In Simple Terms

Issue 44 by Mark Mrozinski

In Simple Terms

Viola.

She sits still in the café, thinking about his words. How can he do this to her, to them? She watches Jeff’s eyes looking for a tear—something, but there is nothing, not a clue his heart is suffering. She thought he loved her. He does love her. He does. She puts her hand to her chest and touches the pendant through her blouse. Breathe, Paul would say, and she begins a slow inhale so Jeff might not see what she is feeling. She cannot cry in front of him, must not, not now. Later, with Paul, she will cry. But now, she will not give Jeff that satisfaction. The din of the café fills every space in her head, making it hard to think.

“So, now what?” she asks. “How can we put this behind us?”

Jeff drops his folded hands to the table. “Look. This just isn’t going to work anymore. Our time has passed. Once you moved out, things changed. They can’t be the same as they were. Now, I need you to stop talking about this. That was our deal. I told you what we had was for us. No one else would understand.”

Jeff tightens one hand into a fist. “But then you told Paul. I told you not to, and you did. So it’s over. We never happened.”

Viola takes a deep breath and pauses, gathering her courage. “If you prefer my sister, just tell me. I know you two have been together.” The sentence tastes like acid in her mouth. Finally speaking the truth aloud shocks her, and the words cannot come back unsaid.

Jeff’s face reddens. He takes a deep breath while pressing his palms into the table, and his expression softens. Viola cannot tell if he’s angry or ashamed, or something else. But she’s never been good at this, reading others’ emotions.

“We’ve been through this before. You need to stop. Just listen to yourself. Get a grip,” he says.

Viola’s voice rises. “She doesn’t love you. She doesn’t love anybody but herself. Don’t fall for her lies.” Her thoughts blend from this to that so quickly. She hears her sister and Jeff in bed, the voices, the sighs. The sounds have preyed upon her mind for months and she has to let it all out.

“Shh. Keep your voice down.” Jeff’s gaze moves around the café.

Since their childhood, Carina was seen as the cute one, the charming one, then the beautiful one, and then the sexy one with all the handsome guys. She would use them, come to a place of boredom, hurt them and move on. Why can’t Carina leave her and Jeff alone? Viola finally found a successful, intelligent man who understands her, who is willing to make a life with her, and Carina has to destroy it.

“You're mine, not hers. We are true, she is not. That isn’t real, what you feel for her.” Viola seems to get things wrong a lot, but this she knows.

Jeff, more accusing, says, “People are staring. This is for us, not anyone else. That was our promise. But you’ve ruined it. Now we’re done.”

Viola tries to focus on Jeff, on his face, to stay grounded in the present. She breathes again, slowly, counting, checking the clock above the breakfast counter. A quarter past twelve. She looks back at Jeff. Now back to the clock, still the same. She breathes in again. Now out, slowly, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Her heart slows. The sounds of the two of them seem more distant now.

“Where do we go from here? I want to fix this.” Yes. She overheard them through the wall at Jeff’s place last year. She couldn’t mistake what was going on. Back when she was going through her issues, she needed Jeff, and she didn’t want to upset their delicate relationship. She never mentioned what she’d heard, living in tortured silence since, haunted by their sounds. She closes her eyes and listens again. Yes, they’re still there.

Jeff shakes his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Stop telling lies about us. We never were.” Jeff’s face loses its expression. His flat words hurt. Why doesn’t he care about us?

“Why are you saying that? We have something special. I don’t want to lose what we have because of Carina. She’s nothing.” She reaches for his hand and he pulls back.

“We can’t lose what we didn't have. You broke our promise, so we never existed.” His words sting. She sees his eyes moving, avoiding her face. He keeps repeating things as though he can make them real by reiteration. She is watching and listening, but for some reason his words lose their sense, like they’re out of order. The sounds grow, covering Jeff’s reproaches.

“You can never speak about this. We never were.”

Stop saying that, she thinks, she yells in her head. She is shouting now to cover their sounds, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…”

“Viola… Viola, listen to me.” His voice grows in intensity, but so do the sounds.

She covers her ears and looks around the café. People are staring at her. Don’t they see what’s going on, what a liar he is? But they’re looking at her, not Jeff. Why aren’t they staring at him? Their eyes accuse, like the sounds. You are nothing, they say. We know about you and are watching you.

