Three months after I became a milliner and three weeks before I met Jacob and barely three hours before I was to meet Dr. Trillingbaum for our regular Thursday appointment, I received word that he, Dr. Trillingbaum, was dead. The call came on a soggy March morning. I had Lilia's all to myself. I was listening to the sound of cars whisking along the wet street and turning a bowler round and round my head as I decided whether I liked the look of myself in cranberry. It was a bold color, but I thought I could pull it off. I picked up the phone so adorned.
"I'm sorry," said the woman. She hadn't specified whether she was a secretary or a doctor or a wife. She had said she was calling for Nathan Trillingbaum.
"Pneumonia," she said. "It advanced very quickly."
I might have told her that I had seen Dr. Trillingbaum last week and that people didn't contract and die of pneumonia all in one week, if not for the chance that she was a doctor and could tell me otherwise.
"You'll want to speak with another psychologist," she said. "I have some names, people who would be willing to see you."
She was in the midst of giving me the second name, a Margot Kotkin, Ph.D., on 76th Street off Central Park West, when I said, "I am resentful," as Dr. Trillingbaum had taught me to.
The woman was silent for a moment. "This is a terrible shock, I know," she said. "You'll want to speak about it with a new therapist."
"I was supposed to see him a couple of hours from now," I said.
"I know it's a terrible shock," the woman said again. "Have you got Dr. Kotkin's number?"
I wanted to tell her that Dr. Trillingbaum had never canceled any appointments, that when he took his vacation last August, we had spent the whole of June and July discussing how I would handle our separation. But suddenly I was very tired. "I don't have a pen," I said, and I hadn't.
Again she was silent. "Oh. Would you like me to wait while you find one?"
"Um," I said. I couldn't remember where I'd put my pen.
She was silent a moment more. "Well, perhaps you'd like to call me back."
"Okay," I said. I hung up, having no pen to take down her number.
"Geez, Isabella," Maggie said when I told her. Maggie was my manager. Every day she breezed in and out of the shop. She was more the kind of milliner who made hats than the kind who sold them. (I was the kind who sold them.) She was also, as it happened, one of the few people in my life at that time who was in therapy. "So what will you do?" she said.
"I don't know," I said. I hadn't expected such a practical question. I had, since hanging up the phone, found sustenance in my longing for that moment when Maggie would return to the shop and I would tell her the news. News was how I thought of it as I sat waiting for her on the stool, setting the last of the winter hats in boxes. News--something glittery and remarkable for us to gape at, for me to weep over. But now that she was here and I had told her and she had gaped, I felt dull and flat, altogether let down by the promises of the moment.
"When is the funeral?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I wasn't asked to the funeral."
"Oh," she said. She began picking fluff from a blue beret.
"I don't want to go to the funeral anyway," I said. "It would be too weird to see his family."
For it had been my job to speak and his to listen and to ask questions and to tell me about myself; he never spoke about himself, about his family. A good thing--I became jealous whenever I thought about his family.
"Right," said Maggie.
"You don't think so?" I asked.
"I don't think what?"
"That it would be weird to see his family?"
"Well, I guess," she said. "But maybe it would be good to talk to his other patients."
"You think they'd be invited to the funeral and not me?"
"Well, no. Probably not."
"Why would they be invited and not me?"
"You're right. They wouldn't."
"Besides, I don't want to talk to his other patients. What if they start talking about, you know, their therapy with him and I learn something I don't want to?"
"You mean about the patient or about Dr. Trillingbaum?"
"Both," I said. "What if I learn, I don't know, what if they say something that shows how close they were to him or something?"
Maggie gave me a pained look. "Listen. Do you need a new therapist? I can get a referral for you."
"I wasn't asked to the funeral anyway," I said.
As I waited that day to tell Maggie my news, I had imagined her offering me the week off, or the month, but she didn't, and now the very idea seemed silly to me: I wasn't even crying, I had no funeral to go to, I needed no time to bake a cake or buy flowers.
