At least the girl was never late, thought Sylvia, and even though she paid for each session with bedraggled wads of cash that made one remember how dirty and distasteful money was —“What the hell does she think this is? One of those goddamn Indian curry takeaways?” Sylvia’s father would have said —Maya did pay on time, up front, twice a week for their entire psychoanalysis so far, three months. Enough to fund Sylvia’s two new and beautiful teakwood armoires.
Now waiting for Maya’s session to start, Sylvia sat in the chair, museum-quality, that she’d found on an antiquing trip focused on wood. Rosewood, bamboo, tropical breeds. Comfort without indolence; luxury without opulence, the shop’s ad said. The Asian antiques shop had the opposite of some Oriental despot aesthetic that might have appealed to Maya, who’d shown up for past sessions wearing pointed brocade shoes and carrying rusty old hookahs, one of which she’d offered Sylvia.
Whenever Maya herself sat on one of these antique wooden chairs, she left behind a strangely sweaty curry smell, which Sylvia was too embarrassed about noticing to bring up to her old teacher, the one she’d engaged as a supervisor when she’d realized how uncomfortable Maya made her.
Sylvia saw him every Tuesday nowadays, after years of checking in rarely.
Counter-transference, that was all—the way her heart beat so fast whenever she heard Maya’s buoyant footsteps on the stairs on the stairs to this office. Counter-transference that had to be discussed. “Revulsion,” Sylvia had said in a hoarse half-whisper to her old supervisor, now in his eighties. “Revulsion is what she makes me feel.”
“Eh?” he’d said, forcing her to repeat the word over and over though his hearing was fine.
“The revulsion,” he finally echoed. It was a word he would like for its passionate connotation, its confrontation, its elevation of what they were doing as psychoanalysts in this day and age—“Working for the insurance companies, wasting our time with paperwork,”—into something necessary and elemental. “Revulsion. Finally, the smell of blood, of life,” he’d said, leaning back with satisfaction in his chair, as if he supervised a murderer, Sylvia thought.
Here now in Sylvia’s own office, there was no hint of blood on the well-maintained Persian carpet, or on her analyst’s clear red chair with its footstool and the sumptuous analyst’s couch in the same color, narrow and immaculate in its assumption of the fitness and good grooming of its clientele, long with a raised end made by a sort of curlicue that was firmer and more sculpted than an ordinary pillow, the bookshelves around it with first editions and gilt-edged collections, the original paintings —a Romare Bearden, a small Degas drawing —and all important, the analyst’s clock, a gold Bulova with its face turned toward Sylvia, tactfully away from the patient.
Sylvia herself was polished, calm. Prada bag hanging on the door, delicate high-heeled shoes, silk blouse neat and tucked inside a suit with good, clean lines. Revulsion, anger, and fine, that something else, the pause, Sylvia thought, as she turned the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalogue while waiting for Maya to arrive.
She paused each time a slender brown young girl modeled a pair of riding boots or a sinuous dress, a girl with hair the texture of Maya’s. Despite her striking beauty, Maya usually looked slovenly. During the day, Maya was an analyst—a research drone for some sort of web-based technology, politely anonymous, polished for the white folks she saw day in and out. Only disheveled for black Sylvia.
From the beginning Maya herself denied that anything serious brought her to therapy, feeling that things were sure to turn around. That therapy was just ‘covering bases’, doing something her internist, a real doctor, and not just some psychologist like Sylvia was, had pressed upon her, even writing Sylvia’s address on a prescription pad. A week before Maya first came to Sylvia, Maya’s internist had diagnosed her as ‘being a little depressed.’ “Not like anyone thinks I’m having a nervous breakdown, you know?” Maya had said. And anyway, these days, for patients like Maya who held down jobs and weren’t doing drugs, big-impact nervous breakdowns went in slow motion if they happened at all, like young leaves quietly turning shades of brown before they curled up, fluttered down and, disintegrating, disappeared. Though Maya was already a beautiful shade of brown—a much darker shade than Sylvia herself, though in the political color scheme, it was Maya and not Sylvia who was considered nearly white. White enough so there was an Indian-American governor in Louisiana nowadays. Sylvia had learned about the Christian-converted Indian-American Southern man from reading an article, sitting in her mother’s warm kitchen at home and halfway listening to the loud sound she couldn’t get away from, her father in his study next to them talking back to Rush Limbaugh, during commercial breaks ranting about how disgusting it was that now the KKK white folks and all their unrighteous brethren could call on the monkey immigrants, the curry smelling and unpronounceable Indians, the fucking Hindoos, to do some of their dirty work and get away with calling it “diversity.” How there needed to be more militias alright. Black militias run by the right men.
Sylvia’s mother had not been raised to hold the views that Sylvia’s father did. She’d listened carefully to Sylvia’s uncharacteristically impassioned description of affluent, educated Maya with her Indian doctor parents, listened to Sylvia saying “this patient” in an impatient tone of voice—complaining about how offensive it was to have cash dumped on the table every session, as if Maya thought of black Sylvia as her cleaning lady, completely disrespecting her knowledge, and Sylvia’s mother heard the meaning, not just words. She intuited, somehow, that Maya despite her money was not quite fortunate. “What is it about the poor child that bothers you this much?” she’d wanted to know —prompting Sylvia, like Daddy did, to refrain from telling Mother anything.
