There is so much more to life than being wildly in love. Having a True One isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a lot of time, a lot of work.
There’s all the sex, for one thing, which is exhausting, because you have to kiss constantly, don’t you? And when you kiss, you have to almost be eating each other like you’re gobbling up the tastiest burger you’ve had in your lives. You also have to stare into your soul mate’s eyes and use your eyes like ice cream scoops that scoop up love. After that, you have to nibble at and suck out bits of each other’s souls by way of smooshing various body parts together. It’s all very thrilling, but it can be gross, and it’s definitely tiring. Unfortunately it’s the only way to make sure you and your soul mate share romantic dances in the akashic space forever.
Kris and I were going for regular couples counseling in the months before he died. We were seeing a lovely middle-aged man named Jim, whose office was in the attic of a converted character house above the Salvation Army in a grubby part of town.
We went to talk to Jim about how we were fucking each other up, me with my seemingly bottomless grief over my dead parents (and the associated anxious constant fear that everyone around me was about to die), Kris with his seemingly bottomless thirst for vodka (which he attributed to work-related anxiety and referred to as “just a habit, not an addiction, a habit – understand the difference.”)
We also saw Jim separately, the idea being that we would work through our individual neuroses individually, our couples’ stuff as a couple.
Sorting through Kris’ clothes one morning a few weeks ago, I found an appointment card for a session with Jim in one of his shirt pockets.
The date on the card was December 9th, 2015. Obviously Kris had scheduled it unaware that he would go to sleep and die two days before he was supposed to be there.
On the back of the card were some words Jim had scribbled for Kris, ostensibly related to whatever they’d discussed in the last session.
The words said, “Homework: The Anxiety Workbook + + Feeling Good (David Burns)”.
I felt bad that Jim had probably been waiting for Kris to show up on December 9th, 2015. He probably tried calling Kris’ phone, and he probably left a message which was never returned. Jim was probably pretty sad about that. He probably felt rejected and disrespected, so I decided it would be a nice idea to call and apologize on Kris’ behalf for dying before his appointment.
That was my intention, a brief and courteous apology, an explanation, but when the call didn’t go to voicemail and Jim picked up, I got freaked out and couldn’t bring myself to say the right words. Instead, I booked an appointment as if things were normal, as if Kris was alive and I was just getting back to thinking about counselling after a busy year.
“Hi Jim, this is Chelsea Jane. I saw you with my partner Kris.”
“Hi Chelsea. Yes, I remember you guys.”
“Oh good. So, but actually, I’m calling you right now because… I’m hoping to book a session with you!”
“Okay, sure. Let me take a look at my calendar.”
“Chelsea, I have this Tuesday at one or Wednesday at three. Or Friday morning. What works best for you?”
I hung up the phone and threw a pen across the room.
When I was a little girl, the boy next door’s name was Ben. He was a Jehovah’s Witness – or his parents were, anyway. He hated going to the Witness Hall on Friday nights, putting on that humiliating tuxedo while the rest of the neighbourhood kids were running around playing capture the flag in our bathing suits. Off he would go with his weirdo parents, waving to us sadly from the back window of their car. Once, one of the boys threw a bag on milk at their car and Ben’s dad got out and grabbed him by the cuff of his coat and slapped his butt. Another Friday, Ben hid in my garage while his parents searched the neighbourhood for him. I pretended he was a refugee prince and I was his kindly nurse. I brought him food, frozen dinner rolls that I microwaved until they were like hot balls of rubber, then presented to him in napkin-lined Tupperware.
We played together furiously, Ben and I. We were best buddies, building our forts deep in the forest, riding our bikes along desolate logging roads down to the river, where we made oval sculptures out of clay which we sold door-to-door, telling the neighbours how we’d come upon a trove of fossilized dinosaur eggs.
It was a wonderful friendship, until it wasn’t. One day, Ben ruined everything by saying something very bad to me.
It was this:
“I know a boy who likes you.”
