Blame it on the Rain
by Michelle Auerbach
It's always raining when I do these things. Any port in a storm, gimme shelter from the storm, stormy weather, raindrops keep falling on my head. My eyes will be turning red soon. Oh. Pathetic fallacy.
Dr. Hawthorne’s door is two steps down into this grotto with Tudor beams hanging overhead. Terrible feng shui. So dark and 1600’s. Mary Queen of Scots and hiding in the priests’ closet and the War of the Roses. Where is Oliver Cromwell? That grotto must be about 75 feet below sea level. No, higher, since we are on Murray Hill. Let’s say 195 feet above sea level.
Ding dong. I am the dapper fedora-ed Fred Astaire. An ingénue in a bias cut oyster satin dress with a cigarette in a long black holder will answer the door in her satin mules. The light will be gelled pink so that she glows diffusely. She will look at me with her almond shaped eyes and quip. We will exchange quick, fast-paced dialogue that will end us up with a close up and I will doff my hat and the next shot will be the birds warbling their aubade. Someone wrote that. Who?
“Heather? What are you doing here? It is pouring. You’re soaked in that t-shirt. Get in out of the rain.” Hawthorne looked surprised. I was, after all, at his door. That was the point. The element of surprise, happy birthday, surprise, it’s me, Heather. I should have worn saran wrap. Snuck up on you. Are you mad, mad hatter?
Dr. Hawthorne pulled me into the foyer, which was colder than the rain outside, since the floor was slate and got no sun through that leaded glass. That stuff must be easy to break. I could do it. Anyone could. Not very safe. I wonder how dangerous it is, the lead part. Poisonous? Could you die from it if somehow you ended up drinking something that had come into contact with it? Brushing up against it? If you did it every day?
We walked up two steps, back to ground level. Let’s call it 200 feet above sea level. The living room a ship’s galley. It had those same hanging beams painted black. It made the ceiling loom portentously. Any second it could drop on you. There is a reason that those are lightened up with mirrors when you feng shui a house. It’s hard to look away when you think the ceiling may drop at any moment. Pull your eyes down, Heath. Down.
Dr. Hawthorne sat in a wing chair and crossed his legs. That’s the same chair in his office. Must have been a matched set of Wedgwood blue wing chairs from someone’s sunroom back when this apartment was just a mansion on the hill. His mother’s? Do men buy chairs like those? Straight men? Shrinks? I started my usual pacing. Feel the texture of the carpet where it’s worn down to the beige warp and weft. Were my feet bare? When had I taken off my shoes? Which shoes were they? Where did I leave them? Would I miss them the next time I went to get dressed or would they be like the clothes you see abandoned by the highway, lost and forgotten?
“So, Heather, what brings you here on this dark and stormy night?” Dr. Hawthorne said with that velvet laughter in his voice.
“I am lonely,” I told him. “I am so lonely and everything feels like it’s happening outside me where I can’t reach it.”
There was a pause. I don’t know how long. A Freudian Pause. I think he expected me to go on, but I wasn’t sure what to go on about. Which part was the pause meant for? His eyes are so lovely. Looking into them like this could make me cry. Could bring tears out if I let them, it’s like being inside him looking at him like this. Oh, but that ceiling. Wait, don’t look up. Look at him. What was the point?
“So lonely I will explode and fly off into space and I don’t know what’s beyond the universe, since I can’t conceive of nothingness. Don’t tell me that that nothingness is G-d because that’s worse and you know it. I can’t calm down. My fingertips are buzzing. Everything that touches my skin itches or burns. This t-shirt, inside out, was all I could find that felt okay. Otherwise the seams were killing me.
“I’ve been out for five hours just walking around. I started at Coventry since I look like a freak and it’s a freak street, and it’s right by my house. Arabica for decaf coffee, don’t need caf tonight. Mac’s Back’s Books, I couldn’t concentrate on the titles, that weird pool place on Cedar Hill, then I realized I was almost here. By accident on purpose. I can’t cry or not cry and I can’t sit still.”
