The lady with the eyes too close together stares at me like she expects me to be the first to say something. We're sitting across from each other in these cushy chairs, and she keeps pushing her glasses up her nose and they keep sliding back down again. That's really all I can focus on even though I realize she expects me to talk. Why the hell does she expect me to be the one to begin this conversation anyway? She's making a hundred clams an hour, and yet she expects me to explain to her all the unexplainable that has somehow led me to her office that smells like pencil shavings? No. I cross my arms on my chest, deciding, definitely not.
She pushes her glasses up again. They slide down. Up. Down.
I look at my watch. Two minutes I've been sitting here. That's, oh, I don't know … a hundred dollars an hour, 50 minute hour so … two dollars a minute. So this two-minute silence has cost me four dollars. I think of Rachel, sitting on the ripped leather sofa watching cheesy sitcoms and guffawing all alone. It's your fault, Rachel. I decide to tell this lady about it.
"It's Rachel's fault I'm here," I blurt.
The lady looks relieved and leans in, nodding. "And who is Rachel?"
"My fiancée. She thinks I need therapy because I don't want to get married."
"You don't want to marry your fiancée?"
There's the silence again. She just keeps nodding.
"Frankly, I feel I'm being a little ripped off here," I tell her. "I mean, four minutes has passed now and that's eight dollars of my money. And I had to be the one to break the ice, you know? That's your job. And now you just keep nodding."
She nods. "I understand."
"No, you don't," I say. "You went to school for this?"
"You sound angry."
"See, this is why I told Rachel I don't want to see a shrink. Because they're snaky bastards who'll sit there and say a bunch of bullshit to you to waste fifty minutes of your time. To pretend like they care."
"Yes, I can see why you feel that way."
"Oh, really? Why, because it's true? Because you're a snaky bastard yourself?"
"What makes you think that?" she asks with a nervous laugh.
"Because you're all bullshit. You're a scammer, just like a criminal. Only instead of being in jail, you're locked up here in this nice, posh office with your stupid degrees hanging on your wall."
"They aren't stupid!" she says, standing up.
"Then why are you so defensive?"
"Because you're being rude and hostile in my office!"
"What, you're going to be a baby about it? I thought you were a professional."
Her face twists into a pout and she wails. "I'm sorry, but I'm feeling very crowded and I'd like to be alone!"
"This is supposed to be my hour," I say, standing up and pushing my chair.
"But you had to turn it into a personal attack!" she cries as her glasses slip to the floor.
"I didn't mean to get you so upset, I was just -"
"What you said just now really h-h-hurt my feelings," she snivels. "And I need some space. Please, go away! Go away!" She turns and puts her face in her hands and blubbers.
"Fine," I say. I pick up the cushy chair. "But I'm taking this."
"Just get out!" she screams.
"How was it?" yells Rachel as soon as she hears the front door slam.
"It was okay." I lug the chair into the living room. Rachel is on the couch eating from a carton of ice cream. The end of her red ponytail hangs in it as she looks up at me.
"Your ponytail is in your ice cream."
"Gross," she says, sucking on the end of her hair. "What in the Lord's name is that?"
"That is a plush, new chair for our living room."
She hops up on the couch with the spoon in her hand. "But I mean … where did it come from?"
"She gave you a chair?"
"In a way, yes."
Rachel glares. "'In a way, yes?' Oh, for Pete's sake, did you steal that chair from her?" She throws her spoon at me. It misses my face by millimeters. "You are a terrible person!"
"Listen, it was complicated. She started crying and getting all upset -"
"Who? The therapist lady?"
"Yes, and she wanted me out and so I felt I deserved the chair because we'd only been talking for like five minutes -"
"What? I hate the way you tell stories. This makes no sense. Why did she kick you out after five minutes?"
"Because, I don't know. I might have said something that upset her."
"Might have? You must have! No therapist throws you out after five minutes. Therapists are very understanding. They deal with abusives, you know."
