A large dispenser of no-name hand sanitizer should not be the first object patients see as they open the door bearing the engraved brass plaque SANDRA R. KRASNAPOL, PH.D. So, Sandra had positioned the bottle behind the lamp on the small bookshelf in the vestibule. Immediately visible, yes, but an offer rather than an outright command. She expected the alteration would not go unnoticed by her patients—and it didn’t.
“Oh, you’re getting on that bandwagon.”
“Wow. Where did you find that?
“Good for you!”
“Yes, it seemed like the necessary thing to do,” she’d responded. “Do you have more thoughts about it?”
Colleagues began to express concerns for themselves and their patients well before the earliest lockdown orders. Voices on listservs mounted into a unified crescendo: it is not safe. She was grateful for their moral and practical leadership and felt more connected to the American Psychoanalytic Association than she had in years. All over the country, her peers were shuttering their offices.
More Cassandra than Pangloss, Sandra had been stocking her pantry and collecting toilet paper since the middle of February. Her husband stacked the dozens of rolls in the basement with poorly concealed impatience. “Will,” she said, “it’s not going to go to waste.” For once, the play on words was unintentional. “Don’t laugh—you know you won’t want to be in this house with me if I don’t have enough toilet paper.”
Despite her preparations, though, Sandra was as shocked and awed as her patients were by the growing inevitability of quarantine as the invisible viral front advanced, an affront to the sanctity of her office. She could scarcely believe the message she began to convey to patients on Tuesday: “We need to consider that it may soon become inadvisable to meet in person.”
By Thursday morning, Sandra thought perhaps she would switch over to video sessions the following week after she was able to discuss it with her patients in person. But then, at the end of the afternoon, she found an emergency notification on her phone: Governor Wolf had urged all nonessential businesses in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to close on the following day, Friday, March 13. She reread the text message, heart pounding, hazy headache coming on, her forefinger trembling and ineffective as she attempted to google additional information.
Sandra shook herself from dread into practicality. Under normal circumstances, she gave her patients at least two weeks’ notice about any change in her availability—preferably a month. She would announce the dates of her three-week summer vacation months in advance. And now? She had mere hours to notify everyone, and the only in-person warning she could give was to her one remaining patient of the day. Everyone else would have to be notified by phone.
She reached for the receiver with a suddenly icy hand, attempting to keep her voice steady as she called her Friday roster. She was only able to speak with one patient and had to leave voice mails for the others, aware that she might seem like Paulette Revere: I don’t know whether you’ve heard . . . Please check your e-mail. I’m going to send you a link for video sessions.
And then came Elena. Twenty-four-year-old Elena, who was in face-to-face psychoanalysis four sessions a week. Elena, who had too much early trauma and loss to benefit from the use of the couch. Elena, so sensitive to abandonment.
Elena’s divorced parents had fought not over her but over who would get stuck with her. Like most teenagers, she had snooped around in her parents’ phones. And in texts and inboxes she should not have opened, she came upon a trove of amazingly vituperative exchanges, such as fights about who would go to her violin recital and who to the swim meet; often nobody came to applaud. Her parents were in harmony, though, when it came to the choice of whichever summer camp would keep their progeny out of town the longest. Elena had insisted on reading these cherished trophies of undesirability to Sandra with masochistic glee during the early sessions: “See? Proof of how shitty they really are.” Elena had suffered from chronic, low-grade depression and high-grade indignation since the beginning of her treatment, some four years earlier. Hypersensitive to maltreatment real or imagined—inevitably and especially Sandra’s.
She found Elena in the waiting room tapping into her phone, as usual, her ashy brown hair in a messy bun. Her chubby face provided a ready target for self-loathing and belied a scrupulous diet and daily runs.
Sandra’s customary greeting: “Good evening. Come on in.”
Elena’s “Hi,” always a touch grumpy.
Sandra began speaking as they took their places. “Elena, I don’t know whether you’ve heard about the governor’s order this afternoon.”
“Yes. He has requested that everybody who’s able to do so work from home, beginning tomorrow. So, we’ll need to hold our sessions by video.”
Elena turned her head and gazed out the window, into the dusk, for too long. It wasn’t clear that she’d understood what Sandra had said.
The maple had formed its buds shockingly early this year, its chronobiology confused. The sight of those graceful branches encased in ice was virtually the only pleasure Sandra took during loathsome winter storms, but she couldn't remember the last time there'd been one. The natural world was in a state of chaos, the usual symptoms of slowly rising temperatures no longer providing reliable signals.
