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Vol. 2, No. 3

Hats
by Hilary Jerrill Steinitz

Three months after I became a milliner and three weeks before I met Jacob and barely three hours before I was to meet Dr. Trillingbaum for our regular Thursday appointment, I received word that he, Dr. Trillingbaum, was dead. The call came on a soggy March morning. I had Lilia's all to myself. I was listening to the sound of cars whisking along the wet street and turning a bowler round and round my head as I decided whether I liked the look of myself in cranberry. It was a bold color, but I thought I could pull it off. I picked up the phone so adorned.
      "I'm sorry," said the woman. She hadn't specified whether she was a secretary or a doctor or a wife. She had said she was calling for Nathan Trillingbaum.
      "Pneumonia," she said. "It advanced very quickly."
      I might have told her that I had seen Dr. Trillingbaum last week and that people didn't contract and die of pneumonia all in one week, if not for the chance that she was a doctor and could tell me otherwise.
      "You'll want to speak with another psychologist," she said. "I have some names, people who would be willing to see you."
      She was in the midst of giving me the second name, a Margot Kotkin, Ph.D., on 76th Street off Central Park West, when I said, "I am resentful," as Dr. Trillingbaum had taught me to.
      The woman was silent for a moment. "This is a terrible shock, I know," she said. "You'll want to speak about it with a new therapist."
      "I was supposed to see him a couple of hours from now," I said.
      "I know it's a terrible shock," the woman said again. "Have you got Dr. Kotkin's number?"
      I wanted to tell her that Dr. Trillingbaum had never canceled any appointments, that when he took his vacation last August, we had spent the whole of June and July discussing how I would handle our separation. But suddenly I was very tired. "I don't have a pen," I said, and I hadn't.
      Again she was silent. "Oh. Would you like me to wait while you find one?"
      "Um," I said. I couldn't remember where I'd put my pen.
      She was silent a moment more. "Well, perhaps you'd like to call me back."
      "Okay," I said. I hung up, having no pen to take down her number.
      

 

~

"Geez, Isabella," Maggie said when I told her. Maggie was my manager. Every day she breezed in and out of the shop. She was more the kind of milliner who made hats than the kind who sold them. (I was the kind who sold them.) She was also, as it happened, one of the few people in my life at that time who was in therapy. "So what will you do?" she said.
      "I don't know," I said. I hadn't expected such a practical question. I had, since hanging up the phone, found sustenance in my longing for that moment when Maggie would return to the shop and I would tell her the news. News was how I thought of it as I sat waiting for her on the stool, setting the last of the winter hats in boxes. News--something glittery and remarkable for us to gape at, for me to weep over. But now that she was here and I had told her and she had gaped, I felt dull and flat, altogether let down by the promises of the moment.
      "When is the funeral?" she asked.
      "I don't know," I said. "I wasn't asked to the funeral."
      "Oh," she said. She began picking fluff from a blue beret.
      "I don't want to go to the funeral anyway," I said. "It would be too weird to see his family."
      For it had been my job to speak and his to listen and to ask questions and to tell me about myself; he never spoke about himself, about his family. A good thing--I became jealous whenever I thought about his family.
      "Right," said Maggie.
      "You don't think so?" I asked.
      "I don't think what?"
      "That it would be weird to see his family?"
      "Well, I guess," she said. "But maybe it would be good to talk to his other patients."
      "You think they'd be invited to the funeral and not me?"
      "Well, no. Probably not."
      "Why would they be invited and not me?"
      "You're right. They wouldn't."
      "Besides, I don't want to talk to his other patients. What if they start talking about, you know, their therapy with him and I learn something I don't want to?"
      "You mean about the patient or about Dr. Trillingbaum?"
      "Both," I said. "What if I learn, I don't know, what if they say something that shows how close they were to him or something?"
      Maggie gave me a pained look. "Listen. Do you need a new therapist? I can get a referral for you."
      "I wasn't asked to the funeral anyway," I said.
      