You couldn’t become a therapist by being nice, Sylvia would have said, if she were still sixteen or twenty-two and not age forty-seven and therefore past debating her mother. But Mother’s empathy sometimes rankled Sylvia. And any decent therapist knew that being too empathic got in the way of being a therapist. You couldn’t be soft. You had to fend for yourself. Acknowledged or not, there usually was the smell of blood—people were brutal when exposed and vulnerable. People could hurt. They’d strike out if you didn’t watch. Keeping up your guard, while smiling warmly—key.
Sylvia’s mother had never had to keep up much of a guard in life, Sylvia’s father always said. She looked white, for one thing, with very soft stick-straight hair like a Sicilian girl who had been fed well and treated kindly all her life, hair Sylvia herself hadn’t inherited and now didn’t have the time or inclination to simulate. And Sylvia’s mother, in addition to having a near-encyclopedic knowledge of French wines, Early American furniture, and antebellum history, was a poet, a working artist stopping with one child —Sylvia. “These are my other children,” her mother would say, gesturing at her eleven published books. In addition to the slim and highly-lauded volumes of poetry she had published in her eighty years, all of them proudly displayed in the mahogany bookcase built by her father’s hands that sat behind the antique Shaker rocking chair in her parents’ living room, Sylvia’s mother had quietly pulled off another life accomplishment: she had more or less brought up nearly a hundred talented young poets over twenty years, her select group of students in a five-person writing seminar that she gave every year.
Each year, for these lucky few young poets, the culmination of the seminar was reading the best poem they’d ever written while seated on the Shaker Chair, fashioned for someone hard-working to rest in late at night. Sylvia’s mother inherited the chair from ancestors who had been taken in, more or less rescued, by the splinter sect. Shaker white men who were slim and quick enough to sit upon this chair and others like it had once been safe and warm inside a house two hours away from Sylvia’s childhood home in Lexington, in a Shaker homestead on the Underground Railroad. Men with heavy black shoes, blue-eyed like Sylvia’s old supervisor, had once smoked pipes and stroked their beards while discussing the fates of fugitive slaves huddled in their barn, “hidden away,” her mother explained, “to protect them,” while Sylvia’s father cut his eyes at the chair, and shook his head no when Sylvia’s mother asked him if something was bothering him.
During her mother’s life-changing conversations with her young college acolytes sitting attentively in lotus position on the floor of their living room —nobody daring to touch the Shaker chair, of course —Sylvia’s father was a silent, skeptical presence, moving in and out of earshot, nodding politely, keeping his own secrets of the house, some of which Sylvia knew but wouldn’t tell.
A startlingly dark-skinned corporate man whose parents had come from Lagos, Nigeria, Efraim Etibet was a man who wore the mask that grinned and lied outside but wouldn’t wear it in his house, and whose anger was simple, Sylvia had always thought, and often effective. Their neighbors in Lexington, for example, Asians for the most part, Indians and Chinese and Koreans, kept a respectful distance. Sylvia’s might have been the only black family in the neighborhood, but there was never any garbage placed on their lawn, no messages of egg yolks or shaving cream, no stomach-turning graffiti. Not that the immigrant professors and engineers and doctors who lived in Lexington would ever think of it. But Sylvia’s father insisted it was his silent demeanor that had kept them within bounds all these long years, his ability to lose all trace of any accent whenever he needed, because he had come to this country at the age of eight.
Around the same age that Maya was, when she had immigrated to the US, with her parents.
The Lexington neighbors had also kept their distance from Sylvia and her mother, Eugenia. With their self-containment—their sweater sets, designer suits and seriousness about being something different than a wife, Sylvia and her mother never had much to say to the workaday Asian women who worked for big pharma and always looked harried, shuttling kids to soccer games, or more-casually put together, stay-at-home mom neighbors. The stay-at-home Asian women in their tight-fitting designer sweats were usually the wives of rich white executives; the women in lumpy pantsuits much better educated immigrants, like from India.
“It’s a matter of getting respect from Indians, they’ve never really had it for their black counterparts anywhere in the world, Eugenia. They’ve never even seen us as counterparts,” her father had explained to Sylvia’s mother, about Sylvia’s reaction to Maya, and Sylvia nodded with relief at being understood, of being allowed her revulsion — thinking of Maya’s nonchalance, her strange ways of communicating, her dirt, her lank hair and unwashed smell. A smell of dark earth. Intoxicating, in its way.
Now with only seconds left alone, Sylvia shuddered in the elite refuge of her office, finally hearing Maya’s step. Revulsion, Sylvia thought again. But maybe the patient, like other patients, would improve. Maybe, Sylvia thought, there would be a transformation in the weeks and months ahead, and Maya would come to a session smelling clean, face scrubbed, hair pinned up sleekly, wearing the high quality pressed skirt suit she wore for her job and taking out a cool, discreet credit card out of a designer wallet. Smiling at Sylvia without an intention to provoke. Taking for granted that both she and Sylvia belonged.
