Excerpt from The Imaginary Patient
“You never told me what happened,” Dr. Edwards said to Roger one afternoon, shortly after Roger had returned to the Institute. He was thinking, “How can I console him? How can anyone console him?”
“You never told me what actually happened,” Dr. Edwards repeated.
Paul and Roger were the happiest, they were the most—it was hard for anyone to say this without sounding maudlin—but they were the most satisfied couple anyone had ever met. Is it any wonder it was to end in tragedy? That in the end Fate would condemn the happy couple and leave one of them to an unhappiness a hundred fold?
It had been two months since the Institute’s administrator, Ms. Reed, had got the idea and Dr. Edwards had asked him to return, and Roger had decided after all to accept. In the weeks following, in their daily meetings, Dr. Edwards sat silently subdued. Saying nothing. Listening. That was all that could be done; just listen. Though Roger had never, ever talked about Paul’s death before now, his every word up until this point felt like a sob. He complained obsessively about a colleague, a resistant patient. He started telling Dr. Edwards his dreams, dreams so pedestrian it was as if they’d been placed like sheetrock to wall out Dr. Edwards. For example, he dreamt that he’d gone to the Laundromat four blocks further than his regular laundry. One time, he recounted a dream in which he drove from his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to the Bronx Zoo and back. It was a long drive, nothing happened; yet, no matter how mundane, it was clear that every word wanted to be a shout of grief so bottomless that Dr. Edwards often found himself clutching the chair as if he was about to tumble, himself, into the abyss.
In fact, Roger had begun to act, during what was to have been their administrative meetings, as if they were in a therapy session.
“Is our time up?” he’d ask, and without waiting for an answer he’d rise and walk silently out the door. Like a shade, he was becoming a reluctant ghost of himself. This continued into the next month. When he’d cried himself out (figuratively speaking since he’d never actually shed a tear) he was more than spent, he was dead. He was Orpheus gone to the underworld, far, far away from Dr. Edwards, who wanted to call after him but couldn’t because he believed he wouldn’t hear him and he didn’t want this belief confirmed. It would mean that Dr. Edwards would have to worry about how Roger was dealing with patients.
Over the course of the next several weeks Roger began to sink down, to slouch, until for all intents and purposes he was lying on the couch. One afternoon he suddenly sat up, as if coming out of a trance. He was animated. Excited. For the first time he spoke about what had happened.
“It was so stupid! He was a strong swimmer, much stronger than me. We’d just eaten. Slices of melon, pork sandwiches, then split a chocolate bar. Neither of us had more than a couple of glasses of wine. We’d been sitting on the beach talking and lost track of the time. What were we talking about? We paddled the canoe just a mile off the shore. And then a jet ski, one of those wave runners, came right at us. It was dusk. I suppose he couldn’t see us.
“What’s so stupid is that neither one of us was hurt. When it hit us, the canoe just split in half and suddenly we were Laurel and Hardy. For a few seconds we were both afloat, but I was in the back of the canoe and he was in the front and there was ten feet of water between us.”
His words spilled up and over the couch like the surf rolling in. Dr. Edwards couldn’t help but picture the two men treading water in the azure sea, the stars making their first appearance above them. The crisp air on the cusp of turning cold. He wanted Paul to come cheerfully bobbing above the waves, triumphant, the whole experience becoming just one more romantic adventure for them both.
“Paul yelled out to me. And than he began screaming, ‘I’ve got a cramp… I’ve got a cramp!'” Roger said this softly, so softly that Dr. Edwards had to lean forward, so far forward that he nearly fell onto the floor, as if falling out of a boat.
“I’ve got a cramp,” Roger said softly again.
“It couldn’t have been because we’d just eaten. It couldn’t have been. That’s an old wives tale, right?”
Dr. Edwards looked helpless.
“Jesus! He drowned because he’d eaten too soon before swimming?”
Dr. Edwards continued to look helplessly on as if he were there at the accident, standing on shore, watching, too far away to rescue either one of them. Added to this was another problem. Dr. Edwards’ wife had died, too, in an accident. He knew what it was like to be suddenly separated, to be shockingly, permanently split off from someone. And he knew, too, that he was about to undergo another loss. He had jettisoned Mr. D.
As he sat listening to Roger, Dr. Edwards thought that perhaps he, himself, might finally begin to understand, really understand how much he missed Catherine. He had been at first only bewildered—some thought he’d been cold—not because he didn’t feel strongly about her death, not because he hadn’t loved her. She was everything to him. Bewildered because he thought that somehow if one had had such a satisfying relationship, such a complete marriage in every respect, a relationship that was renewed and fulfilled each day, one should be prepared by this very wholeness to suffer the consequences. And he was not. One must know that it can come undone at any moment. He shouldn’t have been taken by surprise.
In other respects he now understood his predicament better than Roger understood his own, since he had Roger’s experience to compare himself to. Separation had been swift and unpredictable for them both. Roger fled almost immediately after his lover’s death. He needed to do something, anything to show that his life could never be the same, to get away from the empty space created by Paul’s death. Dr. Edwards stayed put. He needed to learn how to live with the added space. He needed to learn how to live with the empty chair, the empty room, an empty bed.
