The client’s name is Marcella. She is smaller and prettier than Ruth had envisioned her, with delicate features—a small but sensual mouth, a nose so perfectly formed it’s almost childlike, slightly upturned. Her hair, on the other hand is huge—practically volcanic around her head. She is late for her appointment with Ruth by forty minutes, and by the time Marcella shows up, Ruth is annoyed. When Marcella finally bursts through the door, in a gust of marijuana smoke, incense, and an intensely cloying perfume, she hugs Ruth as if they’ve known each other for years. “You’re beautiful, honey,” Marcella whispers into Ruth’s ear. She steps back and gazes at Ruth, her eyes welling with tears—and right there, Ruth forgives the forty minutes.
“Come in,” Ruth says, waving the woman inside. They’d spoken last night when Marcella had called the twenty-four-hour domestic violence hotline and Ruth had picked up.
“My fucking boyfriend is going to fucking kill me,” Marcella had whispered viciously into the phone.
Ruth, who had been asleep—it was a little past midnight—had considered simply hanging up. She’d been doing this job—I love it! she tells other people—for years now, and she knew crazy when she heard it.
She didn’t hang up, of course. “I’m glad you called,” she recited into the phone. “Are you in a safe place right now to tell me what’s going on?”
“I’m never safe!” the woman wailed. “I’m never fucking safe with him.”
Ruth nodded, put her head in her hands. “Do you need me to call the police?”
“No, don’t call the police,” the woman snapped. “There’s a reason I’m calling you and not the police, OK?”
“I understand. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
They’d talked on the phone for an hour and a half. They made a plan to meet in person the next day at Ruth’s office, a discreet building in downtown Boston, where Ruth worked with six other underpaid women all under the age of 35. At the end of their conversation, Marcella had started to cry. “Thank you for answering the phone,” she had said. “I didn’t know if real people actually answered these things or if it was robots, you know?”
Ruth was wide awake by that point. She’d gotten out of bed and was sitting on her couch, curled up beneath a blanket, bending and unbending a paper clip in her free hand, something she often did while speaking with clients on the phone. “I’m so glad you called,” she said, and this time she meant it. She was, in fact, a little sad to say goodbye to the woman, and was looking forward to meeting her the next day.
Two women talking on the phone about a man who was mistreating one of them. How many times a day, a week, a year . . . and now this is what Ruth did for a living. Not that what she made could really be called a living. Her father sent her a check every month that covered Ruth’s therapy. Her cell phone was still on her parents’ family plan. The family itself had fractured into distinct, dysfunctional pieces a year earlier, when her mother had left her father, unannounced. Her father had fallen into a deep depression. Nobody in Ruth’s family spoke to one another anymore.
“You’re angry,” Ruth’s therapist had said to Ruth, more than once.
“Yes,” Ruth answered hesitantly.
“Then why don’t you sound that way?”
“I’m depressed,” Ruth offered, instead.
Her therapist, Deborah, was always trying to get Ruth to connect with her anger, and though she could never really get there herself, Ruth encouraged it with her clients at the domestic violence agency.
“You must be angry at him,” she says to Marcella when they get to talking in her office.
“I could rip his hair out of his fucking skull,” Marcella says, without skipping a beat. “Actually,” she goes on. “I did. And then look what he did to me.” Marcella stands up and lifts her skirt to reveal a purple-green thigh.
Ruth tries to imagine having the kind of anger where she might rip somebody’s hair out of their skull, but the thought feels foreign.
Ruth purposely does not shave her legs before her date with the psychiatrist because she does not want to be tempted to sleep with him. She has a bad habit of sleeping with men on the first date, and a worse habit of mistaking sex for love. She was not especially excited by his photographs online, but then again he is six feet four and a psychiatrist.
They meet outside the bar. He does not look like a psychiatrist. He is alarmingly tall, with hair well past his ears, almost long enough to pull back, and he is wearing a knee-length sheepskin coat. He looks—and this is the only word that comes to mind in the moment—odd. He smiles broadly when he sees Ruth; she understands instantly that he finds her attractive.
