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Vol. 2, No. 3

Hats
by Hilary Jerrill Steinitz

~

Toward the end of June, I received an invitation to Jacob's sister's play, an off-off Broadway production of Hamlet.
      The invitation came from Jacob's sister herself. I understood what this meant: it meant that I existed for her, which meant that I existed for Jacob, and it meant that he wished his sister to exist for me, which meant that he wished to exist for me himself.
      I felt overwhelmed, but flattered.
      I had planned to meet Jacob at the theater, but just as I was locking up the shop before I counted the day's sales, he appeared at the door.
      He had come to surprise me, but as he walked about the shop, it was he who seemed startled. He had never been inside Lilia's before. I had just set out a new summer display. He touched brims and bands and sprigs of wheat, as though fabric and ornament were faintly telling him the secrets of hats.
      He looked funny and large and lovely standing in the forest of summer straws, and I felt all at once exceedingly congested. I thought of how Dr. Trillingbaum, who had been shorter and squatter, whose hair had been spare and gray and whose skin had been ruddier, had never seen the shop. And I thought of how I had meant to wear a hat for him one day, and of how I hadn't, having been embarrassed to dress up for him so blatantly.
      Thinking these things, I got into a coughing fit. Jacob strode through the forest of hats and began to pat my back.
      "That doesn't help," I said.
      I believed I meant that a pat on the back hadn't been medically proven to help a cough, but I was shaking my head more vigorously than the cough required and I was pulling away from him and Jacob was no longer trying to touch me.
      He waited for me to finish coughing before he said, "You should really do something about that cold."
      There could be no mistake: the cold was not then endearing to him.
      "Do something," I repeated. "What do you expect me to do?"
      "You've been sick for a while," Jacob said evenly. "Don't you want to get better?" It was just barely a question.
      "It's not a matter of what I want," I said. "I'm not going to get better."
      "I see," said Jacob.
      "That is absolute bullshit," I said, and I said, "Dr. Trillingbaum would never say that. He would never say that when he didn't see."
      Jacob's face was still. "I understand that you've suffered a trauma. I believe I've made it clear that I understand that. However, I don't understand why it's necessary to mention Dr. Trillingbaum practically every time I touch you."
      "Well, then you don't understand anything," I said. And because this didn't seem forceful enough, I added, "You're a terrible therapist."
      "I'm not your therapist," Jacob said quietly.
      "You're a terrible therapist," I repeated, and repeated a few more times before I realized that insulting him was giving me no pleasure, that nothing could give me pleasure--not hats, nor daffodils, nor tickets, nor his gaze. "I'm sorry," I said. "Don't listen to me. I'm sorry."
      This he must have mistaken for true regret, or kindness, or even love, for he said, "Don't worry. It's all right. You're upset," and tried to hold me.
      "No," I said. "I'm sorry. I have to go home. I'm sorry."
      

 

~

On the way home Dr. Trillingbaum told me that here was a man who wanted to see me and I was destroying his affections and I told Dr. Trillingbaum, Fuck you.
      I told him fuck you for watching me, for saying exquisite, for dying before seeing me in the cranberry bowler. I told him fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
      

 

~

I had never been someone who was flashy in her destructiveness. I had never in a fit of rage or passion cut off my hair or ripped frail curtains and clothes. I had never thrown lamps or overturned plants or run a nail down the bedroom wall.
      Unskilled in such acts of violence to my hair and my walls, I made phone calls.
      I called Maggie at home and hung up on her machine. I called the shop and left a message. "Hi. It's Isabella. I'm not coming in tomorrow. I'm sick. I'll let you know when I'm better." I called her home machine again and left the same message.
      I called Dr. Trillingbaum's machine, but the number had been changed. I called the new number, and a woman's voice came on the machine, a Dr. Elizabeth O'Connor. I could not say for certain whether she was the same woman who had informed me of Dr. Trillingbaum's death, but her voice sounded close enough, and so I said, "Hello, this is Isabella Friedman. I think I spoke to you in March. About Nathan Trillingbaum. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I don't want another fucking therapist. And that you could have at least told me about the funeral . . . If you weren't the one I spoke to . . . do you think you could pass this message along to her? Thanks."
      

 

~

I do not come from the sort of family that digs graves in the backyard for hamsters and goldfish. When our hamster Gretchen died she was disposed of in a plastic bag, the general sentiment being that at least now we wouldn't have to deal with her smelly cage.
      Of course, I had nothing of Dr. Trillingbaum's I could bury anyway. Unless I counted an old bill on his letterhead, with dates of service and the fee and, for insurance purposes, the diagnosis code, all in his handwriting along with his signature.
      Of course, I had no backyard. Not too many people in New York did. But the brownstones on my block had plots of dirt, and in some cases small gardens, by the front stoops. The plot of dirt in front of my building was covered mostly with gravel and weeds, but there was a spot in the sun that was bare and brown. I decided to go to work.
      The ground wasn't well suited to the planting of old psychotherapy bills. Though it was summer, the dirt was stiff and stubborn against the gardening shovel I had bought years before with the intention of repotting some ivy plants. By the time I'd made a dent, my neighbors were offering me water and beer.
      "It's about time someone's done something with this dirt," said my upstairs neighbor, watching me from the front steps. Colleen was her name--I knew from her mailbox. "What are you planting?"
      "Pansies," I said. When Colleen left I dashed to the florist around the corner. I bought two trays of black pansies. I sat them next to me on the ground as I dug. They watched me with their dark kitten faces.
      