By the next morning, however, I had caught a cold.
My cold rose up from my throat and hung heavily in my head, blocking off my nose, my ears, my eyes.
The cold hung there for weeks. For weeks, I sat on a stool at Lilia's and told myself a story: shortly after I left him for what turned out to be the last time, Dr. Trillingbaum's throat began to close, his eyes to cloud. I could feel his head filling up with fluid, the trickle of fluid into his chest. He died.
He died before he realized, before he could tell me, that he was dying and that he would not be able to see me that week and that he would miss me.
But always the story failed me. By the afternoon my head would begin to throb and I would realize that Dr. Trillingbaum was not watching me and that I had nowhere to go and that my life was exactly what it was and that the cold was not seeping gracefully or tragically down to my chest and lungs and wrapping itself about my heart. And I realized that my hair hung limp from my head and that my lips were split and cracked and that I was ugly. And I hated the shop and the hats and the passersby who weren't looking in.
In the third week of my cold, Maggie walked in just as the story was failing me. She took one look at me and sent me home.
"You look terrible," she said.
"I don't look that terrible," I said.
"No offense," she said, "but you need to go home."
I wanted to tell her that soon the story I told myself would start all over, for I could not tolerate its failure for long, and that my cold would be better, at least a little better, once the story righted itself and Dr. Trillingbaum was again thinking how much he would miss me, and that I could not go home to my sink that needed scrubbing. But I was afraid that if I argued Maggie would tell me again that I looked terrible. I left.
I walked to the university, where before becoming a milliner I had taken a copy-editing class courtesy of my then-workplace.
I imagined entering the cold, blank wing where I had once listened to a lecture on the proper use of the semicolon as entering a nice, dull sleep, but the lights were humming and bright, and the state of my life shone with astonishing clarity. I turned around and left.
I entered the Sciences building, anticipating a soothing, alien clutter--test tubes and strange smoky potions. But instead there were classrooms with blackboards and round tables and there were offices with desks and piles of paper and some psychology journals and I was in the Psychology wing and I had to blow my nose.
I walked into one of the offices to get a tissue; a box was sitting conveniently on the table near the door. I would have just grabbed one and left, but a man was looking at me. He had round woody eyes. He had black curly hair. He was Jacob, though I didn't know it at the time.
I asked if I could please have a tissue.
"Of course," he said. "Are you all right?"
I thought that was a pretty strange question. I wasn't crying or anything. "I just need a tissue," I said, and I grabbed a tissue and blew my nose right there. I didn't know why. Usually, I disliked blowing my nose in front of people and could never understand how people went ahead and did so out in public, practically in the middle of a sentence. But I stood in the doorway blowing my nose and watching the man's round woody eyes as he watched me.
He reached into a bag and pulled out a bottle. "Vitamin C," he said.
I stared at it. "You carry it around with you?"
"Just in case," he said. "You never know."
Jacob took me on picnics.
"This is a risk," he said on our first picnic as he spread for the first time a blanket across lumpy ground.
I thought he meant because it might rain or because I seemed liable to cough all over the food, but as I covered my mouth to protect the blanket from my germs he explained that normally he didn't ask women to sit on the ground, not on the first date anyway; normally he took women to restaurants where waiters wore their hair parted firmly on the side.
Date, I thought. I did not often believe that what I was on was a date until such a word as date was uttered. And first date, as though he expected there to be another.
"I hope you don't mind the ground," Jacob said, removing strawberries from a duffel bag.
"It's okay," I said. "It's fine. I like ground."
But I stood for a long time, watching the picnic blanket grow bright and busy with fruit and bread. At the thought of this date, this first date, I felt an opening in my chest. I was happy, or something like happy--at least I was not dreadfully unhappy. I became happy about the yellow cheese and the leafy apples and the rough round bread Jacob removed from his duffel bag. I became happy about the magnolia tree that was shedding prettily over our picnic and about the straw hat I wore and about the shadow, a perfect circle, it cast over a single petal that had fallen on the blanket. I became happy about the fact that Jacob was studying to be a psychologist and the fact that his program had assigned him three patients and the fact that I was on a first date with a man who sat in a chair and looked at people and saw them.