"Right, I know what they do. She was insane, Rachel. There's no other explanation."
"Yes, jerkface, there is another explanation. That you're a jerkface! Ever thought of that?"
Rachel grabs the spoon off the floor and then sprints into the kitchen. I catch up to her. She puts the ice cream in the freezer.
"God, am I engaged to a hopeless ape?" She asks this sadly, staring at the ice trays. "Can you give me a sign, Lord? I'm listening."
"God lives in the freezer?" I ask.
She sighs and shuts the door, closing her eyes for just a moment. She opens them and resumes glaring at me.
"God is everywhere."
"Even in Satan? What about cancer, is God in cancer?"
"Robert!" she yells. "Stop making fun of my religion! I don't make fun of you!"
"There's nothing to make fun of, I don't believe in anything," I say. I give her a playful punch but she ignores it and shakes her head. Shakes her head in this angry, disbelieving way. It gets more intense. "What's happening? Rachel?"
"I know now we're not right together," she says bitterly. "I should have known. All the signs were there. We're not compatible."
"Oh, stop with that."
"I'll have to learn to live without you. I'll buy a cat, I guess, and live alone. I'll be celibate. I'll give up my dreams of love and marriage-"
"Enough already," I say, putting my hands on her shoulders. "We're not breaking up."
"It just can't work. Do you think I pictured myself this way? Twenty seven years old and engaged to a man who insults and steals from his therapist?"
"Come on, it wasn't like that." I pull her close but she resists.
"Maybe I'll become a nun."
"You won't become a fucking nun," I say, kissing her. I can tell the reluctance is melting. "Because I am going to marry you."
"Really?" she says, looking at me with a smile. "When?"
"Someday?" she frowns. "Well, like, in ten years or in a month? I mean, give me a time frame. And don't say the f-word around me again. I mean it."
"Did I say the f-word?"
"You did." Rachel sighs, closes her eyes and clasps her hands. "Lord, give me the power to deal with this man. I'm trying to be strong, I'm trying -"
"Okay, listen," I say with a clap, getting Rachel's attention. "I will stop swearing. I will go to a different therapist and try again to … to work out my … my …"
"Your commitment issues."
"Right, my commitment issues. And I promise we'll get married, all right? Why else would I have given you that ring, huh, baby?"
We embrace, she finally smiles and peeps at her ring. "It's kind of small."
"It's an antique, baby."
"Yeah. You promise to stop swearing?"
"And you'll go to therapy again? And you won't insult the therapist?"
"I'll make an appointment tomorrow if it means that much to you. And I'll take an entirely different approach than I did today."
"I love you so much," she blurts. "I didn't mean what I said earlier. I could never live without you."
"Yeah, I know," I say, kissing the top of her head.
I wait in Dr. Rizzo's office. He's a big bald man finishing up a phone call at his desk. His head has shiny fat folds I can't stop staring at. He talks tough into the phone.
"I want a pastrami on rye with no freaking mayonnaise. Did you get that, or do I have to spell it out for you? No freaking mayo." He hangs up and scribbles something on a pad before turning around with his giant hand ready to squeeze mine.
"Great to meet you Robert. Are you into Robert, or should I call you Bobby? Bob maybe? Rob, or Robbie?"
"I'm Dr. Rizzo. But you can call me Angelo. It means 'angel' in Italian. So what the hell is bothering you? I'm all ears."
"Nothing, really," I say. "My fiancée wants to get married and I want to wait."
"And why the hell not? With all the options out there? Tell me about your mother."
"My mother? She does data entry for a living and lives in Florida."
"And your father?"
"They're divorced. He's a retired insurance salesman. He also lives in Florida, about three blocks away from my mom."
"Did he beat you or anything I should know about?"
"No. He spanked me sometimes."
"How was that?"
"My butt hurt, but I wasn't emotionally scarred or anything."
"Every once in awhile."
"How you feeling right now?"
"You gay at all?"
"Ever tried to be?"
"No. I don't really know what that means, but no."