“The guy from DateGate kinda fizzled. John. He was late. I mean, he texted, but I was already at the restaurant. By the time he got there, I’d already had a couple of drinks at the bar, and I’d given my number to a really cute guy. But then he found a table and ordered a pretty expensive bottle of wine. He was all right, I guess. He wants to see me again. But I don’t know.”
Uh-oh, Sandra thought. This isn’t going to be easy.
“Yeah, I mean, if he can’t be on time for a first date . . . I really hope the other guy calls.”
And so it went for the remainder of the session, Elena straining to construct an impermeable monological wall.
Sandra spoke gently. “Elena, we have to stop now. I’m going to e-mail you a link to use for video. It’s pretty straightforward. You won’t need to download anything.”
Elena harrumphed out. “Yeah, okay. Bye.” The door closed behind her.
Sandra then noticed that Elena’s scarf was on the floor next to the chair. Oh, she really doesn’t want to leave, Sandra thought. Ordinarily, she would have kept it until the following session—grist for the mill. But today? She grabbed it and rushed out; Elena was standing outside the suite door, putting on her coat. “Oh, Elena, I’m glad I caught you. You might need this.”
“Oh. Thanks. I’ll see you . . . or whatever, on Monday.”
It was almost dark then, and the maple branches were lost behind reflections of Sandra’s office lamps, their glow poor protection from menaces, micro or macro.
Sandra shuddered and began to gather patient files. She looked twice to make certain that Elena’s was in the stack; she might well need to have emergency contact information at hand. It didn’t require much imagination to understand why Elena was going to be unusually vulnerable to the anxieties and deprivations of lockdown.
Sandra felt tired already. She remembered what it was to help victims of circumstance when one shared their helplessness and fear—and when the victims themselves had every reason to know this. It would be absurd—insulting, even—to erect the usual boundary between her professional and personal selves. She would have to maintain a delicate balance, delicate and shifting from hour to hour, and acknowledge that she was partaking of the common terror while appearing (and being) immutably calm. Sandra felt reluctant gratitude for the experience, the training, provided by 9/11 and the financial crises. Despite her fear, she knew that she would manage this new siege, too.
Sandra closed the window, watered her plants, and congratulated herself on remembering to remove the perishable items from her mini fridge—yogurt and Honeycrisps. The clock on her desk—she needed that, too. She gathered her heavy bags and turned out all the lights.
But she stopped at the door, dropped her things on the floor, and returned to her consulting room to stand in the indirect dusky light for a long moment. “Au revoir,” she whispered to the maple, her silent companion, aware that she might miss that year’s crop of flying samaras. How sappy, she thought. The word made her grin, but her smile muscles could only resist gravity for a second.
She finally stepped into the original peacock-papered foyer of the old mansion and put her bags down again, reaching into her pocketbook for the heavy key ring. She found the worn electric-blue key to her suite door, held it for a second in her day-old pale, coral, manicured fingers. She would have to return to doing them and her toes herself, she supposed.
When, and under what circumstances, would she return? Might she be a widow? Or perhaps Will would be a widower, standing on this spot in the carpeted hall, struggling to find the correct key to her door. Or might they soon be side by side in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, his hands, always so warm and strong, dispelling the big chill?
Sandra shook off those visions. Her first concern, in fact, was more practical, if a bit foolish under the circumstances: her hair, a part of providing stability for herself and her patients. Sandra hadn’t changed the cut in years; one goal of her blond highlights—beyond having more fun—had been to minimize the first appearance of gray. Then, years later, it was to allow the gray to take over gracefully. That the virus would determine the timing of this was abhorrent, she thought, yet maybe this would provide an opportunity to show patients how to accept a loss of control. If—that is, if—she could handle this with humor. Everybody was going to have to make do.
To her surprise, however, she mostly felt curiosity: Would her hair become a slow-motion train wreck she could not look away from? A pot that refused to boil? No matter what she would look like in months to come, though, at least she would begin lockdown with whatever constituted “chic” for a woman of her age. She would call her salon first thing in the morning.
Every room in Sandra’s house must have been designed with proportions close to the golden ratio of Fibonacci numbers, for there was a rightness and solidity to the air itself, as though it asserted its own geometry. She experienced it most in the smallish kitchen, where each midnight, she would turn off the under-cabinet lights and then the pendant lamp over the table. She knew the house as well as she knew her own body.