 

~

In the week I took off from work and dug the grave and planted pansies, I received a note from Jacob.

        Dear Isabella,
          I keep picking up the phone to call you, but then I chicken out. I guess I'm worried that I'll sound like an idiot. So I've decided to sound like an idiot on paper.
          Are you okay? I want to talk about what happened. Or we don't have to talk about it, if you don't want. (Just like a therapist: I leave the ball in your court.) But I want to see you. (I was going to make some joke about not patting you on the back, but I thought that might be in bad taste and not that funny anyhow.) Please call or write.

    Yours,    

    Jacob    

    I was unprepared for such a note, and unprepared to be so cheered and touched. I composed in my head gracious and eloquent replies; I imagined a tender reunion. But when, my nails full of dirt, I sat down to write, I pictured Dr. Trillingbaum at his desk, writing out my bill, which now lay buried in the plot of dirt outside my building, the pansies sitting darkly above it. And I thought that Jacob didn't know me, and he didn't know that he didn't know me. I understand you've suffered a trauma, he had said, but he understood nothing, for I had not, then, been suffering much more than a cold; I had not, then, begun to hate Dr. Trillingbaum. And I thought that Dr. Trillingbaum would see how I had not suffered and how I had not hated and would have known that he had not known me. And I felt that my rightful place was there, by myself, by the dark garden I had dug, and that restaurants, and bright cut flowers, and company, and kissing were false.
      

        Dear Jacob, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Hope you are well.
      Isabella.

 

~

Though I went back to work after a week, my cold lasted for the better part of the summer. I blew my nose and sold hats and watered pansies and went to bed early. I began to think that this was a way of life. Then one morning I awoke to find the cold was gone.
      It had poured overnight. The maple tree by the curb had shed large green leaves over the pansies. I picked them off gingerly, afraid to see the damage, but beneath the leaves the pansies sat calm and shyly shining.
      The fruit man by Lilia's was selling small plums in a color I had never seen before, whitish with a haze of pink. When I asked for a pound, the man disappeared inside his truck and came out with a mass of white petals fluttering from a wild, curly root: a sapling that would grow into a plum tree if it were planted in the ground. I hadn't enough ground to grow a plum tree, of course, but I found the sight of the sapling so astonishing that I had to buy it along with the plums.
      At lunchtime I took the plums and the sapling to the park at Union Square. I wore a cinnamon straw hat with an upturned brim; I hadn't worn a hat outside the shop in some time. I found a space on a bench.
      Jacob was sitting on a bench across from me.
      He didn't see me. He was reading a newspaper. He was not eating. He had grown a beard.
      He finished his article and folded up the paper and stood up. I hadn't started on the plums, but I stood up, too.
      And Dr. Trillingbaum stood up with me.
      I hadn't really felt his presence on the bench, but now that I had stood he was certainly there, wheezing faintly, trying to sift air into his poor lungs.
      Jacob was walking through the crowd in the direction of the university. I felt thick and heavy; I could not possibly move forward; I could not leave Dr. Trillingbaum there at the bench. But as I sat down again, an unbearable sadness came over me. I thought of the cranberry bowler I had not worn to Dr. Trillingbaum's office and of the cinnamon straw I was wearing now and of Jacob's tissues and strawberries. I thought that indeed Jacob did not really know me, and that I didn't know him, and that nonetheless he had given me tissues and I had blown my nose right in front of him, and that perhaps that was, as Dr. Trillingbaum would say, significant. And I thought that I could do only so much for Dr. Trillingbaum by sitting with him on the bench. No--I could do nothing. Dr. Trillingbaum would not be pleased with me for sitting. He was a kind, tired man with difficult lungs; he could use a rest; he could watch me well enough from the bench.
      Jacob was nearing the edge of the park. I had to run to catch up with him.
      Perhaps he sensed someone following him, perhaps he heard the brush of plums against plastic, for he turned around before I caught up with him, before I said hello.
      He looked at me without expression.
      "Plums," I said. His eyes, meeting mine, frightened me out of all the usual salutations. I opened the bag so he could see.
      He looked at me for a moment longer, as though fearing I was playing some trick, before looking into the bag. "I see," he said. "I mean . . . yes."
      "Take one. Please."
      He took a plum and held it in his palm.
      "How are you?" I asked.
      "Fine," he said. "And you?"
      "Okay," I said.
      "You sound different," he said.
      "No cold," I said.
      We stared at each other as a wind came up and pushed a flock of pigeons up through the air and sent a rain of plum petals to the ground. He said, "I like your hat."
      "Thanks," I said. "I like your beard."
      "Thanks."
      I held up the sapling. "It grows a plum tree," I said.
      Jacob looked at the sapling and then parted his fingers to study his plum. "This came from that?" He pointed at the sapling.
      "Well, you have to plant it," I said. "Then it grows a tree. Then it grows plums."
      Jacob smiled. He bit into his plum. "Not bad," he said.
      Juice hung on his beard. The sight embarrassed me, as messes sometimes did. Perhaps it was some effect of the pink, the white, the beard, the teary plum petals, the crazy roots, that kept me looking at him, that made me, despite myself, bite into a plum and make a mess right in front of him as well.

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