Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Short story: "The Well-Documented Unraveling of Beth"

She begins each day by checking her inbox. Then, she does an online search for his obituary (she’ll forgive him for not writing if he was hit by a bus). She pees, weighs herself, and showers. She eats two ounces of raw almonds and two ounces of dried apricots, and climbs back in bed. She spends four hours imagining their next conversation, which is always a variation of this:

Michael: I think about you every day.

Beth: I don’t believe you.

Michael: I wanted to write, I wanted to call, but I was afraid of getting hurt, and afraid of hurting you, too.

Beth: Bullshit.

Michael: I read your letters over and over again…the funny parts, the sad parts, the sexy parts…and I want you desperately, I want you in my arms, in my bed.

Beth: Okay.

For lunch, she eats two ounces of turkey jerky, two ounces of cheese, two ounces of high fiber cereal, and two ounces of raisins. She exercises with a video for one hour, but she mutes the sound.

There’s an over-sized three-ring binder on the bedside table, and it contains printouts of the 632 emails she sent him, and the 44 he sent her. After reading one at random, she spends the next four hours in bed, remembering him. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she touches herself, sometimes she naps.

She eats two ounces of M&Ms for an afternoon snack while watching reality TV. She has no intention of cleaning and redecorating her house (it doesn’t need it) or updating her wardrobe (it doesn’t need it), but she hangs on every word, as other people achieve better houses and better wardrobes.

For dinner, she has two cups of homemade beans-and-rice. She sits cross-legged on the couch after dinner, waiting for darkness.

When it’s fully dark, she slips through the barely open front door, grabbing a quilt on the way out, and leaving the front-porch light off. It’s her favorite time of day, and she spends hours sitting on a bright-red tulip chair, gazing into the darkness, listening to the crickets and an occasional barking dog. When she feels sleepy (usually before dawn), she eats a bag of microwave popcorn, and goes to bed.

She wears pajamas day and night, and her cell phone is always in the pocket of her pajama top. During her daily shower, she places the phone on the bathroom counter. After her shower, she dons fresh pajamas, and tucks the phone in the pocket.

For sixty-seven days, she hasn’t left the house or spoken to another person. For sixty-seven days, Michael hasn’t called or written.


The brilliant idea came to her on the first of August, sixty-eight days ago: She would stay home, and be available when he eventually called or wrote or dropped by. By staying home, she would also avoid the temptation to numb her pain by flirting with other men, overeating, or overspending. Other advantages: She wouldn’t have to pretend to be interested in others, and no one would see her cry.

First, she went shopping, stockpiling enough food and nonfood items for six months. Then, she quit her job as a Head Start nurse. She’d made a decent wage (and excellent benefits, including outpatient mental health care), and she’d saved quite a bit of money.

She figures she can afford to live like this for a year, maybe two. And other than the missing-him thing, she’s quite happy.

One former co-worker keeps inviting her to lunch, but Beth responds through email, putting her off. Beth frequently hears from a concerned sister (Amy), and less frequently from a concerned aunt. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Amy joked recently, and Beth sent her a friendly email, and a book from Amazon.


She began seeing Michael eighteen months ago, after contacting him through a find-a-therapist website. Her lover of eight years had left her for another woman, and Beth wasn’t able to rally. Nothing engaged her, nothing intrigued her. She felt hideous and unlovable.

Michael saw clients in the front parlor of his home, and he greeted her warmly on her first visit. He grinned at her and put his hand on her shoulder, and she knew that everything would be okay. She saw him every Monday evening for a year. She was thirty-nine; he was in his late forties, and divorced.

After a year, it seemed like a good idea to have sex instead of therapy, so they did that a dozen times over the course of a couple of months. Apparently, it wasn’t the good idea it seemed, because she hasn’t heard from him in four months. The situation had her feeling dangerously untethered until sixty-eight days ago, when she embraced her new lifestyle.


Eighteen months ago, she was overjoyed to have someone willing to supervise her emotional life. Her emails from this period are cheerful and reflective.

