(Note: This scene takes place about six months after the last one.)
And just as Dan was thinking about Victoria, there she was. Or was she? Maybe it was one of those New York mirages, where you’re thinking about someone and your eye picks out a likely person from the crowd to portray them in the movie of this minute of your life. There’s always going to be someone on the sidewalk, especially up here, Broadway and 82nd, that looks like whoever you’re thinking about; it could be any tall, loping, curly-dark-haired woman, but no, as she approached, he could see – he could feel – that it was Vic.
“Hey,” he said, reaching out a hand to stop her as she nearly passed him by. She drew back, then saw it was him and stopped; her face, which had been drawn in a concentrated frown, relaxed a little.
“Dan,” she noted. What do you want? He felt stupid, suddenly; burdensome, out of context. They’d just seen each other two days ago; they’d see each other again in a week. Why did they have to stop and talk now? Because he’d been excited to see her. He should have just said her name and waved as he passed her by – I’m here, you’re here, see you later. Preserve the mystery. Then she would have wanted to stop and talk, she would have seen what a busy guy he was and been impressed by his unavailability. What was there to say? I was just thinking about you.
“I’m surprised to see you up here,” he said. “Don’t you get a nosebleed above Fourteenth Street?”
She smiled at this old saw, more than it deserved, but it wasn’t really a smile, it was just a reflex. He had made this joke, she was supposed to smile. “I was…seeing someone.”
He felt like he’d been hit by a rock. “Really?” His eyebrows raised without his consent; he hoped he looked more bemused than stricken. What did he care anyway? He didn’t. He had no romantic interest in Vic, but that didn’t mean he wanted her to have romantic interest in anybody else. He adopted a paternal tone. “Well, congratulations. Will we get to meet the young man?”
“No,” she laughed, and he could see how tired she was, how heavy the bag on her shoulder was. He wanted to take it from her, walk her to wherever she was going. A woman clicked by on her heels, muttering under her breath, “Out of the way.” They were chatting in the middle of a busy sidewalk, it couldn’t last long. “Not like that. I’m seeing a shrink.”
“Oh!” His face lit up with relief. Did she notice? It didn’t matter, really, all that mattered was that she wasn’t seeing someone romantically. The rest was unimportant. “Well, that’s wonderful.”
“It’s all right,” she said, smiling wryly. “And…” And since we’re standing here, having a pointless conversation… “What are you up to?”
“I…” He should say he was seeing someone, see how she’d react. She wouldn’t react. She didn’t care. Or maybe she’d be offended on Imani’s behalf; he never really knew how much she knew about the affair and how it ended, he had no idea what she thought of him. Somehow he’d assumed that Imani told her everything, but now he wondered – were Vic and Imani even friends, outside of group? Were she and Dan even friends? “I was at my father’s. Special occasion – he’s got a new girlfriend he wanted me to meet.”
A lie, but so what. It had occurred to him to say it, so it must have been the right thing to say. And it was; he could see the sympathy register in her face. They were nearly bumped by a dogwalker; instinctively, she pulled them over towards the street, out of the way. The conversation would continue. But now there was nothing to say. They’d both explained their presence here on the Upper West Side, they would see each other in group next week. Well, good seeing you…
“Buy you a drink?” he asked. “I know I could use one.” The phrase “out on a limb” occurred to him; he imagined himself, on his belly, on the thin, horizontal branch of a tree, clutching it between his wrapped arms and his knees. She was standing under the tree, hoping he wouldn’t fall on her. She took a step back, re-shouldered her bag.
“Actually, I was going to grab some dinner, get some work done.” Drink a glass of wine, just one and no more. One and a half at most.
Well, I’ll walk you to the train. He rejected the idea, angry with himself that it had even occurred to him, and with such force of longing, too. He straightened up and looked past her down the block as though there were something more interesting happening behind her.
“Are you hungry?”, she asked.
He was, in fact. Even having just eaten, he had the urge to eat more, to taste and chew and swallow. “Famished,” he said.
And just like that, it was settled. He suggested the Chino-Latino place that had been there forever, and they set off in that direction, together now. Dan felt powerful, like a wizard, like he’d summoned her and she’d appeared, and he could do that with anybody or anything he wished from now on. They were silent as they walked, which felt strangely comfortable, and pleased him; she wasn’t desperate for someone to talk to; she was busy thinking her own thoughts. They didn’t need to make small talk for formality’s sake, they were both above that, and he was glad that she recognized that about him. A woman who didn’t always have to talk just to hear herself! He was aware of being very, very happy, almost laughing out loud.