And maybe then Maya would be real. Really herself, instead of one of any number of fakers who, like the faces of Eve, could show up on any given day—the torn-up little girl, helpless and huge-eyed waif asking for Sylvia to please please please rescue her; or Maya the shrewd-eyed seductress, asking Sylvia if it was “the normal thing” to talk about sex in therapy, or whether it was rude, and risked “turning on the therapist too much”; or worst of all, to Sylvia’s mind, the fake Maya like an unkempt, pathetic Third-World whore who stood on garish rickety heels as a humiliation to all women of color who happened to be in her vicinity, the bad smell of Maya’s body magnified by glaringly cheap clothes, ill-fitting, too short and tight, smeared-on make-up, matted hair.
Today was surprising—bringing Maya in an androgynous black ninja hood, loose pants like what the white boy skaters wore around the Harvard T—but then when she lifted the hood, an ugly metal piercing linked her nostrils, like a yoked animal, and in her hair, a streak of unreal pinkish-red. Maya as punk. The statue of a Hindu goddess, defiled.
“You like?” Maya asked Sylvia, looking gorgeous when she smiled, dumping the cash from her pockets onto Sylvia’s otherwise organized desk, then taking a seat on the edge of the fancy analyst couch, saying nothing and refusing, as usual, to lie down.
Sylvia nodded, also saying nothing. “Let her be the one to begin,” was her trained internal directive. “Let the patient tell you where to go.”
But the silence went on, broken a full minute later only by Maya’s rough laugh, which left Sylvia directionless. Maya’s voice was pitched lower than her age and looks made one expect.
Sylvia persisted in her strategy, not saying a word.
Maya sighed and blew out a raspberry, scratching herself under one armpit, snorting as if her nose-ring itched.
All dyke again. Though Sylvia herself wasn’t gay- just sort of a secular Buddhist, these days. Meditating on a silk round pillow in a hushed candlelit room in western Mass, going on weeklong retreats followed by spa treatment at a good salon in the Back Bay, disdaining public and excessive gatherings, like the People of Color sitting in Cambridge that provided an easy way for black and Latina Buddhist lesbians to find each other, while Sylvia and the few, lone, lonely Asian men who weren’t gay looked on, the one time Sylvia had gone to see what it was like to have a black woman meditation teacher, a friend of her mother’s, a retired corporate lawyer. One of the “goddamn bohemians” her father tried to prevent from ever visiting her parents’ house. (“They bring drugs, the police come, and guess whose shit they’ll say it is?” he pointed out. “That’s all what they really want to do here in the woods. Yoga, my ass,” he would say, saying J for Y. “It is a joke.”)
“Don’t worry about your parents, they’ll be fine if you leave Boston,” her most recent boyfriend (though she was too old for boyfriends) had suggested to Sylvia recently, after listening to her complain about her father and his anger, how exhausted she became from worrying about him. The boyfriend’s name had been Ken, like the doll, and he had been white. He’d admired her tiny but tasteful Back Bay apartment, her Benz.
He thought nothing of how many weekends and evenings Sylvia still spent at her parents’ being fed, cared for—though now she was old enough to care for them.
“Just think of it: Santa Fe, New Mexico. While I work on the rez—you set up a community mental health clinic. They need that too, Sylvia. They’d make you director. Psychology, all comers. You’ll have a flourishing clinic in a week. It would be meaningful. We could even adopt a couple of kids, if you wanted.” Latino or Native American kids, he’d meant, or even black if there were any in New Mexico foster care somehow. In bed that night she’d kissed Ken on his bare dark-blond hair covered chest. But that had been six weeks ago, and she’d said no. Now he was leaving Boston anyway. He hadn’t consulted her before accepting the New Mexico job in the first place. The thought of completely leaving serious psychoanalysis—because that was what it would mean, leaving her entire world, to go and live in godforsaken Santa Fe…and the unspoken part, of how Sylvia would feel being a black woman in New Mexico, so far, and way too close to a border for her to ever wear her hair relaxed or walk around in less than formal clothes, for fear of being mistaken for a kinky-haired, illegal Mexican—well.
At Les Palier on Ken’s final night, just blocks from Sylvia’s place, where his suitcase stood packed, they’d acted like parting room-mates, resigned but happy to be moving on. “Remember me,” Ken sang out once he was drunk, a baritone version of Sylvia’s favorite aria from the Purcell opera. Then Ken had kissed her sweetly, but patted her neat dreads as awkwardly as usual. Then added, “I shouldn’t have asked you to leave your parents and go so far away. They’re getting old. You wouldn’t have left them, Sylvia. Especially your Dad, you’re so attached. It’s wonderful to see. And all your work in the community, in Boston specifically. You have transformed so many lives. You’re an incredibly engaging and committed therapist.”
But here was Maya, hardly engaged in treatment, maybe even unengagable.
Now Sylvia, keeping her eyes fixed in Maya’s direction in case she broke her silence suddenly, pictured Maya in New Mexico. Maya offended at being mistaken for a Latina cleaning lady, or else the way she was right now—a drugged-out rebellious little girl of indeterminate brown ethnicity, presumed Latina though her face was wholly Indian, doing pointless things to relieve the boredom of what anyone would assume was at best her job as a cashier or a waitress at a local restaurant, at worst as a prostitute.
