Aimee did not intend to stalk her therapist. It happened, as these things do, somewhat naturally. One day she was taking a walk in her neighborhood, that kind of fast-paced foot hitting pavement boom boom boom sort of walk, when she saw her therapist’s car. It wasn’t like she went out looking for it. But there it was, parked in a driveway, with bumper stickers from the high school water polo team stamped all over it, and another one about reproductive choice. It had been parked in the three-space parking lot every time she went to therapy. It didn’t take a genius to figure out whose car it was. Her pulse quickened with the thrill of it.
She crept around the therapist’s house, making note of the climbing roses and clematis and the large screened porch where she could curl up with a novel on a white wicker couch, her husband sitting beside her and drinking iced tea. Or, perhaps they drank beer or chilled white wine, but Aimee doubted it. Her therapist seemed too goody-goody suburban mom for that, the kind of mom who had a devoted bag for books to take back to the library sitting in her entryway. There was some rotting wood on the back deck, some garden tools (yes, that seemed right, that she would garden), a coiled hose in a fake terracotta pot. There was a twin station wagon, blue to her beige sitting in the driveway that she supposed the husband used. In many ways the home was unremarkable other than Aimee now knew who lived there.
Aimee walked home briskly, jingling her keys in her hands, realizing she lived less than five minutes away. Two blocks away from a house she’d passed dozens of times on walks. But before it was just any other two-storey brick colonial in an upscale neighborhood. She laughed, giddy, as she locked her front door behind her.
Even though Aimee hadn’t seen her therapist in over a year, she couldn’t stop thinking about their proximity. She’d walked past the house countless times on the way to the market, on the way to the park, on evening strolls, long before she’d even been in therapy. Once, she’d seen the husband in the yard, raking leaves, with a boy who could have been their teenage son, or perhaps the daughter’s boyfriend. She stood there for a while, half hiding behind a tree, watching the man and the boy work. After a while the therapist poked her head from the front door, called to them with a chunky mug—cider, Aimee thought, it was fall—in her hand. She looked around but didn’t catch Aimee’s eye, so she waited there just a bit longer before turning back home. Another day, she knew, she would take the same walk.
Aimee saw her therapist a few weeks later, from a distance, at the farmer’s market. She was in tan linen pants and peasant blouse, head thrown back in laughter. She was far enough away that they didn’t make eye contact, though she’d noticed the therapist who had probably noticed her as well, and by some silent agreement they didn’t seek each other out, respecting privacy but looking. She looked so happy, her basket full of greens and sunflowers, her husband drinking coffee at her side. She’d probably go home and make hummus to eat with a loaf of crusty bread; that’s what Aimee would have done, once.
That was the thing about being in therapy and being a therapist: you were both interested in the stories of people’s lives. In her own file in the therapist’s office, Aimee imagined she’d scrawled words like “agitated” and “hysterical” at various times when she’d come in. Oh, Aimee was calm enough upon arrival, reading a book about the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or a study of garbage in American culture, which the therapist inevitably asked about.
“For work or for pleasure? Should I put that on my list?”
Then Aimee would sit down on that floral print couch, in a room that always smelled vaguely of mildew, and the therapist would ask her an innocuous question, like “how are you doing today,” and then she was gone, tears waterfalling down. That’s just the way it was, something about those fawny brown eyes that made everything she’d tucked away come out.
Aimee hadn’t ever thought of herself as a person who would need therapy. She was a professor of anthropology—she studied people for a living—but one day she realized her friends were tired of hearing her ramble on about what she referred to, obliquely, as “The Bad Time.” The day her now ex-husband took their five-year-old for a trip to the park without her and he never came back home.
What was there left to say?
What she liked about Deirdre’s approach to therapy was how pragmatic she was. It wasn’t anything about how her father had abandoned her or her mother was controlling. Instead she was like: you are under an incredible amount of stress, many women would consider suicide under these circumstances, what are you doing to take care of yourself, to make it through the day? She was the sort of person who might even chuckle at some of Aimee’s more morbid jokes about taking too much valium and writing fake Hallmark cards for women with dead babies.
It only seemed natural for her to watch her therapist from a distance at the market. It was the sort of space she saw practically everyone she knew at one time or another: the women she’d met a long time ago in prenatal yoga and former students and colleagues from other departments at the university, folks who lived a couple houses down from her, but they never spoke beyond the pleasantries of “I like what you did with the garden” or “who did you have put on your new roof?” And she’d known since the beginning of their relationship that her therapist needed to live somewhere close by, as Deirdre explained that when her children were small they went to the same elementary school as Aimee’s son–the one, as it turned out, that was within easy walking distance of both their houses.
It didn’t feel like therapy at times, so much as paying a friend to listen to your problems, a kind of psychological prostitution. In her more intellectual moments, Aimee thought she’d write a paper about therapy and self-help culture. Mostly she missed going to therapy, missed talking with her therapist, missed talking with anyone about those small details that made up her life. That she ate scrambled eggs for breakfast or that she read a review of a great new restaurant or that the carbon monoxide detector had gone off again for no apparent reason.