I stood for a long time, feeling happy, thinking that the picnic looked beautiful from where I stood watching it, imagining that Dr. Trillingbaum was standing right behind me, seeing the blanket and the magnolia petals and the straw hat.
I had started seeing Dr. Trillingbaum a year and a half before on account of Dennis, the typesetter who worked in the office where I edited teenage romance novels. Dennis had spent ten months sending me furtive glances and formatting my manuscripts with remarkable alacrity and delicate leafy designs. His clumsy attentions embarrassed me and amused me and enraged me whenever I met a man who was more my type: a man too involved with his own exciting plans for steady gazing or furtive glances, a man with light wiry limbs and a forward-tilting gait, a man who was always on the verge of traveling to someplace hot and dusty and foreign.
This was my type, at least, until Dennis grew tired of my embarrassment and amusement and rage and fell in love with a young lady named Katie, who had a pretty collarbone and who taught him the Viennese waltz at the company summer picnic. At this point Dennis became adorable and a charming dancer and I clumsy, pitiful, quite stalky next to Katie, and exposed for all my arrogance.
Dr. Trillingbaum stared at me the entire time I spoke of Dennis's glances and Katie's collarbone and my arrogance, and I imagined that he thought me pitiful indeed. I thought he was too repelled to speak. His low, calm voice came as a surprise.
"What I'm hearing isn't arrogance but shame. It seems to me you didn't think you were worthy of Dennis's attentions. You enjoyed his regard and at the same time, for some reason, you were afraid of it. You want to be seen and you're ashamed to be seen."
"I should be ashamed," I said. "I was a haughty nightmare."
In the months Dennis watched me, I wore flitty dresses, floral scarves. Once he began to waltz with Katie, these clothes seemed fussy, embarrassingly showy. To Dr. Trillingbaum's office I wore parchment-gray stretched-out sweaters that fell loose over my hips. I forbade myself earrings or lipstick.
Meanwhile, the stories of teenage romance it was my job to edit were causing me unbearable envy. The thought of seeing the manuscripts typeset afflicted me with paralyzing dread. I was fired for tardiness and sloppiness, the fruits of my dread and envy.
My employers were as generous as they could be under the circumstances, reporting to the unemployment office that I had been "laid off." I was eligible to collect unemployment for six months.
The day I became eligible, Dr. Trillingbaum's gaze clamped down around any freedom I might have felt in being laid off. Beneath his gaze, I realized that I was not laid off but fired, and this realization shrank my voice to sand and made Dr. Trillingbaum lean far forward in order to hear me and made me aware of how ugly I, a woman dressed in parchment gray, rejected by men and employers, must have appeared to him.
"Please," I said, "stop staring at me."
Dr. Trillingbaum stared at me in silence a moment longer before saying, "What do you imagine I'm seeing, staring at you?"
I didn't want to dwell on my rejection by men and employers, and so I said, "This sweater. You're thinking I shouldn't have left the house in this color."
Dr. Trillingbaum stared at me in my parchment-gray sweater. "The shame again." His voice seeped out with assaulting softness. "Can you imagine that someone . . . can you imagine that I am looking at you not out of disgust or disapproval but, say, concern?"
"No," I said.
But I did begin to imagine it. Can you imagine that someone . . . can you imagine that I. . . ? On the day I became eligible for unemployment, I took this broken sentence home with me and held it in my lap as I drank my tea. I took home, too, Dr. Trillingbaum's soft staring eyes, his soft voice, his leather armchair, which held his soft, expansive body. In his office I was barely able to look at him, but now, at home, I could see him clearly. I could see him gazing at me with his concern.
