Our therapist was tiny and looked like Mary Tyler Moore. She spoke in a low voice that sounded exactly like Terri Gross on “Fresh Air.” She was probably in her mid-sixties; sometimes, she wore low-cut tops that unabashedly displayed her cleavage, and C would talk about it, amazed, for blocks after we left her office in the West Village.
In these weekly sessions, I had begun to discover the extent of my smallness. The way I make myself disappear, both in my relationship and in my life in general.
“You’re like a shadow,” she said, curled up in her fake Eames Lounge chair, her mouth drawn down in concern.
“She’s so sad when she looks like that,” C observed once, on the way home.
“I know. It’s the saddest face in the world.”
She was giving me that face now, nailing me with it, as though to make me admit how shadowy I’d become. I began to talk about how sometimes, I felt like I was floating above the room when I was with C, especially if we were having a profound moment that called for some big, sincere emotion like grief or solidarity, and though I wanted my feet to touch the ground, to be inside the moment with him, I just floated over it, like a helium balloon.
“Why can’t you join him?” she asked softly.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Is it like you don’t have permission?” she asked.
In those months of therapy, my first ever, I came to embrace a narrative of my childhood that is both starker and more forgiving than the one I’ve been playing up at dinner party conversation over the years. Yes, my mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict, but not in a back-alley, hypodermic needle kind of way. The major deficit of my upbringing seems to have more to do with a pervasive silence, a stillness, an opposite of reaching-out, that was as much my grandmother’s as my mother’s, and my grandmother doesn’t drink. The sad quiet that came in the wake of my grandfather’s suicide, in 1962, never really left. We orbit each other, tending to our own needs, taking care of ourselves, rarely daring to get in each other’s business. As a child, I felt like someone had set me adrift on my own little boat, and my only hope of surviving was to become a sailor.