Regarding his congeniality, she wrote (in email #37):

I love the way you grin at me, with a lot of affection and a little indulgence. A grin can contain something negative—like smugness, ridicule, boredom, fatigue, or doubt—but not your grin. I'm sure you have all kinds of shortcomings and bad habits and secrets and regrets, but none of that is evident in your grin. Your grin is like the first taste of a lemon custard ice cream cone, or pulling on a pair of brand-new white cotton socks, before they've been washed.

And your arms seem to be in a continual state of reaching out for others. Your body is always ready to pull another body to it. You seem glad that it’s me, and not someone else. That’s a be able to make someone feel that way.

Regarding her post-session euphoria, she wrote (in email #68):

Every week when I leave your office, I want to dance. I imagine my arms above my head as I sway to music…my feet are bare, my torso is femininely curved. As I drive home, I look at myself in the rear-view mirror, and I'm…rosy. I look…pretty. I can’t stop touching my hair. I feel like such a girl.

Regarding boundaries, she wrote (in email #114):

I'm resisting the urge to surrender to feelings of adoration for you…to let my face feel warm with thoughts of you, to develop a crush, to imagine getting in your pants. I find that I can admire and enjoy you while maintaining the slightest bit of professional distance (per your instructions). But be warned: My standard rush-to-crush has been replaced by a slow, sensual burn, fueled by the very boundaries you’ve erected.

Regarding men, she wrote (in email #183):

I think lovemaking is simply fucking-when-you-like-each-other. People get stingy with the word love, as if it's a crime to call it love if you're not 100-percent sure that's what it is. I call it love if I'm 51-percent sure. And I like it when a man isn't afraid to say the word love, and when he isn’t afraid of me…when he’s bold, when he takes emotional and conversational risks. It’s fun to flirt with that kind of man.

One of my favorite types of flirting is unabashed approval: “I like you. You're okay. I wouldn't change you, even if I could." I think that's where long-term relationships go wrong. There's an undercurrent of: "You're great, but..." Maybe that's why I enjoy strangers. They like me, or they don't like me, but they never try to change me.

Also, there's a lot of noise in a long-term relationship. It builds up over time, and never really goes away. When my boyfriend and I were in a room together, I could hear all the noise from the past, all the disagreements and disappointments. And there’s always something uninteresting to say, about car insurance or fish oil tablets or lawn fertilizer. With a new man, there's so little noise. Even when it’s lousy, at least it's not noisy.

The men I remember most fondly are those who took care of me, and let me take care of them, if only for a couple of hours. I've been in relationships where the taking-care isn’t there at all. That's a special kind of loneliness. Memories of those relationships make me cold all over. I want to pull my knees to my chest, to protect myself.

In the past, I've given men way too long to offer that kind of affection. Weeks and months go by, and I think, "We're just about to take care of each other." Or, worse, a man makes one small offering, one brief moment of taking-care, and I give him dozens of chances to do it again. When he doesn't, I figure I must be doing something wrong. It's like a combination lock, and I have the first two numbers, and if I keep trying I'll get the third number. And, sadly, there were times when I thought, "I wonder if I fuck him just right, he'll allow us to take care of each other.”

I feel like I wander through life, looking for someone to love me. I'm happy as long as I feel loved, but the minute I don’t, I panic, I flounder. (Have you noticed that about me? Was that obvious within minutes of meeting me?) Sometimes, I use words—especially written words—to get people to love me, but only if I know they'll pay a high price for doing so. Oh my god...could that be true? How shameful. I'm not even sure it's true. Well. I must not be that horrible.

I suppose all of us are lost, and we're trying to get found, and we have no fucking idea how to get found. So we lose ten pounds, or shop for shoes, or make out with a stranger on a train. And we wait for some kind of bliss. And it comes, and then it fades, so we start again...turning all the knobs that we think might have contributed to the bliss, with confidence that next time it will last longer, maybe forever.