 

~

As I waited that day to tell Maggie my news, I had imagined her offering me the week off, or the month, but she didn't, and now the very idea seemed silly to me: I wasn't even crying, I had no funeral to go to, I needed no time to bake a cake or buy flowers.
      By the next morning, however, I had caught a cold.
      My cold rose up from my throat and hung heavily in my head, blocking off my nose, my ears, my eyes.
      The cold hung there for weeks. For weeks, I sat on a stool at Lilia's and told myself a story: shortly after I left him for what turned out to be the last time, Dr. Trillingbaum's throat began to close, his eyes to cloud. I could feel his head filling up with fluid, the trickle of fluid into his chest. He died.
      He died before he realized, before he could tell me, that he was dying and that he would not be able to see me that week and that he would miss me.
      But always the story failed me. By the afternoon my head would begin to throb and I would realize that Dr. Trillingbaum was not watching me and that I had nowhere to go and that my life was exactly what it was and that the cold was not seeping gracefully or tragically down to my chest and lungs and wrapping itself about my heart. And I realized that my hair hung limp from my head and that my lips were split and cracked and that I was ugly. And I hated the shop and the hats and the passersby who weren't looking in.
      In the third week of my cold, Maggie walked in just as the story was failing me. She took one look at me and sent me home.
      "You look terrible," she said.
      "I don't look that terrible," I said.
      "No offense," she said, "but you need to go home."
      I wanted to tell her that soon the story I told myself would start all over, for I could not tolerate its failure for long, and that my cold would be better, at least a little better, once the story righted itself and Dr. Trillingbaum was again thinking how much he would miss me, and that I could not go home to my sink that needed scrubbing. But I was afraid that if I argued Maggie would tell me again that I looked terrible. I left.
      I walked to the university, where before becoming a milliner I had taken a copy-editing class courtesy of my then-workplace.
      I imagined entering the cold, blank wing where I had once listened to a lecture on the proper use of the semicolon as entering a nice, dull sleep, but the lights were humming and bright, and the state of my life shone with astonishing clarity. I turned around and left.
      I entered the Sciences building, anticipating a soothing, alien clutter--test tubes and strange smoky potions. But instead there were classrooms with blackboards and round tables and there were offices with desks and piles of paper and some psychology journals and I was in the Psychology wing and I had to blow my nose.
      I walked into one of the offices to get a tissue; a box was sitting conveniently on the table near the door. I would have just grabbed one and left, but a man was looking at me. He had round woody eyes. He had black curly hair. He was Jacob, though I didn't know it at the time.
      I asked if I could please have a tissue.
      "Of course," he said. "Are you all right?"
      I thought that was a pretty strange question. I wasn't crying or anything. "I just need a tissue," I said, and I grabbed a tissue and blew my nose right there. I didn't know why. Usually, I disliked blowing my nose in front of people and could never understand how people went ahead and did so out in public, practically in the middle of a sentence. But I stood in the doorway blowing my nose and watching the man's round woody eyes as he watched me.
      He reached into a bag and pulled out a bottle. "Vitamin C," he said.
      I stared at it. "You carry it around with you?"
      "Just in case," he said. "You never know."
      

 