“What else?” he asked.
“Nothing. There’s nothing else. No school, no writing, this is it. I can’t even imagine that this morning I was wearing my grown-up clothes and talking to a bunch of math geeks who need to take a literature class to graduate. It was definitely someone else. Does this mean I have MPD?”
He shook his head “no” and started to laugh. He always laughed at my self-diagnosis. Misdiagnosis. I have the DSM, I read it, all of it. I know what the diagnosis is of all the Brontë Sisters. I know what it is for my dad, and for my mom. In some ways, Hawthorne reminds me of my dad. Not in a sick way. I sat down at the foot of his chair and put my head in his lap. Frozen silence. Glacial. The Khumbu Icefall of silence littered with the detritus of years of therapy in some other room where we should have been talking instead of here. I feel my head vibrate when his knee twitched. It’s warm there, and I can feel this humming in his veins. It feels real. Human. Vulnerable.
“What I need is a shaman,” I said, “a witch doctor to hold me together with pre-colonial magic. Wrap me up in a sacred skin and swaddle me. Stop the constant expansion of the universe as seen in holographic microcosm inside my skin. Inside is the known universe, about which we actually know bubkes. Outside is that eternal nothingness. Where does that put you? Are there life forms in the nothingness? Are you real? You feel real. You feel like the first man, Adam. Is that your first name? No, I know it’s Bruce. I don’t think I ever said that out loud before.”
He patted my back and my head at first, it was stiff and mechanical. I could feel how much he did not want me there, but when I started shaking he slowed down and held his hand on my back just where my Bubbe said my Angel wings would be. In that one space, maybe a 5x7 note card rectangle and I felt calm. This is what normal people feel like. But all over.
“Oh, look Bruce, that’s where my body ends and the benevolent outside world begins. I’ll put my purple stretch pants on and we’ll go to the mall.”
“This is not the end-game, Heather. I am sure you could find a shaman to do just that, heal you. Even in Cleveland. What you need to do is learn to hold yourself together. That is where to go. Inside, not out,” Dr. Hawthorne said.
He took his hand away and stood up. Oh, the space that is G-d pulling back a bit to make space. Room for this corporeal fucked-up universe. Just like the Hasidic folk tales tell us. Next thing you know, he’ll be pouring light into me till I explode. Shattering my vessel. This is all my fault. I wanted a male therapist in the first place to have a surrogate father because that’s what the books tell you. What they don’t tell you is that it feels real. It feels so so so real.
* * *
That first day in his office, our interview, I told him as much.
“I want to be re-parented and all that Freudian transference bullshit,” I told him.
“How much do you know about Freudian bullshit?” he asked.
“A lot,” I boasted. Immediate and overwhelming shame.
He had kind teeth. Whiter than most but not that fake bleached white. Kind hands. Strong long piano players fingers without deadly knuckle hair. They had precision and grace in the way they held his pen and flipped it with his thumb, a tiny baton twirling move. He probably masturbated with precision and grace. It appeared to be the way he touched everything.
“Well, Freud was the literary criticism of the day when I was in undergraduate school. I took Freud from the psychiatrists to understand,” I said. Cringy. Awful horrible no impulse control cringy.
“I am no Freudian,” he said, “I am the psycho-spiritual child of Freud and Jung but I don’t hold the therapeutic container so sacred. How is that?” he laughed.
And so we started. I enjoyed being crazy. Bipolar affective disorder, ADD, borderline personality disorder, or the worst thought of all, was I just a hysteric? An everyday Woody Allen kind of neurotic? So mediocre in a life of better than average accomplishment. My relationship at first was with the DSM.