Regarding her new and happier state, she wrote (in email #260):

Suddenly, I like me. My thoughts amuse me, my plans intrigue me, my memories soothe me. And I’m feeling robust emotionally. When things go wrong, I’m not laid as low. I’m not devastated; I’m not overwhelmed by grief. In the past few years, I've had a tendency to be too rattled by events, more than warranted. I've spent too much time feeling and acting as if I'm recuperating from something.

And now that I feel stronger, I want to work toward being authentic. I’m no longer content to be “nice.” I suppose authenticity is a learned skill, like typing, or bowel resection. I need to develop that being-authentic muscle.

And I want to encourage others to be authentic, too. I want to find value and joy in exactly who another person is, and not what I want them to be, or what I think they can become. I love being accepted for the me-of-the-moment, rather than being viewed as interesting building blocks that might—with enough work—be made into something acceptable.

When I’m sitting in your office, it feels like you truly see me. And that’s the best thing. It’s lonely to not be seen, or to be partially seen. I’ve noticed that some people let themselves be seen in only the tiniest increments, as if revealing more will cost them dearly. But I want to reveal my emotional nakedness, and I want others to reveal theirs. Someday, I'll crawl in bed with a man, and his story will pour from him, like spilled milk.


The first day of each month offers a delightful break in Beth’s routine. Instead of spending the morning in bed, she does a thorough housecleaning. Instead of spending the afternoon in bed, she declares a Day of Grooming. She trims her hair with kitchen shears (a straightforward bob-with-bangs), and then she colors it (warm medium brown). She gives herself a manicure and a pedicure, but without polish, because that involves maintenance. She gives herself a facial, tweezes her brows, and waxes anything that requires it. She takes a long bath, full of scented oils.

And instead of watching TV, she pays bills online and responds to any snail mail. She signs and addresses greeting cards, and orders an occasional gift online. It’s a very productive day, and she enjoys it. She also enjoys returning to her less-productive regimen the next day.

December rolls around, and she celebrates 122 days of her new-and-improved life. Her supplies are holding out nicely, but she’s bored with the daily M&M’s, so she orders caramels online, and a box arrives in the mail three days later. She also orders a two-pound sampler of candy that was popular in the 1970s to be sent to her sister, Amy. Beth also sends a friendly (and fibbish) email to Amy in which she shares the details of a recent trip to the Grand Canyon with a co-worker, so Amy won’t worry that Beth’s a recluse, or depressed.

She still hasn’t heard from Michael.


Twelve months ago, Beth began flirting with Michael, first in email and then in person. He resisted initially, but eventually they tumbled into bed together. Her emails from this period are cheerful and sensual.

Regarding how she feels when she’s home, she wrote (in email #324):

I sit here at the computer, and I want to write bold, flirtatious, sexy, nasty, slippery-wet email to you. I'm in that kind of mood. I want to make you blush, and I want to make me blush.

And on those rare occasions when I check my inbox and find mail from you, I let out a spontaneous little gasp. And sometimes there's a whispered "Thank God" that catches me off guard. It’s as if an Amber Alert has been issued on you, but then I find you hiding under the bed. I want to scoop you up.

Monday is so far away! I feel that if I can't see you before then, I'll explode. But…people seldom explode. So, I take a deep breath and ask myself what I want from you. It’s something between kissing and living happily ever after (I know you like broad margins).

You know everything about me, but I know very little about you. I know you like European cars and garlic fries and detective fiction. I know you’re allergic to penicillin. Sometimes, it feels like I've taken all my clothes off, but you're still fully dressed. And I don't know if you’re about to say, " can get dressed now," or if you’re about to remove your shoes and socks.

Regarding how she feels when she’s in his office, she wrote (in email #399):

I love showering before my appointment, and shaving my legs. I love wearing something new, preferably a dress, or a skirt and sweater. I arrive early, and sit in my parked car, imagining your salty skin beneath my tongue. I'm sure that all of your truly healthy clients do the same thing, and only the sicko's hold themselves at an emotional distance.