We were playing 21 in my driveway.
“No you don’t.”
“I do. He told me.”
Instead of just telling me who it was, he made me guess.
I went through the names of all the boys in the neighbourhood, bouncing the basketball, looking at the sky. Every name, every single name, I said them all.
“You’re forgetting someone,” he said.
“No I’m not,” I said, “I said everyone.”
“You didn’t say everyone,” he said.
It started to click. How he’d recently started tickling me all the time. How he’d been dunking my head underwater at the river, pushing me down at the park and sitting on my stomach so I couldn’t breathe, spitting in my mouth. That these were acts of love suddenly seemed obvious.
I bounced the ball, looked everywhere but at him. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze.
“Are you going to guess again?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say, so I threw the ball as hard as I could at his face and ran away.
I didn’t want to see Jim the counsellor again.
All I wanted was to say sorry, have him understand we were not the type of people to no-show at appointments unless we were unexpectedly dead. Kris would have wanted me to do that, because he really liked Jim.
I almost called back to cancel, but then I remembered how I’d stopped doing things like sleeping and showering. How I’d tried and failed to stop pacing my house, lecturing and cry-yelling at a ghost from 9pm onward every night. Maybe seeing a counsellor who knew Kris and the terrain of our relationship wasn’t a bad idea. It also occurred to me that maybe Jim could provide some insight into what went wrong, where my blind spots had been.
Maybe he wouldn’t be surprised at all that Kris was dead. Maybe Kris had told him about how much he loved him some cocaine and heroin as anxiety-busters, and maybe that’s why Jim had suggested reading some books instead. Maybe, but maybe not. How would I ever know if I didn’t go see Jim again and ask him directly?
So I shoved my anxiety in an anxiety hole and kept the appointment. Wednesday came quickly, and when I couldn’t find a parking spot on the street by Jim’s office I almost gave up and drove home. But that would’ve defeated the entire point of saying sorry/interrogating him for info, so I had to circle around and around in the crazy rain, finally parking by the loading bay of a car parts wholesaler. Huddled under a piece of cardboard, a daytime sex worker watched me from across the street. I recognized her as one of my former clients from my mental health worker days.
“Chelsea!” she called.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just going for a nice, normal walk!”
“It’s raining! Can I bum a toonie for a coffee?”
She hurried across the street to collect the coin.
“Do you have a smoke too?”
“Where are you walking to around here? It’s pissing rain. You at work?”
“No, I’m going to see a friend who lives above the Salvation Army.”
“Oh, cool. So anyways, I got beat up last night. Fuckin’ guy.”
She gestured to the right side of her face, which was entirely bruised and swollen.
“That’s awful. Did you call the police?”
“No, it wasn’t a John, it was my neighbour. He’s new in the building and he just got out of the psych ward. He said I was his babysitter when he was a kid but I said I never seen the fuckin’ guy before in my life, and he said I had to protect him from Satan and change his diapers and he kept knocking on my door every ten minutes asking for smokes, so I finally said fuck off, you weird little goof bitch. So he attacked me. But I’m pissed because two of my molars got knocked out. They were already loose but now I’ll never keep ’em.”
She opened her mouth wide to show me the bloody, sinking mounds of gum.
“Ow. That sucks, I’m sorry. Maybe try the free dentist at Cool-Aid?”
“I like your purse,” she said, “my mom had one like that before. I’m gonna walk with you, okay? This is a bad neighbourhood, you shouldn’t be walking alone around here.”
She walked with me anyway, four blocks, to the entrance of Jim’s office, where she read the sign and laughed incredulously.
“You’re going to see a shrink?!”
“No I’m not.”
“Okay girl, whatever you say. Thanks for the coffee money – have fun with your ‘friend’!”
Just two days before Kris died, I asked him why he was lying to me all the time.
“Why do you lie all the time now?”
“What do you mean all the time?”
“I mean you tell lies and it’s all the time.”