“I am sick of my childhood,” I told Dr. Hawthorne after a few years of therapy. “So sick of my father’s emotional absence compounded by his physical presence. Sick of my mother whose only distinguishing feature was her golden retriever colored hair. “Oh, hi everyone, my name is Heather Lynn Kane and my father, the very reverend rabbi Michael Kane, not the actor, is the rabbi of St. Urban’s Church. The only synagogue founded on the concept that synagogues are, well, too, too Jewish. Yes my grandparents founded it but no, it is not nepotism.”
My father had an office in the synagogue decorated in religious artifacts from around the world. “You have made a decorating style out of Avodah Zarah,” a visiting rabbi once told him. My father repeated it to us so proudly. A decorating style of idol worship. One of Judaism’s big no no’s.
When he was busy in his study at home I would go in quietly and build a playhouse around his desk out of blocks. Then we were playing together, because he was the occupant of the house I was building. Sometimes, I would make the house big, and stretch out the space between the blocks so that it could circle the rug under the desk. Sometimes I would make two layers of blocks, tightening the circle so that I was sitting with my back against the desk and my feet tucked under me to fit in the house with him. When he got up to find a book on the shelf, a quote, a reference, he would kick over the wall of the house. I would wait till he was settled to rebuild it.
I eventually chose books. Nineteenth century novels filled with orphans, the nouveau riches, fallen women, polite society, and very few rabbis.
“It is all pilpul,” my father declared. “Yes, I will pay for a Ph.D. in basket weaving if it makes you happy but in the end literary criticism is just like Talmudic studies. You learn pilpul.”
Pilpul is the nitpicky arguments about Jewish law flipping back and forth between accepted references. Maybe I just had it in my genetic code to be good at it.
“I am sick to the very death of my past,” I told Dr Hawthorne. “But what else is there?”
“Well, there is right now,” he said.
* * *
Right now I am sitting in his house, on the floor, with my forehead on the seat of his chair while he is making me the ubiquitous, obligatory cup of tea. Two things people tell you when you feel crazy that are useless and yet oft-used. Take a bath. Have a cup of tea. If a cup of tea made me feel better I’d be in an English mystery novel. This is more like Daphne du Maurier, or anyhow Raymond Chandler, except we are in Cleveland and so it’s more like plaid suits and pierogies. This was the dining room when this grand old house was chopped into apartments and there is a pass-through window to the kitchen just above the chair. It was like the kitchen in the Long Goodbye, the book, not the movie. That’s just how I pictured it. And really, Hawthorne could be a movie star.
I can see the girth of his waist, slim and sinuous, and those hands, but not his head.
Why does everyone make tea in an emotional crisis? If one more person tells me to take a bath, I will die. Oh dear, you need to learn to take better care of yourself. Why don’t you relax with some bath salts and read a trashy romance novel? No baths. No herbal tea. Not salts from the Dead Sea packaged as American beauty products. Soak in this and you will emerge a Sabra with an AK-47 and olive skin ready to kill some Palestinians over a big property dispute. Now finish your chamomile.
All my life I have wanted two things. Someone I could crack myself open on so my insides would slither out, and someone to wrap me up in cotton batting and treat me like a delicate object.
“Tea to fortify you for your trip home,” Dr. Hawthorne said.
He stooped under the walnut arch to step into the dining room made living room that looked like a miniature Norwegian ship’s galley circa 600 C.E. and handed me a bone china cup of grandparental vintage. Maybe the woman in the oyster satin dress drank something out of this very cup. I am not going to drink the tea because I am not going to feel better because it never feels I will feel better till I am so depressed I forget I ever felt this way.
“Bone china is not kosher,” I told him.
* * *
It has been five years of therapy. Five years of living in Cleveland and teaching at Case Western University. My Grandmother Kane went to Case when it was Flora Stone Mather College, a scientific education for women. She became a librarian. My life in Cleveland must be some sort of scientifically interesting recidivism.
I have not had time for other experiments. Dr. Hawthorne has become the control group for the grand experiment of my life. That to which all is compared. The sine qua non. No one else has the right combination of precise hands, and a real man’s girth, and strength. No one has ever loved me so purely and unambivalently. Psychobabble bullshit unconditional love.