They descend into the deep cavern of the bar, where the lighting is dim, practically nonexistent. There is a faint smell of cheese—not in a putrid way, but in a French way—and Ruth can’t figure out if it’s coming from the bar or from the psychiatrist.
“I have to admit,” he tells her, when they sit down. “I googled you before we met. And I read your story. The one just published? It was incredible.”
Ruth is shocked.
“You look surprised.”
“I hope you don’t think it’s strange.”
“No,” she says. “I’m flattered.”
He pulls a tattered stack of papers from some mysterious pocket from the sheepskin coat. “If you don’t mind,” he says. “I brought it with me.” He proceeds to go through her story with her, where he has underlined sentences in red pen, lines he liked, ones that took him by surprise. He asks her where she came up with certain details, how she wrote certain parts, and he tells her what he thought of specific passages and characters. By the end, she is a little breathless. She forgets her hairy legs. This, she thinks, is better than sex.
“How do you know so much about psychiatrists?” he asks.
“My parents are both psychiatrists,” she tells him.
“Ah,” he says, taking a sip of his cocktail. He does not take his eyes off her. “No wonder.”
“And why did you become a psychiatrist?” she asks him.
He smiles. “Nobody ever asks an orthopedist that. They only ask psychiatrists. Really they mean, so what was so fucked up about your childhood?”
She laughs. “Well?”
He looks serious for a moment. “I didn’t know I was going to be a psychiatrist. I stumbled into it, really. I’m interested in the brain, more than anything else. I don’t think therapy does much of anything.”
“Are you in therapy?”
“Three times a week.” He smiles. “Are you?”
“Yes,” she says. “I think therapy is the best thing that ever happened to me.” She thinks of her therapist and wonders what Deborah would think of the psychiatrist, of their conversation. Deborah would think that Ruth is divulging too much, being too vulnerable too soon.
They stay at the bar for six hours. They talk about their families—both fucked-up. They talk about their previous relationships—also fucked-up. They talk about their work, their childhoods, their therapists. Then they talk about their date. They are both three drinks in, and from across the table, the psychiatrist no longer looks odd to Ruth, but remarkably handsome. He has a slight accent, one she’s never heard before; a particular way of elongating vowels that she finds attractive.
“This is wonderful,” the psychiatrist says, meaning the date, the two of them, together.
Ruth nods in agreement. “It is.”
“I knew when I read your story that you would be smart. Thoughtful. That you had a point of view. But then when I saw you . . .” He pauses, seems to be holding back.
“You just—well, you’re beautiful.”
Ruth doesn’t know why but at that moment Marcella pops into her mind, the way the small woman’s presence had completely transformed the space she inhabited. Her scent—that mixture of smoke and perfume had lingered in Ruth’s office for hours after Marcella had left. Ruth pushes the thought away and gives the psychiatrist her most charming smile.
“I feel I can be myself around you,” she says carefully, as though if by saying them out loud, the words might generate some kind of gravity.
That night Ruth has a wonderful dream. She dreams that she’s sitting in a bathtub and she’s singing, and the sound of her voice is so beautiful that she begins to cry. When she wakes up in the morning she sees a text message from the psychiatrist. “Can I see you again tonight, Ruth?”
Marcella’s boyfriend, Andrew, calls her every name in the book. Bitch, cunt, whore, crack whore, white trash. “That’s his favorite,” Marcella tells Ruth. “White trash.” She lets out a loud, humorless laugh. She’s wearing a long pink coat over pajama pants, her hair pulled up into something wild on top of her head. “It’s true, I guess. My family is white trash, but so is his. But now he’s all up on his high horse because he got a fancy job at Amazon.” Just then Marcella’s purse breaks out into a festive jingle, and she begins to rummage through it. She pulls out her phone and holds it up for Ruth. “It’s him,” she says, and then before Ruth can say anything, she answers.
“Hi baby . . . I’m at my therapist’s . . . No, I told you . . . OK . . . OK.”
