The specialist is coming to see me today. I’m told the first session will be a consultation. If I “cooperate” she can do for me what she did for a woman in Tallahassee and before that, a politician of some caliber in Kiev.
“What do you mean ‘cooperate?’” I asked. “Be open-minded?”
I found her in a chat room. Every Sunday I try to get my affairs in order for the week and I said as much. “I’m falling apart,” I typed.
“I can tell,” her reply pinged back.
And so, we set up the appointment.
Her name is Rachel. I learn this as she walks through the door of my apartment. She reaches for my hand and shakes before I can reciprocate. My condition doesn’t surprise her but there’s no mistaking the interest, just visible beneath a blank face. Her demeanor is modest, perfunctory. As for physical appearance: a black bun secured at the nape of the neck, a white turtleneck, khaki pants. She slips a pair of loafers from her feet, then invites me to sit on my couch.
“The beginning of it all?” she asks.
“A molar on the left,” I say.
I remember spitting the tooth cleanly into my palm and tonguing the absence. There was no blood. Besides a few loose threads of skin, the crater was clean. Odd, I thought at the time but not unheard of. Perhaps I was stressed, overworked. Maybe, I thought, peering into the bathroom mirror, it had rotted. I called my dentist who referred me to an oral surgeon. I would go after work.
The surgeon laughed when I produced the tooth and I felt foolish for thinking it could be returned as easily as it was lost. “It’s strange,” she said, looking at the X-rays. “I see no reason why you should have lost this,” I asked if I should get a second opinion. She looked perplexed. Then, she said she encouraged it.
But I didn’t get a second opinion. I went home and placed the tooth next to a bowl of browning fruit. I ran my tongue over the crater which felt as though it had been there all my life. The next morning, I lost an incisor.
I look at Rachel. “How many cases like mine have you seen?” Her face reminds me of an animal I can’t place. Pert, attentive, small.
“Plenty,” she says. “In fact, it’s much more common than you might believe.” She removes a notebook from a bag and clicks a pen into action.
“Will you excuse me for a moment?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says.
In my bedroom, I retrieve a small box from the nightstand. Gold trim climbs the sides and erupts in floral sprays across the top. It stands on delicate legs and the interior is lined with blue velvet. Sometimes at night I hold it against my chest and pretend I’ve just received a precious gift. It has that kind of heft.
“How charming,” Rachel says when I show her.
“It’s very special to me,” I say, reclaiming my spot on the couch. She reaches out to touch it but I pull away. “I’m sorry,” I apologize, “but you don’t understand.” I lift the clasp and the lid creaks open.
“Well?” I venture. I try to appear reasonable.
Rachel considers the contents. “This is worse than I thought,” she says.
After the missing teeth, life continued ordinarily. I work from home as a customer service representative for a company called Techno Corp. One day, while resolving a complaint about a software glitch, my ear fell off. Most surprising was my shock – the lack of it – how all I felt was indifference. With estranged reverence, I balanced the ear against a paperweight and continued the call on the other side of my head. Every now and then I found myself stroking the lobe where soft hairs caught light, honest as the skin of a fruit.
A few days later, my finger, on an evening walk. I looked down at the wrinkled knuckle, uneven nail, the bend of the joints – intimacies I once claimed – impossibly unioned with the ground.
The nose, too, was lovely in its own way. It detached after a gentle sneeze. I remember unwrapping the tissue the way I’d seen women open gifts at baby showers: tentatively but not without enthusiasm and with great ceremony.
A few days later, four toes plucked from a shed sock. Then, the overwhelming need to feel their temperature – cool as marbles – against my lips.
“I suppose one could call them odds and ends,” I say to Rachel who looks grim.
“I’m afraid this is an insidious case which is arguably more dangerous.”
“Why is that?” I close the box and fold my hands on top.
Rachel leans back, crosses her legs. “One can be lulled quite easily into a false sense of security. Why, right now you are covering the missing ear with a veil of hair. Your finger could have been lost in a minor accident, and no one ever asks about an abnormality on the face for fear of being rude. Your toes –” she gestures, “are hidden in this practical shoe.”