Sandra locked the door and walked through the comforting mass of the lighted kitchen as she made her way to the bedroom. Will stood in front of his dresser, emptying his pockets into that pinch-cornered leather thing she’d given him. He was flagging, she saw, his shirt rumpled, his slight scholar’s hunch more pronounced than it had been in the morning. He must have just gotten back from that afternoon lecture in Princeton. “Classes are going online next week,” he said. “I am so thrilled to be on sabbatical!” He looked at her more closely. “Do you need a hug?”
“Do you?” she said, and they dissolved into each other’s just-rightness.
On Friday morning, Sandra ached for her abandoned office even as sun-bright forsythias blossomed outside the white-framed casement windows of her study, which was connected to the rest of the home only by way of the garage. She surveyed the room. How best to deploy it for its new purpose? It was designed for writing, reading, keeping records—not for intimate exchanges. But it was private, and it would do. She sat down to call the patients she hadn’t contacted the day before. But first, she placed her professional will in a prominent position on her desk—a sealed list of her patients’ names and phone numbers, with instructions to get this to Suzanne, her closest colleague. Just in case.
Sandra set up her laptop on a little coffee table next to a comfortable-ish lounge chair, but it was not ideal for video sessions. Most patients were, well, patient—patient with her technological clumsiness, with her knocking over her water or her notes as she adjusted the angle of the screen or the volume. If they noticed her flustered discomfort, they did not show it. A few said how relieved they were to see more than just a disembodied head. She invited them to expand on their reactions, but it was ridiculous, really, to think of asking why toddlers are relieved that their mothers have returned from journeys intact, whole, to protect them from the apocalypse. One patient burst into tears as their images materialized: “I’m so glad to see those boring pearl earrings and that shawl!”
By the afternoon, Sandra had resigned herself to working from her desk. The physical barrier between her and her patients, even though unseen in virtual unreality, felt preposterous. Unpracticed in the art of the selfie, she arranged her laptop and lighting according to the recommendations of no less an authority than Tom Ford, as described to Vanessa Friedman in the style section of the Times.
TheraP4.me sometimes worked flawlessly. Occasionally, however, usually without prodrome, a patient’s image on her screen disintegrated. Dis-integrated into pulsating silhouettes filled with Peter Max-ish rainbows and migrating zones of checkered black-and-white racing flags. Sandra tried to hide her startled reaction. Loath to interrupt patients’ efforts to reconstitute the bridge to her, she waited for their faces to return. Weeks later, a few let on that they, too, had seen these hallucinatory versions of her.
The most difficult shift for Sandra was in the interpretation of tone and, mostly, of silence; a psychoanalyst, after all, must also hear what a patient is not saying. In her real office, she and her patients touched by way of the air that waved and particled between them. Maybe there is even a physics of empathy, she thought. The probability of quantum leaps of one mind into the space of another. And video? Wires and ether made it too easy now to misread an electronic delay as a sound of significance. Too much room for missed communications.
Though she was more settled in her study on Monday, Sandra felt apprehensive as Elena’s time arrived. How had her patient weathered the shock of social withdrawal? Elena, however, was not in the virtual waiting room. A dilemma. Ordinarily, Sandra believed, a no-show presented a strong statement: “I would prefer to pay not to talk to you today.” A communiqué Sandra would not want to preclude. Let the patient have the space to “forget” if that’s what’s she needed to do. But now? With Elena?
Sandra thought about Elena’s parents. The only times they did anything right, according to Elena, were during her frequent colds. Being ill was the only reliable way she had of extorting positive attention. Not surprisingly, Elena was a bit of a hypochondriac, taking sick and personal days—every last hour her company owed her—even for minor ailments. Sandra’s own work ethic, on the other hand, was such that she had worked most days during three semifeverish weeks in January. Only later did she suspect her illness to have been the coronavirus in its dress-rehearsal days. For a time, she could not smell her own perfume, and continuing to use it each morning had been an act of faith; her cough had disappeared only a week ago. No, waiting for—or out—COVID wasn’t going to be easy for Elena. How would she handle her first sniffle or headache? Sandra wondered what kind of attention Elena needed from her now.
She gave Elena ten minutes, then contacted her by e-mail: “Thought I’d send this in case you had a problem getting through. Here’s the link.”
Fifteen minutes later, Elena’s name blinked amber on Sandra’s screen.
“Hello, Elena! Can you see me?”
“Yes, can you see me?”
Ah, Sandra thought. That is the question, isn’t it?
Elena didn’t pause: “I got your message in the middle of a Zoom meeting. I don’t know. . . I don’t know if I can do this.”
“This?” Sandra put calm warmth into her voice.