“You need to let this go. We never happened…”

Why does he keep saying that? “1, 2, 3, 4…”

She tries to focus. Breathe, count, don’t trust your thoughts, trust what you see. She sees the eyes watching her, accusing her. She knows they know. They all know. And the sounds. She touches her cheeks and is surprised to feel them hot and wet.

“Viola, should I call Carina? Or Paul?”

She reaches around her neck for the necklace and pulls it out of her blouse. Holding the pendant in her hand, she tries to remember the words inscribed, but she struggles to think, the sounds are so loud.

She needs to get away, away from these people, away from the sounds. She hears Jeff speaking. He is reaching for her, and she stands and knocks over a glass of water. The liquid spreads across the table and begins running onto the floor. Jeff is grabbing napkins.

She turns and collides with the server carrying a platter of food. Plates crashing to the floor. All eyes are on her. They know. They know her thoughts. Can they hear the sounds too? Where is Paul? I need Paul.

She is out the door, moving across the sidewalk, now in the street. More people staring. Where is he? Horns. Turning. A flash of blue. A car. Then nothing.

#

Carina.

The polished floor reflects the cold brilliance of florescent lights. Carina has been in a few hospitals in her twenty-nine years and they are all the same: bright lights, shiny floors, some color of green or cream, the smell of disinfectant, the hushed talk in the halls. They all remind her of dying, not of getting well. She has wandered, paced, and stood for several hours. Now it is time to sit on the cheap furniture and shift every few minutes, as though it were possible to find the ideal posture for which the chair was designed.

Boredom and worry bring her to looking through tired magazines and medical brochures from the low table, each describing conditions that seem so benign no one could possibly die from them. The doctors and patients in the pictures smile so patronizingly at each other. The entire effect of the room and reading material stifles her emotional processing, which she supposes is the point.

Carina is not ready to talk to Jeff, so it’s good he left for a walk. She was angry and confused when hearing the news. They have yet to talk about it, and she needs to get her thoughts together. What could have set Viola off like this, to have a panic attack? When she got the call from him about the accident, he said, almost too simply, they’d been having lunch and she just freaked out and ran into the street. His explanation raised more questions than it answered. She could never recall her sister and Jeff having lunch together. Was this something that Viola started? She knew Viola envied her and her relationship with Jeff, but what was she trying to accomplish with this?

Jeff strolls into the waiting area with a cup of coffee in his hand. Despite his Ivy League law degree, he still prefers dull coffee from a vending machine. Carina’s thinking time is over.

“Have you seen the doctor yet?” he asks.

“He was here a few minutes ago. She’s out of surgery for the leg. He says it'll be fine after some rehab. The face and head injuries are mostly superficial. No concussion,” Carina says.

“Well, that’s good news.”

“They’re more concerned about getting her meds right, and they want to keep her for a few days to watch the leg.”

“Can we see her?”

“She’s still sleeping from the anesthesia.” Carina sets the magazine on the side table and takes a deep breath.

“What were you two doing at that café?” The direct approach is the best, Carina thinks.

“Just having lunch.” Jeff takes a seat next to her and leans forward on his knees, holding the steaming coffee between his hands.

“Since when do you two have lunch together?” She needs to be careful not to put him on the defense. Jeff is a consummate litigator.

“Only now and then, when she needs somebody to talk to.”

Carina puts her hand to her neck and feels heat in it. Why doesn’t this feel right? “She has Paul to talk to. And it’s hard to believe you’ve been meeting my sister for lunch and didn’t even tell me?”

“It didn’t seem important. We were just talking, and I was trying to keep it confidential, for her sake.”

“Confidential or not, there are just some things you’re supposed to tell your wife, like you’re having lunch with her sister.”

“Look, it didn’t seem like a big deal. And now you know, so let it go.” Jeff signals the conversation is over and Carina knows not to press him more.

“It just feels weird, that’s all.” Carina softens her voice. Ever since they were children, she and Viola have had a difficult relationship. Both caught the eye of guys, which led to some interesting situations. There were years where they spoke little except for polite greetings. Once Carina and Jeff married, the sisters’ relationship seemed to improve. Despite this, there has always been lingering distrust between them. Then, with the onset of Viola’s delusions a few years ago, things just came apart. First, an ER visit, then two, then a residential program. Finally, she came to live with Carina and Jeff for a bit until things got untenable.