What if Sylvia gone with Ken to Santa Fe, if only to try it out? That same day Sylvia’s father would’ve been on a plane to bring her back—to rescue her from a white stranger, to save her from throwing away her brilliant academic career. He would have believed that Ken had forced her to go by drugging her. He would have shown her the census proof that black people didn’t settle down in Santa Fe. He would have offered to pay for her to spend some time with his family in the most impoverished part of Edo State, Nigeria, so Sylvia could better understand how hard her father had worked to create her. How much he had gladly sacrificed. How he had advanced in his job, despite how much he hated “all of them”—the phrase by which he tarred the colleagues whose Christmas presents of cigars and ties and chocolates he brought home and threw in the garbage even while never forgetting to order his secretary to buy equally lavish and tasteful presents for “all of them” too.
Now forcing herself back into the session with Maya, Sylvia looked at the clock. Five whole minutes of silence had gone by, and Maya was staring at her, starting to look amused. “Do you find it hard to be with me?” Maya asked. “I mean, does the money not seem like enough?”
Waiting a beat, Sylvia said, “I’m interested—and wonder if you also are interested—in why you bring up money now.”
Maya laughed again. “Well it’s a lot of dough. Not that easy to forget about, is it?”
Sylvia nodded, trying not to look overeager.
“And I dunno, I could buy shoes with it.”
“You could,” Sylvia said, in an even voice.
“It reminds me each time,” Maya paused, watching Sylvia carefully.
“Yes?” Sylvia half-whispered.
“It reminds me that I don’t have to come here. That it’s money in the end, no matter what you say—money that pays your rent and buys your boots and whatever, money that drives you, just like everyone. You don’t care about me as a human being. I could jump off a building and it wouldn’t change a thing, except you’d have to fill my spot somehow, with someone who could pay.”
Sylvia went tense. In all her sessions, Maya had never once referred to suicide. What had changed now, for her to up the ante in this more primitive way? She swallowed, making an effort to relax and sound merely interested, instead of alarmed. She told herself that at least their real work had begun, that now she ought to be relieved.
“Jump off a building,” Sylvia said, her voice impressively neutral. “Why don’t you tell me what you mean.” Her response wasn’t what everyone would have done. Some of Sylvia’s former supervisors, now women she saw weekly at invitation-only executive committee meetings, might have leapt more quickly to the type of “combat with certain borderlines” they greatly enjoyed. They would have assumed Maya would never have the insight to be engaged more delicately, and would have taunted her into an openness that they could then react to and strong-arm. “Is that a threat?” they would’ve asked, sounding like threateners themselves—working-class fixers, teamsters, Whitey Bolger’s boys.
It wasn’t that Sylvia thought calling Maya’s bluff could make her go and hurt herself. If Maya were like other borderlines—if Sylvia were even confident of the diagnosis. But she wasn’t. Although Maya had experienced abuse, they hadn’t yet addressed it directly. It had come out in her history—an odd phrase here and there—“always watching me”—“too close”—“I didn’t like the way it felt when they hugged me”, and then Maya would sit silent, and not cry or even seem angry.
The likelihood that Maya had been abused made Sylvia regret her revulsion, to even feel guilty for how she’d almost turned away. But Sylvia never would have confided her guilt or regret to anyone. Being immune to manipulation, for a psychiatrist, was like being fearless about blood, for a surgeon. “The shrinks with too much loving-kindness are the ones who face the board,” Sylvia’s classmate, who was now on the board psychology, had said. “The bleeding-heart ones who can’t draw boundaries, who take the world’s suffering straight onto themselves.”
The Psychology board of overseers, the girl’s long, now provocative silences, the cash, the smell—these thoughts exhausted Sylvia. Sylvia decided, just for one session, to abandon her strategy of active listening and ask questions mainly aimed at resolving her own tormenting uncertainties.
“Maya if you’re thinking about hurting yourself I need to know immediately,” Sylvia said now in a firm tone of voice. “Stop playing games. Just tell me straight out. Do you need to be admitted? Do you need to be put somewhere that’s safe starting tonight? Do I need to send you to an ER? Is that why you’ve suddenly brought this up to me?”
Maya looked by turns stunned, afraid, then mad. “You’d fucking lock me up somewhere?” she said. “Just for saying ‘jump off the roof’? One time? That’s it?”
“You used a phrase that connotes suicide, and you won’t tell me anything more,” Sylvia said, trying to stay calm. “I could get someone to lock you in, yes.”
“But you couldn’t lock me in if I left now,” Maya said, standing up.
Sylvia shook her head. “No actually, I still could. In fact that would make it even more likely that I would. I’d have to tell the police I couldn’t keep you safe, because you wouldn’t talk to me and fled. And then they’d find you and take you to the Mt Auburn ED. In fact, if I called them right now,” Sylvia said, hating the way her gut twisted at the sight of Maya’s frozen expression, feeling like the Nazi who had come to take away Anne Frank —“yes Maya, if I called them right now, they’d come for you.”
