I tried to get over Kevin, my ex-boyfriend, by pretending he was dead. Not the kind of dead where you sip an iced frappuccino on a cloud, but the kind where you’re stuffed into a wooden box and buried under dirt during a rainstorm. I did this on the advice of my therapist, Dr. Marta Pearce.
She said it would help. She said, if I really concentrated, I might be able to experience closure and as a result, move on. So, every night before bed I shut my eyes and pictured Kevin’s funerals. I did this for eight consecutive days, even though Dr. Pearce thought once should be enough. But I like the number eight and frankly, I like picturing Kevin dead. I even went to bed early, just so I could spend extra time on his funerals before my medication kicked in. I would cook up all kinds of scenarios, but the basic story went like this:
I am the last to arrive at Barclay’s Funeral Home, and by last, I mean that I make an entrance. You know the kind where everyone turns and stares, not because I’m late, but because I’m mysterious and beautiful and wearing a slinky black dress and leather espadrilles.
The crowd whispers excitedly, “How did Kevin get her?”
And, “Isn’t she that famous model?”
Kevin’s mother, a pink cushion of a woman who always wore too much perfume even after she found out she was allergic, which leads me to believe she did it on purpose, rushes over to embrace me. I don’t hug her back because she never did this when Kevin and I were dating, and besides, I don’t like to be touched.
“You’ve lost weight, Sharon,” she says, and I can tell she’s jealous. “You look amazing.”
It’s true. I have lost weight, or at least I’m going to. Soon. And I’m taller than I was when Kevin and I were together, by at least an inch.
She also says, “Kevin’s last words were, ‘Breaking up with Sharon was the biggest mistake I ever made.’”
And, “‘Sharon was the love of my life.’”
And sometimes, “‘My life sucks without Sharon.’”
I shrug, as if these revelations mean nothing to me, and wait for her to admit she was wrong about me.
“You were perfect for him,” she says finally, dabbing her eyes with the lace hankies I sent her the Christmas after Kevin and I broke up. “I realize that now.”
I can’t help myself; I smile. I was perfect for him. I still am.
She bites her lip and walks away, a pink cushion of regret.
Kevin’s sisters stare daggers at me, but I am used to this. In real life, Alana and
Courtney exchanged secret looks whenever Kevin brought me home. Dr. Pearce said it was because they were uncomfortable around me, but I know it’s because they were jealous. In all eight versions of the funeral Kevin’s father orders them to move down a seat so I can sit up front. Then he marches over, gives me his arm, and personally escorts me to the casket.
“My son was a damn fool,” he says, loud enough for everyone to hear. “He never should’ve let you get away.”
Kevin’s father always liked me. After the break-up, I would sit on Kevin’s front steps all night long, waiting for him to change his mind. The next morning, Kevin’s father would drive me home. Sometimes, he was late for work because of me.
“I can’t keep doing this, Sharon,” he’d say.
But, he did. Because he liked me.
“This is wrong, Sharon. It has to stop.”
It went on for a year.
“Can you forgive him?” Kevin’s father asks when we reach the casket. “Can you move on with your life?”
Of course I can forgive Kevin, now that he’s dead. Of course I can move on, now. And to prove it, I lean over and kiss his dead lips. A collective sigh rises from the crowd like fresh pastry.
Kevin is beautiful. What I mean is, he has a handsome face. The rest of him has been horribly mangled in a freak accident involving a deer and a Toyota Camry and lots of bleeding, inside and out. In one funeral, he’s lost both of his legs, and the casket is only three feet long. In another, he has a pair of antlers sticking out of his chest. Kevin is horribly deformed, except for his face. I kiss him again.
“I’m sorry,” Kevin’s father says.
That’s what he always said after we did it. When I told Dr. Pearce about the car rides, she said I had transferred my sexual feelings for Kevin to his father. That wasn’t it at all, but I didn’t argue because sexual transference looks a lot better on my chart than exchanging blow jobs for news about Kevin.
Everyone smiles at me now, even Courtney, Kevin’s older sister. I feel sorry for her because she takes after her mother, which means she wears clothes that try to fool you into thinking her thighs are not as big around as tree trunks. But they are. I’ve seen her in a bathing suit. Alana, Kevin’s other sister, has a Bikini Body, but it doesn’t matter because she’s a bitch. No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine her smiling at me. In two versions of the funeral, she’s in the car with Kevin when he hits the deer.
I wrote all of this in a journal and gave it to Dr. Pearce. She seemed surprised I’d filled 88 pages and was impressed with my attention to detail.
“I hope this is an effective coping skill,” she said, and I watched her write those exact words on my chart. “But perhaps we should look at a different exercise. What do you think, Sharon?”
Dr. Pearce always asks what I think. She’s the only person who does, so I pause before I answer. I think this makes me look intelligent.