Once inside your office, I feel so prim, so well behaved, as I obediently take the client chair. But all I can think about is moving to your side, maybe sitting on your lap, maybe straddling you. And I use words like "I’m fond of you" or "I'm attracted to you," but those aren't the words I'm thinking. I breathe in and out, exquisitely aware of the cotton fabric against my bare skin, of an errant curl that’s fallen across my face, of the tip of my finger in my mouth as I ponder a question you’ve asked, of the scent of a man in the room.

I bask in your appreciative gaze. Its intensity makes me dizzy, and I look for something to hold onto. It's a pleasure to wriggle in front of you, to be shy, to want to cover my face with my hands so that you can't read me so easily.

This change in our relationship feels like a surprise, but also like it was inevitable. And it’s no mystery why I'm so happy. You've given me the greatest gift anyone can give another person: You know me well, and you still like me. But—bless your heart—you put a cherry on top of the greatest gift: You want me. No wonder I can't stop grinning. No wonder I get lost in your hugs.

Regarding their slow burn toward one another, she wrote (in email #472):

Most of my romantic relationships have been very quick to start, like late-summer brush fires. Not so, with you. Sometimes, being with you feels more like torture than therapy (in a delicious way, of course) (so, really, not like torture at all). It’s as if a man says, "I'm going to start touching you, okay? Relax and enjoy it. In five years, I'll let you come."

I was amused last night when you asked me what I wanted from our relationship, and I couldn’t say the words. “There’s another computer upstairs,” you said. “You can email me from there, if you’d like.” I smiled, and you looked me in the eye and instructed me: “Just take a deep breath and say it.” That kind of bossiness is a huge turn-on for me. I’m feeling all melty remembering it.


March arrives, and she’s aware that she hasn’t left home in 212 days. Her supplies are dwindling. She has lots of brown rice left, and some olive oil, spices, and raisins. She has smaller quantities of almonds, caramels, and canned pinto beans. The apricots, jerky, cheese, cereal, popcorn, and remaining beans-and-rice ingredients are gone. However, there are miscellaneous canned goods in the pantry, along with a canister of oatmeal, so she uses these items to fill in the nutritional blanks (although it strikes her as a bit messy, since these items were purchased before she embraced her new lifestyle). Today, she has almonds and mandarin oranges for breakfast, oatmeal and raisins for lunch, one caramel for an afternoon snack, beans-and-rice for dinner, and a small can of pineapple chunks after her night on the porch. She has lost fourteen pounds (even though she recently stopped exercising), and her pajamas are a bit droopy at the shoulders and hips.

She continues to do her monthly housecleaning and Day of Grooming, but she no longer gets a buzz from it. And since the TV remote stopped working, she leaves the TV on all the time, tuned to what she calls “the Anderson Cooper channel.” It’s barely audible, and she finds it soothing. She sleeps on the couch now, and the only time she enters the bedroom is to walk through it to the bathroom. She’s out of Advil, but she makes do with a handful of 81-milligram aspirin.

A month ago, Amy (who lives two hours away) came to the door, threatening to call the police if Beth didn’t let her in. Beth stepped onto the porch, but Amy still wasn’t convinced that Beth wasn’t being held against her will, so Beth agreed to go out to lunch. She drew the line, though, at shopping. She lied, and said that she was expecting a call from a client, for whom she does medical transcription. She let Amy in the house to peek behind the shower curtain and to open closet doors. Beth gave Amy a little gift bag with the remaining caramels and an unopened box of note cards, walked her to the front porch, and hugged her. “What the hell is going on?” asked Amy, but Beth smiled, went back inside, and locked the door behind her.

After Amy left, and night fell, Beth took her quilt to the porch. It had been such an eventful day (the car ride! the chicken sandwich!) that Beth decided to do the unthinkable: She called Michael. After six rings, she listened to his recorded message. “Yep,” she thought, “that’s him.” She hung up without leaving a message.

She still hasn’t heard from him.