Ruth can’t make out what Andrew is saying, but she can hear the sound of a male voice: deep, gentle, quiet-sounding. Not a voice she can imagine saying any of those terrible things.
Marcella begins to laugh and turns away from Ruth a little. Ruth has the feeling that she’s interrupting.
“Love you, too, baby,” Marcella purrs into the phone. “He can be sweet sometimes,” she explains, turning back to Ruth. “Needy like a little boy, you know?”
“Of course,” Ruth says. “That’s what can make it so confusing.”
That night she meets the psychiatrist at a jazz club. She spots him immediately. He is a head taller than almost everyone else. They embrace and she recognizes the smell from the previous night, and this time it excites her.
“How did you sleep last night?” he asks right away, as though they had spent the previous night sleeping beside one another. In a sense, she supposes, they had.
“I had the most wonderful dream,” she tells him. The jazz club is small—a hole in the wall place—packed shoulder to shoulder with people, and they have to shout to be heard.
“What was it?”
She pauses. “I dreamt I was in a bathtub and I was singing and the sound of my voice was . . . it was so beautiful.”
The psychiatrist beams. “You felt beautiful on the outside and the inside.”
She shrugs. “Maybe that’s it.”
They listen to the music and the psychiatrist stands behind her and wraps his arms around her waist. It feels good not to talk; a relief, just to listen. The musicians are students from the Berklee School of Music. Talented, at least a decade younger than Ruth. For a moment she locks eyes with the bassist, a mellow-looking kid with dreadlocks. He looks so comfortable up there, almost like he could fall asleep, except that his fingers are flying. The psychiatrist’s arms are draped over Ruth’s shoulders. Though she can’t say why, she feels faintly ashamed as she makes eye contact with the young musician, but the moment is just that—a moment—and as soon as he turns away, the overwhelming feeling of the bathtub dream returns. Love, beauty, safety.
After the show ends, they go back to Ruth’s apartment. That night Ruth has shaved her legs. In bed, the psychiatrist is vulgar and describes out loud the effect Ruth has on his cock.
Usually Ruth is bold. Louder and more direct during sex than she is anywhere else. With the psychiatrist, though, she is shy. She lets him do the talking. Perhaps, she thinks, it’s because she actually likes him. Afterward they fall asleep and he grips her tightly throughout the night.
Ruth and Marcella make a safety plan. Andrew gets most violent when he drinks and lately his drinking has gotten worse because of the stress of his new job.
“Where in the house do you feel safest?” Ruth asks.
“Probably the back room,” Marcella says. “There’s a lock. Sometimes I sleep in there, but it pisses him off. In the morning he barely remembers why he was mad.”
“Can you set things up so you can easily get to the back room if he comes home drunk or things start to escalate? Keep a toothbrush there, and a bag of clothes, too? Have things ready so if you decide you want to leave the house you can get your stuff and go.”
Marcella nods. “I could do that.”
“You have the right to feel safe in your own home, Marcella.”
Marcella smiles. Her eyes are a startling green, showcased with what looks to be yesterday’s makeup. “You know where I feel safe, Ruth? Right here.”
After work, Ruth goes to the psychiatrist’s apartment for the first time. He lives in an old, stone building in Cambridge, on the fourth floor. It is exactly as she imagined it—full of hardcover books and art and potted plants, cluttered beyond belief, just a little bit stale.
“I like your socks,” the psychiatrist observes. She looks down. One, gray and woolen, the other, yellow and white striped.
“Thanks,” she says. Ruth curls one leg beneath her. “I’m almost never wearing matching socks. It’s one of the biggest fights my sister and I used to have.”
“What do you mean?” asks the psychiatrist.
“When we still lived together, she always had matching socks and I never did, so I’d go into her room and steal her socks.” Ruth smiles. “She used to get so mad at me.”
The psychiatrist nods but doesn’t smile. “What would she do?”
“What would she scream?”
“Ruthie!” Ruth laughs a little. “What the fuck!”
The psychiatrist looks unamused, practically stern. “Why did she always have socks and you didn’t?”