“So what set her off? She’d been doing so good,” Carina continues.

“We were just chatting about things when she started on all this stuff that didn’t make sense. Like she was last year. I thought she was better.”

“She won’t get better, hon. The only thing we can do is support her. Paul said there would be times like this when she has a setback.” Sometimes Jeff could be so insensitive to what others are going through. She has come to understand that the professional distance required of his vocation often blinded him to the emotional complexities driving people. It has always surprised her he can be so successful a lawyer without accounting for feelings and perceptions.

“What kind of stuff was she saying?” Carina asks, making careful progress.

“Stuff about you and me, other things. You know how she gets all confused about life.”

Jeff sets the coffee on the side table and leans back, looking straight ahead. “I tried to calm her down, but she got so upset, and then she was running into the street before I knew what was happening. She’s lucky she wasn’t hurt worse, or killed.”

It’s odd Jeff’s recollection lacks his usual exhaustive detail. She shifts in her chair again.

“When is Paul getting here?” Jeff asks.

“I called him. He’s on his way.”

Silence falls between them. Now for the troublesome part. She rehearsed the points in her head, putting them in the right order so her position might sound reasonable and appeal to Jeff’s logic.

“I want her to move back with us—only for a while.”

Jeff leans forward again with his elbows on his knees, looking at the floor. Carina prepares for a retort or rebuttal or whatever he calls it.

“It wasn’t my idea for her to move out.” Jeff never misses an opportunity to reveal he was on the right side of an argument.

“I know,” she says. “I’ll admit it may have been premature to push her out so soon, but I didn’t like the way she was using you to get at me. It wasn’t healthy for any of us.”

When Jeff and she argued, Viola would sometimes interject herself and take Jeff’s side. Last year, they were arguing about Jeff’s long work hours, and in the heat of their argument, Viola came from her room and stood between them. She started shouting that Jeff was a good man and Carina didn’t know what she had. Carina realized at that moment it was time for her sister to move out. She couldn’t have Viola getting between her and Jeff.

“You two definitely need to work on some stuff,” Jeff says. “It'll probably help her in the long run.”

“What she needs is some accountability to keep her on her meds. You know, she started flushing them at some point, when she was with us. I could tell by the change in her behavior.”

“She said she kept losing them.”

Carina crosses her arms over her chest and looks at Jeff. “Stop enabling her by supporting her lies. This is when she needs us to be on the same side, to be tough.”

Jeff doesn’t respond, a cue he is finished with this line of discussion.

“Well, think about it. If she moves back, it would help her reset, get her meds straight. And it may be the only option to avoid another residential stay.”

Carina looks at Jeff for some sign of empathy but sees nothing, just a vacant expression that leaves her cold. She knows she’s made her best case and places her hand on his arm, trusting more time will work in her favor.

“I need to think on it.” Jeff finally looks up into her eyes. The subtle smile that comes to his mouth portends she is making progress.

“Okay. We can talk with Paul about it too, see what he thinks,” Carina says.

Jeff moves his eyes to the floor, his smile broadening a bit. She shifts one more time, looking for relief from the hellish chair.

#

Paul.

“Viola, tell me what happened.” Paul sits beside her bed, leaning in.

“I don’t know… I don’t know.” She still seems groggy from the anesthesia.

“What do you remember?”

“I was with someone in the café, with Jeff. Now I’m here. I don’t know.” She shakes her head in irregular movements.

“Close your eyes. Count with me. 1, 2, 3,…”

Paul places a hand on hers, and Viola closes her eyes. She turns her hand over and interlocks her fingers with his. Paul moves their hands down to the side of the bed, away from the door. Why does their relationship need to be so complicated, he thinks. It presses the bounds of ethical behavior.

He continues, “Keep your eyes closed. Now, breathe slowly, in, out, in, out.”

Viola is still, but her hand tightens on his. The strength of her grip surprises him.

“Can you picture the scene? What are you and Jeff talking about?”

“He said he doesn't love me, that he doesn’t want me anymore.”

