Permanence

By: Vincent Zandri

For Laura





Book One

Water

I look to you and I see nothing.

I look to you to see the truth.

—Mazzy Star





September, 1989

Restitution

The problem is my heart.

I thought it would break when doctor poured a glass of water from the pitcher on his desk. Running water is the sound I remember best—and worst—about baby. Water is what I remember as it spilled over the walls of the bathtub when baby died fourteen months ago.

For six months now I’ve been seeing doctor once a week, whether I need him or not. The visits are not really voluntary visits. The visits are necessity. But I give the visits a different name: restitution—self-appointed penance for my guilt, for the time I left baby alone in the bathtub.

So here’s what I do to get my money’s worth: I ask doctor to tell me about someone whose life is worse than my own.

“If it isn’t about a bad marriage or a tragic death,” I tell him, “then just make it plain miserable so I don’t feel so bad.”

“I know,” says doctor. “Misery loves company.”

Doctor’s face bears no expression at all. His face is emotionless, but mysteriously attractive. His thin, pale lips are pressed together inside his salt-and-pepper beard. He neither smiles nor frowns.

I make a small, fake laugh. I cross my legs while I sit on this long, leather patient’s couch. I smooth the creases and wrinkles that disfigure my skirt. I run my hands through my shoulder-length, brown hair. I close my legs tightly, feel the warmth of thigh against thigh and all that is beginning to excite between my thighs.

“Yes,” I say, looking away from doctor and at the plain white walls of his office. “Something like that, so long as it’s miserable.”

Doctor stares at the ceiling for some time, as though collecting his thoughts. “I knew this fat man a long time ago,” he says. “The man was so convinced of being trapped inside his body, he overdosed on tranquilizers. But the tranquilizers did not have the hoped-for effect.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” I say.

“The man’s body was so large, it absorbed the entirety of the drugs without killing him. He stayed alive.”

“Alive,” I say. “I see.”

“You don’t see,” insists doctor from behind his enormous mahogany desk. “The fat man tried hanging himself, but the thin rope he wrapped around his neck and around the roof rafters in his attic wasn’t strong enough. The rope suddenly snapped in two when the fat man kicked a chair out from under himself. He came tumbling to the floor, a bit bruised but very much alive.

“By that time,” doctor goes on, “the man was in a state of panic. He felt absolutely helpless. He believed he had become immortal. He was miserable. He even tried to gas himself with the oven, but listen to this: the appliance was electric.”

I don’t know whether to believe doctor or not. I don’t know whether to smile or not, because doctor is dead serious. He stares off into the distance, despite the lack of distance in this small office.

A long, weighty silence ensues.

Then doctor jumps from his chair to his feet. He slams his fist to the mahogany desk. He raises the same fist to me. He stares into me with passionate, feeling eyes.

“Listen,” he demands. “Don’t you get it? The fat man stayed alive in spite of himself.”

Slowly, doctor reins his emotion in. He sits back down into the leather chair. He pulls a white handkerchief from his pocket, wipes his moist brow. He breathes a heavy, exaggerated breath. He seems frustrated. Like a suffocating man, he seems to be gasping for air that will not come.

Parable

Maybe a story about someone who lives in spite of himself is too miserable, because I force a smile onto my face, beginning with the comers of my mouth and getting larger, straining to grow. I gaze upon my own smile in the mirror behind doctor. But then I shift my focus to doctor. I want him to see how happy I can be. I want him to know he has affected me, and in this, perhaps he has made some progress. But why should I smile? What is it about guilt that can make me smile?

I should be crying.

Doctor stares into my eyes. He bears his usual, indifferent frown. After six months’ worth of Friday afternoon visits, I do not expect him to smile, ever.

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