“Good,” he said when I told him all this. “Heather, you are a smart girl, you know good transference when you see it.”
“And, I also know good counter-transference when I see it on your face,” I countered.
“Touché,” he said.
* * *
“How is your counter-transference today?” I asked trying to read my cinnamon apple spice tea leaves, inside their bag, in my cup.
“How does it feel still trying to win the Oedipal battle at 33?” he said.
“It is a Phyrric victory.”
“Let’s talk about you Heather.” But he was invigorated by psychological pilpul.
“I am here because I’ll explode out there. I don’t want to take that step and see what it’s like to explode. I’m willing to entertain the idea that medication might be okay. Look. I thought about the E.R. but they would put me on lithium, only my crazy Aunt Susan’s on lithium. People with waistlines and hope do not go on lithium. So I came here. Do not tell me to go home or to take a bath.”
“Fine. I’ll even go with you to the psychiatrist if you so desire.”
He was standing across the room leaning against the wall with one foot on the molding around the entrance hall arch. About as far away as you can get.
“What is my DSM diagnosis? What will you tell them?”
“Oh I don’t know, cyclothymia, bipolar disorder II.”
“Why not borderline personality disorder?”
“No Heather, you don’t get to be that crazy. You will have to settle for the golden mean, just as in everything else, only slightly crazy.”
“You say golden mean and I hear mediocre.” I wanted to cry but couldn’t. Sometimes the crying will bring me back to real life where people feel like they are in the same room with me. I can feel the insistent emotion behind my face. It just does not know how to make that leap into my eyes. So I can see, but I can’t see what it is I feel.
“That’s your perspective,” he said.
I held my hands around my neck like a noose and stuck my tongue out, head lolling to the side.
“Do something. Do something. I can’t keep feeling this way for one more second. Not one. If I have to stay alone in here for one moment longer I will, well, scream? Die? Please. Don’t send me back out there alone. You really don’t get what this is like. You read. You see movies. You know crazy from the outside in. Not the inside out. Don’t you ever want to know how it feels? I know you do. I know you, Bruce Hawthorne. I know you get a thrill out of it, the closer you get to feeling it. I know you do.”
“How I feel, Heather, is not part of our relationship.”
He’s so cold. He protests too much. It’s right there, Bruce. I can see it behind your eyes. Those who do, can see. I can see that you have something hovering behind your affect that you are choosing not to show and you don’t even know I know.”
“We don’t have a relationship, we have an hour.”
“Heather, don’t make yourself the victim here. I’m not your father.”
I feel the heat first in my cheeks, then in my arms and then it covers my back. It’s like his electric range back there in the kitchen was turned on and the coil heated up.
“I once pressed my hand to the coil of the stove when it was on, to see what it felt like.” I’m not sure he will make the leap.
“How did it feel?”
“I felt it.”
“You feel more than you realize, Heather. You are not frigid.”
“I’m not.” I try to look at him as though I am wearing the oyster satin dress, which is hard, since I was Fred earlier and it’s a quick switch, but I know how she would look. Her eyes wide, her mouth open, her tongue just behind her lips. A promise. A contest. An offer.
Another pause. This time not Freudian. This time the pause is the hum when the range has been turned on and the burner is just getting going.
“You don’t look like yourself,” he says. Very Dr. Hawthorne, not at all Bruce.
“Finally, you are listening to me.”
“What do you need Heather?”
He shook his head with kindness and dogged defeat and disappeared behind the only real door in the room. Those arches might be heavy but at least the energy can flow through arches without much trouble. Closed doors are bad feng shui. It’s all fluid physics. Not so complicated.
I collapsed like Eloise from the children’s book, all slumped over with a space under my arm, like an orphan or something. My head on the chair, I picked at the rug. It was 2:30 in the morning.