“But I didn’t make a threat,” said Maya, for the first time, sounding serious and hurt. “I was just saying how I felt. That I felt that you didn’t care for me.”
“But I do care,” Sylvia said, too fast.
Maya, still standing, stared at her with a perplexed but thrilled smile.
“You mean—you never told me. Not married. No kids. Holy mackerel, Dr Etibet. Girls?”
Sylvia shook her head. “Don’t take a step back when you’ve taken steps forward today. Don’t lash out. You’re doing such excellent work today.”
“I knew it, you don’t care,” Maya repeated bitterly. “You aren’t attached to me at all, not even as my therapist. You just don’t want to be perceived as not caring. That was why you answered so quickly.”
Sylvia didn’t move, sensing more was to come.
Maya laughed. “You’re basically disgusted by me, aren’t you?”
Sylvia raised her eyebrows but didn’t speak. Some impulse or habit made her check the clock at that moment. It didn’t lie.
“The session’s up,” Sylvia said, “but wait, I need to know something.”
Maya sat down. “You’re keeping me over?” she asked, sounding just a bit hopeful and excited. “And you’re not charging me anything for it? Wow.”
Sylvia nodded. “I want you to check in with me by phone once a day for the next couple of days.”
“Check in about what?”
“I want to know if you have any thoughts of suicide. Do you, Maya?”
“Well it’s not like I’d tell you now. Knowing that you would actually call the police.”
“You can tell me. Telling me decreases the likelihood that we would need to go that far. But I have an obligation, you know. Since you said that. To have another doctor examine you.”
“Examine me like a corpse,” Maya said. “Ooh, more morbid stuff.”
Sylvia leaned forward, sustaining eye contact.
Maya spoke first.
“OK then, fine. I’ll play your game. I do think about being dead sometimes. Not killing myself or hurting myself in any way. Just having everything be done so I can’t fail—like I would be exempt from being judged.”
Sylvia nodded, listening.
“So now your turn. So do you ever feel like that?” Maya asked Sylvia, moistening her lips.
“Fail at what, Maya?” Sylvia asked, sidestepping the question. “Fail in what way?”
“Fail at everything,” she said. “Fail at being married off in time to the right good looking and rich Indian guy. Fail at maintaining the one or two friendships I have with good enough guys who aren’t the right ones and I could never marry—but might someday, if had to. Fail by losing even my good-enough back up Indian guys. You know, the ones who come off as…durable.”
“But why do you have to get married at all,” Sylvia almost asked, but stopped herself, saying absolutely nothing, remembering her technique. Wait, let her open the next door, she thought. Don’t assume you know which one it is.
“There’s no way I’ll ever escape my parents, if I don’t get married,” Maya said, as if Sylvia had asked why after all. “It’s that simple.”
This time Sylvia didn’t hold herself back. “What is it about them that you want to escape?”
Maya stood up. “Isn’t the session over? Don’t you want me to go?”
A loud knock made both of them turn in the direction of the door.
“Next patient,” Maya said, starting to go. “I get it. I’m out of here.” Flipping her hood up, she skulked toward the door. “And by the way, I’d never kill myself. Too proud. Too young to die. Also—I would miss sex.”
Sylvia didn’t move from her seat quickly as she normally would, to jot down her progress note before the next patient. There was no time. Patient after patient came in, each one in general admiring and respectful to Sylvia, with only one other patient, the one whose session began late because Maya had stayed late, just slightly irreverent, probing for some sign of weakness, asking when Sylvia was “going to get married, have kids, be normal, or else what’s the point of even being a therapist to other people, seeing as you can’t fix yourself.”
The patient who’d said that last bit, an Italian man in his sixties, someone whose adult children were paying for him to come to therapy, paying quite a lot, had always been challenging, but until today, Sylvia had felt invulnerable to those moments when his usually endearing working-class assumptions—that a woman needed a husband and children to be ‘normal’—came out. (Before his retirement, he’d been a dentist with relationship issues, three-times divorced). The minute she closed the door behind him, Sylvia wondered, really deeply examined, why she hadn’t called the police as soon as Maya left the room. Why she had stood there bargaining with the girl. If Maya betrayed her by hurting herself…if something terrible happened.
She left a message for Maya, reminding her to please check in before noon the next day with a brief call. “Hope you are well,” Sylvia said, wincing at how unnatural she sounded.
It didn’t occur to her until nearly six at night, when there was a two-hour gap between her day patients and the few who came into the night, their sessions ending all the way at ten. How was it that any patient—not just Maya but the Italian retired dentist- was certain about Sylvia being unmarried, and without kids? Sylvia popped open her laptop, Googled herself, since she had always been way too careful to go on things like Facebook or Twitter.
Sylvia Etibet PhD, Behavioral Partners. A long list of articles, the prize-winning essay she’d written for a journal years ago. Nothing about children, family, marital status—but there it was, deed to Sylvia’s parents’ house, on the Mass Registry, and listed next to her name was “No spouse” and also “Dependents None.” So patients could not only know that Sylvia slept in bed alone at night, after the different boyfriends had sexed her and then gone home, but also, precisely where her parents lived in Lexington. Using Google Earth, strangers could even look inside their bay windows.