“I don’t know,” Ruth shrugs. “Whenever I put my socks in the wash, they’d go missing. Hers always came back a pair.”
The psychiatrist nods. “Why do you think that was?”
“Why do I think what was?”
“Why was it that she could she take care of her socks but you couldn’t?”
Something strange passes between them. “I don’t know,” Ruth repeats.
Later that night on his bed, the psychiatrist takes her in his arms and squeezes her so tightly for a moment she can’t breathe. “What a beauty,” he says, looking down at her. “You’re so sweet, Ruth.”
“I’m not always so sweet,” she says.
“No. I might seem it on the outside, but there’s a lot more going on in here.” She taps her chest.
“Huh,” he says, interested. “What’s going on in there? Are you crude? Angry?”
“Angry.” She finds that it’s difficult for her to even say the word.
He smiles. This seems to genuinely please him. “Now we’re getting somewhere. What do you do? Curse? Hit? Throw things?”
“No,” she says, though she’s done all three.
That night when they have sex, he says her name over and over again.
In the middle of the night she wakes up and shifts in his arms, and she hears him say, I love you so much.
In the morning she wonders if she imagined it. Wished it. Dreamt it. But no—she is certain that is what he said. Still, there is something about it she doesn’t trust. There’s a reason, after all, that she didn’t say it back.
Yes, she thinks, during her cab ride home that morning, she loves him. Even though she is also a little scared of him.
When Marcella doesn’t show the next week for their appointment, Ruth is worried. She calls Marcella’s cell phone and there’s no answer. She tries her again the next day, and this time a man picks up.
Ruth considers hanging up. “Is Marcella there?” she asks instead.
“Who is this?” Andrew’s voice is gruffer than it was on the phone that day in her office. In fact, he sounds like a different person entirely.
“Ruth,” Ruth says.
“Marcella’s not here, Ruth. ” Then he hangs up the phone.
Ruth can’t sleep that night thinking about Marcella. Two days later there’s still no word. Ruth feels sick to her stomach.
“What if she’s dead?” she says to the psychiatrist.
“You can’t think that way every time someone fails to call you back,” he says. “You need better boundaries. This woman—she doesn’t sound very reliable to begin with.”
“Yes, but her boyfriend beats her.”
“She’ll call you when she calls you.”
Marcella calls at the end of the week. When Ruth hears her voice on the other line, she feels she could weep. Instead she says, “I’m glad you called, Marcella. How are you?”
“Not good. I’ve been staying at my ex’s house. Ruthie, Andrew hurt me really bad. Worse than he ever has before.” Marcella’s voice sounds strange; muffled. There is music playing in the background—too loud and too clubby for 1 in the afternoon.
“I’m so sorry,” Ruth says. “Marcella, would you like to come into the office? So we can see each other?”
Marcella pauses as though trying to decide. “I can’t,” she says finally.
“Do you need to go to the hospital? Are you OK? You know I can meet you there.”
“No, Ruthie. I’m OK. I’ll call you later, okay?” Ruth hears male laughter in the background—loud and arrogant. But then the phone call ends.
Hours later, Ruth still hears Marcella’s voice in her head, the way she’d called her Ruthie, a nickname only Ruth’s sister and parents use.
She’s known Marcella and the psychiatrist for exactly the same amount of time—ten days. “I love them both,” she tells Deborah.
“How can you love someone you’ve only known for ten days?” her therapist asks.
“I don’t know. I can’t help it. I just do.”
“I think we should talk about your anger,” Deborah says.
Ruth nods good-naturedly. Her therapist’s office is so soft and comfortable, decorated in pale greens with dark, dated furniture. She pulls her legs up and sits cross-legged on the couch, taking notice of her mismatched socks. She tells Deborah about the sock conversation with the psychiatrist.
“So he’s trying to play shrink with you,” Deborah says.
“I suppose he is.”
“How did it make you feel?”
“Little. Like a little girl.” She thinks about it; tries to remember being back in that conversation. “Humiliated.”
“Did you feel angry?”