I began to wear silver bracelets, a French-blue scarf.
I saw the HELP WANTED sign in Lilia's just as my unemployment checks were starting to run out. I saw blond wood floors and purple tulips and bright hats hanging from the racks like fruit.
As I began selling and buying and thinking of hats, Dr. Trillingbaum continued to watch me. He watched me and told me of the exquisite tension between my pleasure in being seen and my impulse to destroy the affections of anyone who might sit still long enough to see me. He told me I was doing the right thing by sitting in the blue armchair and letting him see me.
For a long time nothing about me had felt terribly right or exquisite. I began now to imagine that I was rehearsing with Dr. Trillingbaum for that moment when someone would come along and see me. He would sit and I would sit and he would think me exquisite.
In the meantime, I imagined Dr. Trillingbaum coming into the shop, catching me in a certain violet cloche with embroidered white violets or a mint-green flat hat with a silk rose pinned to the brim. But he never did come into the shop, of course, and I could never manage to wear something so uselessly pretty to his office.
By the time of my third picnic with Jacob, I considered that perhaps he was the man for whom I had been rehearsing. He was not planning a trip to some dusty land. He was the sort of man who said, "When can I see you again?" The question made me feel a bit ill, but I chalked this up to the fact that I was ill. My cold hadn't gotten much better, and I was beginning to believe it wasn't going to. In a way, I had grown attached to it. It blurred angles and softened colors. I began taking a really wonderful cold medicine that had me selling hats quite vigorously.
My cold also prohibited all serious touching between me and Jacob. The one time he commenced undressing me, I was suddenly racked by coughs; he kissed me between the shoulder blades and then buttoned me up again. "Till you're better," he said. He was the sort of man who was respectful of a cold. I didn't argue; after all, I couldn't even kiss him for very long without needing to come up for air.
For all my illness, I did want to see Jacob; my sense of urgency to see him took me by surprise. When I wasn't with him, I thought of his eyes and his strawberries. When we were together, I couldn't manage to meet his eyes nor to eat many strawberries. I was able, however, to ask him questions about being a therapist.
I asked him what made him wish to be a therapist, whether he had always known he wanted to be a therapist, if he looked forward to seeing his patients.
"Well, sure," he said.
I liked this answer very much and wished to hear more, but Jacob was more interested in hearing about me: how did I become interested in hats, how often did I take walks along the halls of higher learning, what was my favorite color?
"Cranberry," I said, and asked him if he ever thought about his patients when they weren't around.
"Sometimes," he said. "Sure." He bit into an apple.
"But do you ever imagine them going about the business of their lives, riding the subway or buying toothpaste or going to the movies? Do you ever imagine what they'll look like riding that subway, how that subway ride would be different, after you've gone?"
"I mean, after they've stopped seeing you?"
He looked at me, chewing his apple.
"Do you ever, for instance, when you're on a picnic . . . do you ever imagine your patients going on picnics and what it must be like for them and, you know, what hats they wear or whatever, and how that same picnic would be for them once they stopped seeing you?"
He raised his eyebrows. "That's not exactly what's on my mind right now." He removed a stray strawberry stem from my hair and presented it to me with a flourish, as though performing a magic trick.
I didn't wish to tell Jacob about Dr. Trillingbaum. I didn't wish to talk about him at all anymore.
But Dr. Trillingbaum had set up permanent residence in my imagination. He competed with Jacob for my attention, though in truth it wasn't much of a competition. For if sometimes I imagined Jacob watching me, I imagined, too, Dr. Trillingbaum watching him watch me. He was my constant supervisor, my constant confidant. And the more he settled in, setting up plants and prints and pillows in the space I'd created for him, analyzing and nodding and imagining, the less inclined I felt to let him out into the open air. Maggie saw no need to ask me again if I needed a referral for a new therapist; she thought me suitably cheerful, if sniffly. Jacob thought me scatterbrained: an innocent, charming term, suggesting perhaps a mind divided between Tuesday's inventory and Wednesday's summer window display. Dr. Trillingbaum alone understood the real state of affairs.