Profuse tears, for several minutes, then masochistic wiping of her nose on the sleeve of her Lululemon top. This was the moment when Sandra would have slid a box of Kleenex across the table, for Elena, the predictable cryer, always chose to take the chair farthest away from the tissues. Sandra’s stomach turned over, and doubt coursed through her veins. Was Elena beyond her reach?
“I had a panic attack at nine thirty—well, I almost did—when my boss’s boss e-mailed me. I couldn’t open it. I trashed it.” Typical. Elena was going to head-in-the-sand herself into a lot of trouble one of these days, though she’d been lucky so far. The temptation to tell her what to do was often overpowering. That Elena was not to be among her employer’s first batch of furloughs would come as a surprise to Sandra, for this young woman experienced even the slightest friction with the world as an existential crisis.
“You were afraid that that e-mail was going to be the last drop the glass could hold.” The drop that would make the bowing meniscus rupture and overflow. Sandra had as many private languages as she had patients, and she had never forgotten a shared lexicon, even when a patient returned to her years later. That was the way to enter a psyche—help people find words for their unthought knowns, as Christopher Bollas called them. Give people language that could have been theirs at the necessary moment. Words were one of the most powerful weapons against the black hole of trauma.
“Oh, wait. There’s a text . . . Shit! I didn’t finish the . . . fuck, fuck, fuckety-fuck . . . I can’t talk anymore. I should never have called. I’ve gotta go. Now!”
Flailing, unproductive anger: Elena’s psychological defense against her overwhelming anxiety and disintegration. Anger, at least, kept her focused, organized in the moment. All Sandra could do now, she knew, was withstand the onslaught. If there were a later, she could point out that Elena’s destructive impulses simultaneously protected her from and magnified her expectation of abandonment. They helped translate her fury into manageable ideas. But this wasn’t the time.
“I’m here,” said Sandra, but Elena had probably broken the connection too soon to hear her.
The air in Sandra’s study suddenly seemed thin, and for a second, she thought she would pass out. Her mind went to descriptions she’d read of the death zone on Mount Everest. All right, she thought. This is what Elena can’t bear to feel for herself. She shuddered and caught her breath, reached for her water. She remained at her desk, imagining Elena’s distress, keeping an eye on the virtual waiting room.
But Elena did not return. After the session time ended, Sandra used the powder room, then did a few stretches for her shoulders and lower back. Returning to her seat, she saw Elena’s message in the TheraP4.me messaging doohickey, time-stamped four minutes after the end of the session: “Where are you?”
Where does she imagine I am? Sandra thought. She typed, “Elena, I’m sorry to have missed your message. I stepped away from my desk for a moment, but I’m back now. Shall we touch base before your time tomorrow?”
She did not expect a response.
With astonishing speed, most legal and financial impediments to video and telephone psychotherapy disappeared. Sandra heard about temporary licenses available in states both near and far and was astounded when her application to neighboring New Jersey, submitted a week later, was approved with a grateful and personal e-mail from a deputy attorney general—written at 11:45 that very Saturday evening. The license was valid for a year. Unnerved, Sandra barely slept. The world was beyond recognition.
The next afternoon Sandra made the voyage to pick up her plants. To leave them in the office would simply be naive. She put on a surgical mask and, with her purse hanging from her shoulder the entire time, her gloved hands were free. The ocher wall sconces furnished only emergency lighting without the usual assist from her ginger jar lamps, but Sandra had only needed to touch a single switch. She’d left her sunglasses on, too, to avoid bringing contaminated fingers to her face. Really, she thought, maybe we all just need to be walking around in spacesuits, with tanks of oxygen on our backs.
Sandra scanned her carefully assembled collection of objets d’art, each with its particular meaning. Would she abandon them all? The tiny Limoges box in the form of a couch, Will’s gift for her graduation from the institute. The pair of petite porcelain “ashless” trays. And her Vertigo poster. Should she take that with her? But no—she intended to work in this room again. Tears came, but that would not do. How could she wipe her eyes with hands clad in leather gloves or blow a surgically masked nose?
She opened the mail and did other small chores quickly so that she could get out of this mausoleum. After she turned out the lights, she remembered one object she did want at home. In the dim room, doubly darkened by her sunglasses, she retrieved the small replica of an Egyptian cat that she’d bought in Hampstead, at the house where Freud died. A black cat—lucky or unlucky? She wrapped it in layers of tissues and wedged it in her purse.
It was quite the production to relocate the plants in their heavy ceramic cachepots from office to home, but she felt more settled in her study with the mottled green architectural fronds next to the glass door to her backyard. The plants would stand behind her laptop’s camera as she faced her patients’ variously scared, angry, and weary eyes for hours every day. The little cat now stared at her, too, on her desk next to the clock.