Ruth wakes up at 3 in the morning to the horrendous sound of the hotline ringtone. It’s a nurse from the Cambridge Hospital Emergency Room. “We have a woman here. A domestic. Can an advocate come down right now?”
Ruth hangs up the phone and curses loudly into her dark apartment. Why the fuck does she have this job? She wants to cry. She wants to go back to sleep. She wants to throw a fucking temper tantrum. Instead she turns the lights on in her apartment and changes into jeans and a sweater and brushes her teeth. Then she takes a cab to the hospital, wide-eyed and wide awake, wondering what the night has in store for her.
The hospital is bustling, indifferent to the time of day. She introduces herself at the front desk, shows them her badge from her agency, and a nurse leads her to a room down the hall where the victim is waiting.
It takes Ruth a moment to recognize Marcella, she is so badly beaten. Her face is scratched raw, and she has a split lip. Wet blood oozes from the crown of her head, meeting a thick, black crest of dried blood matted into her hair. Both her eyes and her mouth have been punched and bruising is starting to show—reddish mottling beneath the skin.
“Ruthie,” Marcella says, struggling to sit up, and Ruth sees that one of her front teeth is missing.
It occurs to her then that this is happening backwards. It’s up to her, the advocate, to do the talking. “Marcella,” Ruth says, walking in. “Don’t sit up, it’s okay.” Up close, the blood is brighter, clotted with black and puss and Marcella’s smell has mixed with the smell of alcohol and something else—something terrible—and Ruth’s mouth is suddenly warm and wet and thick she feels like she might be sick.
“I’m here,” Ruth says, faltering. She no longer remembers what she’s supposed to say in a situation like this. She’s supposed to talk about options, but she can’t remember what those options are.
“I couldn’t get into the back room, Ruthie.” Marcella says with her bloody lips. She’s not crying but her eyes are wet, like she’s too tired to let the tears fall. “He beat me with a chair.”
“It’s not your fault,” Ruth says. “You got yourself here. That’s all that matters.”
A doctor comes in then with a silver tool that looks like a staple gun. “I’m going to close up that nasty gash on your head there, Marcy,” he says, the way a car mechanic might say he’s going to patch up a hole in a tire. “It might hurt a little.” He then proceeds to staple Marcella’s skin back together, holding the gun to her head and pulling the trigger, each pop producing a painful sound. Ruth and Marcella hold hands, look at one another. Every time he staples, Marcella’s eyes startle closed, in shock or in torment. She cries silently, and the only sound in the room is that of the gun.
When it’s over and the doctor leaves the room, Marcella begins to cry freely and Ruth squeezes her hand and gives her tissues. She stops herself from hugging and kissing her, which is what she wants to do. “You did great, Marcella,” she says instead. “You are so strong.”
On the cab ride home Ruth sits like a zombie in the backseat. The sun is rising over the city’s skyline. Her cab driver has the radio on and a morning show host is going on and on about what he ate for breakfast. Shut the fuck up, she thinks. I don’t give a fuck what you ate for breakfast. I hope you fucking choke on your Cinnamon Toast Crunch, you fucking dipshit.
“How’s your morning?” the driver asks.
“Fine.” She glances at him in the rearview mirror. “Yours?”
“I’ve been working since 2 AM. You’re my last passenger.”
Ruth closes her eyes. “Same.”
The psychiatrist is an hour and a half late. Ruth has been writing in a coffee shop, waiting for him, when she gets his text: “I’m so sorry, Ruth. I fell asleep. I’m on my way.” While she continues to wait, she imagines a life with the psychiatrist: telling him her observations of people, listening to his. There are endless people to observe, endless stories to tell. To have somebody who wants to listen, indefinitely . . . it almost brings Ruth to tears.
One time a friend of Ruth’s told Ruth that she was the most romantic person she knew. The friend didn’t mean it as an insult, but the comment sickened her. Was she that transparent?
When he finally arrives, the psychiatrist bends down to hug her, and the embrace, because they are not in a bed, where they have spent the majority of their time, feels different—colder and more formal. He doesn’t apologize for being late in person.