Sylvia now closed her laptop, feeling sick. How many times had she walked semi-nude and careless past those windows, on a weekend her parents were away and their house, so much bigger and with so much better food, had been a better place for having afternoon sex with whatever boyfriend of the time—before Ken, how many? How many patients had looked at this website, including Maya?
That evening, before leaving her office, Sylvia documented in the charts religiously. Risk and so on. The respectable and recognized steps she’d taken and would take as a therapist, to lessen the risk of Maya committing suicide. But not the truth about the young girl, never the truth- how that evening, when Sylvia put down her mental ax, and recognized her revulsion as desire plus fear, she recalled dreams in which she and Maya kissed naked in bed. And she didn’t want the dreams to stop. So Sylvia determined that she would never see Maya again, not in this lifetime, except in the presence of a second therapist in the room with them—a trainee who’d defer to Sylvia.
Asking someone to tag-team Maya’s treatment effectively ended the treatment, but Sylvia was too relieved to care. Now they were nearly six months along, well into the spring. After the first two months of being permitted to see Sylvia only with the second therapist, Maya had even stopped dropping any hints of suicide. Sylvia also took to wearing rings. Different ones on each finger—Lucite, silver, a turquoise one Ken sent from Phoenix too—but always the same one on the ring finger, a classy platinum wedding band. With the second therapist sitting there, taking notes, so calm, Maya never referred to any ring. Though Maya stared at it. Not that the ring had any romantic import. Sylvia wanted to look respectable but wasn’t planning on husband and kids—not with tenure so near.
This spring at last, via the tenure-clock, Sylvia was so near, frightfully near, and still so young. The first black woman to make tenure at Man’s Greatest Hospital before fifty. The same hospital where she had once been an intern. Wow. An object of fascination and near-reverent scrutiny—like her father, Sylvia thought, moved by the sense of being closer to him because of her struggle. Like her father had been at work, where he was even now still vigorous, Chairman of numerous corporate boards—like Daddy, Sylvia now also knew what it was like to be courted with several months of meetings, smiles and promises, and rich dinners in clubs after having been slighted in subtle ways for years.
Sylvia had approached Maya’s case with diligence, once she determined she had to extricate. Carefully, she selected a trainee as chaperone. The technologically highly-equipped, young Dr. Abner Stein was a very nice, allergy-prone, skinny white man who’d recently been assigned to Sylvia as part of his internship, whose enthusiasm for social media and constantly glancing at his smartphone even during therapy didactic meetings Sylvia had been meaning to talk to him about but who was otherwise a terrific young clinician by all accounts, and maybe someone (Sylvia hoped!) whom Maya could build alliance with. Abner being more Maya’s real peer group and all. Remember the Hind-Jews, her father had joked, when she’d broken just one boundary to tell him about the change-over, her giving the challenging Indian patient to Abner. Daddy had been about to tell her more, something about one of Idi Amin’s old speeches about dirty, corrupt Indians, who should be burned in the soil with gas, because of how those diffa Arabs, dukawallahs, had stolen from all Africans. Her father reminisced about how he and his college friends would listen to these speeches, but then he and his college friends would listen to, but then Sylvia caught herself, realized they were driving past the Wellesley campus, in civilization, for God’s sake, and could he keep it down. And change the channel Daddy, she demanded, getting rid of Rush Limbaugh from the radio and putting on Mozart, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek with the same mischievous primness she’d always had with him in public since she turned eleven.
Apart from the one lapse of telling her father anything (though he would never meet Maya and Sylvia hadn’t used the patient’s name, she rationalized) Sylvia was confident that her whole formulation of how she was managing Maya was bullet-proof. Erudite references on youth and psychotherapy, group versus dyadic approaches —so cogently written just in her normal, regular notes that Sylvia’s peer reviewer—not her old supervisor who had seen into Sylvia’s revulsion right away, but someone else—reading the clinical records, suggested that Sylvia get Maya’s consent to write it all up into one of her brilliant case reports for a journal, or use the case to teach a group of psychiatry residents. “Not that you need to rack up the publications so much anymore”, her peer psychologist added, winking. “I heard about the tenure coming. Warm congrats!” So even her peer, someone Sylvia hadn’t spoken with for twenty years, had heard. Everyone. Tenure! Tenure at last. No more, at least, of the unspeakable dread involved in academic yin and yang. Publish or perish, up or out, and become grateful or bitter; rich or poor. At this place in particular —you either flourished, or were killed.
Sylvia was rich of course, thanks to her father. But if she had relied exclusively on earnings from her analysis—after deducting prime rent and accounting for all the erratic patients, even from rich families, who took up to a year to pay—she couldn’t have afforded antiques, Vuitton luggage, the Benz convertible. But without tenure, no matter what was in her trust account, Sylvia felt poor. She felt poor talking to Abner in particular. Her trainee, son of a famous analyst who ran an Institute in New York, was involved in extensively e-mailing about papers with celebrity psychiatrists. “John would’ve been all over that”, he’d say, and she was given to understand that he meant John Gunderson. “You should’ve heard what Otto said”. Otto Kernberg. “Which Marsha? You mean Marsha Brady?” She’d tried joking once, but he looked stricken and whispered, “Oh no, Marsha Linnehan. Forgive me,” and run off to e-mail his muse. These were his quirks, along with all the social media ruckus he seemed always engaged in- posting a photo of a pretty girl picking her nose, among other more neutral images of dogs and football and beaches. Sylvia had had to take him aside and lecture him once about that—but that had only made his reverence for her grow.