Angelo sits back and studies me. "Okay. From what you've told me so far, I can determine a few things. Number one, you were scarred terribly by your parents' divorce. You completely disrespect your mother and are possibly a closeted homosexual. I'm just going to put that out there, chew on it for a sec."
"Also, I think we should entertain the idea that you might have a moderate to severe depressive disorder. Plus a problem with alcohol."
"Listen," I say. "I'm not gay, depressed or an alcoholic. And I love my mother."
"Denial, my friend. You are living in denial. I'm sorry if you don't agree with my in-your-face tactics, but this is how Dr. Angelo Rizzo deals with things: he sees them, and he calls it. No bullshit."
He points to a giant banner on the wall I somehow hadn't noticed before that says "NO BULLSHIT."
"If you don't like it, take a hike," Angelo says.
"I'm here to simply please my fiancée, okay? I want to make her feel better about things."
"Sure you do. But you can't, because your life has spun out of control."
"No it hasn't."
"Fine, then it's all messed up in a web of lies."
"But it's not!"
"Fine, it's not. What do you want from me here?"
"I want you to not be a jerkoff," I tell him.
"Oh, that hurts, kid. Yeah, that really hurts."
I fight the urge to take off my shoe and throw it at his fat face. Instead I get up and walk to his banner, tearing it off the wall and ripping it into shreds.
"Bullshit!" I yell at him before sprinting from his office. I grab a lamp on my way out.
"Oh no," Rachel says as soon as I walk in the door with the lamp.
"It's not what you think," I explain. "He insulted me, this guy."
"And so you stole his lamp?"
"I paid for a full hour and left before ten minutes was up. I figure this guy owes me."
"You are impossible!" she yells, getting up and running into the bedroom.
I follow her. She's waiting in the doorway, bony elbows akimbo. "Listen, honey, please. This guy was crazy. This big fat Italian dude was seriously fucked up. I'm sorry, honey - effed up. Effed up."
"You are effed up!" she yells, throwing herself on our bed. "What is so wrong with you that you can't stand ten minutes of therapy? And that you feel the need to steal things when you don't get your way?"
"They stole from me," I say. "They stole my time, my money. That guy there stole my dignity."
"Give me a break! Your dignity. What a bunch of BS. I'll bet you didn't even mention me, did you?"
"I tried, but he wouldn't listen."
"Of course he would listen! He's a therapist. Those people deal with sociopaths. They can do anything."
"You don't understand." I tickle her foot hoping it will change her mood, but she kicks me and I back up a step. "I wish you could have been there, and heard this guy. What a moron."
Rachel sits up on her arms, hugs the pillow and stares into space. "I'm really realizing right now, for the first time, that it's over between us. It's really over."
"What's over?" I say, rushing to the bed. I stoop down and try to make eye contact with her. But she just keeps ogling the nothingness.
"Us. How could I have been so stupid? To think we would last? I mean, we're so different."
"What's different, baby? We love each other!" I say, rubbing her leg. Feels like sandpaper. "What else matters?"
"I'll have to move out and find my own place. Give up the dream of having a family and settle for a life of loneliness."
"Don't start with that. You know it's not true."
"I'll just be the crazy old lady with lots of cats. A spinster, a sad old maid. I'll never let a man touch me again."
"We're getting married," I tell her, petting her arm.
"Really?" she asks, looking at me finally.
"Sure we are."
"Soon. Real soon."
"How soon? Like in a month or in ten years?"
"I don't know."
"Of course babies."
She lays her copper head on my shoulder; her hair smells like raw eggs. She stares at the engagement ring on her finger. "Robert, please, please go see a therapist for real. Without ruining it and stealing things. Talk to them about me, and be real nice and polite. Maybe it'll help you figure it out."
"I'll call another one tomorrow," I say, squeezing her tight.