“Dr. Pearce [pause], wouldn’t it be better [longer pause] wouldn’t I be better if Kevin were really dead? Think how much more effectively I’d cope if I could really go to his funeral. Wouldn’t that be a great way to get over him once and for all?”
I could see by the look on her face that this was the wrong thing to say. I’ve always been good at reading people’s faces, a skill I learned from living with a mother who was an expert in giving Looks. You had to guess what she was thinking because she wouldn’t say, and most of the time I was right. This look, the one Dr. Pearce gave me, was a mixture of denial and apprehension. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it today. When I was riding the bus over here, there was a girl sitting across the aisle from me. She was my age, which is thirty-one, or maybe she was eighteen, I’m not sure. The point is, she was reading the May Cosmo and crying. Well, I’ve read that issue several times and there is nothing in there to make you sad, so I knew it had to be something else, like the death of a puppy or a brain tumor or maybe a bad break-up. I got up and sat next to her.
“Excuse me? Miss? I have something to tell you.”
She looked at me and there was a crazy hope in her eyes. I chose the break-up.
“Your ex-boyfriend sends his love.”
The look she gave me was identical to the one Dr. Pearce gave me in her office and similar to the one my mother gives whenever I talk about being a fashion model. Anyway, the girl got off at the next stop, but not before whispering, “asshole,” which only confirms that I was right about the boyfriend.
Dr. Pearce didn’t curse and she didn’t leave the room, but I had to spend the rest of our session trying to convince her that I was only kidding about Kevin. I even offered to tear up the journal and never write about another funeral (though I wasn’t sure I could actually do this), but she called my mother anyway and asked her to pick me up.
“I don’t think you should be alone today, Sharon,” she said, placing her hand on my shoulder. Dr. Pearce never touches me unless she’s giving me bad news.
The fact is, and she knows this, I’m not alone at Bridgeway House. There’s Elaine in the next room, and Katie who shares our bathroom, and the woman who empties trash cans all day. But I knew what Dr. Pearce meant. She didn’t want me to lock myself in my room and refuse to come out for two days, like last time. And she didn’t want me to cut myself because eight months ago she wrote, “No longer a danger to self or others” on my chart and she didn’t want to take it back. I know all this because I read my chart whenever Dr. Pearce leaves the room.
“Sharon? Please look at me. I’m going to call your mother now. I’d feel better if you stayed with her tonight. What do you think?”
I sat back and let her do the thing that was going to make her feel better, even though I knew my mother would be pissed.
She’d say, “I’m sick of this bullshit, Marta.”
And, “Goddam it, do you know how busy I am?”
That’s what she always says when Dr. Pearce calls, even if she hasn’t called in a long time. And, she hasn’t. Not for eight months. So there’s really no reason for my mother to be mad.
I call her my mother, but actually (and she agrees) I’m not sure we’re even related. I look nothing like her, just like Alana looks nothing like her mother and
Courtney. My mother is long-limbed and nasty, like a spider in a children’s book, and doesn’t have to diet to be skinny, and used to say when I was little and before I became too much for her to handle that she took the wrong baby home from the hospital. It was a joke, I know, just not a funny one.
She would also say, “Do you really need that piece of cake?”
And, “You take after your father’s side of the family.”
And sometimes, “I don’t know what to do with you anymore, Sharon.”
And it is possible I was switched at birth because my mother and I are as different as two people can be, although there is no mention of a hospital mix-up in my chart.
So this woman, my mother or maybe not, came dressed in a two-piece tweed suit and black espadrilles, and had her own session with Dr. Pearce. Even though I couldn’t hear them, I knew Dr. Pearce was telling on me, which should bother me but doesn’t. It would be different if she was saying these things to Kevin, or even Kevin’s father, but my mother doesn’t expect to hear good things about me. She came out of that session with the same mad face she had on when she went in.
“Ready to go home, Sharon?” she asked, but she was only being polite for Dr. Pearce’s sake. When we got outside, she took my hand and dragged me down the street like a shopping cart with a broken wheel. Her apartment is four blocks from the office, which gave her plenty of time to say,
“I can’t believe this is still going on.”
And, “Do you know how busy I am?”
And finally, “When’s this going to end, Sharon? Can you tell me that?”
I didn’t answer because, truthfully, I’m not sure what this is. I don’t think it’s the therapy, because my mother likes Dr. Pearce. And it was her idea that I increase my medication, so that’s not it. Maybe it’s the phone calls. My mother can’t take personal calls at work. She is a financial advisor at a brokerage house and when she has to leave early because of my behavior, either “all hell breaks loose” or “the shit hits the fan.”
Anyway, that’s what she says. But, I don’t call her anymore because there aren’t any 8’s in her work number and I don’t like the way her voice sounds when she answers and furthermore, today was not my idea. I hope Dr. Pearce told her that.