Sandra had left a stash of disinfecting wipes on her desk, and she cleaned doorknobs, steering wheel, and keys, without confidence that this had any effect on her safety or Will’s. She had read the blog of an epidemiologist who advised ironing the mail, with a caveat that one needed to avoid the cellophane windows. This reminded her of Jerry Seinfeld’s panicked discarding of every item in his apartment after his girlfriend of the week informed him that she’d dipped one of his possessions in the toilet.
Sandra’s purse still hung from her shoulder as she entered her kitchen. Could she put it on its customary granite countertop perch? How long could the virus live on Epi leather? That she could not wipe down. She stood, debating, and realized that her sacro-ill-iac—that’s how she thought of it—ached badly. She put the bag down where it belonged, then washed her hands for a very long time. Will was napping.
She then took the final step—entering into the Verizon-Comcast singularity, in which time is sucked away even as it seems to last forever. Innumerable phone queues later, following embarrassing crescendos of shrewish impatience, she succeeded in exporting her office landline number to her iPhone. In the week after she told her patients that her office number would reach her at home, almost all of them, even those who rarely called, found some reason to try to reach her. A scheduling question or a voice mail about a bill. Yes, she confirmed implicitly with each call back. Yes, I am still here.
Several Mondays later, Elena’s eyes were elsewhere even as her video image materialized. She was holding her phone, thumbing a message. She then looked toward Sandra’s right ear, clearly attending to some other open screen on her computer. “You have no idea what’s going on here,” she said. “Everybody needs me to do something, and nobody’s telling me anything. Where the fuck are they?”
“Last week you asked where I was,” said Sandra. “Do you want to say more about that?”
Elena’s eyes flitted from screen to screen and came to rest on her lap, it appeared. She looked miserable, and Sandra suspected she must have been wringing her hands, grasping them and letting go, over and over. Sandra had not witnessed this gesture since the early months of Elena’s treatment, after instituting the daily telephone check-ins that eventually allowed Elena to perceive Sandra’s psychological presence, her representation in Elena’s mind, as more than deciduous.
But now? How to restore that precarious, brittle trust? Elena might be on the cusp of an anaclitic depression—a response to the loss of the mother or “mother.” Anaklinein, Greek for “to lean upon.”
The silence felt ominous.
“I’m here,” said Sandra.
“And where the fuck is that?” A deafening violence. Sandra tried not to show how jarred she was. “You could be in Hawaii, for all I know.”
“Yes, that’s right. I could. Is that what you think?”
“How the fuck should I know? All I can see is the top third of you. And books. Books and more books. And what is that? That big dark thing behind you?”
“Elena, would you like me to show you the room? It must be very strange for you not to be able to see where I’m sitting. Or to see more than part of me. If you were here in person, you could look around yourself. Here, let me show you my study.” Sandra stood, unplugged her laptop, and began to pan at her desk. “Here’s where I sit, and you can see the ceiling now, it’s quite high . . . and the dark thing you saw, it’s a gas heater in the fireplace, which is blocked off.” She continued around the room, unable to see Elena’s face.
When she reached the tall glass door to the backyard, Elena said, “Oh, is that your garden?” Sandra was about to answer when Elena exclaimed, “Those are the plants from my office, aren’t they?” Sandra did not point out the parapraxis. She continued slowly around the room, up and down, finishing with the powder room and the second glass door—the door to the garage—which framed the dark silver haunches of her Infiniti.
“Jeezus, you’re so matchy-matchy that your car even goes with the floor. And who wants to see into their garage?” Elena said, voice toned down to a gentle chide. “I kinda like all those red and green glass pieces, though. But . . . but . . . the whole thing, it’s so . . . different. I can’t put it all together. Who the hell are you? The soft person I knew? Or someone with cold tiles and that huge black desk?”
“Can you say more about the different me’s?”
“What the fuck more is there to say?”
Sandra was exhausted, her sleep interrupted both by COVID dreams and her muse—sentences and paragraphs enticing her to reach for her emergency bedside pad of narrowly ruled paper. Most mornings she could not decipher her scribblings, but it didn’t matter, because she remembered virtually all her ideas. (One night, she tried not writing down the words, going back to sleep. But she didn’t remember anything the next morning.) So, she remained in a fog of fatigued, exasperated gratitude during the day, dosing herself between sessions with eighty percent chocolate.