“He doesn't love you? What do you mean? He's your brother-in-law.”

“What? No. He’s mine. But I know he’s been with Carina. I told him I knew. But she doesn’t love him, not like I do.”

“Viola, Jeff and Carina are married. They’ve been married for years. Remember? At our last session, we looked at a picture of you in their wedding.” Paul’s voice is a model of clinical calm. He has heard this before, this delusion. Paul has corrected her thinking each time, but the delusion always returns. Viola envies Carina having Jeff, so it is understandable she would create a narrative where she possessed him. Competition and desire are compelling forces.

“No. No. He’s mine. We love each other. Sometimes he comes to me at night and it’s so beautiful.” Viola smiles, her brow relaxing.

“We’ve talked about this. This image is in your mind. It’s not reality. Trust what you see, not what you think or feel. Jeff and Carina live together in their apartment by the park. You stayed with them for a short time after you came out of the residential treatment center. Then, we worked with social services to find you your own place.”

“I see us together. He’s holding me.” She grips his hand tighter and opens her eyes.

“That’s in your mind. It’s a picture your mind has created,” Paul repeats.

“No. We’re together. But I heard them through the wall when Jeff and I were living together. I knew he was sleeping with her. But he always came back later in the night. He always came back and we would make things all right.”

Stay with what is true, Paul thinks. “Carina and Jeff are married. You probably heard them in their room. When you were staying with them last year, your rooms shared a wall. But Jeff is with Carina, not with you. Do you understand?”

“I knew he was in her room, but then he would come to me, to be with me in my bed, and hold me. He tells me he loves me and everything goes away.” She reaches for her neck as though searching for something. For the first time, Paul notices welts on the skin, likely driven by some new compulsion.

“Your mind is deceiving you. We talked about not trusting your thoughts or memories. Trust in what you see. I’m here now, and Jeff is married to Carina. Remember, at our last session, we looked through some of their wedding pictures? You were there, at the ceremony.”

Tears stream down her face as she closes her eyes. She grips Paul’s hand even tighter, and she takes several breaths as he waits.

After a moment, he says, “Viola. We need to start you back on medication. You stopped taking it, and that’s why these confusing thoughts have returned. I need your word you’ll work with us to get this right, otherwise we may have to readmit you to the center for a while.”

Viola opens her eyes wide and looks at Paul. “I know what love feels like and Jeff and I are in love. He loves me and I love him.” Despite her tears, her voice is clear and sober.

Paul sighs and looks at the floor. We won’t make any progress until she gets back on her meds, he thinks. He looks to his lap and makes a note on his clipboard to double-check her scrips and dosages.

“Look at me,” she says. Paul looks up. “I know what sex feels like and we had sex. Don’t tell me we didn’t.” Viola stares at Paul, waiting for a response.

“The mind is a powerful thing,” he says. Paul looks at his watch. He needs to get back to the office to see another client. But what he really wants is to hold her, tell her he loves her, tell her how beautiful she is, make her whole. How could he let himself fall in love with her? Even holding her hand like this represents an incredible risk.

Viola convulses in sobs as her eyes move about the room. She shifts in the bed as though to rise. Paul stands to stop her and places a hand on her shoulder.

“What is it, Viola? What do you need?”

She doesn’t speak, but her eyes continue searching.

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Try to get some rest. And I’m here if you need me. Just tell the nurse and they can message me.” They will make more progress tomorrow once the meds start to work.

The red marks on her neck deepen in color as her eyes continue to scan the room. Paul considers this new behavior and makes another note. As he walks to the door, he swallows hard, trying to suppress his own tears.

And he makes a final note on his clipboard as he leaves the room: find a new psychiatrist for Viola.

#

Jeff.

He and Carina stand in the door to Viola’s room. She is sleeping, likely a side effect of the pain medication. The morning sun forges a path from the windowsill across the floor to the foot of the bed. Jeff can almost feel the warmth of the light as it strikes the blanket covering Viola’s unharmed leg. The light falls short of her shattered leg, as though it chooses only to reveal the most flattering parts of the world. The separation between light and dark seems so stark, so unlike life, where little is clear.