I nod. “I see what you mean.”
“In the field we call this Beguiling.”
“What’s to be done?” I ask.
A quiet slice of sun passes the couch. I try to find something to focus on. My apartment is sparse. I moved in about three years ago, but haven’t done much with it. I have the essentials: bed, sofa, lamp, toaster. “You know,” the owner of the building said to me a few weeks after I moved in, “home decor says a lot about a person.”
“Oh?” I braced myself for an uninteresting conversation. Before I knew it, I was on a tour of his apartment where he used the word “pop” to describe the odd color here and there and then invited me to sit on a chair whose cushion did nothing to ease the sinister verticality of the back. “As you can see,” he said, spreading his arms like a maestro, “I’m eclectic contemporary.”
All I really have to speak of is a dead philodendron in the corner. I make a mental note to talk about it if Rachel and I run out of things to say.
Now, Rachel takes a deep, laborious breath. “It is imperative that you achieve stasis.”
The word makes me skeptical. Indeed, I already exist in something like it. With eight years at Techno Corp behind me and a failed novel, I’m no stranger to concession. I have long accepted that the job I took to support a dream has instead become the entirety of my life. And anyway, how to categorize younger hopes other than frivolously naive? Still, every now and then I feel it, the insidious departure from who I once believed I could be.
As if on cue, Rachel asks me what it is I do. Usually, I point people to Techno Corp’s website: Doers with innovative minds that drive solutions with integrity. If pressed, I’ll throw in a few words: federal, consultant, software. If I’m feeling talkative I’ll mention the cloud.
“So sales?” Rachel asks now.
“Sure,” I shrug.
The mystery remains for both of us.
She leads me to the bathroom where we stand in front of the mirror. Sometimes, after a long work day, I stand here like this.
“Who are you?” I’ll ask, and point a deliberate finger.
“Me?” I say, “or you?” The finger turns. Propositions. Accuses.
Rachel and I shelve our hips against the sink and stand shoulder to shoulder. We look like the kind of friends who might pass lipstick or check each other’s teeth.
Rachel begins. “I almost always start with this exercise. It’s called self-discernment. There’s not much to it, but your efforts must be heartfelt.”
I reflect on this. The heartfelt thing might be difficult. Lately, for example, I have stopped asking myself ‘why,’ which is the word that’s always helped me see what’s real. Once the ‘why’ goes, it all does. In any case, I try to focus.
“Repeat after me,” Rachel says. “Here are my lips.”
“Here are my lips?” My words are uncertain.
“With resolve, please.”
“Here are my lips,” I try again.
“Here is my neck.”
“Here is my neck.”
“Louder,” Rachel chides.
“Here is my neck,” I shout.
Rachel flattens her hands against the air, silencing me.
“Here is my neck,” I whisper. She gives me a look you give a child who talks out of turn.
“A normal volume is fine.”
“I didn’t mean to–” I try, but she cuts me off with mysterious erudition.
“Here is my– ”
My arm tumbles to the ground. It’s my first time falling apart in front of someone. The absence is startling. Rachel picks up the arm. “That’s not usually the response.” She hands it to me with a look that implies I can’t be trusted. I note what used to be mine, then sideline it by the plunger. In the mirror, we consult each other.
“How are you with plants?” I ask. Somewhere in the building, a yell travels down the pipes and echoes off the walls.
“You know,” Rachel says after a moment, “my faucet does the same thing. Leaks like that.”
We watch it drip.
“Have you thought about replacing it?” I ask.
She shrugs. “One of these days.” Her tone is wistful.
To be honest, when I took the job at Techno Corp I was relieved because it turns out you can wear mundanity like a badge. “How was your week,” someone will ask, and you can say, “Well, Tom, I managed.” People love that.
At Techno Corp, people really love the company’s slogan: “Keep your nose to the grindstone.” For one, it’s required that we include it in our email signatures. Every time we send a message it sprawls beneath our names in Billy Argel Font. Mostly, though, it’s used as a prelude to declarations flung with unearned virtue: we embrace change; we challenge the status quo; we foster innovation and collaboration.