As it happened, she literally ran into Deirdre in the public library; Aimee was gathering up a stack of movies to watch in those quiet hours of the night when she couldn’t read anymore, hours she used to spend folding the never-ending stacks of laundry, or washing dishes and all those tiny parts of baby bottles and sippy cups. She turned quickly to leave the media room when Deirdre bumped into her. The DVDs clattered to the floor.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” They both said.
“This is good,” Deirdre said, noting the biopic of Lincoln as she stooped to pick it up. “I bet you’ll like it.” She smiled a bit, taking in the changes in Aimee’s face.
“How have you been?” The words were measured, thoughtful. Aimee thought Deirdre must have a list of rules to follow should she ever meet a patient out in the world, which she supposed in a small town like theirs was inevitable.
“I’m doing okay. I mean, it’s been two years.” The words hung there, and Aimee tried to believe them.
“Yes, I remember,” Deirdre smiled softly. “Well, I’m meeting my husband in a few minutes,” she said to excuse herself. “It’s good to see you. I’m always around, you know, if you want to talk. You know where to find me.”
Aimee nodded, but bit her right thumbnail into the fleshy pad – the thing she did when she didn’t want to cry. And then, leaving the therapist to find her own Saturday night viewing material, rushed out the back door of the library. She took the long way, so she didn’t have to go past Deirdre’s house, even though what she really wanted was to invite her over for tea. They could sit in the living room on the worn sofa she’d had since graduate school, listening to Madeleine Peyroux or maybe Norah Jones, and swap stories like old friends.
It had been a bad week.
She’d been thinking about her son, Benjamin, a bit more than usual. School had just let out for the year, and with the nights growing longer, all the kids in the neighborhood would gather at their local park, climbing trees, kicking soccer balls, flying kites. She could hear them with the windows open as she put away her few dishes and drank what Deirdre would probably tell her was too much Moscato. It was cold and sweet and bubbly, and she drank it with the ease of a 7-UP. It reminded her of a grown-up version of a wine cooler, the sort of thing one starts drinking before one really starts drinking. She told herself she wouldn’t worry until she started making concoctions with vodka every night before bed.
The nights were the hardest. She tried her best to fill the hours, painting watercolors again (she could leave them out without worrying her son would ingest the toxic reds and yellows) and cooking the latest recipes from Gourmet (she’d stopped doing that with a child in the house). She checked out books from the library like Eating Alone with an Eggplant, on the pleasures of dining alone, but the truth was most nights she ate a few bites and put the rest in the trash. There wasn’t much point in making elaborate meals without someone else at the table. She would have rather been pureeing baby apple and spinach sauce and stacking it in ice cubes trays in the freezer. She would have rather been fighting with Ethan for the hundredth time about whose turn it was to scrub the toilet or take out the trash. As hard as being a wife and mother had been, not being a wife and mother was even harder.
Her son had been wanted.
They’d done their two years of fertility treatment, including four rounds of in vitro fertilization and three miscarriages and then, Aimee, who didn’t even think she could ovulate anymore without medical intervention, found herself pregnant. She was a textbook post-infertile. She read every book in the library on pregnancy and new baby care. She kept a journal and took monthly photos to preserve the image of her growing abdomen; she even made a plaster cast of it on her due date. Once Benjamin arrived, she took her fourteen weeks off from work, even though there was no precedent for anyone taking maternity leave in her department, and came back to work happy to be back at work, making time to pump milk for her son so the babysitter could give him bottles of breast milk during the day. She finally had the domestic life she craved. She wore a pomegranate charm on a red ribbon bracelet most days, to remember what it had been to be a fertility patient, to mark herself to those who were still trying, those who had been similarly scarred on the journey.
There were many nights, now, she did not sleep and inevitably ended up sitting in Benjamin’s room where the only thing she’d done was dust — nothing else in his room had changed, not even his sheets — rocking the way she used to rock him to sleep when he was tiny. How could she let herself sleep, now that her baby was dead?
Aimee had found Deirdre’s name on a page of resources handed to her one day when she went to a group for parents of dead children. She couldn’t take sitting around in a circle, everyone saying their sad stories. The woman whose daughter died of inoperable brain cancer at age three. The man whose teenager had gotten drunk and smashed his car into a tree. They all talked and nodded sympathetically and cried and told each other the important thing was getting up every morning and going to work and raising their surviving children and working on their marriages so they didn’t end up being one of the statistics. So, when Aimee and Ethan had ended up as one of the statistics, she couldn’t go back and look them in the eye.
Deirdre was listed under “local grief counselors,” and after Ethan left, Aimee called and made the first available appointment. Aimee liked Deirdre at once–her slightly dowdy clothes that looked like the suits she’d probably purchased when she got her first job, right after earning her PhD, and her habit of swing her leg and sipping from a water bottle while they talked. Deirdre had mostly questions, never easy answers or platitudes and she had a tendency to indicate the end of sessions saying, “Now you know what I’m going to ask you…”
Aimee often wondered why and how she had become a grief specialist, if she had lost a child or a sibling or maybe a parent at an early age. She was calm, wise, snarky when she needed to be. That first year she saw Deirdre weekly, just to check in; she made sure Aimee had strategies for self-care that didn’t involve alcohol or self-medication, but rather healthy things like painting and taking baths.