Nine months ago, he stopped responding to her emails. He offered no explanations or excuses. In fact, the last email she received from him was eager and affectionate, if brief. So she drove past his house, which appeared occupied. She checked the find-a-therapist website, and he was still listed. She checked the state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing website, and he was listed in good standing. She did a thorough web search, using any and all information she had, and found nothing that offered insight into the situation. Her emails from this period are sometimes sad, and always long.

She wrote (in email #550):

Writing to you is kind of like purging. Without the stench, or the tooth decay.

I'm convinced there's something here worth salvaging, so I'm willing to set aside the usual number of chances I give someone. I respect you and like you more than I respect and like most people. At one point, I trusted you more than I trust most people.

I’ve Googled you endlessly, of course, looking for news of carbon monoxide poisoning or a drive-by shooting. I guess it’s easier for me to think of you in a coma or a morgue than to think of you not caring about me. Perhaps that speaks to my last shred of confidence: I’m certain you’d write to me, if you could.

I should break into your house some night, sneak up on you, and have my way with you. I’ll tether you to the bed (with enough chain to get to the toilet, but not the phone) and force you to listen to me talk for hours. I'll bring food, but only my favorite things. We'll listen to Leonard Cohen CDs while snuggling, and I'll threaten you with bodily harm if you refuse to discuss the songs, or fail to acknowledge that all the songs describe our relationship exactly. I'll read aloud from one of your books...maybe "When Good Therapists Go Bad."

I desperately miss the feeling I always had on the way home from your house: of being beautiful and desirable, of being marvelously alive, of learning about myself and about life. I know that you don’t want to take that from me. If I asked you pointblank, "For any reason, is it your desire to deprive me of that feeling?" you would say no, and you would mean it.

Baby, must let me in. Please don't withdraw, Michael. Really, I don't need much in the way of email. "Busy. Adore you." That would be enough. Even, "Busy. Adore U."

I think this is the problem: You’re crazy (just kidding). But I think you have issues that I’m blind to, or would not understand. Perhaps you’re more complex than you appear to be. Maybe you’re not quite as kind as you appear to be. That's a possibility. You appear exceedingly kind, and maybe you’re just...average.

This is beginning to feel like a social experiment, and not like my own experience. Weird.

Just now, I was imagining a dominant/submissive sexual relationship, where the dominant male instructs the submissive female to write to him every day. He’ll read the letters, but he’ll never write back. Still, she must write, and it must be lengthy and heartfelt. I wonder how many women would be able to do that. I imagine the tone of her letters would become sadder and sadder with each passing day. But I bet if the guy wrote a standard ten emails (things like "I love you...and I love hearing from you" and "You write very well...each email is a delight" and "It made me sad to read about that...I wanted to hold you in my arms") and sent one back to her every third or fourth time she wrote, she'd be okay. Or if he had his personal assistant write and send the letters, or a well-trained chimpanzee.

Maybe you're busy writing an article for a professional journal about "Minimizing Rewards, Maximizing Results."


She wrote (in email #586):

To some degree, I'm in the habit of loving you, and wanting you. And I wonder if I project a bit. Maybe I think I love you when I actually love me, especially the new version of me: bold, mindful, assertive. Is that possible? Therapy has been so good for me, and I couldn't have done this without guide, my friend, my cheerleader, my crush. So...I must be in love with you. That's love...right?

But love that develops when one is deprived of the object of one's affection is a bogus kind of love. There are many unanswered questions, so one fills in the blanks, usually with something unrealistically positive. One imagines such bliss, such satisfaction. Of course it feels like love—the best kind of love!—magical, fulfilling, nourishing, and so conveniently unproven. Lust follows the same pattern, when it's allowed to blossom unencumbered by actual experience.