I was conferring with Dr. Trillingbaum in my bedroom the evening Jacob showed up at my door with daffodils. It wasn't my birthday; it was an ordinary Thursday; the sun was setting quite ordinarily. But he arrived at my door with bouquets of cut daffodils and potted daffodils and daffodil bulbs and sweat on his forehead.
I ran out of vases, so we arranged the flowers in old coffee cans. I ran out of elevated surfaces, so we lined up the bouquets in the middle of my living room floor.
He asked if I had had dinner, but by the time we were done arranging daffodils I wanted only to sit on the couch and stare. All over the room yellow burst, ruffled, and fluted from glass and tin.
"It's like the movies," I said.
"What is?" Jacob asked.
But, in fact, I didn't know what I meant. I couldn't think of a movie full of daffodils in coffee cans, nor one where a man delivered huge amounts of flowers by hand. But I couldn't believe that my life or my living room could contain all those daffodils.
I wanted to tell Jacob how beautiful they were, but I couldn't think of anything that wasn't corny or clichéd, and so I said, "Dr. Trillingbaum had flowers in his office."
I wanted to take it back, of course. I hoped that perhaps Jacob hadn't heard.
But he had turned from the daffodils and was looking right at me. "Who's Dr. Trillingbaum?" he asked.
"My therapist," I said, and the words carried unexpected music.
"Well, my former therapist," I said, to hear myself say my, to hear myself say therapist, to hear myself describe what he was to me.
"Oh . . ." Jacob sized this information up.
I thought perhaps this was a good opportunity for me to change the subject or to put on some tea, but I found I really wanted to sit on the couch and talk about Dr. Trillingbaum's flowers.
"There was a squat vase in the waiting room with different flowers every week. He shared an office with three other therapists--women. I don't know who was responsible for the flowers. I asked him once, but he just said, `What's your question about?'"
Jacob and I stared at each other. I didn't think this was a line of conversation I should be pursuing before so bounteous a gift of daffodils, but I wanted to finish my story. "He smiled when he said that," I said. "As though he knew something about me. I said I just thought it was nice that he had flowers, and he gave me this look that said I was full of shit. He thought there was something more to my question."
"Well, was there more?" Jacob asked after a pause, and I said, "Dr. Trillingbaum was always asking if there was more. `Say more,' he always said."
"I see," Jacob said thoughtfully, and I thought that Dr. Trillingbaum would never say I see like that, when it was clear he did not see. When he did not see, Dr. Trillingbaum just looked at me for a long time, waiting to hear what I would say next.
What I said next was, "He's dead now."
"What?" Jacob said, apparently caught off guard in a way Dr. Trillingbaum, for his part, seldom was.
"Dr. Trillingbaum is dead."
My words sounded so odd to me, He's dead now, Dr. Trillingbaum is dead, so distant and dramatic, as though I were speaking of something I saw in a television movie. My therapist is dead, I thought, and I thought, I am starring in this movie.
"That's really terrible," said Jacob. "How . . . that's really terrible."
"Pneumonia," I said. "It advanced very quickly."
I listened as I told Jacob more: that Dr. Trillingbaum died just before I was to see him, that I received a call from a woman I didn't then and still didn't know on the very day of our appointment, that I had been getting ready to go out the door. (The latter wasn't true exactly, but it seemed a natural thing to add.)
I was sniffling and hoarse on account of my cold; Jacob seemed to think that I was choked with tears. He held my hand and said all manner of kind, correct things: he was so sorry, why hadn't I said anything before, was there anything he could do?
I had seen men this attentive in the movies. I understood from movies that my response should involve weeping on his shoulder and melting into his arms and letting him hold my hand. For many moments, I did let him hold my hand; I did melt; I sniffled though I did not quite weep. I had never managed to weep in front of Dr. Trillingbaum and he had never held my hand or stroked my hair as Jacob was then doing.