Dr. Edwards had thought each day that they were together—and a day didn’t go by that he didn’t think of it—that he and his wife would part. One of them might meet someone else, or one of them would eventually crack and know the truth, which was that they couldn’t keep on forever, one of them would change. Even before it happened, he suspected that Catherine had found some other interest, someone else with whom she could engage, to banter in the way that they enjoyed. He noticed on that fateful morning for the first time a near imperceptible shift in her attentiveness.
They never ate breakfast together but would prepare each other’s meal, she to eat on the road, he to eat with his newspaper at the table. He would make the coffee, then toast her English muffin, while she boiled his egg. Always up earlier, Catherine had set his egg out to warm to room temperature. She worked at Neuro-Logic – a think tank about thinking; it was in her personality to be precise and exacting. Then one day things changed. This was the morning of her death; it was only a couple of hours away. His minute-and-half egg, which she always prepared, was no longer perfect.
“I don’t know dear, maybe the timer is off,” she’d said sweetly when he complained that his egg was not runny enough.
“Have you been buying different ones?”
“I always get Happy Hens.”
“Are you getting a different size?”
“I always get Happy Hens and I always get Grade A Extra Large.” She sighed patiently. Compassionately. ” Remember how long it took us to get to that?”
He played disconsolately with the milky white eggcup that a coupon from Happy Hens had secured several years ago.
“I’m not criticizing. I’m just perplexed.”
Catherine was so sure of herself it was actually impossible to criticize her. She never took offense, never for that matter took seriously any critique. She’d give kind of a rueful chuckle at the most and look at one as if to say “how silly of you even to imagine that I’m at fault.”
“Perhaps your taste for liquid yolks has changed, dear,” she said sympathetically.
“What do you mean? I’m disappointed in them. They are not runny. I can’t stand that.”
“I mean that perhaps you aren’t really quite aware of it yet, dear, but perhaps you are moving toward a different opinion of liquidy eggs. You’re developing a different vision, and the eggs are responding.”
“You mean I’m looking at them in a new light?”
“Perhaps something has happened that doesn’t even relate to eggs but the ideal you had of their best viscosity has changed.”
“I’ve been observing them with a different eye?”
“You’ve put them under the microscope of your desire, so to speak, and as particles of matter do when observed so intently they’ve altered. That’s all. You need, in a word, dear, to chill. Keep your mind away from the eggs for just a second. Heavens, a nano-second will do, and they will return to your favored form and drip cheerfully and obediently off your spoon.”
It was like being married to Mr. Rogers. Soothing, informative.
While she delivered this lecture, he buttered her English Muffin and wrapped it in old-fashioned wax paper, an item she particularly loved for its compliance. She never had anything at the breakfast table but would instead wait for him to fill her travel mug with black coffee and hand her the muffin, which she always ate in the car on the way to her office in the Bronx.
Only two miles from Neuro-Logic, she’d taken her eyes off the road for an instant to deftly unwrap that very muffin. The road had not forgiven her.
At first, Dr. Edwards couldn’t eat dinner alone, not at the kitchen table where the two of them had sat for twenty years. Though Catherine never really sat and actually ate with him, it was just that she was always there, hovering, getting things, asking him to get her things, as she prepared one of her own meals. He never understood it. It was not as if she had a food allergy to anything or had to prepare something so very different. It just seemed she never wanted what her husband did; not at the same time.
“No, dear, I’ll just have some of that chicken breast from the other night,”she’d say cheerfully.
“Well, then I’ll have it, too …”
“No, don’t, there isn’t enough for two and you’ve already got the water on for the penne.”
“I don’t think so. Just fruit later.”
“Well, then, wine?”
“Tap will do …”
It was such a routine that, though one would think it maddening, he seldom found it so. He couldn’t remember when it had started, her constantly moveable feast. Perhaps it was a presentiment of their separation to come.
She orchestrated it so that he always found himself wanting what she had and feeling as he sat with his plate in front of him that he had less than she. In this way she continued to repeat the experience from the days after they first met, of being the tantalizing object.
“Let me just taste your chicken,” he’d whine.
“I want to see if the marinade held up. How long has it been in the fridge?”
“Three days. It might be spoiled. I don’t want you to risk it, dear.” “Are you afraid that the food might be poisoned and if we eat the same thing we’ll both die? Are you trying to insure that one of us survives? Like those couples who won’t fly on the same plane?” She looked rather struck as if mulling over the idea.
“We needn’t worry about leaving any orphans.”
“That’s true, and wasn’t it the Greek ideal for the loving couple to die together?”
“Well, yes, but to turn gracefully into intertwining trees, not writhing on the kitchen floor, struck down by tainted poultry. No, dear, I have no ulterior motives. I’m just not hungry for pasta tonight. I want something lighter. A little chicken breast. Sparkling water. Perhaps an olive or two. That’s enough for your wife.”
But that was enough for him, too, he wanted to say. And he kept saying it until the last leftovers of that last meal were consumed and he kept talking to her and he kept thinking of more things he wanted to say, while he ate his single portion of dinner, night after night after that, knowing that eventually he would acquire the habit of doing so alone.