The weather was still chilly, but Sandra had to get out of the house. She decided that she would not tell her son, who considered her and Will—the Unibrain, he had dubbed them—to be imbeciles, too intellectually feeble to understand and execute social distancing. Jonathan had called from Boston every night to make sure he was not about to become an orphan, though goodness knew he was well launched in his whatever-it-was start-up. She found herself thinking of his first unannounced expedition: at age nine he had taken himself on a bicycle tour from their house to the Jaguar dealership in Bryn Mawr, a round-trip of almost seven miles on heavily trafficked roads, so he could pick up a brochure for a brand-new XK8 coupe. He returned home with his brochure on the dot of six, expecting dinner but finding frantic parents. Mystified, he pointed to the tiny scrap of paper that had fallen onto the seat of a chair, a note bearing the marking “6 XO.” “But that’s what you and Mom do when you go out.”
Sandra had not walked around her neighborhood since the late fall, when her treadmill was irritatingly stuck on its highest incline, seemingly impossible to repair. Will declined to join her, immersed in a Sisyphean attempt to achieve “Queen Bee”—he was on a nineteen-day winning streak with the addictive spelling game—and annoyed that the Times had not included “otari” on its list of approved words.
In the newly vertiginous unfamiliarity of their street of thirty-one years, suburban spring was at its freshest early yellow-green, the sillage of the witch hazel fading quickly as she rounded the corner at the bottom of the driveway. Some magnolias were already tending to louche, with brown-tinged petals. On her usual route, she encountered several strangers also taking the air. What better to do that day, after all, than make one’s way through this beautiful neighborhood, with its relatively level roads?
Another pedestrian was approaching on her side of the street. She could not cross right away, because on the opposite side a man was reaching into the open back of an unmarked white delivery van; he was talking into a headset as he removed what might have been the last rolls of toilet paper available on Amazon. It could have been mud masks and moisturizers from Sephora, too, she thought, or pairs of ballet flats from Zappos.
She slowed her pace to leave generous space for the delivery man—luckily, as it turned out, for he was headed her way, toward the house for which the large box was destined. He crossed in front of her without a glance. Was he oblivious to the new lifesaving six-feet-apart etiquette? She held her breath as she passed through his wake, imagining chaotic swirls of viral molecules, then quickly crossed the street.
She remembered the foot-feel of the scuffed auditorium floor in the all-girls school she had attended. Dance classes with Madame Leonova. Madame, petite and imperious, would direct the little girls to practice felt-slippered leaps in patterns that quadrisected the large room, the accompanist playing lively balletic passages on the piano. Woe to those who barely avoided collisions! “Leetle ones,” Madame would say afterward. “Every time you cross ze street you do la danse. Whenever you do not bump into a stranger. See? You will use la danse in life!” She had remembered Madame almost every time she walked on a city sidewalk for the last half century.
Sandra’s maneuver on Manor Road that day had been smooth, and she would pass the other walker safely with no exchange of exhalations.
They were about to slip by each other when the stranger turned to her and spoke from across the road: “Was it something I said?”
She answered through her laughter: “Well done!” Half a block later, the esprit de l’escalier: “I’ll bet you say that to all the girls!”
Buoyed by this singular encounter, Sandra returned to her laptop on Thursday. Shedding her shoes, unseen under the desk, she wiggled her bare toes on the warm tiles. “Better than sex,” her contractor had said of radiant heat. She remembered her colleague’s admonition that one must always respect the dignity of the office even after hours. What he had actually forbidden was masturbation. All right, she thought. Guilty, or almost. But the pleasure she felt in her feet did not entirely counterbalance her trepidation about Elena’s session.
Today, Elena entered the virtual waiting room almost fifteen minutes early, and Sandra began the session as soon as she finished writing her notes about the previous patient.
“I thought I was late, and then I got really mad that you were late, and then, just a second ago, I realized that I had the time wrong. All my mad adrenaline has got nowhere to go.”
“Elena, I think that everything feels off for you these days, maybe the small things most of all. Nothing is the same, and we don’t have the words for it yet. It’s very disorienting. And you’re not alone in feeling this way.”
“I can’t see you! This fucking thing . . . I can’t see you. You’re gone.” Sandra had only lost audio, but she could see Elena cursing.
Sandra messaged her: “Let’s both sign out, then sign in again.”
When their faces reappeared two minutes later, Elena’s face was red, full of tension. Sandra steeled herself for an onslaught, but it did not come.
“My mother . . . I just thought of something . . . Did I ever tell you this? When she put me down for a nap, or at night—you know they kept me in a crib way after I could walk. I don’t know why I never climbed out. Maybe I was afraid of heights even then. I’d cry and cry. My mother would stand at the door to my room. Facing away from me. Turned away . . . turning away from me! Leaning on the doorjamb, never saying a word. I could see her arm and shoulder, but it was like she wasn’t there at all.”