Yes, between Abner’s genuine friendliness toward Maya, persisting like a well-meaning Quaker town hall leader even when Maya ignored him, refused to look directly at him, talked in a monotone as he cheerfully interrogated her with Sylvia watching—between Maya’s inexplicable neatness nowadays, her presentation with hair neat and combed, clothes clean, even her shoes professional, though dull—and Sylvia’s own pleasant absorption in matters of career, of her true heart—life was all right.
Sylvia was happy too for Abner to take over some follow ups, including the required calls to Maya when she no-showed. Good old Abner. During the last week of April, right before the big Departmental meeting on tenure, Maya stopped coming to Sylvia’s office at all, just leaving one voice message: “Look, I’m done with therapy. Don’t try to call me.” Dr. Stein’s documentation of his follow-up, his phone calls and messages to Maya, his coordination with her primary care doctor, whom she still was seeing regularly, were all impeccable, reflective of the impeccable training Sylvia provided. Everything had been tied up.
This incorruptible spring day, the clear and exciting Monday that the tenure meeting occurred upon, when the weekend hadn’t brought any ominous calls, not about Maya, not about anyone, Sylvia was driving home in fine spirits, waiting and not minding the wait.
Vivaldi was on her sound system turned low so that she could easily Bluetooth to her phone. Deer racing safely in the woods next to her road, away from cars; Lexington was lush but well-controlled, the Minute Man Park as lovely as ever, and Wilson Farms had been gifted with an especially large shipment of Sylvia’s favorite red plums. She’d bought a whole crate.
They were so sweet and so cold, she was thinking, trying to recite the exact words of the William Carlos Williams poem, the romantic one that Maya had recited in a session once, without Sylvia commenting, at the time.
At four twenty-five pm that afternoon, when she was half a mile from home, only one call came unexpectedly on Sylvia’s cell—but it was fine, her favorite senior faculty ally at the Medical School, not on the tenure committee and therefore somewhat free to talk to her.
Unless something had happened. Stopping the music, Sylvia panicked. “A patient?” Sylvia asked, praying it was not. “A suicide”? And instantly, she feared for Maya.
Her friend paused. “No Sylvia dear, not a suicide. Just a weird incident. They’re looking into it, OK, it’s nothing yet, but I wanted you to know, just in case there’s anything. The meeting that they’d planned to have, to do the vote, has been indefinitely postponed. You know, just in case there’s anything”….Sylvia’s old friend repeated this, vaguely.
“Anything what? More papers?” Sylvia asked, desperately discontent with that vagueness. “More evidence of my scholarship?
What do they want?”
“No, no, Sylvia. No one doubts you as a clinician and scholar. No one. It’s just this young woman—“
“Maya.” The name came out before she could help it.
“Yes, oh so you know?”
“I only guessed,” said Sylvia, grim.
“The girl has posted something on the Internet, it seems, and she’s saying that somehow you sponsored it, and knew about it, which is the problem. That you gave her keys and all sorts of access to your things and even to your family? It’s all obscure. Abner Stein was the one who brought it to my attention. There was a link or something on Youtube? Metube? Some kind of Tube I’ve known about only for the past hour, so forgive me. Something like that. Not just an image—“
“Image of what?”
“Not just a—well.” Her old mentor paused, clearing her throat. “You’d better see it for yourself.”
“Do you think I should? Isn’t it better to—“
“Sylvia, you need to decide if lawyers are warranted. The girl looks like she went into your house. She must have been intoxicated with what she’s saying. And the man with her. Whoever it is. An older African American man. He could have been intoxicated too. You can fight this. She’s saying you knew and set this up. That you and she were intimate. It’s all defamation, we know that. But still, your case records…could there have even been some small impropriety, explaining how on earth she gained access…”
“This young woman seems to have really gone inside your parents’ house—I’ve been there, it really does look like the house, it’s so distinctive, is the thing. The antique chairs, the sliding doors.”
“Impossible. But what? What did she do? I mean, did she break something?”
“Oh good heavens, my dear, I can’t say. Just look at it so you can determine what to do. Lawyers will likely need to be involved. Courage, OK?”
Sylvia, too frightened to do more than end the call, pulled over in a no-longer-bucolic clearing. Whatever it was, she would face it. The Buddhist word from that long-ago meditation class taught by her mother’s friend. Upekkha. Equanimity.
The touch of Ma’s fingers on her shoulder. Unerringly comforting, always.
But Sylvia wasn’t a child. She was a scholar. An analyst, teacher, clinician. She Googled Maya’s first and last name on her smartphone, something she’d never done before. Then clicked Youtube and waited for the url.
Then Sylvia heard Daddy’s voice, angry and aroused.
Having an orgasm, shouting loud curses.