This next shrink is pretty and young. Her office smells like vanilla beans and her hair puffs out anchorwoman-style. She too has degrees on her walls. I guess they all do. I wonder, do they think we won't find their advice credible otherwise? I shake my head and chuckle. I'm sitting on a leather loveseat, and every time I move it squeaks. She smiles at me.
"I'm Evelyn," she informs me. "And I am what is referred to as a cognitive therapist, although I actually employ some behavioral methods as well."
"Okay," I say.
"You said on the phone you're here because of marital problems?"
"Actually, I'm not married yet," I answer. "And that's sort of the problem."
"How so?" She crosses her legs and itches her knee.
"Well … it's hard to explain. I'm not good at this. But my fiancée Rachel … well, she really has this drive to, you know, settle down. Babies and white picket fences and all that. I love her, and in theory, I do want to marry her. Just not now."
"I understand," Evelyn replies, still itching her knee, which is fast turning a flushed pink. "Please continue."
"Well … I mean, it's not like I doubt our relationship. Because I don't. Rachel is sweet and - and just perfect, in almost every way."
Evelyn nods, continuing to scratch the swollen rash on her knee that is now spreading down her leg. I hesitate before continuing.
"I mean … we have fun. And that's what's important, right? Who cares if she wants to have seven to ten children and I want to have zero to one? Or the God thing. I've just decided, you know, it's not all that important."
Evelyn stands up so she can itch her whole left leg now, top to bottom. "I'm sorry, how awkward! But I seem to have a terrible itch."
"I can see that. You okay?"
"God, it stings!"
"Should I call someone?"
"No … I'm sorry, please keep talking. Please."
"Okay … um …" I try to remember what the hell I was just saying, but all I can concentrate on is watching Evelyn frantically rub her leg. She takes off her shoe and starts stamping her foot on the floor.
"God, it's so itchy! Just horrible!"
"Yeah, your face is even turning kind of … rashy. Are you sure you don't want me to call a doctor?"
"If you don't mind … oh! Oh for fuck's sake!" she falls to the ground and rolls on the carpet. "Excuse me! So sorry! Skin's on fire! Itches all over!"
I stand up and grab the phone off her desk. "Should I dial 911?"
She doesn't answer, but rolls and whimpers, dragging herself along the carpet like a dog.
I dial 911. The operator answers in a string of unintelligible words.
"Hi," I say.
"State your emergency, sir," the robotic voice replies.
"Yeah, well, um … I don't know how to say this exactly, but my therapist is having an itch attack or something. A seizure, I don't know. She's rolling along the floor." I give the lady the address. She says an ambulance will be over right away. I hang up the phone.
"You okay?" I ask.
She's in the corner, on the floor, itching her back against an endtable. She moans in reply.
"I'm going to take off, if you don't mind. I'm sorry about your problem. They're sending an ambulance over. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"I'll give you a …. a free session … free session …" she moans. She's rolling on the carpet again.
I slip out of her office, scratching myself like it's going to help somehow.
Rachel is elated to see me walk through the door empty-handed. As she jumps up from the couch to greet me her crossword puzzle book flies in the air. "Didn't steal anything this time?"
"I didn't even think to," I say, collapsing on the couch. She curls up next to me and swirls the end of her pigtails.
"So … how was it?"
"Well, I had to call 911. My therapist was flopping along the floor having some sort of allergic reaction or something."
"What? You're joking!"
"Yeah. Within like three minutes."
"Really? Did that really happen, or are you just making up some excuse?"
"I swear. It scared the effing crap out of me."
"So you didn't get any advice, none at all?"
Rachel takes the rubber bands out of her pigtails and shakes her red head. "Maybe it's a sign. From God."
"What, an allergic reaction?"
"No, the fact that you can't even talk to a therapist for ten minutes before something goes horribly wrong. At first I thought you were doing it on purpose, but maybe you're cursed."
"I'm not cursed. I think these therapists are cursed. A bunch of frauds, Rache."
She chews on the end of her hair and gets the worried face. Doesn't reply.
"What are you thinking?" I say, pulling her hair out of her mouth.
