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Vol. 2, No. 3

Hats
by Hilary Jerrill Steinitz

~

But I did begin to imagine it. Can you imagine that someone . . . can you imagine that I. . . ? On the day I became eligible for unemployment, I took this broken sentence home with me and held it in my lap as I drank my tea. I took home, too, Dr. Trillingbaum's soft staring eyes, his soft voice, his leather armchair, which held his soft, expansive body. In his office I was barely able to look at him, but now, at home, I could see him clearly. I could see him gazing at me with his concern.
      I began to wear silver bracelets, a French-blue scarf.
      I saw the HELP WANTED sign in Lilia's just as my unemployment checks were starting to run out. I saw blond wood floors and purple tulips and bright hats hanging from the racks like fruit.
      As I began selling and buying and thinking of hats, Dr. Trillingbaum continued to watch me. He watched me and told me of the exquisite tension between my pleasure in being seen and my impulse to destroy the affections of anyone who might sit still long enough to see me. He told me I was doing the right thing by sitting in the blue armchair and letting him see me.
      For a long time nothing about me had felt terribly right or exquisite. I began now to imagine that I was rehearsing with Dr. Trillingbaum for that moment when someone would come along and see me. He would sit and I would sit and he would think me exquisite.
      In the meantime, I imagined Dr. Trillingbaum coming into the shop, catching me in a certain violet cloche with embroidered white violets or a mint-green flat hat with a silk rose pinned to the brim. But he never did come into the shop, of course, and I could never manage to wear something so uselessly pretty to his office.
      

 

~

By the time of my third picnic with Jacob, I considered that perhaps he was the man for whom I had been rehearsing. He was not planning a trip to some dusty land. He was the sort of man who said, "When can I see you again?" The question made me feel a bit ill, but I chalked this up to the fact that I was ill. My cold hadn't gotten much better, and I was beginning to believe it wasn't going to. In a way, I had grown attached to it. It blurred angles and softened colors. I began taking a really wonderful cold medicine that had me selling hats quite vigorously.
      My cold also prohibited all serious touching between me and Jacob. The one time he commenced undressing me, I was suddenly racked by coughs; he kissed me between the shoulder blades and then buttoned me up again. "Till you're better," he said. He was the sort of man who was respectful of a cold. I didn't argue; after all, I couldn't even kiss him for very long without needing to come up for air.
      For all my illness, I did want to see Jacob; my sense of urgency to see him took me by surprise. When I wasn't with him, I thought of his eyes and his strawberries. When we were together, I couldn't manage to meet his eyes nor to eat many strawberries. I was able, however, to ask him questions about being a therapist.
      I asked him what made him wish to be a therapist, whether he had always known he wanted to be a therapist, if he looked forward to seeing his patients.
      "Well, sure," he said.
      I liked this answer very much and wished to hear more, but Jacob was more interested in hearing about me: how did I become interested in hats, how often did I take walks along the halls of higher learning, what was my favorite color?
      "Cranberry," I said, and asked him if he ever thought about his patients when they weren't around.
      "Sometimes," he said. "Sure." He bit into an apple.
      "But do you ever imagine them going about the business of their lives, riding the subway or buying toothpaste or going to the movies? Do you ever imagine what they'll look like riding that subway, how that subway ride would be different, after you've gone?"
      "Gone?"
      "I mean, after they've stopped seeing you?"
      He looked at me, chewing his apple.
      "Do you ever, for instance, when you're on a picnic . . . do you ever imagine your patients going on picnics and what it must be like for them and, you know, what hats they wear or whatever, and how that same picnic would be for them once they stopped seeing you?"
      He raised his eyebrows. "That's not exactly what's on my mind right now." He removed a stray strawberry stem from my hair and presented it to me with a flourish, as though performing a magic trick.
      

 