Such as the day earlier, when he’d said he had to work late with his slow-learner coop student, but really hadn’t gone to work at all.
Such as the day before that, when he said he was going to return books to the library just before it closed, and later I found a speeding ticket that was issued on the other side of town.
There was also the day a few weeks earlier, when he arrived home with a bleeding gash on his temple.
“What the fuck?”
“I fell off my bike.”
“Weren’t you wearing a helmet?”
I was dabbing the wound with an alcohol pad. He couldn’t look me in the eye. I tried to drill my pupils into his until they formed a tunnel.
“I can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember? How can you not remember something that happened fifteen minutes ago?”
“I don’t know. I have a brain injury?”
On Sat, Feb 9, 2013 at 11:39 PM, Kris <email@example.com> wrote:
I know a boy who likes you. Guess.
Instead of working, I’m going to bed. I’ll like working tomorrow morning even less than now, but that’s for tomorrow-me to deal with.
I can’t wait to fly home. I can’t get on that plane fast enough. Too much time away from you hurts.
I know you hate it when I get too sappy. But you have to let me, sometimes. You have to just let me. It’s what you do to me, you understand.
I like the idea of the Library of Babel. I don’t think we’ve talked about it before, but have you read about this, have you read Borges? It’s his conception of the universe as a library, an infinite super-geometrical structure of spacetime where every possible version of every story is contained in its bookshelves.
If you haven’t read it, you should. At first the idea seems entirely intellectual, devoid of passion or humanity. The library, because it is infinite, is stripped of meaning. But listen, listen: it holds, within it, the story of what lies before you and me, together. The dream of it all. I imagine a dream-version of myself, haunting the Library of Babel, looking for that volume, seeking it, eternally. Picking up book after book, and, finally, finding it. And settling into a quiet corner of that library, enraptured, at peace, reading every word, seeking you.
Whatever is in store for us, it’s in that book. It holds our first, and last, embrace. And I imagine the volume that holds our last embrace, and it ends with a period, because nothing more needs to be said – our last embrace lasts forever, and all other stories belong in other volumes.
I imagine waking up with you in the morning, and it’s this morning. I imagine going to bed with you at night, and it’s last night. And it’s tomorrow. All the tomorrows and yesterdays.
I wonder what you’ll look like when you’re really old. I think I’ll find out. Is it strange that I want to do it now, right now, and fast-forward our lives just for the pleasure of seeing all of you at once? That I want to touch your deeply lined face, and grey hair, now? I know your eyes will look exactly the same, as now. I wonder about all they’ll have seen. Thinking about it puts a smile on my face.
Like this: 🙂
We better take care of each other, and ourselves, so we can find out what old age looks like. I’m looking both ways when I cross the street, twice, from now on.
I love you. Completely. The boy, is me.
To my surprise and in spite of my anxiety, I found myself immensely relieved to see Jim.
He opened his office door and I had the immediate urge to shrink myself, strip naked and crawl up to his chest, cling to him upside down like a newborn bat, his cashmere sweater lulling me into soft, deathless dreams. Jim could have petted me then, and he could have said Hooo now, hey there little bat, there was nothing you could have done to save Kris, I give you my special counsellor guarantee.
I would have paid double his hourly rate for the baby bat treatment special.
Sensing that I needed something, but not intuiting that it was to be a tiny bat, Jim offered me water. I said yes, and as he filled the mug he drew close enough for me smell him. Old Spice, plus some kind of Russiany man perfume. Nothing like Kris.
I wondered if Jim’s wife ever buried her nose in his armpits for five or ten minutes at a time, like I did to Kris, who never wore deodorant but always smelled of freshly turned earth and sex and salt licorice.
I sipped the water, put a pillow over my lap.
Jim fiddled around in his desk looking for a pen.
“Kris died,” I said.
Jim didn’t hear me.
“Lousy weather we’re having these days, eh?” he said, “This rain is endless.”
Do you know what happened to my neighbour Ben? I do.