"I'm thinking about us. About how maybe the Lord is trying to tell me we're not right for each other."
"No he isn't." I correct myself. "I mean she. She isn't."
I take her hand and turn her face toward me. Rachel still avoids eye contact, focusing on the couch cushion.
"I do want to marry you. And I want to have babies."
"How many?" she asks.
"I haven't decided."
"More than three?"
"Because I want between seven and ten children, I told you." She scratches the couch cushion in the space she's been staring at. "And I want to be married. Not in a few years or even a few months, but now. I want to get married and have children and all that, and I'm ready. Now."
"We'll have all that," I promise, kissing her hand.
"Really, really soon. Pretty immediately."
"Like a month, or six? Which is closer?"
"I don't know, but I'll figure it out soon."
She finally looks at me, her eyes a mean blue, eyebrows lowered, forehead tense. "Will we raise our children Christian, the way I want to?"
I stare at her, a sinking feeling in my chest. Kind of sinking and tightening at the same time. "Whatever you want."
"Then I'm giving you one more chance. Once more you will go see a therapist and try and figure this out. And if after that, nothing has changed, then that's it. I mean it." She crosses her arms along her chest and tosses her hair back. "If you don't decide you want the life I want, and soon, then we're done."
"Okay," I say. My eyes drift to the couch cushion, which suddenly appears fascinating.
"So tomorrow? One more appointment?" she asks.
"No, someone without a tragic skin condition would be nice."
Rachel kisses my cheek. "I love you. You'll be just the man I've always dreamed of someday."
I let that last line echo back a couple times and settle in my mind before replying, "Yeah, honey. Sure I will."
I'm sitting on a velvety blue couch in Dr. Frederick's office when the door opens. A tall, thin man my father's age in a polo shirt and slacks walks in and pulls a chair up across from me.
"Dr. Frederick, of course, and you must be Robert," he says, adjusting himself. We shake hands - a nice, man-to-man, firm handshake. "Very nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too."
He looks out the window and smiles. Big white teeth. He must floss often. Or maybe they're fake? "What a beautiful day it is, huh? The beginning of summer is new to me somehow every year. What a blessed gift."
"Yeah," I agree, picking a piece of lint off my shoulder.
"So let's get to the heart of the matter, then. Why did you decide to come and talk to me?" he asks, leaning back in his chair.
"My fiancée and I need to work out some issues. Or I guess just me."
"Can you give me an idea of what sort of issues you and your fiancée - what is her name, by the way?"
"Can you tell me about the difficulties you and Rachel have been experiencing?"
"Mostly we're great. To tell you the truth, things were just perfect before I asked her to marry me. And the only reason I asked her to marry me was because she told me if I didn't she might break up with me."
"Sounds like you feel a little cornered," says Dr. Frederick. He nods like this makes perfect sense to him. "How long have you and Rachel been together?"
"About a year."
"And how long ago did you propose?"
"About a month ago."
"I see," he says, stroking his chin. "A year isn't very long, Robert. I don't blame you for wanting to wait a little bit before taking the big plunge. Marriage is a serious thing, or at least it should be."
"I totally agree," I say, leaning in. "I mean, it's nothing against Rachel, I just don't want to end up like my parents, you know?"
"Divorced, I assume?"
"Yeah. I mean, they married so young. It was like, by the time my parents figured out who they were and what they were happy doing with their lives, they realized they weren't right together. They're still good friends, but, you know, it's sad all the same. I don't want to make the same mistake."
"Sure," he nodded. "I think that's commendable. You're only trying to be responsible and to do what's right."
"Thank you!" I sigh in relief. "God, this feels so great, being able to talk with someone who understands. Rachel makes me feel like there's something wrong with me all the time."
"No offense to Rachel, but it sounds like she might have some issues of her own to explore. Why is she in such a rush?"
"I don't know! Biological clock or something? She acts like if we aren't married then we'll never be. She's very impatient."
"That sounds hard to deal with."