When I was younger, I wanted a man—any man—to want me. Lately, though, the man needs to be someone I respect, like you. So, the other day I made a list of things I need to do to become worthy of the men I’ve known who were clearly out of my league, and only interested in me casually, who left me as soon as permitted by common decency. I didn't question the premise; I just worked on the list. It included getting an advanced degree, becoming more accomplished (is that vague enough?), being much more attractive and fit than I've ever been, and traveling extensively. That's when I burst out laughing: When I realized that I was counting on hitchhiking-through-Europe or camping-in-the-Canadian-Rockies to make me more desirable. Generally, I'm more in touch with reality than that. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a twelve-year-old version of myself ("What can I do to make boys like me?") wanders by occasionally.

At the tips of my fingers and toes, I feel fragile and uncertain…”the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” But at my core, I feel robust. The toughness is there, like well-exercised abdominal muscles just waiting to be called upon.


The July heat is merciless, but she doesn’t notice. After 334 days, her food situation is grim. Of her new-lifestyle supplies, only about four pounds of rice remain. Nine cans of miscellaneous food remain, and today she has a can of tomato soup for breakfast. Later, she’ll have rice for lunch and dinner. She doesn’t feel hungry, although she continues to lose weight (twenty-two more pounds). She’s bothered by the sound of the air conditioner, so she leaves it off. Day and night, she wears nothing but underpants and an undershirt.

She showers twice a week, but no longer does the once-a-month grooming. She makes do with the hygiene supplies she has left. A month ago, she stopped cleaning the house. Sometimes, she writes his name in the dusty furniture. That’s fun.


She wrote (in email #593):

I'm baffled. I'm certain something has gone wrong, but I have no idea what it is. If it was anyone other than you, I'd move on. If it was anyone other than you, I'd figure that communicating just got too hard. But communicating is what you do! It’s your strength! It’s your passion!

It feels like this: The teacher has given me a math problem with insufficient information. That’s frustrating, but I don’t need to hate the math teacher or the assignment. The only way I can get an A is to jot the words "insufficient information" on the worksheet. But how and why does that happen in a relationship?

If there's a reason you're rejecting me, please tell me what it is. In most cases, I wouldn't give a damn. But, in this case--considering your professional background and my positive regard for you--I think it might be useful. I mean, it might save me time in future relationships (of any sort). I think I see myself quite clearly, but all of us are blind to certain aspects of ourselves. Perhaps I'm not enough of something; perhaps I'm too much of something else. Maybe it's something I can't change, or wouldn't want to change. But I won't know until you tell me. If it has nothing to do with me, that would be useful information also.

I wonder if you're blocking my emails.

I feel like I’m traveling in a foreign country, and the citizens claim to be speaking English, but it doesn't sound like English to me. So I stop a paperboy or a cop and say, "What language is everyone speaking?" And they say, "English, of course!" But, still, I’m failing to grasp what's being said, and all subtlety is lost on me, and I can't keep up.

I never thought it would end like this! I imagined us on a porch swing, twenty years from now, sharing a candy bar, making each other laugh. Please put an end to this purgatory, Michael, one way or another. If that seems overwrought to you, I'm sorry. I just want to spend less time with my face buried in my open hands, trying to figure out what went wrong.


She wrote (in email #602):

Sometimes, I look at your picture online, and think, “God, I hate him.”

I sit at the computer and imagine typing: "I hate everything about you! I've never been so disappointed in a man! All other disappointments pale when compared to you!”

The last time we were together, I said, “I know you like me.” And you said, “I love you!” But I don’t believe you anymore. And I don't give a shit how busy you are. I mean, it takes thirty seconds to hit Reply, type "I miss you," and hit Send. It takes thirty seconds if you dawdle; I could do it in eight.

I thought of making a long list of Possible Reasons You Lost Interest in Me, and then asking you to identify the correct reason. That seemed compelling for about five minutes.

Sometimes, I blame you for what feels like a huge blow to my self-esteem, and I feel very angry. I fucking hate the person I've become. I'm bitter and confused and unsure of myself. I don't take care of myself. I don't believe in myself. For days at a time, I forget what is special about me.

How did I get so unbalanced? How did it get so noisy in my head?