After high school, he got a job selling electronics, worked his way into management. He married a girl from Texas, a Baptist, so he was excommunicated from Witness Hall and his parents would no longer speak with him. He bought a house in a brand new suburb called Clovis Dream Heights, and one day his wife took their toddler son to the park. The boy went down the slide over and over, down the slide, again and again. It was so many times down the slide that the mother lost count, as she would later tell the ambulance attendants when they arrived to attempt to revive the child. It could have been thirteen times or forty times, it could have been fifty-seven times or ninety-three before it was the last time, when he landed wrong and smacked exactly the wrong place of his head on the lip of the slide.
Does it matter how many times it happened, how many times he went down the slide and didn’t die? Does it matter that she didn’t count, that she didn’t see death coming?
One thing I would like to make clear, by the way, is that I really liked Ben too. I would like it to be known that when he was making me guess who liked me, I felt all hot and weird, and I was hoping it was him and trying not to hope, in case it wasn’t. And I would also like to say that I regret the fact that I threw the basketball at his face, and that I gave him a bloody nose, and that he was no longer allowed to play with me, and that I never played to him again after that day. I liked Ben. For the record, I like-liked him. Such are the mysterious ways of love.
Anyway, she couldn’t have seen it coming, Ben’s wife. Nobody would ever know that such a thing could happen to a boy on a slide.
It was impossible for her to know.
Once Jim found his pencil, he sauntered his cashmere over to the counseling chair, where he sat and crossed one leg over the other, leaned back. He had his little notebook and his mug of tea, and he was not expecting anything other than a regular old normal session counselling yet another overindulged middle-class asshole. Then his eyes finally settled on me, really saw me, and his face fell.
My entire body was puffy.
I looked like I’d been attacked by a vacuum that sucked out joie de vivre.
I looked like I’d been all cut up and sewn back together just ever so slightly wrongwards.
“You’re looking very uncomfortable, Chelsea.”
I quickly attempted to deflect.
“I’ve never seen you sit with your legs crossed like that,” I said.
“Oh? I do cross them from time to time, to the consternation of my wife and chiropractor! You also haven’t been here that much. What did we have, four or five sessions? Not enough to know my leg-crossing habits completely!”
He chuckled. A light-hearted chuckle. It was jokey time for Jim.
“I can’t cross my legs because they’re too fat!” I said, trying to make joke.
I laughed then too, but it fell flat on Jim. His smile disappeared and he raised his brows and closed his notebook, made a point of uncrossing his legs. Then he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, hammering at me with his eyes like he was some tough love high-school basketball coach about to give me a speech on the topics of self respect and positive attitude.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Chelsea,” he said.
“You too, Jim,” I said, “and I’m super happy to be here again for counseling!”
Jim had a bald head, a shiny one, and deep wrinkles in his forehead from all the professional furrowing. His eyes had a softness that I remembered telling Kris I liked.
“He reminds me of a wise tortoise,” I said after one session, “or a kindly cartoon penis with arms and legs. He’s nice.” Kris had agreed.
Jim opened the notebook and scribbled something.
I looked at the wall art:
– Swans being in some water.
– Nondescript flowers in a vase.
– Einstein, the close up of his face where his age spots look like constellations.
– A print of Klimt’s The Kiss.
Kris and I had a print of The Kiss displayed prominently in our kitchen.
“Why do you have The Kiss in here?”
“Why would you put The Kiss in with a bunch of garbagy Homesense art and a picture of Einstein?”
Jim looked at the wall, baffled.
“Sorry, which one is that? My wife decorated here. She’s the interior designer of the two of us.”
“It’s the one of the man and woman kissing. The Kiss. That one right there.”
It turned out that Jim didn’t even know it was called The Kiss. He never looked at the walls, he told me, because he was too busy looking at the individuals seated across from him and concentrating on what they were saying.
“Well, just so you know, that’s not an appropriate piece of art for this office,” I said.