Dr. Hawthorne opened the door and motioned me to come in. He had made up the bed in his room with clean white sheets and a dark blue duvet. The bed was low and had no headboard or footboard. Bad feng shui again, how can anyone stay sane with their chi bouncing off the walls all night?
“Go to sleep if you can,” he said. “I will be out in the living room.”
The door to the bathroom was open and the light was on. He had arranged clean towels on the back of the toilet just for me. It was the victory that meant I was a better manipulator, crazy at two in the morning, than anyone else could ever imagine. It meant some combination of my crisis, my body, and all the talk of five years won me some prize I knew full well I was better off not having. I made him be nice to me. Nicer than he should. Nicer than I knew what to do with. This was genuine. This was real. The towel, the clean freshly unwrapped bar of soap.
A sliver of kindness nicked me. An unrecoverable splinter. I really did try to cry quietly. There was too much life trying to fit out that tiny hole and it hurt. I could hear someone wailing, keening, moaning, I could hear her from a small distance and I found myself vaguely irritated. I was in a groove, coasting above the rain, the damp cold Cleveland night, and she was bringing me down. Way down.
Having him hold my head while I cried and touch my forehead helped, in that it shattered me all together. I could feel the lamentation, and it was coming from my throat. I’m sure snot poured out my nose. I have been told that I’m beautiful when I’m sad. Tragic beauty goes well with Semitic looks. It was not that kind of crying. It was the teeth clenched face contorted gulping and braying kind.
I held on to Dr. Hawthorne with both my fists, they were grabbing the back of his shirt and twisting the fabric. I could feel his rib cage against me and the reality of the 208 bones that strung together made him. I felt his neck, all the vertebrae. I cupped them with my hand, and they seemed to belong to someone I knew. Someone real to me. Close.
The crying did ebb. Kindness had room to fit in through my membranes. An osmosis of kindness. First the movements were big. Finding his body all over the bed. Having to feel everything. Keeping my eyes shut tight. My hands buzzing. I found the specifics eventually and that brought me down to the bed. Back to his fingers. His lips and their dimensions. The length of his femur. The wide sway of his shoulders as he put his arms around me. The feeling of awe when he slipped inside me. The pull at the back of my throat when he moved.
He sat up against the wall and I lay in his lap until I fell asleep. I did not freeze back into a shell. Then. For this moment something from outside made it inside and the relief was old scotch in my stomach warming my toes.
Pounding on the door woke me up. Voices in the foyer echoing off the slate floor.
“Bruce, where the fuck are you. It’s ten. We let ourselves in.”
I found myself talking to a character from the drawing room of an episode of Upstairs Downstairs. Some British flapper novel or comedy of manners. Except she was his sister-in-law. Each hair in her bob shellacked in place so that it showed the intimacy of her neck in the back and covered her jaw in the front. His brother was black button down GQ man. I could not escape from the feeling that the question was coming. I did the check I always do when I just get up and the night before was bad. Am I here? Do I recognize myself? Am I dressed? Do I know where I am? Does anything hurt? Did I hurt anyone else? Do I remember? Do I care?
There is a Zen Buddhist tale about a monk who is hanging on a rope over an abyss. Above him is a roaring tiger and below a drop to sure death. He sees a mouse gnawing at the rope. In front of him growing out of the cliff is a bunch of strawberries. He lets go the rope and eats a strawberry. What a delicious strawberry he thinks. I sipped my coffee and thought, oh, what delicious coffee.
* * *
You can hear G-d in silence, my father said. People ask all kinds of questions of G-d from “Gimme a bike” to “Is he cheating on me?” but they are too stupid to shut up and listen in silence for the answers.
My mom was so quiet that she blended into the wallpaper. She was as quiet and ubiquitous as the help at the Playhouse Club. That’s where we went for occasions. We were served by middle aged African-Americans in black maids’ dresses and white aprons. They hovered behind your chair. I tried not to drink or eat anything so they wouldn’t need to remove a fork or fill so much as an ice cube. Whenever my parents say “We will celebrate at the Playhouse Club,” I clap my hands and say “Yippee, I love being waited on by subservient negroes.”