"It's all I deal with lately. I mean, every effing night - and that's another thing. She won't let me swear anymore, so now I'm becoming this pansy who says things like 'effing.'"
"She wants you to change your habits?"
"I'm starting to think she wants me to be a completely different human being! Like last night, she brought up Christianity. Looked up at me with her big eyes and asked if I would raise our seven to ten children as Christian. I don't even believe in God! And I don't even know if I want kids, let alone seven to ten!"
"Religious differences are extremely important," Dr. Frederick says. "I strongly oppose anyone compromising their personal beliefs because of pressure from someone else. And it sounds like, all around, this is what you're doing."
I'm quiet, staring at the window. The curtains do a little dance in the breeze.
"I didn't really think of it that way," I mutter. "But yeah, you're totally right."
"You've explained your problems with Rachel, and I think I understand the basis for your doubts. Now why don't you tell me a little bit of what you love about Rachel so much? About the things that make you want to stay together?"
I think hard for a moment. "I like the way she's always waiting for me when I come home from work, like a happy puppy."
Dr. Frederick nods uncertainly.
"I like the color of her hair. Bright red and totally natural. She doesn't brush it enough though. And it smells like eggs, which is a minus." I think again, staring at my shoes for inspiration. "Oh! And she does this funny thing when she's sleeping - she sort of kicks her legs and whimpers. I actually hate it when she kicks my legs, though. Sometimes her toenails scrape me and it hurts."
He strokes his chin. "What else?"
"Hmmmm … she has the goofiest laugh. It gets me every time. And she's sweet. I mean, she means well. She's trustworthy, you know? I can count on her to not leave me for some other guy, or wig out or anything."
Dr. Frederick's head bobs in a single, slow motion nod. "I hear what you're saying. But do you really think these are the qualities you would look for in a wife?"
"I don't know, probably because before Rachel started bugging me about it, I never thought about getting married. I never imagined having kids, at least not now. I'm not like her, waiting for some fairy tale ending. I just roll with life, you know?"
He nods. "How Zen."
I look around his office, noticing the mandatory degrees on the walls and the Rauchenburg reprint that could have been painted by a preschooler. I think of Rachel, watching her sitcoms at home right now.
"I feel guilty. I mean, Rachel sent me here to figure out what's wrong with me, and I feel like we're talking about what's wrong with her."
"Don't get that idea. I just want you to see that perhaps you and Rachel have different visions of your futures. And I want you to stop feeling like there's something wrong with you, because there isn't. I admire you for being thoughtful and cautious, and for treating marriage like something that deserves deep consideration."
"Right, right - but you don't understand. I mean, what am I going to say when I go home and see her?"
"That's up to you. What would you like to say?"
"I'd like to say …" I sigh, looking at the window. I scratch my leg and sigh again. "I'd like to say … I mean, in an ideal world where I know Rachel wouldn't get all crushed and sad, I'd say, 'Rachel, I've been thinking about this marriage thing a lot and I think maybe we have different ideas of what we want.'"
"And I'd say, 'Maybe it's time for you to be a little patient with me. We haven't even been together a year, for Christ's sake!'"
"I'd be like, 'If you want some Christian dad and you want seven kids, maybe it's time to date other people.'"
Dr. Frederick nods. "So you're thinking about breaking up?"
"I don't know! I mean, I just thought about it for the first time really, right now. But when I think about how much she wants to, like … mold me into this person I'm not, it makes me think …" I sit back, crossing my arms, feeling my heart pounding. "I don't know. God, it would kill her."
"Well, you don't have to break up with her. But I think you need to tell her the basis of your doubts, either way. I think you should explain her pressure to convert you to Christianity is making you uncomfortable, and that you want to feel you have the time necessary to make big decisions in your life about things like marriage and children."
"I just don't want to be a fraud," I say. "If there's anything in life I hate, it's people pretending to be what they aren't. And my nightmare would be to wake up and realize one day that I am one of those people."