They walk through Harvard Yard toward the library where they have planned to do work together, past old, brick buildings and gigantic trees. The psychiatrist isn’t wearing his sheepskin coat today, but a long, black one that Ruth prefers.
“I like your coat,” she says.
“Thank you,” he says. “I like it, too.”
She feels as if she’s walking with a stranger.
They sit in the library together, in a beautiful room with cathedral ceilings and long wooden tables, for only twenty minutes before the library closes.
“Sorry about that,” he says, as they walk back out into the early evening.
“That’s OK,” she says.
“It’s all for the better, actually,” he says. “I realized I forgot my computer charger at home. Would you mind if we went back to my apartment to get it?”
“Not at all,” she says.
They walk in silence toward the psychiatrist’s apartment and Ruth tries to think of things to say, but nothing comes to mind. She feels shy around him. No, she decides; she feels blank. This blankness, Ruth knows it well. The women she works with talk about it, too. They have different names for it, though. “I choke over my own spit around him,” someone said to her once. “I turn mute.”
Glancing up at him, she’s overcome with a longing to be close. She wonders if they might have sex when they get back to his apartment.
He glances at her, sensing her looking at him.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks.
“The article I was reading earlier,” he says.
She nods, hurt.
Back at his apartment, she sits on his bed as he fusses around, pulling things off the shelves. He’s talking at her, about a number of things—his patient notes, his supervisor whom he despises, Israel—nothing, Ruth realizes, that she cares about. But she nods along, and tries to pay attention. At a certain point she lies down on the bed and unzips her coat, allows her shirt to ride up. For a minute, it works. He sits down on the bed, puts a hand on her stomach, but as soon as he’s there, he’s not—up again, pacing the room, monologuing.
“Ruth,” he says at one point, and it embarrasses her, how wonderful it feels to hear him say her name.
“Yes?” she asks, sitting up.
“I’d like to ask you something.”
“Before I get started on patient notes, sometimes I like to smoke. Would you mind?”
“Can I smoke with you?” she asks.
He shrugs. “If you’d like.”
Together they go out to his balcony. The psychiatrist lights a joint and takes two hits before passing it to her.
She is hoping the marijuana might jostle her out of her blankness, but after a hit, she only burrows further into herself, while the psychiatrist talks to her about physics. She can’t remember how they came upon this subject of conversation—not that what they’re having is a conversation. It’s only him talking.
The psychiatrist in her mind—the one she has fantasized endlessly about since they met—and the one she is sitting with feel like two distinct men, and she doesn’t know how to mesh the two together. She passes the joint back to the psychiatrist, who takes a few more puffs. He does not offer it to her a second time.
Inside the psychiatrist sits in his armchair and opens up his laptop and his face goes gray-blue in the computer’s light. Ruth sits across from him on the sofa and takes her computer out of her backpack but does not open it.
“If I ordered a pizza would you have some?” he asks without looking at her.
She’s not in the mood for pizza but she says OK, and he disappears into his phone, typing in an order.
She wonders what she is doing here—what purpose she is serving his evening. It is clear to her in that moment that the psychiatrist is not kind; that he could care less about her. It’s a painful realization. She can feel it, a throbbing high in her chest. What other people experience as anger, Ruth just feels as a dull throbbing sensation. She wants to curl into a ball and close her eyes and erase the entire day.
“Hey,” she says.
He looks up.
“I feel strange.” Her heart is beating violently in her chest. That’s different, she thinks. That violence.
“I guess I feel.” She swallows. “I feel disconnected from you.”
He stares at her. He doesn’t say anything.
“It’s weird, you know?” she goes on. “We fell into things so quickly. In some ways I am comfortable with you and in some ways I don’t feel comfortable at all. I’m still trying to figure out how much to let my guard down around you.”
He closes his eyes for a solid minute before opening them. “I think I understand,” he says, though he is barely meeting her eye.
The buzzer rings then; the pizza. The psychiatrist glances at her in agony.