It has now been one year since she decided to stay home, and she eats her last can of food (French-style green beans). She has been careful with the rice, and she has enough for another couple of weeks. She’s tired, and she finds it difficult to concentrate. She has thousands of dollars in the bank, and there’s a Walmart less than a mile away, and occasionally she’s tempted to buy more food, and some ChapStick, and to ask the pharmacist to recommend something for the pesky rash on her neck and chest. But, instead, she takes a nap.

Early one morning when she’s feeling energetic, she gets a large kitchen trash bag, fills it with clothes from her closet, tosses in her two sets of car keys, and puts the bag on the front porch. With a marker, she writes the name of a thrift store on the white plastic bag. The store sends a truck through the neighborhood once a month, to pick up donations, and she’s pretty sure this is the right day. She worries that if she has the car key, she might give in to the temptation to drive to the store.


She wrote (in email #616):

As I type this, I realize that my memories of you are less specific and detailed than they were. Rather than remembering how an orange tastes, I remember enjoying oranges.

The sex was probably a mistake. Despite the physical pleasure, I don't think intimacy was actually enhanced. It seems like we turned away from the best kind of intimacy, and couldn't turn back. I would have predicted that both of us had the skills to turn back—to reclaim that best kind of intimacy—but I would have been wrong. I don't know which of us is most deficient in those skills. If I had to guess, I'd say you.

Once again, I've been brought asunder by expectations. So, if my math is correct, that's 1,334,283 times.


She wrote (in email #624):

I've never been addicted to heroin, but I assume it feels just like this.

I hear Ayn Rand's voice in my head saying, "My you really want a man that doesn't want you?" And I carefully explain that perhaps you were hit by a snowplow. Or perhaps a client—struggling with his or her sexual sadism—chained you to a radiator. Or perhaps your internet service is unreliable.

Have you seen the movie "V for Vendetta"? I loved it. In one scene (and this will ruin it for you, if you haven't seen it, and plan to), V (anonymously) tortures a woman in an attempt to make her stronger. The torture is a success, and—though understandably pissed off—she's strong. Woo-hoo! Just now, it occurred to me that maybe you're trying to make me stronger by not writing to me. I think that's unlikely. But maybe the possibility isn't as devastating as other possibilities. Maybe while Natalie Portman’s head is under water, she’s thinking, "Maybe it’s V that’s torturing me. I suppose that's better than being ignored.”

You know how it is when you don't get enough of something: In your head it gets better and better, until you're saying good-bye to perfection, to the best thing ever, to something irreplaceable and golden. But I need to move on, to put thoughts of you in the inactive files, the archived files. I need to say it aloud—“Enough”—and mean it. I don't want to love you anymore.


The rice is gone. She’s had a headache for a week, but the 81-milligram aspirin are gone, too. The noise from the TV became irritating, so she turned it off, and unplugged it, and then sliced through the cord, so she won’t be tempted to plug it in again.

She focuses on three things every day: checking her email, verifying that her phone is charged, and drinking eight glasses of water. Once a week, she writes to Amy, but Amy recently moved two thousand miles away to work on her doctorate, and Beth figures that soon she can cut back to twice a month.


She wrote (in email #632):

For a while, I thought it wasn't necessary to send a good-bye email. I thought I could be content with a perennially open-ended relationship. Later, it seemed like the relationship had ended whether I liked it or not, and an exit interview in the form of a love letter wasn't warranted, or advisable. But I find myself stuck in a miserable state of confusion, insecurity, disappointment, and anger. Now it's time to move on, and part of that moving-on means writing to you. I'm making an attempt not to rehash everything, turn this into something it wasn't, or ratchet up the drama to an eye-rolling degree.