Rachel and I return to the couch. “How have you been feeling lately?” she asks.
I look out the window. It’s raining. Black umbrellas bloom from the sidewalk. They stagger like wayward weeds.
“Imagine a pool,” I say. “Only it’s bottomless and you’re stuck in the middle.”
“Go on,” Rachel nods, pen poised above the notebook.
“Well that’s just it,” I say. “Suspension. No beginning or end.” I’m failing my feelings as I often do when talking about myself. “You see,” I try again, “I’ve lost my ‘why.’”
Rachel looks thoughtful. “I like that,” she says. Suspension, she writes. Bottomless. I watch her cross out suspension. Abeyance, she scribbles. Lassitude. She looks up as if remembering me and secures the pen behind an ear. “Oh. Sorry about that. I’m a playwright. Well,” she backtracks, “aspiring.”
I blink, unsure.
“You never know when inspiration will hit,” she looks around. “I have an idea. Poetry. Shall we recite it?”
“Can’t hurt,” I say, although I’m not sure I mean it.
Rachel walks over to my shelf and browses the books before opening a thin volume. “I’ll select one,” she says, “and you’ll repeat after me.”
Not again, I think. “Every word?” I ask.
Rachel laughs like I’ve just asked a very stupid question. “Repetition is an absolute necessity when dealing with cases like yours. We are tethering the conscious to the subconscious, getting the inside to match the outside.” She flips through a few pages. “Look,” she says, seeing my skepticism, “who’s the specialist?” She turns more pages, then doubles back to where a finger marks a page. “Ok,” she says, “found one.”
But it’s all wrong. There are supposed to be pauses in the poem, the silence is meant to speak. It asks its reader to negotiate boundaries in order to move past them. What’s left is an act of recovery, an aim at the next layer of identity. But Rachel reads it without feeling and I follow suit.
“How did that feel?” she glances at her watch.
“Not so great,” I say. The overhead lights flicker. I give her a look to indicate this is a normal occurrence, a circuitry problem in the building.
“We should wrap–”
“I think that’s enough for tod–”
I conclude: “Thank you for coming.”
Rachel’s eyes grow wide. “It was crazy,” she says, “I drove here in rush hour traffic.”
I guide her toward the door before remembering the arm. “Just a second.”
I collect the limb from the bathroom and pause for a moment in front of the mirror where I watch the arm bend at the elbow and fold in on itself.
“You know,” Rachel calls from the door, “You’re nothing like the woman who came before you. I restored her entirely in one visit.” I meet her at the door where she scans me disappointedly as if to say I, on the other hand, have failed her.
“Really.” I say.
“Would I lie to you?” We make our way down the hall to the stairwell. I wonder when Rachel and I built such rapport. “But,” she continues, “some people are harder nuts to crack.” A long moment of silence stretches between us before I realize she’s waiting for me to respond.
“What a job,” I say.
The hallway, generally empty, fills suddenly with the footsteps of a neighbor I recognize from two doors down. “Holy shit,” he says, approaching with a slight limp. Rachel looks at me and I look at the guy who looks at the arm.
“This is Rachel,” I say, “she drove here in rush hour traffic.” I drop the arm down the trash chute. “It’s been a strange few weeks.”
“Just like that?” he references the trash.
I’m surprised by his apathy but then say: “It could be one of those give and take things, like time and a half or something.”
He seems to deliberate this, then removes a foot from a bag and throws it in after the arm.
Rachel rummages in her pocket and stuffs a business card in his hand. “I’m a specialist, ” she says.
“I wouldn’t call her if I were you,” I say after she excuses herself. We listen to her footsteps echo down the stairs, and then the distant slam of a door. There’s nothing left to say. I nod to him, one Beguiler to another and wonder how many of us exist just in this building.
Back inside my apartment, I find myself standing in front of the mirror again. What I need now is a shower. I undress and strike a pose, a battered version of heroic nudity. Maybe I’ll come back, but differently.