Now that he had revealed himself, Dr. Trillingbaum began to show up everywhere. He accompanied us on outings throughout June. In the Indian wing at the Met, we passed a small stone Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and I told Jacob that Dr. Trillingbaum had a lamp with a base shaped like an elephant in his waiting room. We went to a Persian restaurant in Tribeca and I said that Dr. Trillingbaum had a rug in his office just like the rug we walked upon, though in fact Dr. Trillingbaum's rug had been blue and not red.
"It's a nice rug," said Jacob. And he would squeeze my hand.
I let him squeeze my hand, though more and more I was feeling that holding his hand was false. I felt that I was being cruel to him, mentioning Dr. Trillingbaum's elephant lamp and his rug, but I told myself that that was ridiculous: no one had ever pronounced it cruel to speak to your boyfriend of your former, dead therapist.
In any event, I felt I had to mention Dr. Trillingbaum at every turn. I could not bear my recognition of Dr. Trillingbaum in the elephant and the rug in silence. Indeed, as we passed Ganesh, as we stepped on the rug, I felt a pressure in my head that I didn't think had much to do with my cold. I needed to hear myself say his name--Trillingbaum, such a light, lovely name--and I needed to speak of rugs and I needed to hear Jacob say the rug was nice.
Toward the end of June, I received an invitation to Jacob's sister's play, an off-off Broadway production of Hamlet.
The invitation came from Jacob's sister herself. I understood what this meant: it meant that I existed for her, which meant that I existed for Jacob, and it meant that he wished his sister to exist for me, which meant that he wished to exist for me himself.
I felt overwhelmed, but flattered.
I had planned to meet Jacob at the theater, but just as I was locking up the shop before I counted the day's sales, he appeared at the door.
He had come to surprise me, but as he walked about the shop, it was he who seemed startled. He had never been inside Lilia's before. I had just set out a new summer display. He touched brims and bands and sprigs of wheat, as though fabric and ornament were faintly telling him the secrets of hats.
He looked funny and large and lovely standing in the forest of summer straws, and I felt all at once exceedingly congested. I thought of how Dr. Trillingbaum, who had been shorter and squatter, whose hair had been spare and gray and whose skin had been ruddier, had never seen the shop. And I thought of how I had meant to wear a hat for him one day, and of how I hadn't, having been embarrassed to dress up for him so blatantly.
Thinking these things, I got into a coughing fit. Jacob strode through the forest of hats and began to pat my back.
"That doesn't help," I said.
I believed I meant that a pat on the back hadn't been medically proven to help a cough, but I was shaking my head more vigorously than the cough required and I was pulling away from him and Jacob was no longer trying to touch me.
He waited for me to finish coughing before he said, "You should really do something about that cold."
There could be no mistake: the cold was not then endearing to him.
"Do something," I repeated. "What do you expect me to do?"
"You've been sick for a while," Jacob said evenly. "Don't you want to get better?" It was just barely a question.
"It's not a matter of what I want," I said. "I'm not going to get better."
"I see," said Jacob.
"That is absolute bullshit," I said, and I said, "Dr. Trillingbaum would never say that. He would never say that when he didn't see."
Jacob's face was still. "I understand that you've suffered a trauma. I believe I've made it clear that I understand that. However, I don't understand why it's necessary to mention Dr. Trillingbaum practically every time I touch you."
"Well, then you don't understand anything," I said. And because this didn't seem forceful enough, I added, "You're a terrible therapist."
"I'm not your therapist," Jacob said quietly.
"You're a terrible therapist," I repeated, and repeated a few more times before I realized that insulting him was giving me no pleasure, that nothing could give me pleasure--not hats, nor daffodils, nor tickets, nor his gaze. "I'm sorry," I said. "Don't listen to me. I'm sorry."