“You should get that,” she says.
He eats half the pizza in silence, chewing morosely while staring at a specific spot at the far wall of his living room. He does not look at Ruth once.
“What are you feeling?” she asks, after he’s finished his fourth slice.
The psychiatrist wipes his mouth with his hand and finally looks at her. “I’m feeling a lot of anxiety.”
This surprises her. “Come here.” She pats the couch next to her.
He moves over to the couch. “Did I do something wrong?” he asks. “Have I made you uncomfortable?”
“No,” she says, something softening in her, and she touches his arm. “I was sensing a coldness from you. I told you I was feeling disconnected because I want to feel connected to you.”
“I wasn’t aware of any coldness I was giving off,” he says, his voice hard again. “I don’t understand why you would you feel this way, Ruth. It seems like it’s coming out of nowhere. When did this start?”
“All evening, I guess—”
“Look, I like you, that’s why I’m—”
“Ruth, this is making me really uncomfortable.”
A stern expression clouds his face. “I don’t like not being able to predict my partner’s emotions. And sudden shifts like this—anger that comes out of nowhere—”
“Do you think I seem angry?”
“No, I’m not saying that.”
“Would it be bad if I was?”
He shakes his head, as if the question is irrelevant. “Ruth, it seems like you wanted something from me tonight that I am not able to give you. Frankly, something that I don’t want to give you.” He looks at her with unemotional eyes. “Maybe if we were dating for six months. But I barely know you.”
Heat rushes to her face, as if he’s slapped her. She nods. “You might be right,” she says. “Maybe I did want something from you.”
Ruth rises at 9; makes coffee and toast, takes a shower, and waits for the psychiatrist to wake up, but he sleeps through the entire morning.
“Should I go?” she asks, crawling back into bed around noon.
He groans and pulls her close, doesn’t say anything.
“Are you OK?” Ruth asks.
“You ever just want to sleep the whole day?” he says into her hair.
“Yes,” she says. “When I’m depressed.”
“I wonder if there’s any leftover pizza.”
“There is,” Ruth says. “You want some?”
“No,” he says. “I’m going to try to sleep more. Do you want to sleep with me, Ruth?”
“No,” Ruth says. “I should go home. See you later?”
He nods and kisses her goodbye, without opening his eyes.
Ruth stops hearing from him after that. At first his texts become sporadic and colder, and then an entire week goes by and she doesn’t hear a single word from him. Every day that passes without communication, Ruth grows more depressed. When she finally reaches out to him, his response is so brutal she can barely breathe. Ruth tries with everything she has not to be heartbroken over him. Friends tell her she has dodged a bullet. Her sister googles personality disorders and shows Ruth the warning signs. Her therapist asks her why she would want to be with a man who makes her feel like shit.
She doesn’t tell anyone how badly she really feels. The truth is she feels very, very badly. She cries in the backseats of cabs, in the grocery store, in her apartment for hours. She thinks of him constantly.
She goes on a date to try to distract herself. The man asks her what she likes to do for fun and what she thinks is going to happen at the end of Game of Thrones. Ruth can’t answer either of his questions and thinks there is probably something wrong with her.
Marcella has obtained a restraining order against Andrew and is pressing charges.
“It’s not this that I think about at night,” Marcella says, gesturing to her face, which is still bruised and stitched from that night. “It’s the shit Andrew said to me. It plays in my head, over and over.”
“What kind of effect did it have on you?” Ruth asks. “The things that he said?”
“He made me feel like so fucking ugly, Ruthie. When you walk around being told over and over again that you’re human trash, you start to believe it. I mean, I am beginning to build my self-esteem again.” Marcella flutters her eyelids where she’s smeared blue glitter eye shadow. “See?”
Ruth nods, heartbroken. She wishes she could tell Marcella how ugly she feels, too. Instead she says, “You’re gorgeous, Marcella.”