~

Jacob took me on picnics.
      "This is a risk," he said on our first picnic as he spread for the first time a blanket across lumpy ground.
      I thought he meant because it might rain or because I seemed liable to cough all over the food, but as I covered my mouth to protect the blanket from my germs he explained that normally he didn't ask women to sit on the ground, not on the first date anyway; normally he took women to restaurants where waiters wore their hair parted firmly on the side.
      Date, I thought. I did not often believe that what I was on was a date until such a word as date was uttered. And first date, as though he expected there to be another.
      "I hope you don't mind the ground," Jacob said, removing strawberries from a duffel bag.
      "It's okay," I said. "It's fine. I like ground."
      But I stood for a long time, watching the picnic blanket grow bright and busy with fruit and bread. At the thought of this date, this first date, I felt an opening in my chest. I was happy, or something like happy--at least I was not dreadfully unhappy. I became happy about the yellow cheese and the leafy apples and the rough round bread Jacob removed from his duffel bag. I became happy about the magnolia tree that was shedding prettily over our picnic and about the straw hat I wore and about the shadow, a perfect circle, it cast over a single petal that had fallen on the blanket. I became happy about the fact that Jacob was studying to be a psychologist and the fact that his program had assigned him three patients and the fact that I was on a first date with a man who sat in a chair and looked at people and saw them.
      I stood for a long time, feeling happy, thinking that the picnic looked beautiful from where I stood watching it, imagining that Dr. Trillingbaum was standing right behind me, seeing the blanket and the magnolia petals and the straw hat.
      

 

~

I had started seeing Dr. Trillingbaum a year and a half before on account of Dennis, the typesetter who worked in the office where I edited teenage romance novels. Dennis had spent ten months sending me furtive glances and formatting my manuscripts with remarkable alacrity and delicate leafy designs. His clumsy attentions embarrassed me and amused me and enraged me whenever I met a man who was more my type: a man too involved with his own exciting plans for steady gazing or furtive glances, a man with light wiry limbs and a forward-tilting gait, a man who was always on the verge of traveling to someplace hot and dusty and foreign.
      This was my type, at least, until Dennis grew tired of my embarrassment and amusement and rage and fell in love with a young lady named Katie, who had a pretty collarbone and who taught him the Viennese waltz at the company summer picnic. At this point Dennis became adorable and a charming dancer and I clumsy, pitiful, quite stalky next to Katie, and exposed for all my arrogance.
      Dr. Trillingbaum stared at me the entire time I spoke of Dennis's glances and Katie's collarbone and my arrogance, and I imagined that he thought me pitiful indeed. I thought he was too repelled to speak. His low, calm voice came as a surprise.
      "What I'm hearing isn't arrogance but shame. It seems to me you didn't think you were worthy of Dennis's attentions. You enjoyed his regard and at the same time, for some reason, you were afraid of it. You want to be seen and you're ashamed to be seen."
      "I should be ashamed," I said. "I was a haughty nightmare."
      In the months Dennis watched me, I wore flitty dresses, floral scarves. Once he began to waltz with Katie, these clothes seemed fussy, embarrassingly showy. To Dr. Trillingbaum's office I wore parchment-gray stretched-out sweaters that fell loose over my hips. I forbade myself earrings or lipstick.
      Meanwhile, the stories of teenage romance it was my job to edit were causing me unbearable envy. The thought of seeing the manuscripts typeset afflicted me with paralyzing dread. I was fired for tardiness and sloppiness, the fruits of my dread and envy.
      My employers were as generous as they could be under the circumstances, reporting to the unemployment office that I had been "laid off." I was eligible to collect unemployment for six months.
      The day I became eligible, Dr. Trillingbaum's gaze clamped down around any freedom I might have felt in being laid off. Beneath his gaze, I realized that I was not laid off but fired, and this realization shrank my voice to sand and made Dr. Trillingbaum lean far forward in order to hear me and made me aware of how ugly I, a woman dressed in parchment gray, rejected by men and employers, must have appeared to him.
      "Please," I said, "stop staring at me."
      Dr. Trillingbaum stared at me in silence a moment longer before saying, "What do you imagine I'm seeing, staring at you?"
      I didn't want to dwell on my rejection by men and employers, and so I said, "This sweater. You're thinking I shouldn't have left the house in this color."
      Dr. Trillingbaum stared at me in my parchment-gray sweater. "The shame again." His voice seeped out with assaulting softness. "Can you imagine that someone . . . can you imagine that I am looking at you not out of disgust or disapproval but, say, concern?"
      "No," I said.

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