Dr. Frederick sits back and thinks about this.
"A fake. A human falsity," I continue. "I'd rather be dead."
Dr. Frederick blinks, clearly thinking deeply. The pause is so long I think maybe I've said something offensive.
"Sorry, I don't mean to rant," I tell him.
He clears his throat and leans in, like he's got some well-thought answer for me. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and be honest with you, my friend," he says, looking me in the eye.
The pause is so long it's uncomfortable. I can hear my stomach gurgling.
Finally he says, "I myself am a fraud."
I cock my head, letting that sink in, thinking I must be missing something. But no, he just said he was a fraud. No getting around it. "Excuse me?"
"Yeah. A professional fraud, if you will."
I just stare at him, not understanding.
"Those degrees on the walls?" he continues, pointing to the various diplomas and certificates. "Forgeries." He laughs, punching my arm as if I'm in on the joke with him. "I never graduated college."
"I'm no psychologist. I'm no 'Dr. Frederick,'" he says, mocking what I thought was his own name. "My name's Robert."
"But … that's my name."
"It's my name, too, although I've barely used it," he says. "I've impersonated so many people. You name it, I've faked it. Seriously, name something!"
I can't think of anything. My mouth is open. I'm really trying, but nothing comes out.
"I've been a naval captain, a Southern Baptist preacher, a professor … I was the mayor of a small town in Connecticut for a week once. A scientist, a Chip 'n Dale's stripper named Xenu back in the eighties… even an MTV veejay named Party. You remember Party?"
It takes me a second before I can even respond. "No."
He smiles. "I've faked my way into every profession imaginable."
"Well, that's fantastic," I reply. "I finally meet a psychologist I can talk to, and he's a fraud."
He seems baffled by my anger. He leans in, trying to explain. "I'm happy being a fraud. I know who I really am. And it's fun playing with the outside. It's amazing what people believe!"
I want to punch his face, but instead I say, "Maybe you should have been an actor."
"An actor?" He looks at me quizzically. "But … that's not real!"
I look at the degrees on the walls. Phonies. Like I would know the difference.
"So how many patients do you have?" I ask. "How many poor saps come to you every week, pouring their heart out? Shelling money for advice from a fake therapist?"
"You're my first and only patient," he says, folding his hands. He leans back and stares out the window, a blissful expression on his face. "I don't think I particularly like psychology. It's too … tame. Maybe I'll be a firefighter - something a little more physical. Look at this gut!" He slaps his stomach, which is trimmer than mine. That's it. Fuck this guy.
I get up. "Well, thanks. Now I'm more confused than ever."
"Don't be confused! You came in here and got a lot off your chest, admitted a lot of doubts you didn't know you had before. It's more than you got from any other therapist, isn't it?"
My hand is on the doorknob. I turn around.
"But you're a complete fraud," I tell him in a flat voice.
"So are you, if you're planning on compromising yourself for Rachel."
I stare at him. "Good luck with the firefighting thing," I say. "I hope you burn alive."
He nods, smiling. "What was that last part?"
I slam the door.
My wife Rachel is in the delivery room, fat as a cow, sweating and screaming at nurse number one. Nurse number two runs in and out of the room in her squeaky shoes. Both nurses are apparently somehow named Shaniqua. Anyone who says birth is a beautiful thing is an ignorant a-hole. Everything reeks of antiseptic. I think I'm going to be sick.
"I'm going to KILL you if you don't get the effing doctor in the room, right now! I'm serious! This baby is literally CRAWLING out of me! I'll sue! I swear I'll sue!"
"Calm down, lady," Shaniqua number one says. "What you're feeling, it's perfectly normal."
"It's not NORMAL! It's WRONG!"
"I've delivered more babies than you," Shaniqua number one points out. She's got a mole on her face that needs removing. I wonder why she hasn't had it removed yet, working in a hospital and all?
Rachel screams and reaches for my hand. I've got goosebumps. The whole scene makes me want to run and hide in a closet somewhere. "Help me!" she yells.