“I don’t care if you want to clean your bathtub,” Deirdre had said, “just find something that lets off some steam. You need a release valve.”
Things got better, as they had to; one couldn’t live in a permanent state of crisis. Aimee went back to work. She took on extra projects, like reviews for journals in her field, and she went to as many conferences as she had funding. She stayed at the office late. She went to talks and poetry readings, staying for the Q&A and receptions she never had time for as a new mother. She submersed herself in work the way she once had in graduate school. Things would get better. And when her insurance ran out, she gave Deirdre a hug and said goodbye; she thought she’d be okay. But then, after running into Deirdre three times in one week, Aimee had to wonder if it was a sign to schedule an appointment. If there was more work for the two of them to do together.
Aimee was cleaning the house. One of those furious late-night cleaning sessions. A glass of wine in her hand and the stereo blaring the Talking Heads asking, “how did I get here” while she stood on a stepstool pulling boxes from the top shelf of the hall closet, a mishmash of things that probably should have been given away long ago. There was filling for a quilt she’d never finished making, a basket her first cat had used as a bed, a crinkly plastic baggie filled with alcohol wipes and her Follistim pen in its sturdy blue case. She hadn’t used it in eight years, since her last IVF cycle, the only one that hadn’t even ended in miscarriage, just a blank white on the home pregnancy test where the second line should have been.
She wanted a baby. She’d wanted a baby with a ferocity she never knew possible when she was a young woman trying to make it through grad school, and she wanted a baby now. She knew deep down that’s why she’d saved it, a souvenir from those infertility days when she lived on desire and hope alone. All that was gone now. Her miracle baby was dead and her husband had left her.
What else was there to say?
Aimee found herself in the wee hours of the morning sitting outside Deirdre’s house, sobbing. She had called the office answering machine, just to hear a friendly voice. The voice that told her if it wasn’t an actual emergency resulting in hospitalization, she would be charged extra for the call. She didn’t really have anything to say; it wasn’t an emergency, more than any other night was an emergency, though the cumulative effect of sleeplessness was taking its toll. She couldn’t take sitting in Benjamin’s room anymore, holding the stuffed rabbit he called Bun-Bun or putting her head on the pillow that had long ago stopped smelling of him. She put on her running shoes and raincoat, started walking.
There was a time she would have worried about walking about in the dark. She remembered college, all the conversations in the residence halls about rape, about being sure to have pepper spray or mace. She remembered the quickening of her heartbeat when someone approached. The streets were empty. No one was walking and hardly any cars came by on the main street. Even the drunken undergrads had made their way home for the night.
She hadn’t intended to end up at Deirdre’s. She just started walking, looped around her block and across the street; her feet knew how to get there. There was a light on in one corner, someone else wasn’t sleeping. She wondered if it was the husband or the son or even Deirdre herself, reading a book or watching QVC and contemplating whether to order skin cream or a metallic wallet or a figurine for the living room.
When it came down to it, she really didn’t know much about Deirdre, other than she had a PhD in psychology and she had two kids and a husband who was also a professor of psychology. But still, she felt better, sitting there, knowing someone else was awake.
Sorrow hit Aimee in the tender spot in her abdomen, knocked her down as the contractions had when she was in labor with Benjamin. She was keening there on Deirdre’s lawn, crying and singing lullabies she dredged up from somewhere, those long ago days when she’d hold the baby in the rocker and he’d say “mo,” asking her to sing more, though she could barely carry a tune. Morning bells are ringing ding dang dong. The sobs came up from a place so deep inside her she didn’t know it existed, her left ovary pulsing like ovulation but what was released wasn’t an egg but her very soul.
It was one of those completely random things. Nothing could have been done. Deirdre had told her over and over it was not her fault. Not Ethan’s fault, either. Ethan had taken Benjamin to the park. He climbed up the rock wall and fell and hit his head.
One of those fluke things.
For weeks she sat by his side in the children’s ward of the hospital, ruffling his hair, listening to the huff of the ventilator, waiting for him to wake up. All the neurologists said the same thing: no brain activity. No chance of recovery. The night they turned off the machine, Ethan apologized over and over, but none of it made any difference. Her beautiful boy stopped breathing. How could she possibly sleep? How could she possibly be normal again?
It started to rain harder. Torrents of water coming down, the sort of rain that would flood somebody’s basement and they’d have to get those large blowers to take out the water. It had happened once, when Benjamin was a baby, and they had to stay at a hotel for a few weeks. But she had no home anymore. She had no husband and she had no baby and she had no one to talk to. She couldn’t tell anymore where her tears stopped and the rain began.
The voice that came from her body wasn’t hers anymore. Deirdre was there, singing a sweet soprano, arms around her, shushing her, telling her everything would be okay now. There was a blanket and a warm bed and she wasn’t alone in the dark.
Robin Silbergleid is the author of The Baby Book, and the memoir Texas Girl, both of which grapple with infertility and single motherhood. Currently she teaches at Michigan State University and collaborates with the international art, oral history, and portraiture project The ART of Infertility.