The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.

Remarkable Matters

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The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise? 

It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries.  She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?

Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?

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When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark.  And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?

Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.

Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.

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Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.

Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.

But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse.  The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.

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“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as  caramel.

“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”

“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.

Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.

“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”

Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”

“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”

“Have you?”

Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”

“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”

The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”

Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.

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Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.

“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”

“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”

“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”

Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”

“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”

Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”

Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”

On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.

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Do Not Forget Your Own Heart

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I am not wild about Valentine’s Day. Like many, I believe it is a commercial ploy to boost lackluster sales following the holidays. That said, I still made a Valentines’ Day card with two of my grandchildren recently. We love poster paints, acrylics, watercolors, felt tips, crayons and colored pencils–the lot. They are natural artists, finding new ways to make old concepts interesting, into magnets for eye and heart. I just like to play. The card I made included seven hearts for my five children, my spouse and even myself.

Why me? Well, I’m part of the family, after all. But there is more to it than that. You will begin to understand if you look closely at the image I have shared above from the American Heart Association. They posted it on a Facebook page today, and asked how viewers loved their own hearts. And since I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at the comparatively young age of fifty-one, it struck me as a good thing. So I want to share with you these thoughts today:

Respect your heart; it’s place in your life is paramount. Adore it. Take it out for a rousing walk every day, even on adventures you think you can’t manage but somehow do. The deeper it beats the greater its joy. It will perk up at the attention and be good company no matter what’s around the corner.

Talk to it. Share your awe at its mighty power. Then tell it stories that are rooted in triumphs over trials, random altruistic deeds and vibrant, far-reaching hopes. Show it the best seat in the house, like an old trusted friend who attends every single show. It will want to see every last scene.

Make sure it has opportunities to be courageous; it has the impulses of the brave and stalwart already. Has your heart forgotten you when you forgot it? If it has even failed to give your sinew and bone the strength that it needs, it is not for lack of trying. It came into your possession already a fearsome warrior.

Let it sing even when you are startled by its plaintive or peculiar sounds and thumps. Tend to it immediately if it falters. The rhythms of its compositions are from the stream of celestial music that powers the spheres and lights our skies. Be reminded that God is the grand composer, you the prefect instrument.

Listen to its wisdom; we are given a heart so that our every plane of existence has ready guidance. Encourage it to laugh so that it expands every cell and finds relief from all its labors. But please also let it weep, for the potent tears of the heart purify its blood; without weeping it will close up and then divide against itself.

Breathe. Breathe the fragrances of your beloved’s skin and your grandchild’s hair, the scent of warm bread, wild and subtle winds from the four corners. Rest among wild things. Revel in the earth’s treasures and the blessed waters. Pull beauty into the heart’s chambers and grant it peace.

Dance with your heart, leap and fling your arms wide so it bounces against your ribs and resettles when you drift along the horizon of your living. Let it carry you into odd moments and release you into wonder. Are you sitting still even now? Get up and move for no good reason. Jump into the center of you; give your heart its due.

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Create for it. Expose your dreams, feelings and fascinating random imaginings. The heart likes nothing more than to be moved or flabbergasted by something new. Submitting to the thrill of capturing an idea and giving it structure refuels us. We are born creators because we are part of God. Your heart knows this even if you do not.

Feed it so it runs as well as it can. Not too much, but foods fresh with color and taste that prepare you for greater things. Eat only what fills the need so that your body is grateful for its nourishment and not burdened. And add chocolate or chilies; be impertinent and surprise your body.

Share this heart that you were made to have and to hold all your worldly days. When someone reaches, hands echoing with emptiness or regret or misery, reach back. Don’t be afraid. If there is a lack of grace, just let your heart speak. When someone falls to their knees, let your heart lie down beside theirs and speak to it. This is all that you both will need.

Do you believe you are alone? You will be made ready for love if you tend it and offer it. It may take patience; it does take courage. Your loneliness is the result of forgetting you live here among friends. We all are alone. But we have human hearts that want to know one another. They save us from ourselves. Our hearts know we are in this together.

When your day is done, do this last thing: look to your heart. Unload any weight it carries. Pray for its freedom from resentments. Soothe it with psalms for the living. For this day has brought you to this moment, to this night. And whether hearty or frail, your heart is still beating, beating like the wings of a mighty messenger, teaching and carrying you through this brief life. Be merciful, be kind to it, and it will fill you with strength enough to go the remaining miles.

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