doing with myself and that even Mom and Dad have dealt with this, why can’t you? She said a lot of other things, because I made her cry when I said her boyfriend probably wasn’t calling because he didn’t love her. She said I should get a job, which I have, but she said she meant a real job, because I was smart and I had almost finished Princeton before I didn’t on account of the war, but that still counted for something. And how my life was a mess because I couldn’t let go and it was terribly sad, she knew it was terribly sad, that loss was an awful thing but we’d all lost someone and God, I should see a fucking therapist because I needed to get it together and stop taking it out on her.
I just kind of stood there and said, yeah, I’ll see a therapist. Okay, Margaret. I should have felt a lot worse than I did. I was mostly just annoyed about the whole thing.
“How’s the therapy going?” she asked, after only a minute in the kitchen.
“I like her,” I said. This was half a lie and half true, but Margaret is not good at telling those things apart. Sometimes that’s a good thing.
“I’m so glad,” she said. “Are you looking for a job yet? You know, I could help.”
Margaret is not a teacher but a professor at Michigan, like both my parents who used to be farmers but who are now also professors because they co-wrote a surprisingly successful book about small-town farming, which was really what they knew about and academics took it as interesting social commentary.
“Oh,” I said, “thanks, but I’m just going to see what comes along. I like where I work.”
“You barely get paid,” she said, peeling potatoes over the sink. The skin wrinkling off of them made me queasy, so I tried not to watch.
The only thing that I have trouble affording is my therapist, I almost said, but didn’t.
“I’ll think about it some more,” I said instead, and thought about it. I liked my job.
“What’s for dinner,” I asked. I was hungry and I wanted her to stop peeling potatoes because even the sound of the knife skimming the potato made me feel sick.
“Chicken and mashed potatoes,” she said.
I sighed and she looked up at me, so I smiled a fake smile. She smiled back.
After Margaret left, this time not in tears, I thought about Addie’s interpretation of the coffee spoons line. She was probably right that this was how Eliot meant it. I thought about my life this way, as kind of a pool. I pictured dragging a very large coffee spoon through it, fishing the important things out from the soup of days.
I would draw up spoonfuls of sunlight in the fields and games of hide-and-seek, the two of us pressing ourselves giggling into shadows and our knees webs of scratches. And the first beers we stole and itchy pants from Sunday church. I would fish for long stretches of highway, for trees screeching in the wind that have probably been cut down by now, for the fights we had about Dickens, the leaves back East, and Annabelle, who we were both in love with. I would sift through nights in rice patties that were no more than swamps and the smell of flesh burning which I remember us agreeing was not unpleasant until we learned what it was. I would measure those spoonfuls carefully so that they didn’t overflow. I wouldn’t spill a drop.
But the problem with this interpretation is that there are things I wouldn’t want to see, if I caught them on the edge of a coffee spoon. Especially things in the years after we came back. I would like to leave those behind in the kind of pool that is my life.
So I decided that even though Addie definitely understood T.S. Eliot much better than I did, I would keep thinking about the spoons in a kind of path that winds backwards in time, stopping in some places and skirting around the others that I hope I’ll never see again.
I told my therapist during our next session that another of my least favorite writing tricks was avoidance. And by avoidance I mean when you read a whole story, and there’s something terrible that has happened to Frank or Bill, like his wife’s miscarriage, but you don’t ever find out what it is, or you kind of have to guess based on some clues. Here’s a hint: there is a pink room upstairs where Frank or Bill and his wife will not go. What could it have been—a nursery? But the author won’t say that, and instead goes and explains more about Frank or Bill’s daily life. Maybe how he wants to have sex again, even though last time it made him feel bad.
She looked me in the eye when I said this, in a hard way. I was still having the problem of thinking about her naked. You are a master of avoidance, she said. You haven’t told me one thing about yourself since we’ve started these sessions.
That’s not avoidance, I said.
Yes, she said, it is. You aren’t dealing with your brother’s death. You’re avoiding it.
You sound like my sister, I said, which wasn’t what I meant. She didn’t sound like my sister but she was saying things my sister would say and that was unpleasant.
You avoid her too, she said.
She was right about that, which is too bad.
I don’t know what to say, I said, because I really didn’t know what to say.
Anything, she said, looking at me hard still.
So I started talking about lining up coffee spoons again, and the path I would make. I could tell that wasn’t what she wanted me to say, but she didn’t tell me that, so I kept talking about the old places I would visit and not talking about the old places I wouldn’t.
After a while she said, you know I can’t help you very much if you won’t tell me anything, and I nodded. I felt a little bad because I knew she was trying and I wasn’t trying, and also because she was pretty and maybe lonely. Actually, I wasn’t sure if she was lonely at all but it kind of seemed like it. I noticed when I was leaving that she didn’t have a wedding ring even though she was past what seemed like marrying age.
The thing is my brother hung himself in my garage five years ago after we got in a fight about sending troops to Iraq. I said it was pointless and a waste of lives, and he said it was necessary and a lot of other bullshit about America. This was an argument we had had many times. He stormed out. I didn’t hear him drive off so after awhile I went outside to see if he was still there.
And he was there, except he was hanging from the rafters, kind of swinging from his belt. I didn’t understand what was happening at first because I’d seen a lot of bodies but never a swinging body. Something about the way it was suspended was kind of comical. I started thinking about those things at kids’ birthday parties that you hit with a baseball bat and trying to remember the word for them when I thought, that’s my brother. I realized I should try to get him down.
He was already dead. That’s the thing that I’m avoiding.
At work on Thursday I read a beautiful story, which almost never happens. It’s so surprising that I doubted it at first, waiting for it to become silly or sad. But it stayed beautiful all the way through.