I feel grateful that I got to know you. I'll never forget how it felt to drive to your house each week, ripe with anticipation, eager to be in that room with you, achingly aware of being a woman. I hadn't felt that in years, and it was such an unexpected treat to recapture that feeling. I sit here remembering, and I'm mildly surprised that it happened...that I shamelessly and expertly flirted with you, that I craved nothing but your eyes on me, that I actually cared about clothes and underwear and hair and makeup and perfume, that I crossed my legs and uncrossed them and crossed them again, hoping you'd notice...hoping you'd notice my shoulders and my bangs and my teeth and my shoes, that you'd notice I was a woman...a woman who wanted you.

But then therapy ended (so suddenly!), and sex began. What a heady thought...that we could become even closer. I could list dozens of cherished moments (from that all-too-brief post-therapy time), some of which leave me gasping with pleasure, even now.

But right on the heels of that, you disappeared, and I became consumed with self-doubt. The sudden reversal was dizzying. Never have I been as confused in a relationship. I feel stupid, as if I'm failing to grasp something that any other woman could easily understand. And while I've been involved in relationships that ended vaguely (without an official statement as to what went wrong), there were always plenty of clues, and the merciful end always came quickly.

It was probably a mistake on my part to assume that because you're a therapist, you're a competent and eager communicator. It was a mistake to assume that because you're adept at discussing the feelings of others, you're adept at discussing your own. And it was a mistake to assume that because you understand the long-term damage that can result when a romantic relationship ends poorly, you're capable of (or interested in) letting me down gently.

When I read email from the last couple of months, I ache for this woman named Beth. Her pain is palpable. Her suffering is exquisite. She so clearly wants to keep the faith, to hold you blameless, to keep all doors open. Her humility takes my breath away.

There’s so much email, and it’s always there to review, in a notebook that I sometimes carry around with me like an oxygen tank. The email serves to keep the memories fresh, like the unhappy convergence of a thousand lemons and a thousand paper cuts. Perhaps I've suffered more than this, but I've never chronicled my suffering to this degree. There it is: Exhibits A, B, and C.

I learned (from you) that attaching easily and detaching easily are worthwhile skills. I do the first one, but I'm not so good at the second one (in case you hadn't noticed). It's quite likely that the best time to detach has already come and gone. A decent life coach might point out that while I feel attached at this point, I'm not really, because you’ve moved on. I think I'm attached, but if I follow the rope far enough, I'll find a frayed end, and no note.

So the other day I was thinking about a detachment ceremony. My first thought: Maybe I should cut myself, or burn myself. Weird, huh. I've never had either inclination. I suppose I wanted to do something that would be more painful than missing you. When I considered what I might burn, I came up with “my inner thighs, with a hot iron” or “your house down.” But in the end, I decided to have an extra ounce of M&M’s and to Netflix a movie. It felt like touching base with myself, and recognizing myself as someone who is more than needy, more than pathetic, more than One Who Waits.

Well, I've spent too much time analyzing this. I will limit the time spent thinking about you, until "none at all" is how much time I spend thinking about you.

Funny, how grief is enjoyable for a while, and then it's something else. And then it's just gone...

Love, Beth.


It feels like autumn now, but she’s not sure of the date. She knows there’s a way to find out what day it is, but she can’t recall how. She seldom leaves the couch anymore (not even for porch time). Every morning, she fills a small pitcher with water, and sets it on the table next to the couch. Usually, she drinks it before the next morning.

She turned the computer off the other day, and then sliced through its electric cord. She waited until her cell phone died, and then sliced through the charger’s electric cord.

Tonight, she falls asleep at sundown, but the sound of persistent scratching at the front door wakes her in the middle of the night. At first, she thinks it’s that guy with the hook, from the scary story of her youth. That memory makes her smile, and she gets up and goes to the door. No serial murderer, but a scrawny orange kitten. She brings it inside, and cradles it against her filthy undershirt. The kitten meows urgently, and Beth doesn’t know what to do. I mean, you can’t let a kitten go hungry. It’s 3 a.m., but she walks to the neighbor’s house, and knocks.

Mr. Dillman answers the door, and invites Beth in. He carefully takes the kitten from her arms, and gives it a bowl of milk and a can of tuna, while Mrs. Dillman calls an ambulance.

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