Sandra began, “Just like—”
“You’re putting words to what was wordless anxiety,” Sandra said.
Perhaps all those phone check-ins were paying off. A rudimentary trust was reasserting itself; Elena’s unconscious permitted that memory to percolate upward, and she found the courage to give voice to it.
Elena sat back, eyes rolling upward slightly as Sandra’s idea permeated her neurons. Sandra imagined herself reaching inside her patient’s mind as though making an indentation in softened clay. She saw Elena look down then, her eyes focusing on something to the side of Sandra’s face.
There was a subtle oddness to the remainder of the session, and Sandra had the feeling that she was simultaneously more and less present for Elena. Did Elena still need to destroy the restored connection between them?
When there were around five minutes remaining, there was a pause. Sandra decided to bring up the subject of Elena’s gaze.
“Elena, I’ve had the sensation that you’re both looking at me and not looking. Does this make sense?”
“Oh, oh—yes, I didn’t tell you. I switched the layout so I could see us side by side. So, I guess I’m looking right at you here, but it doesn’t look like it there.”
“Ah,” Sandra said. “I see. You’re trying to find a way for us to be in the same room.”
“Hmm. Maybe, yes . . . Oh, shit. I’ve got to go. My boss is Zooming me.” She broke the video link. Sandra blinked, shook her head.
The reopened wound was still oozing, and it would have to wait until their next session—Monday.
Practicing psychotherapy and writing have a great deal in common. You have to tolerate things being messy, shitty for extended and indeterminate periods without losing faith in your alchemical ability to transform shit into platinum. Household dirt, though, was not subject to the transmuting effects of time and well-crafted sentences or interpretations. So that night, Sandra maneuvered the vacuum around the den, using its purple rubber lip like a cowcatcher on Will’s shoes and a small wastepaper basket, which rewarded her efficiency by toppling over and spilling its contents onto the rug—used tissues and long curlicues from a pencil sharpener. Will thought it bad luck to use a pen to do a crossword puzzle, though all the erasers on his collection of pencils were unmarred.
“Fuck this fucking virus!” she muttered, chafing at the forced absence of her housekeeper. She turned off the machine, stretched her lower back, then went to the kitchen and put six precious dried French rosebuds into a mug of instantly hot water; the moment was Fauchon-worthy. But there was no escape from sadness. Would she ever again walk in the Place de la Madeleine?
Back in the den, she slouched into the love seat, contemplating the column of gray, spun dust in the clear plastic section of the purple vacuum cleaner. Did the product designer really think that a whimsical color would make the damn thing fun to use? She thought back to her first borderline patient, whom she treated during her internship year. The young woman, a janitor, would rail vividly, sometimes for half a session, about the long, unwieldy cord of an industrial vacuum cleaner; the predilections of that rubber foe became the foundation of their private language.
Oh, for a bit of humor, Sandra thought. She was fortunate to exist in a Venn diagram of friends and colleagues, separate sources of irreverent viral jokes, but it had been weeks now since the last crest of witty e-mails. The best one had come at the very beginning of quarantine. A dear friend in France sent a hilarious video promoting breast and crotch grabs as safe substitutes for la bise—namaste and Ebola elbow be damned! This initial raunchiness dissipated as the pandemic deepened, although the internet’s responses to Trump’s Clorox moment had led to one manic morning of catharsis. It had been difficult to settle back into seriousness after each surreal break between sessions.
Sandra’s thoughts returned to Elena. She could not remember the last time she had been haunted by a patient’s suffering—maybe not since that lawyer she’d treated fifteen years ago, whose four-year-old had silently sleepwalked through the unlocked gate to their swimming pool. An only child, her last-chance IVF baby.
Will came in the room, took one look at her face and the abandoned vacuum cleaner. “You know, you don’t have to do this twice a week.”
“Yeah, well, do you see how much crap is on the rug?”
He just looked at her.
“Okay. I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t matter. There’s this patient—I can’t get her out of my head. She’s right on the edge of the abyss, and I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m sorry, honey.” Will sat down next to her, lifted her legs onto his lap, and began to massage her feet.
Sandra sighed, closed her eyes. “It’s like I’m reaching to pick her up and she’s shoving me away.”