It was about two little girls who are running around in a field. It didn’t say where the field was, but I assumed it was a Midwestern field, which is perhaps my own prejudice. Anyways, they are running through the field, which is filled with wheat and they are looking for something. It didn’t say what it was at first, and I got worried because I thought the author might be trying to avoid saying it and ruin the story, but then you find out they are looking for their dead mother, who is buried in the field. Only the girls are so young that they think it is simply a game of hide-and-seek, so they are laughing and running and their father is watching but he doesn’t know what to do. They get tired of it after a while and they come inside, where their father is crying silently over the sink because he doesn’t know how to make dinner since their mother always did that. The girls go back outside and I was worried they would find their mother’s grave and it would become too tragic to be beautiful, but instead they bring back peaches to their father. Here, one of the girls says, look Daddy. Look what I found.
And that’s the end. I showed Addie when she came back from her lunch break. I told her it was the best thing I’d read in a while, besides T.S. Eliot.
I watched her face get soft and sad when she was reading the story, and I knew she knew what I meant. “This is stunning,” she said, after a minute. “It’s like a coffee spoon full of this family’s sorrow.”
That made my stomach jump because it meant that she’d been thinking about coffee spoons also, possibly even at the same time as I had been thinking about coffee spoons.
And then she got up to use the bathroom.
Colin asked if he could read it, and I said sure, even though I wanted it to belong to me and Addie. I passed him the manuscript, which Addie had left on her chair.
“God,” he said after a minute.
“It’s incredible,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “but Addie. Her mother died when she was young.”
“Oh,” I said. I wondered how he knew that and what else he knew about her. “I hope she’s okay,” I added, because I wasn’t sure what else to say.
Alexandra, the third reader, who is quiet and not pretty but nice, asked if she could read it. I handed it to her.
“The end is perfect,” she said, after reading it. “We should pass this on to the editors.”
Colin agreed and I nodded, though it had lost some of its beauty already after they had read it, and all I was really thinking about was Addie whose mother died when she was young and how very little I knew about her compared to Colin and probably so many other people.
When she came back her eyes were a little red, which Colin and Alexandra and I pretended not to notice. She agreed that we should pass it on. I felt like talking to her a little, so I asked her what her favorite line from Eliot was. After I did, I felt like that was a stupid question, but I couldn’t take it back.
She seemed okay with the question. “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” she said. She went back to reading.
Later, I was in the parking lot about to drive home, or drive to the grocery store because the groceries Margaret had bought me were running out. I was getting in the car when I noticed that Addie was sitting on the curb. Her hair was hiding her face but I knew it was her, so I said, “Hey, Addie.”
She turned around. She was smoking a cigarette, which caught me off guard. “Oh, hey,” she said, and half-smiled but I couldn’t tell if it was a good half or a bad half.
I walked over to her. “What are you doing?” I asked, and then thought that was a dumb question.
“Just waiting for my ride,” she said. She looked down and I thought maybe she’d been crying again.
I couldn’t help it so I asked, “Are you crying because of that story I gave you?”
She looked up. “What?” she said, and exhaled a stream of smoke. She sounded kind of angry that I’d asked, and I’d never heard her sound angry before. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I just thought maybe.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said and she shook out all her hair and she was very beautiful. “I’m not crying.”
I stood there for a minute and watched her smoke. “Okay,” I said. “See you tomorrow.”
She looked up at me for a second. “Yeah, bye.” There was still the angry edge in her voice, and I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like the cigarette either and I felt a little queasy about the whole interaction. I got in my car and turned on the radio but the music made me feel queasy too so I turned it off. I started imagining different ways our conversation could have gone, if I had done it better. I could have asked her if she wanted a ride and she could have said, yeah sure that would be great. Then we could have driven around and maybe both gone to the grocery store and I could have asked more subtly about the crying and her mom and maybe, if I’d been feeling like it, I could have said something about my brother. Most likely not. I think I would have regretted doing that because it would have been too much.
But I didn’t have the chance to say it, or anything else, so I turned the radio back on, and drove to the grocery store.
I told my therapist about how a lot of stories have to do with unfinished encounters. Like, how Frank or Bill is kind of in love with this girl and he wants to tell her something really important, something he never really says to other people, and he gets his chance to but he doesn’t. And the point of that is just to prove that he has this burden and he doesn’t know how to tell others and he can’t really connect with people because his mind is such a trap that he can’t get out of. It’s a cliché, I said.
She looked at me. All encounters are sort of unfinished, aren’t they?
That surprised me, and I had to think about it. Well, yeah, but some are more than others.
She said, like which?
And I thought back to all of the ones. Addie, yesterday, and my brother, which is obvious. That girl in college and the people in the grocery store and the other people in my unit in Vietnam. And Margaret, sometimes. It was hard to measure which ones were more unfinished than the others, because all of them were over.
It’s a cliché, I said again, but I don’t know if I really thought that.
Maybe, my therapist shrugged. She wrote something down and her hair fell into her face and I wanted to touch her hair. I wanted to say something about my brother because I knew that would make her happy, but the time was almost up and it didn’t feel like the moment. We were mostly quiet until the hour was up.
I walked out into the parking lot and it was crackling cold. It was becoming winter, though I hadn’t noticed this happening. It was maybe 5:00 and dark. There was s a streetlamp making a pool of light. I stood outside my car for a little while and my breath made steamy clouds. I could see into the window of my therapist’s office, on the second floor. The light was on, and I could half-see the side of her body. She was writing on her notepad and she stretched to itch the back of her neck. I wondered who was coming to see her next and felt a strange twang in my heart like when Addie and Colin talked.
I thought about going back in and telling her all the things she wanted me to tell her, but the hour was over so I thought maybe next week.