Then, three weeks later, he calls. “I miss you,” he says. It feels impossible. For about twelve seconds she considers saying no. But there’s something in her—and whether that something is romantic or fucked-up or angry or lonely—or some sick combination—it propels her toward him. It’s magnetic and powerful, this impulse to return. It’s wild. It’s simply out of her control, she tells herself.
When the psychiatrist opens the door he looks at her with so much tenderness that the cold man from that night vanishes. He opens his arms to her and the relief she feels when they embrace is instantaneous.
“Ruth,” he says, kissing the top of her head.
She looks up at him.
He shakes his head, and like her, he seems to be moved by their reconciliation. “You’re so sweet.”
While they are having sex, he stops abruptly and pushes her head down between his legs. “I couldn’t stop thinking about my cock in your mouth,” he says. And a thought flashes through Ruth’s mind: that he’s gotten back together with her for this blowjob. She lifts her head and looks at him. His face is taut, expectant. There is something extremely sexual about his expression and she imagines this is what his face must look like while he watches porn. She realizes that she doesn’t want to put his penis in her mouth. She wants to stop. She’s aware, though, that if she stops, if she speaks her concerns aloud, he will feel rejected. They will break up again. She drops her head and finishes, tears teasing her eyes, dancing along her sinuses.
He falls asleep immediately afterward. Ruth brushes her teeth and washes her face in his bathroom. She wonders if the psychiatrist is aware of his manipulations, in the same way she is aware of being manipulated. If so, they are a perfect match. She takes a container of floss from his medicine cabinet and pulls the floss out, slowly and continuously, until there is none left. Then she buries the handful of unused floss in the trashcan and puts the empty green canister back in the cabinet.
She climbs into bed beside him but he is dead asleep and does not curl his arm around her.
Ruth is just drifting off when the sound of the hotline ringtone startles her awake, piercing and obscene. “Sorry,” she whispers to the psychiatrist, who moans in annoyance. She jumps out of bed and stumbles across the unfamiliar terrain of his bedroom floor to find the phone. Grabbing her entire purse, she runs out of his bedroom and answers just in time.
It’s Marcella. “Is everything OK?” Ruth asks.
“I was hoping it was going to be you on tonight.”
“It’s 1 in the morning,” Ruth says, slightly irritated. “Are you OK? Did something happen?”
“Shit. I shouldn’t have called.”
“No, it’s fine,” Ruth says, walking into the darkened living room. “What’s going on?”
“I miss him. Is that pathetic?”
“No.” Ruth sits on the couch, leans back. “God, no.”
“I think about him all the time.” Marcella’s voice is low and flat. “How sick is that?”
“You loved him,” Ruth says.
“No I didn’t,” Marcella spits back, suddenly harsh. “I obsessed over him. I depended on him. I had good sex with him. I didn’t fucking love him though. And God knows he didn’t love me.”
Ruth stays silent.
“I was about to call him. I was about to ask him to come over. But I called you instead.”
“Really?” Ruth’s throat tightens.
Ruth stands up, shaking. The dull throbbing sensation is no longer dull. It’s bright and hard—painfully, fantastically sharp. It would be crazy—impossible almost—not to act on it. She walks to the psychiatrist’s front door, her purse over her shoulder, gripping the phone to her ear. She slips her shoes on. Her jacket is still in his room, but it’s an old jacket, one she doesn’t care about. She won’t miss it.
“Ruthie, are you okay?” Marcella asks.
“Yeah,” Ruth says, but she has started to cry, and Marcella can hear it. She makes her way down the stairs of the psychiatrist’s building, sniffing, doing everything she can to hold it together.
“Oh, honey.” Marcella’s voice is as soft and warm as velvet, ready to wrap Ruth up.
Ruth bursts out the front door of the apartment building into the night. There is nobody on the street and it’s freezing without her jacket. She moves the earpiece of the phone away from her mouth and takes several deep, ragged breaths. Breathing in that air is like jumping into a body of cold water. She feels alive and alone and like every inch of her is awake after a long, numbing sleep. She moves the phone back. Marcella is still there, waiting.
“Let’s just stay on the phone for a little while,” Ruth says. And then she begins to walk.