"It's okay," I lie. This scene is the very opposite of what I consider to be okay. "Really, you'll get through this. You have to get used to it if you're going to have seven to ten of them."
She does some huffing and puffing into the air, red hair plastered on her forehead and cheeks. I love her, I think out of nowhere. The thought of it startles and calms me. "Dear Lord, please let our baby be born healthy and beautiful. Please let him have all his fingers and toes, Lord. Amen." She exhales loudly and long, looking at me, eyes shiny. "Say a little prayer for me!"
I bow my head, trying not to think of the Aretha Franklin song. I'm no praying man, and normally I would refuse, but seeing as Rachel is about to squeeze seven to eight pounds of life out of her loins, I'll do it. And I'll do it well, even. "Lord," I clear my throat and try again. "Lord, we ask you to … to protect our baby. Please, deliver us a healthy baby … and please help me to be a good father." I open my eyes and look up, feeling nothing. Feeling silly, but like I'm doing the right thing, maybe. I don't know. The doctor is standing above us; even with a surgical mask on, I can sense his smile. And when I focus on his face, I recognize him.
"Robert?" I say.
"Kenneth Polanski," the fraud replies curtly. "I hope I didn't interrupt your prayer. I'll be delivering the baby. "
"You're … a doctor now?"
"Yes. And you're married? Congratulations. This must be Rachel." He looks down at Rachel, who, understandably, pants.
"Who in heck are you?" she asks.
"Dr. Polanski." He picks up the clipboard attached to her bed and scrutinizes it. "Your cervix has dilated nicely. Labor pains for only four hours. A lucky woman." He puts the clipboard back and claps his hands together. "You just relax, and let's wheel you into the delivery room."
They are gone in an instant. I follow, panicking, afraid of the imposter about to deliver Rachel's baby. I want to tell the Shaniquas who assist him, and my squealing wife, but know it would only ruin things.
I watch my baby's birth with my hand in my mouth. As the head crowns and my wife screams and my baby screams, I want to scream. All I can think is, this can't be real. Robert the doctor, Robert the father. This can't be real.
Finally the worst is over. I remember to close my mouth again. I watch the "doctor" and can't believe he pulled off delivering a baby. And he looks so natural, like a real doctor, or an actor playing a doctor. He removes his gloves and washes his hands. I wonder what ever happened to the firefighting thing. I look at his face, at his bright blue eyes surrounded by smile wrinkles, and give him a little nod. He nods back. The nurse snips the umbilical cord and lets me hold the baby, the slippery, slimy, squealing, squirming baby. As I hold it, I look down, trying not to drop it - him. Jesus, what am I saying? Him. Poor little guy. He writhes and cries. Tiny thing, that's all he can do.
"Congratulations," says the fraud with a wink. "Good luck, Robert." He exits the room, clipboard in hand.
I look down at the baby, my baby. He's not the cutest baby but he's not deformed or anything. He'll look better when he grows some hair. The Shaniquas clean him up and put him in a blue blanket and give him back to us, and suddenly we have him. He's ours, and he calms down, and so do we. We all calm down. We fawn over him. Rachel makes kissy faces and her voice gets all high.
"Yes you are. Yes you are," she says.
I kiss Rachel on the forehead and she squeezes my hand and I can't believe how it's all come to this, to us in this hospital room, married. Family, even. Me holding a pink baby in a blue blanket. Delivered by a man posing as a doctor. I don't know what I'm doing, it all feels like someone else's life, but Rachel and the Shaniquas don't seem to notice. Someday, when we're further from this moment, I vow to tell them all about how it really was. About the imposter. We'll be sitting around some family dinner one night and the story will bust everyone up. It will be a story my kids tell their kids. And so on.
"Thank you, Lord," says Rachel, deflated beneath her blanket. She touches my cheek. "We'll name him Robert. We'll call him Junior."
"Robert," I repeat. And force a laugh.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Faith Gardner. All rights reserved.