And there was Maya’s full face on the screen—beautiful up close, watching everything, looking out of the phone surface as if she now saw Sylvia. You like it like this? She asked the camera, looking out with immense eyes. You like it Mr. Etibet, father of Professor Sylvia Etibet, renowned professor?
More slurs uttered by Sylvia’s father, familiar words about “fucking Hindoo bitches”.
And then the white rolling text, after the images and sounds.
THIS ADULT VIDEO CONTENT, APPROVED AND ORGANIZED BY TENURED PROFESSOR, DOCTOR AND ESTEEMED PROFESSOR SYLVIA ETIBET, WHO GAVE ME THE KEYS TO HER PARENTS HOUSE AND INSTRUCTIONS ON PLEASING FATHER FROM HER OWN EXPERIENCE. LOCATION: LEXINGTON MA. EXACT LOCATION: SYLVIA’S PARENTS HOUSE. EXACT LOCATION: THEIR EXPENSIVE SHAKER CHAIR, A Nice ANTIQUE. WHO SYLVIAS FATHER THOUGHT I WAS: A CLEANING LADY, JUST ONE OF THE ASIAN GIRLS TURNING TRICKS HERE TO MAKE AN EXTRA BUCK.
WHO I REALLY AM: THE GODDESS KALI, YOU MO FOS, AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT. NO justice, no peace.
The call from Maya to Sylvia came minutes later, before Sylvia had had a chance to react, or even start her car again.
“Performance art. Your father enjoyed it.”
“You are so ill,” Sylvia said. “You really need treatment.”
“You were supposed to be giving me treatment. Not covering ass.”
“Where are you?” Sylvia asked. She herself was parked a few miles from Hanscom Base, listening to the military planes taking off at a vast, nearby air field.
Comforted knowing they were there, though she didn’t see them.
“Gee, I don’t know. I might not be safe.”
“Maya, don’t worry. I’ll send the police.”
“Hmm, where am I going’s the question. I’m thinking of New Mexico. What do you think? Do you think Ken would enjoy me?” She laughed.
“Stay out of my life,” Sylvia pleaded.
“So you know, or maybe you don’t know Sylvia—I booked two plane tickets to Phoenix in your name,” Maya finished. “For you and for me. Your credit card was laying on your desk one time, next to one of those catalogues you love to read, and I memorized all of the numbers, something I’m good at, when there was a knock at the door and you got up to look. I booked the tickets for us with nice hotel, spa treatments included, just one room, as if you were the one who purchased them. I bought them a month ago and you didn’t call your company or block the charge. So that’s one thing. People will believe you planned that we do this. But just to make sure of it I hacked into your email account—too easy! @harvarddoctorsylvia, yahoo of all things, abysmal security, what were you thinking? And the password you selected—your birthday plus “abreaction”? Tsk, tsk. Once I was in, once I had sent myself a bunch of friendly and erotic messages from your address—messages I’m planning to print out and show the Board—I sent a bunch of emails to Ken and made it look like you were going to pimp me to him next. I wrote about all your fantasies and the times you kept me late, alone in your office, mentally and eventually physically undressing me. I told him things alright, all kinds of things, and he was so “honored” by you confessing to him—and not a little turned on, I’d imagine—he even wrote back. He sounds like a nice person, telling you to seek out help. Really nice. You let a good one get away there, I think. He said all the right things. Seek supervision on the case. You really need treatment. You know. I can’t wait to meet him. But your romance is done, and you are too, Professor Etibet. Completely done. You wanted me, didn’t you? That’s why you ended the treatment. Without a sense of what I’d do. Except you only thought that I would endanger myself. You will be lucky if they let you keep your license. But don’t worry, your father’s a real sweetie. He will support you, I’m sure. He did impress me.
“And your mother—it won’t surprise you. She wasn’t home when it happened. I would bet cold cash that he’s done it before. With other young girls. On all those days when you think he’s working. When I told him I was with your cleaning service and he let me in; then shadowed me all throughout the house until I began unbuttoning, and instead of acting all outraged, he smiled and started undressing himself too. But maybe you know exactly what he does. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t bear to continue treating me. Because we had that in common. What we know.”
“Maya,” Sylvia said again, except the phone had gone quiet.
Uselessly, Sylvia tried pressing the record button before Maya could disengage the call. But it was too late. Now in the car Maya was gone, and there only was a tone, loud in the space—the sound, Sylvia sat there imagining, of bugs in the desert. The desert like the one that Maya might soon be flying over, sitting on a plane with an empty seat next to her own, like Sylvia’s own car was empty now, instead of full of possibility.
But Sylvia didn’t want to fill the space, as she leaned back. She didn’t want anything now, not even lawyers, though that would come later, and she’d fight. It was an indulgence but Sylvia just wanted to think. Just sit, and think. Of vast and quiet areas where one could sit, in the desert, out in a simple metal folding chair, and contemplate phenomena no one had ever seen or knew about. Of beautiful Maya, in all of her desperate, cruel, outlandish behavior, in all her inexorable need, and Sylvia herself and her father, long ago, when Sylvia had just turned eleven, and had been sitting on her Daddy’s lap in the Shaker Chair, naked and afraid.