He opened the door for her, and she laughed as she slid in front of him and entered. “Thank you, sir.” Sir, like one of the characters from her novel. They sat at a grimy table by the window, an elbow away from their neighbors. It would be too easy for them to talk about writing; it would defeat the purpose.
“So,” he said. “A shrink.”
“A shrink,” she repeated. “Doctor Bruce.”
“A male shrink.” He was surprised and impressed some more. Everything she said made her more interesting, more attractive. He’d been so turned off by her mannish shoes, her lack of make-up, her height; he never realized how exciting all that was. A woman who wasn’t a girl.
“He came highly recommended.” By who?, he thought, then let it go. She studied the menu, twisting her lips from side to side in a cartoonish manner. So unsexy, so unselfconscious. She was nibbling the inside of her cheek.
“Is it…is it helpful?” His menu lay open in front of him, unheeded, as he watched her, fascinated. Wrinkles in her forehead. He wanted to smooth them with his thumb.
“Mmmm.” She made her choice and closed the menu, looked up at him, met his eyes, blew out a deep breath, pfffffffff. “Yeah, it’s helpful. I just started a few weeks ago, but yeah. I feel better.”
“I wasn’t aware you were feeling badly.”
“Well, good.” She laughed. “I didn’t want everybody to know.”
Like he was just “everybody.” Fair enough, he supposed. He’d never evinced an interest in her psychological well-being before, except implicitly – they knew each other, they were friendly colleagues, they had agreed to help each other creatively, they were in something together. But he didn’t linger after group, the way Eleanor did, fussing around with the chairs while Vic rinsed the empty water glasses in the sink. He’d never solicited her before. He wanted to know more, much more, about what she’d been thinking and feeling all this time, about all that was hidden from him.
The waiter came by, and they ordered, then they both leaned forward at the same time, forearms on the table. Funny, that kind of simultaneous movement, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Have you ever seen a shrink?” she asked.
“I have.” Her name was Harriet, and he was twelve. His father had brought him when his mother was dying; she was supposed to help somehow. Be some kind of substitute. Dan hadn’t liked her; he’d thought she was too old, too weird, too loving. She didn’t even know him; how could she profess to care so much for him so quickly? He’d shut down, and the experiment did not last more than six months. “Harriet. I was twelve.”
“Harriet,” she said, smiling. “What a shrink name.”
“She was very shrinky, yes. She wore her glasses on a beaded chain.”
“Curly grey hair,” said Vic. “Chin length.”
“Straight and shoulder-length,” he said. “But yes, grey.”
She didn’t ask him what he went for, she didn’t ask him how long it lasted. She didn’t ask him, as he asked her, whether it had helped. She looked at him, waiting for him to tell her whatever he felt like telling her. Almost like a shrink.
“My father wanted me to go. My mother was dying, and he thought it would help somehow.” He paused so that she could murmur something, I’m so sorry, but she didn’t, so he resumed. “She tried to talk to me about masturbation.”
“Needless to say, I was not eager to discuss the subject with her.”
Again, he waited for her to do what was expected, to ask more about his mother’s death, to express her condolences. She did not. She scanned the room, and he wanted to bring her focus back to himself.
“I wasn’t a particularly good patient,” he said. “I didn’t want to be there. It felt like I was being punished for my mother’s illness. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act, or what I was supposed to say. I was something of a petulant brat, as I recall.”
She arched her eyebrows – you don’t say. Was that how she thought of him, a petulant brat? His mood shifted; now he was grumpy. “Anyway, enough of that.”
Their food came, and he tucked into the plate of rice and beans, hunger diminished but still committed to eating. She wasn’t playing ball with him – was that it? He didn’t know. The silence that had seemed so natural on the walk over now felt awkward. Did she agree? He sneaked a look at her, diving into her own plate with aplomb, but she seemed content to eat and not speak. He put his fork down, struck by the urge to scrape his chair back and throw down his napkin and walk out – he’d been open with her, talking about his mother’s illness, for chrissakes, what more could she want?
“This is great,” she said, around a mouthful of food. “I was starving.”
And what was our friend Victoria thinking during all of this? That she was hungry. That she was surprised to see Dan, that he was funny. Odd. She found his criticism some of the most helpful in the group; critical though he was, he did seem to be able to locate the weak spots, and to express why they were weak. He knew her strengths. She might have suggested to Imani that they get rid of him after the debacle of their relationship, but he was too valuable, and she couldn’t blame Dan for being what he was: young. Immature. Desperate for approval. So was Imani. So was she, except for the young part.
She was puzzling over something Dr. Bruce had asked her: Do you think there’s anything you’ll miss when your mother’s gone?
Yeah, she said. The past forty-two years of my life.