My dad, Rabbi Kane, Mr. "Tikkun Olam" — repair of the world, raise the sparks of G-d in everything, Martin Luther King Jr. is a modern Moses — can’t see the harm in being a slave master. Not at the club, and not at home.
“She was an orphan,” the very reverend Dr. Rabbi Kane would say about my mom by way of explanation. My mother learned two things surviving the war: there is no G-d, and survival means flying under the radar. That is the kind of quiet I learned. Not that nothing is going on, but that nothing is better than what’s going on.
Emet, truth. My father held truth as the basis of his spiritual inquiry. If it had no ring of truth to it, it was chucked. Gefilte fish and cooked carrots waiting on warm lettuce at a table set for 20 with crystal stalagmites and Aunt Dora wearing all her jewelry at once. That is the truth I live with in my head.
In books you get someone else’s truth. Better by far than mine. In therapy I was hoping that the gefilte fish and subterfuge is not all I really have.
* * *
The kitchen was narrow and small. I could smell everyone. I was back in my t-shirt inside out and crackly from dried pollution. Everyone was outside the bubble. I was the star of that made for TV movie about the boy in the plastic bubble. I smiled and waved but no one could see me clearly, and I couldn’t really hear them. Better that way. Everything they said made me the rpm display gauging my nerve endings go a little higher. So the check ended with is it all real? Usually on a good day the answer was yes. Today, definitely not.
“So you know Bruce professionally?” The Upstairs Downstairs heroine asked me.
* * *
The kitchen had one window set high and long, rather than tall. Outside of it I could see the branches of a tree curving past the window, a monochromatic spindly rainbow. The sky was milky white as if someone added a reagent to a previously clear substance.
I counted one year. We get eleven days of sun between November and April. It’s the Lake Effect. I never heard that as a child, that Lake Erie causes all the clouds. We only had storms then. Isolated incidences of bad weather. When I moved back to Cleveland, it was a known fact. The Lake Effect. Some bit of geographic meteorological truth not available in the ‘70s. Weather can tell you a lot about a place. And about the people it manufactures.
I looked at him across the table. He was looking at me and there was not truth to it. No need to divulge. No sense that this moment was any more real to him than it was to me. Except that I was the crazy one.
Here’s the thing about it. It feels better than you think it does. There is a perverse pleasure in it. The impossibility and the inevitability of it. It’s as though I’m both G-d and the weather and I feel the storm swell inside me, clouds spinning, rain beating on my organs, and it breaks free of me with a cell dividing tear. I’m sure an amoeba feels the urge, the pull, the desire, the movement, and the pop. And then the relief. It’s like that. And there’s shame in that.
I look across the table and behind the oh so kind and reasonable eyes of Dr. Hawthorne, there is nothing I can do anything with. I guess at the end of the night, when the lovers part, even in those thrillers from the 40’s, there is something they don’t catch on film. Something that drives them, like a high pressure system.
* * *
“Are you a client of his?” Miss flat-chested flapper bunny sucking all the light out of the known universe asked me.
“No,” he said.
That’s the line past which we do not go.
“Can I get you some more coffee,” he asks me. I forgot I was in the room.
“Sure,” I extend my cup.
He poured the steaming liquid the color of his eyes into the bone china cup. The cream spun, cumulus and nimbus. I knew I was still there, but I was gone.
Michelle Auerbach is the author of The Third Kind of Horse (2013 Beatdom Books). Her writing has appeared in (among other places) The New York Times, The London Guardian, The Denver Quarterly, Chelsea Magazine, Bombay Gin, and the literary anthologies The Veil (UC Berkley Press), Uncontained Baksun Books, and You. An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person (Welcome Table Press). She is the winner of the 2011 Northern Colorado Fiction Prize. Michelle can be found at www.michelleauerbach.com.
Pierre Melloul is a photographer from France. View more of his work at Flickr.