~

I didn't wish to tell Jacob about Dr. Trillingbaum. I didn't wish to talk about him at all anymore.
      But Dr. Trillingbaum had set up permanent residence in my imagination. He competed with Jacob for my attention, though in truth it wasn't much of a competition. For if sometimes I imagined Jacob watching me, I imagined, too, Dr. Trillingbaum watching him watch me. He was my constant supervisor, my constant confidant. And the more he settled in, setting up plants and prints and pillows in the space I'd created for him, analyzing and nodding and imagining, the less inclined I felt to let him out into the open air. Maggie saw no need to ask me again if I needed a referral for a new therapist; she thought me suitably cheerful, if sniffly. Jacob thought me scatterbrained: an innocent, charming term, suggesting perhaps a mind divided between Tuesday's inventory and Wednesday's summer window display. Dr. Trillingbaum alone understood the real state of affairs.
      I was conferring with Dr. Trillingbaum in my bedroom the evening Jacob showed up at my door with daffodils. It wasn't my birthday; it was an ordinary Thursday; the sun was setting quite ordinarily. But he arrived at my door with bouquets of cut daffodils and potted daffodils and daffodil bulbs and sweat on his forehead.
      I ran out of vases, so we arranged the flowers in old coffee cans. I ran out of elevated surfaces, so we lined up the bouquets in the middle of my living room floor.
      He asked if I had had dinner, but by the time we were done arranging daffodils I wanted only to sit on the couch and stare. All over the room yellow burst, ruffled, and fluted from glass and tin.
      "It's like the movies," I said.
      "What is?" Jacob asked.
      But, in fact, I didn't know what I meant. I couldn't think of a movie full of daffodils in coffee cans, nor one where a man delivered huge amounts of flowers by hand. But I couldn't believe that my life or my living room could contain all those daffodils.
      I wanted to tell Jacob how beautiful they were, but I couldn't think of anything that wasn't corny or clichéd, and so I said, "Dr. Trillingbaum had flowers in his office."
      I wanted to take it back, of course. I hoped that perhaps Jacob hadn't heard.
      But he had turned from the daffodils and was looking right at me. "Who's Dr. Trillingbaum?" he asked.
      "My therapist," I said, and the words carried unexpected music.
      "Oh?"
      "Well, my former therapist," I said, to hear myself say my, to hear myself say therapist, to hear myself describe what he was to me.
      "Oh . . ." Jacob sized this information up.
      I thought perhaps this was a good opportunity for me to change the subject or to put on some tea, but I found I really wanted to sit on the couch and talk about Dr. Trillingbaum's flowers.
      "There was a squat vase in the waiting room with different flowers every week. He shared an office with three other therapists--women. I don't know who was responsible for the flowers. I asked him once, but he just said, `What's your question about?'"
      Jacob and I stared at each other. I didn't think this was a line of conversation I should be pursuing before so bounteous a gift of daffodils, but I wanted to finish my story. "He smiled when he said that," I said. "As though he knew something about me. I said I just thought it was nice that he had flowers, and he gave me this look that said I was full of shit. He thought there was something more to my question."
      "Well, was there more?" Jacob asked after a pause, and I said, "Dr. Trillingbaum was always asking if there was more. `Say more,' he always said."
      "I see," Jacob said thoughtfully, and I thought that Dr. Trillingbaum would never say I see like that, when it was clear he did not see. When he did not see, Dr. Trillingbaum just looked at me for a long time, waiting to hear what I would say next.
      What I said next was, "He's dead now."
      "What?" Jacob said, apparently caught off guard in a way Dr. Trillingbaum, for his part, seldom was.
      "Dr. Trillingbaum is dead."
      My words sounded so odd to me, He's dead now, Dr. Trillingbaum is dead, so distant and dramatic, as though I were speaking of something I saw in a television movie. My therapist is dead, I thought, and I thought, I am starring in this movie.
      "That's really terrible," said Jacob. "How . . . that's really terrible."
      "Pneumonia," I said. "It advanced very quickly."
      I listened as I told Jacob more: that Dr. Trillingbaum died just before I was to see him, that I received a call from a woman I didn't then and still didn't know on the very day of our appointment, that I had been getting ready to go out the door. (The latter wasn't true exactly, but it seemed a natural thing to add.)
      I was sniffling and hoarse on account of my cold; Jacob seemed to think that I was choked with tears. He held my hand and said all manner of kind, correct things: he was so sorry, why hadn't I said anything before, was there anything he could do?
      I had seen men this attentive in the movies. I understood from movies that my response should involve weeping on his shoulder and melting into his arms and letting him hold my hand. For many moments, I did let him hold my hand; I did melt; I sniffled though I did not quite weep. I had never managed to weep in front of Dr. Trillingbaum and he had never held my hand or stroked my hair as Jacob was then doing.
      

 

~

Now that he had revealed himself, Dr. Trillingbaum began to show up everywhere. He accompanied us on outings throughout June. In the Indian wing at the Met, we passed a small stone Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and I told Jacob that Dr. Trillingbaum had a lamp with a base shaped like an elephant in his waiting room. We went to a Persian restaurant in Tribeca and I said that Dr. Trillingbaum had a rug in his office just like the rug we walked upon, though in fact Dr. Trillingbaum's rug had been blue and not red.
      "It's a nice rug," said Jacob. And he would squeeze my hand.
      I let him squeeze my hand, though more and more I was feeling that holding his hand was false. I felt that I was being cruel to him, mentioning Dr. Trillingbaum's elephant lamp and his rug, but I told myself that that was ridiculous: no one had ever pronounced it cruel to speak to your boyfriend of your former, dead therapist.
      In any event, I felt I had to mention Dr. Trillingbaum at every turn. I could not bear my recognition of Dr. Trillingbaum in the elephant and the rug in silence. Indeed, as we passed Ganesh, as we stepped on the rug, I felt a pressure in my head that I didn't think had much to do with my cold. I needed to hear myself say his name--Trillingbaum, such a light, lovely name--and I needed to speak of rugs and I needed to hear Jacob say the rug was nice.

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