Will was right. When Jonathan was around two and a half, they’d left him with Will’s parents for a weekend. He’d balked at getting into bed without his “rannosaur,” which had disappeared somewhere between restaurant, car, and condo. He let his full displaced indignation loose on the grandparental units, struggling to find an adequate epithet: “You . . . you . . . Bobby dumb heads!” He refused a bedtime story and kisses and grumbled himself to sleep with this cursey gem. When Sandra and Will returned, Jonathan ignored their presence for half an hour.
Sandra thought of the loss of her own parents at an even younger age—a loss she did not remember, one that had been largely repaired by her adoptive parents and then by her analysis. A single memory, though, an image of a face or the imprint of a loving touch, would have changed the architecture of her psyche, just as the absence of the twin skyscrapers would always define Daniel Libeskind’s gleaming steel-and-glass twist. No, it was David Childs in the end, not Libeskind. Oh, she thought. Lieb-kind: love child.
“You know, I think this girl isn’t going to be all right until she sees me in person. But how . . . how can I do that? Maybe . . . no. Maybe that huge parking lot behind Staples. Nobody ever goes there.”
Will continued to work on her feet. “Hmm. What about Penn Valley Elementary School?”
“The school . . . maybe. You know, Will, that might just work. Those face-to-face benches on the playground.”
Could they do this? Would the police arrest her and Elena for violating the governor’s lockdown order? Maybe Dan, as her psychiatric consultant, could give her a note to show them, just in case. Sandra broke into laughter at this ridiculous worry. Did she think this was like asking the teacher’s permission to go to the bathroom? But she had the weekend to think about it.
TheraP4.me connected them electronically at the appointed time on Monday. Elena was slouched on her sofa, her face vexed, her agitation already apparent. So, Sandra began: “If there’s nothing pressing on your mind, Elena, I’ve had some thoughts since last time.”
Elena didn’t say anything but looked straight at Sandra, not to the side. Not exactly encouragement, but not nothing.
“Needing to meet by video, and with so little preparation, has felt like a tremendous abandonment. As though I were turning my back on you. Little Elena, deep inside, can’t get over the feeling that I’ve left her despite the fact that grown-up Elena knows I’m right here. You’ve been working hard to put your feelings into words—especially in the last session—but what you’re going through now might just be beyond words.”
Elena looked at her intently.
“I thought it might be helpful for us to find a way to meet in person, perhaps—”
“Yes, yes—I don’t know why, but it really helped when you showed me your room. But in person? For real? Would you do that for me?”
“It sounds as though my willingness has a great deal of meaning for you.”
“Well, duh! But . . .” Elena looked troubled.
“Something’s made you hesitate.”
“Can we do that? Are we allowed?”
“Health-care appointments are a valid reason to leave home, you know,” Sandra said.
“I guess so, but . . . I’d be afraid of getting you sick. I mean, maybe I’ve got the fucking virus, and I just don’t know it. After all, you’re in a high-risk category. You’re old. Oh, shit! I shouldn’t have said that.”
Wow thought Sandra. She is simply terrified of her own hostility. But the moment wasn’t quite right for that insight. Sandra said mildly, “I do know how old I am.”
“And where—your office wouldn’t be safe. It would have to be outdoors.”
“Yes, we’re thinking along the same lines. There is a school near here that might work very well for us. And we know no students will be there now.” She described the location, and Elena googled it on her phone while they spoke.
“Yeah,” Elena said. “That looks easy. But suppose some other therapist and patient are there at the exact time on those benches?”
She needs this so badly that she’s already playing it out in her mind, Sandra thought. “Good point. I hadn’t thought of that. Hmm. You know, I can stick a couple of beach chairs in my car, just in case. Of course, we’d have to sit at a distance, and we will both need to be wearing masks. Do you have a mask, Elena?”
“Yeah, that’s no problem. But suppose . . .”
Sandra waited. It was a splendid silence, comfortable, rich with potential.
“What if . . . suppose I get overwhelmed and hug you before you can stop me?”
Now the time felt right. “Elena”—Sandra spoke gently, with forgiveness in her voice—“I think you might be afraid you’ll hug me because you’re sometimes so angry at me. You love me, but maybe you also have thoughts of hurting me.”
Elena sat up so quickly that for a moment she was out of the video frame. “You’re not mad at me?”
Sandra said, “Do I look mad?” She wanted Elena to say what she should already know. That the very act of articulating this interpretation signified that Sandra had, in fact, intuited and survived these fantasized attacks.
Elena, back in the video frame, scrutinized Sandra’s face for a long moment.
“No. No, you don’t look mad at all. Hmm. Can we talk more about that?”
“Of course,” said Sandra. Their pas de deux had resumed.