I suspect it’s my career plans. She wasn’t happy when I dropped out of college after two months, but, as I told her at the time, a fashion model has no need for higher education. I know, at five foot two inches, I’m not tall enough for the runway, but I have my sights set on print ads and there is no height requirement for that, according to Women’s Wear Daily or W, as it’s now called. And, if I put my mind to it, I can lose the ten pounds that the camera adds. I can lose more than that, if I want to.
My mother hates when I talk about this, but that’s because she’s someone who has no problem crushing every dream I ever had. When I wanted to be a secretary, she said, “You can barely handle clerical work, Sharon,” and to prove it, gave me a job at her company. The people there weren’t friendly; at least the women weren’t. They were jealous because Mr. Abbott, the supervisor, favored me over all the other file clerks. He’d call me into his office and say,
“You’re doing an excellent job, Sharon.”
And, “You’re an important asset to the company.”
And then, “I pass Bridgeway House every morning –why don’t I pick you up?”
When we were late for work he’d tell me not to worry and sign me in at the regular time. He said no one would know the difference because we weren’t that late, and on the mornings he took too long, I’d just finish him off in the car.
How was I supposed to know that dating your supervisor was against company policy? Models don’t have to worry about things like that. They are free spirits who make their own rules. That’s what I told Mrs. Olmstead from Personnel when she called me into her office for a private chat. Only, it wasn’t private because my mother was there and kept screaming things like,
“That goddam bastard!”
And, “I should have him arrested!”
This was her way of showing she was on my side, but all it did was upset me so much that I called her a cunt and threatened to be a danger to myself and others. After I was escorted out of the building by my mother and two security guards, I left a message on Mr. Abbott’s phone (his number had three eights) asking if he still wanted to date, but his number was changed and I couldn’t figure out the new one, even after spending an entire afternoon trying different combinations. That’s when Dr. Pearce changed my medication. And even though my mother wonders out loud what the hell I do all day, she doesn’t hesitate to bring up “that fucking disaster” at Blackwell Brothers when I talk about getting a job. So I don’t talk about it anymore, at least not to her. So that isn’t what she wants to end.
This bothers me. I can’t stop thinking about it. Even after Jay Leno is over and I’ve cut up every one of my mother’s fashion magazines, I can’t stop.
When I wake my mother to ask about it, she tells me to go back to sleep. But she of all people knows I can’t do that. I have to know. Now.
“Sharon, please. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
I know we won’t.
“I can’t deal with this again, Sharon.”
It’s not just her Look this time, but her voice, dripping with something that is not poison, but worse. Separation. The splitting of an atom.
“You should go to sleep.”
I’m afraid to go to sleep and I tell her this.
“Should we call Dr. Pearce?”
I threw the phones in the bathtub an hour ago.
My heart beats quickly. I remember what it is now. It’s Kevin.
She wants Kevin to end, or rather my feelings for him. She wants to get inside my head and stop me from thinking about him. That’s what Dr. Pearce wants, too. Everybody wants this. Everyone but me.
“Do you think it will end,” I ask her, “when Kevin is dead?”
My mother is finally silent. That gives me hope. But then, she looks at me and screams, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
How does a rational person answer a question like that? There is no answer. (This is in fact what I say to her.)
“Please tell me you’re joking, Sharon.”
I have never told a joke in my life. She knows that.
And suddenly she’s shaking me, as if she can empty out everything that makes me different from her. And she’s repeating herself.
“Twelve years. Twelve years. Twelve years.”
She says this as if my heart is attached to a clock.
“He has a wife, Sharon. Children.”
Families break up. Fathers leave. My own father left when I was five.
“Kevin doesn’t love you anymore.”
That is just plain mean.
“He’s moved on.”
Her words are hooks that make holes in my skin and let in all of her spider poison. When she’s completely drained, she gives me a look that I mistakenly read as defeat. But, I’m wrong this time. She has a little poison left.
“It was so long ago, baby.”
And I don’t have anything to say except, not to me. I want to scream this in her face and tell her I hate her and have always hated her and then I want to ask her why? Why are we nothing alike? Why aren’t I tall and beautiful and have a job where the shit hits the fan if I’m not there? Why do I have to think about Kevin every day, and why won’t I have a Bikini Body by June 1 like it promised on the cover of the May Cosmo? Why can’t I be like everyone else? When is this going to end? But I don’t ask any of these things because my mother, the spider, is crying.
Terry Mergenthal has been writing since the age of nine, when she launched a school newspaper from her basement with carbon paper and a used Remington typewriter. Two years ago, she left a career in corporate sales to pursue writing full time. She is working on a collection of short stories and recently completed her first novel, Redeemer, the story of a family marred by murder-suicide in the 1970’s. Terry currently lives in Cherry Hill with her husband and two daughters.