This he must have mistaken for true regret, or kindness, or even love, for he said, "Don't worry. It's all right. You're upset," and tried to hold me.
"No," I said. "I'm sorry. I have to go home. I'm sorry."
On the way home Dr. Trillingbaum told me that here was a man who wanted to see me and I was destroying his affections and I told Dr. Trillingbaum, Fuck you.
I told him fuck you for watching me, for saying exquisite, for dying before seeing me in the cranberry bowler. I told him fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
I had never been someone who was flashy in her destructiveness. I had never in a fit of rage or passion cut off my hair or ripped frail curtains and clothes. I had never thrown lamps or overturned plants or run a nail down the bedroom wall.
Unskilled in such acts of violence to my hair and my walls, I made phone calls.
I called Maggie at home and hung up on her machine. I called the shop and left a message. "Hi. It's Isabella. I'm not coming in tomorrow. I'm sick. I'll let you know when I'm better." I called her home machine again and left the same message.
I called Dr. Trillingbaum's machine, but the number had been changed. I called the new number, and a woman's voice came on the machine, a Dr. Elizabeth O'Connor. I could not say for certain whether she was the same woman who had informed me of Dr. Trillingbaum's death, but her voice sounded close enough, and so I said, "Hello, this is Isabella Friedman. I think I spoke to you in March. About Nathan Trillingbaum. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I don't want another fucking therapist. And that you could have at least told me about the funeral . . . If you weren't the one I spoke to . . . do you think you could pass this message along to her? Thanks."
I do not come from the sort of family that digs graves in the backyard for hamsters and goldfish. When our hamster Gretchen died she was disposed of in a plastic bag, the general sentiment being that at least now we wouldn't have to deal with her smelly cage.
Of course, I had nothing of Dr. Trillingbaum's I could bury anyway. Unless I counted an old bill on his letterhead, with dates of service and the fee and, for insurance purposes, the diagnosis code, all in his handwriting along with his signature.
Of course, I had no backyard. Not too many people in New York did. But the brownstones on my block had plots of dirt, and in some cases small gardens, by the front stoops. The plot of dirt in front of my building was covered mostly with gravel and weeds, but there was a spot in the sun that was bare and brown. I decided to go to work.
The ground wasn't well suited to the planting of old psychotherapy bills. Though it was summer, the dirt was stiff and stubborn against the gardening shovel I had bought years before with the intention of repotting some ivy plants. By the time I'd made a dent, my neighbors were offering me water and beer.
"It's about time someone's done something with this dirt," said my upstairs neighbor, watching me from the front steps. Colleen was her name--I knew from her mailbox. "What are you planting?"
"Pansies," I said. When Colleen left I dashed to the florist around the corner. I bought two trays of black pansies. I sat them next to me on the ground as I dug. They watched me with their dark kitten faces.
In the week I took off from work and dug the grave and planted pansies, I received a note from Jacob.
I keep picking up the phone to call you, but then I chicken out. I guess I'm worried that I'll sound like an idiot. So I've decided to sound like an idiot on paper.
Are you okay? I want to talk about what happened. Or we don't have to talk about it, if you don't want. (Just like a therapist: I leave the ball in your court.) But I want to see you. (I was going to make some joke about not patting you on the back, but I thought that might be in bad taste and not that funny anyhow.) Please call or write.
I was unprepared for such a note, and unprepared to be so cheered and touched. I composed in my head gracious and eloquent replies; I imagined a tender reunion. But when, my nails full of dirt, I sat down to write, I pictured Dr. Trillingbaum at his desk, writing out my bill, which now lay buried in the plot of dirt outside my building, the pansies sitting darkly above it. And I thought that Jacob didn't know me, and he didn't know that he didn't know me. I understand you've suffered a trauma, he had said, but he understood nothing, for I had not, then, been suffering much more than a cold; I had not, then, begun to hate Dr. Trillingbaum. And I thought that Dr. Trillingbaum would see how I had not suffered and how I had not hated and would have known that he had not known me. And I felt that my rightful place was there, by myself, by the dark garden I had dug, and that restaurants, and bright cut flowers, and company, and kissing were false.