Carina inhales suddenly and Jeff eyes the cause: Viola’s swollen face. Her face bears the result of her collision with the pavement. It looks worse than it is, the doctor said. He was more concerned about her leg. The break was severe and will require extensive physical therapy.

This is the first time he and Carina have seen her. Paul was in yesterday, soon after she came out of surgery, but they sedated her after that and she slept. It is better they all have had time to settle, Jeff thinks. They asked Paul about the episode Viola had, and Jeff witnessed yesterday. He said they must reinforce the present, in simple terms. Don’t argue with her. Repeat what is real. Soon the medication will do its work.

Carina moves to the bed. Jeff, holding her hand, moves with her. He wants Viola to see them holding hands.

“Let’s come back later, she’s still sleeping,” Jeff says in a half-whisper.

Just then, Viola opens her eyes. She looks at Carina, then at Jeff. Then at their hands.

“Oh, baby. We were so worried about you. So worried,” Carina says. She releases Jeff’s hand and reaches for Viola’s. Viola pulls her hand away and slides it under the sheet.

“We were,” Jeff says. “You gave us a good scare.”

Viola looks at Jeff. Her glare is hot on his face. Her eyes move to his chest, then his hands at his sides. The light from the window now divides Jeff and Carina, where their hands were joined. Viola stares at the illumination.

“I’m here, baby. We’re here for you. We want you to rest and get better. That’s all,” Carina says.

Viola shifts her eyes to Carina, and they share something unspoken. Jeff wonders what is passing between them. He has always been unnerved by the connection sisters have, some other sense of perceiving. He hated this part of them. Such knowing challenges his paradigm of facts and logic and mocks his ability to control the world.

“When you’re ready to leave, you’re going to come back home with us. Jeff and I talked. We think it would be an excellent step for you. Like before, but without the pressure of a timeline. You can stay as long as you need.”

Viola moves her eyes to Jeff. What is she trying to say? What does she want from him, he thinks.

Jeff breaks the silence. “It’ll be good,” he says. “Like before, but better. And we enjoy having you around.” He feels himself smile, just a little, and catches the impulse. Jeff looks down at the blanket, squinting into the sunlight.

Viola’s silence has become the most powerful force in the room. Jeff senses it. Then…

“I want my phone.”

Her request surprises him. Why the phone?

“Hey, hon, go to the nurse’s station to see if they have her personal stuff,” Carina says. Viola holds out her hand to Carina and she takes hold of it. What is happening here?

“Go on, hon. See if they have her phone out there. I think Vi wants to catch up on her texts.” Carina and Viola share a smile.

#

“Sign here.” The nurse tears off the claim tag and slides it across the counter toward Jeff.

“Thanks, I really appreciate it. My sister-in-law will be happy to have her phone back.” With a nod, he takes the plastic bag from the nurse.

Walking back toward the room, Jeff breaks the seal on the bag to inventory the contents. He had taken care of her purse and keys after the accident, the things left in the booth. So the only items for the bag would be what was on her person: the phone from her pocket and her jewelry. He takes the phone out and slips it into his pocket. He slows next to a cleaning cart left in the hall. Fishing in the bag, he feels the chain and then the metal disk attached. He pulls it out and looks at it in his palm. So small. Petite, Viola called it. On the front, “V.” V for Viola, or V for Veritas. The irony amuses Jeff.

He turns it in his hand to reveal the inscription on the back, so small someone would almost need a magnifier to read the words. But Jeff need not read it. He knows the words: Trust your heart and not your eyes.

The pendant was a mistake. He realizes it now. But at the time, it seemed to be the perfect piece to hold together the complex world he created. He won’t make a mistake like that again.

Jeff looks left down the hall, and then to the right, and drops the necklace into the trash can on the cart. He turns and walks toward Viola’s room, fully comprehending the new reality he has created in that moment. And now he allows himself a satisfied smile.

Viola is coming home.

About the Author

Mark Mrozinski

Mark Mrozinski started his career as a pianist, composer, and author. After transitioning to higher education administration, he spent 30 years as a director, dean, and vice president at an Illinois community college. Now he devotes his time to writing short fiction and cooking classic French cuisine for family and friends. Mrozinski lives in the suburban Chicago area with his wife, daughter, and Dixon, their rescue dog.