“Because it’s a very famous piece of art where a woman is being kissed passionately by a very tall man. So for one thing it’s pretty hetero and you probably have gay couples here, and for the other thing it’s a bit rude to have people who are struggling in their relationships come in here and have to look at that. Like what if it’s some wife that hasn’t been kissed properly in twenty-three years? She doesn’t want to see that. Anyway, Kris is dead.”
“D’you think it would make a difference if- sorry, what?”
“Kris died,” I say, “a year ago. Over a year now, actually. He took drugs and he died.”
I watched Jim’s sweet turtle of a face absorb the news. He was clearly alarmed but trying very hard to be counsellorish and not betray any surprise or upset.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said. He did look very sorry. His turtle face and turtle mouth looked sorry.
“It was an accident,” I said.
Jim shook his head in confusion, examined me for hints of why I was there. Why hadn’t I said somethint when I called for the appointment? I wanted to apologize then, to say that he’d fucked everything up by answering his phone, but it was too late.
He was looking and looking at me.
I looked at the Persian rug, dingy from thousands of Unhappy Person shoes.
“You’re looking very tired, Chelsea. And no wonder.”
I rubbed my eyes.
“I am tired. Sorry. I’m tired.”
I started to sob. I sobbed and sobbed. And then I started to laugh, and I laughed and laughed.
“How are you sleeping?”
“Not sleeping. I don’t sleep anymore – ha! I mean, what is sleep, some kind of alien?”
Again, Jim could not catch a joke. He just stared at me, concerned as ever.
I smoothed my skirt.
I sipped some water.
“Have you considered getting something for that? For sleep? It can’t be easy with the kids.”
“No. Anyway, in case you were wondering, that’s why Kris missed his appointment with you. It wasn’t on purpose – he died. Surprise!”
“It is a surprise.”
I spent the rest of the session trying to get Jim to tell me if Kris had divulged that he was using drugs.
He wouldn’t say. He was sorry, he said, but he couldn’t discuss it.
“Even if it would help me sleep more than sleeping pills?”
“Even then. Sorry.”
“But why can’t you just tell me? How would you feel if your wife croaked after taking drugs you didn’t even know she was using? I need to know. I have to know so I can understand what was going on. I have to understand what was going on to make sense of my life now. I have to, do you understand?”
“Let me ask you something,” Jim said, “and this might be something you need to go home and think about, so don’t feel like you need to answer me now. Here’s what I want you to think about… Imagine I told you that yes, Kris told me he was using heroin and cocaine. He was using it every day, and he believed it was helping him cope with the stress of his life. Okay?”
“Okay. Go on. I’m skeptical.”
“And then replace the drugs. Imagine that I told you it wasn’t heroin or cocaine, it was sky diving. Kris was actually a sky diver, and he went sky diving every day to get out of his head and feel a particular biochemical sensation that he thought was helpful. Would you have been okay with him sky diving, even though it was a dangerous activity, if he was doing it not to hurt you, but because he felt like it helped him?”
“Because jumping out of airplanes is a dumb thing to do.”
“Why is it a dumb thing to do?”
“Because you can get hurt. Your parachute can fail and then you smash into the ground. Everybody knows that. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
“Even if the statistics tell you that most of the time you jump out of the plane, your shoot will open and you’ll be just fine?”
“Yeah! Look Jim, I’m not doing this thought experiment. I’m not going to think about it now or ever again. Jumping out of airplanes is a ridiculous thing to do. Taking heroin and cocaine when you have young children is selfish and fucking irresponsible. So no, I don’t care how many times someone can do something and have it be okay, and I see what you’re trying to do here but I don’t accept that line of thinking.”
“Okay, Chelsea. Well, look. We’re clocking in at well over an hour here. Do you want to come back next week?”
“Yeah. And next week I want to talk about my plan to jump dimensions so I can get the fuck out of this one. I need some advice about tying up loose ends.”
“Anger is a normal thing to feel.”.
“I’m not angry, Jim. I’m just in love.”