Dear Jacob, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Hope you are well.
Though I went back to work after a week, my cold lasted for the better part of the summer. I blew my nose and sold hats and watered pansies and went to bed early. I began to think that this was a way of life. Then one morning I awoke to find the cold was gone.
It had poured overnight. The maple tree by the curb had shed large green leaves over the pansies. I picked them off gingerly, afraid to see the damage, but beneath the leaves the pansies sat calm and shyly shining.
The fruit man by Lilia's was selling small plums in a color I had never seen before, whitish with a haze of pink. When I asked for a pound, the man disappeared inside his truck and came out with a mass of white petals fluttering from a wild, curly root: a sapling that would grow into a plum tree if it were planted in the ground. I hadn't enough ground to grow a plum tree, of course, but I found the sight of the sapling so astonishing that I had to buy it along with the plums.
At lunchtime I took the plums and the sapling to the park at Union Square. I wore a cinnamon straw hat with an upturned brim; I hadn't worn a hat outside the shop in some time. I found a space on a bench.
Jacob was sitting on a bench across from me.
He didn't see me. He was reading a newspaper. He was not eating. He had grown a beard.
He finished his article and folded up the paper and stood up. I hadn't started on the plums, but I stood up, too.
And Dr. Trillingbaum stood up with me.
I hadn't really felt his presence on the bench, but now that I had stood he was certainly there, wheezing faintly, trying to sift air into his poor lungs.
Jacob was walking through the crowd in the direction of the university. I felt thick and heavy; I could not possibly move forward; I could not leave Dr. Trillingbaum there at the bench. But as I sat down again, an unbearable sadness came over me. I thought of the cranberry bowler I had not worn to Dr. Trillingbaum's office and of the cinnamon straw I was wearing now and of Jacob's tissues and strawberries. I thought that indeed Jacob did not really know me, and that I didn't know him, and that nonetheless he had given me tissues and I had blown my nose right in front of him, and that perhaps that was, as Dr. Trillingbaum would say, significant. And I thought that I could do only so much for Dr. Trillingbaum by sitting with him on the bench. No--I could do nothing. Dr. Trillingbaum would not be pleased with me for sitting. He was a kind, tired man with difficult lungs; he could use a rest; he could watch me well enough from the bench.
Jacob was nearing the edge of the park. I had to run to catch up with him.
Perhaps he sensed someone following him, perhaps he heard the brush of plums against plastic, for he turned around before I caught up with him, before I said hello.
He looked at me without expression.
"Plums," I said. His eyes, meeting mine, frightened me out of all the usual salutations. I opened the bag so he could see.
He looked at me for a moment longer, as though fearing I was playing some trick, before looking into the bag. "I see," he said. "I mean . . . yes."
"Take one. Please."
He took a plum and held it in his palm.
"How are you?" I asked.
"Fine," he said. "And you?"
"Okay," I said.
"You sound different," he said.
"No cold," I said.
We stared at each other as a wind came up and pushed a flock of pigeons up through the air and sent a rain of plum petals to the ground. He said, "I like your hat."
"Thanks," I said. "I like your beard."
I held up the sapling. "It grows a plum tree," I said.
Jacob looked at the sapling and then parted his fingers to study his plum. "This came from that?" He pointed at the sapling.
"Well, you have to plant it," I said. "Then it grows a tree. Then it grows plums."
Jacob smiled. He bit into his plum. "Not bad," he said.
Juice hung on his beard. The sight embarrassed me, as messes sometimes did. Perhaps it was some effect of the pink, the white, the beard, the teary plum petals, the crazy roots, that kept me looking at him, that made me, despite myself, bite into a plum and make a mess right in front of him as well.