The Broken Line, 46: Splitting in Two

(missed the last chapter? Go to 45: Meet the Family)

“I DON’T UNDERSTAND why my mother tried to kill my father.”

Dr. Rolfe paces the room, lithe as a cat. “A constructed reality can be very elaborate, with its own internal logic. In your mother’s case, she became convinced that your father was a demon.”

I process this information in light of my own hallucinations: the flower faces of my ancestors, the monster controlling the vines in the walls. The river of blood.

“Can a delusion be genetically inherited?”

Dr. Rolfe appears delighted by the question, pointing at the ceiling theatrically while he considers. “No. However, current theories hold that a genetic predisposition to mental illness can be triggered by environment. In your case, the delusions of a mentally ill mother could be a triggering factor, compounded by stress, trauma, drug use.”

Check, check, checkcheckcheck. I gaze morosely out the window at the oak tree. Its strong branches, laced with new, green leaves, give me a faint sense of hope, though for what, I can’t say.

Dr. Rolfe sits in the black chair by my bed and taps his pen on his notebook, still deep in thought. “A specific delusion might be suggested by a parent, but that would be an environmental cause, not a genetic one.” The erratic beat creates a counter-rhythm that makes it hard for me to process his words. “To put it another way, the ideas your mother planted took root.” Dr. Rolfe stops tapping and smiles.

I smile back gratefully, starved for human connection after so much time with only the feral nurse Wanda for company. “I guess the monster in the walls isn’t so different from my mother’s demon.”

Dr. Rolfe nods. “Good insight.”

“Can I see the pictures again?” Dr. Rolfe took the photos with him last night. Crazy Lacy can’t be trusted with the whole story—or even all the family photos.

Dr. Rolfe hands me another photo of my mother. This one full length. She has the lean, muscular body of an athlete. She stands in the woods, laughing at something off to the left of the camera.

“What’s her name?” It feels weird to me, thinking of her as my mother. In the photo she’s about the same age I am now.

“Katherine. I’ve never met her, but I believe she goes by Kitty.”

I feel a wave of nausea—the trade off for the peaceful sleep of the heavily tranquilized. I refused tranquilizers this morning, though Dr. Rolfe insists that I continue taking the anti-psychotics and anti-depressants while I “re-orient myself to reality.”

It’s raining, and the gray outside the window matches the bedroom walls. Aside from the leafy oak, the only spot of color is my father’s red flannel shirt, still lying on the bed .

Without thinking, I put the shirt to my nose and inhale. Random flashes of memory: Eating hamburgers in a 1950s-style diner. Floating in the YMCA pool. Strong arms under my back and head, a gentle baritone voice saying, “Breathe in and exhale slowly. Your breath will help you float.” My parents working at a drafting table, heads bent together. An hand, tucking my hair behind my ear.

“What are you feeling, Lacy?” Dr. Rolfe’s voice brings me back.

I blink blearily at the photo of my mother. Kitty? Katherine? I want to see her as she is today. Dr. Rolfe says she’s been in jail for seventeen years. He can’t get a recent photo.

“Can I see my dad again?”

Dr. Rolfe carefully sifts through his stack, like miser counting money, then hands a photo over. The picture appears to have been taken in the back yard of what Dr. Rolfe said was his house—the same place where my mother was photographed twenty years earlier.

The age on my father’s face startles me. In my memories, my parents are young and loving. Where did things go wrong? Was there a specific moment in time that you could point to and say there, if this one thing had gone left instead of right, it all might have been different? Or had the madness been inside her all along, growing invisibly like a toxic mold?

“She tried to kill him, but he survived?”

“That’s right.”

“Until he died in a car accident about a month ago.”

“Yes.”

Simple facts. Yet somehow it doesn’t add up.

“Why can’t I remember anything recent?”

Dr. Rolfe shifts in his chair, and his leather shoes squeak. “Your subconscious only finds it safe to recall memories from before the trauma. Are you ready for another prompt?”

I nod and he hands me a photo of a woman with a blonde bob, wearing a red pantsuit. “Dorothy!” I blurt. A dozen scenes from my childhood come back in an instant: Dorothy, petite and energetic, loading mulch into the back of her short bed pickup. Tending orchids in a hothouse wearing a red apron. Sitting on her overstuffed floral couch. Baking cookies in a light-filled kitchen. “Where is she?”

The look on Dr. Rolfe’s face sours my hope. “I’m afraid your aunt is in rehab for prescription drug abuse.”

“I don’t believe you! Dorothy’s neighbor died of a heroin overdose.” The words pop out along with the memory. “I think it freaked her out. Like if this suburban housewife could get addicted to heroin, anyone could. Like it was a flu you could catch. She would never do drugs!”

The doctor sighs heavily. “The woman you remember from your childhood is very different than Dorothy today.”

“What happened?”

“It’s all too common, I’m afraid. People get an injury. The prescription runs out, but they’re still in pain—or maybe they’ve gotten to like that floating feeling. They go to another doctor, then the next. They think it’s okay because it’s legal, but pain killers like Oxycontin can be very addictive.”

I shake my head so hard it makes me dizzy. “She’s too smart for that. She runs her own business.”

Dr. Rolfe pulls out another stack of photos. “These were taken just last week.”

I snatch the photos from him. A haggard woman stares out at me with vacant eyes, circles underneath so dark it appears as if she’s been punched. Stringy bleached blonde hair, with gray roots showing. This isn’t, can’t be … I peer closer. Nothing.

I glance up to find Dr. Rolfe looking blankly at a point over my shoulder, drawn into himself. His abstracted expression tickles a memory at the edges of my consciousness. Not Dr. Rolfe’s dark blue eyes, but gray eyes, warmth shuttered.

Dr. Rolfe’s gaze flickers back and forth in a way that strikes me as reptilian. “Do you remember the day we met?”

“I thought you looked a little familiar, just now. I remember someone, but he had gray eyes. Yours are blue. Somehow the look was the same, though, the expression, I mean.” I’m babbling, terrified. I cast my mind about for something sane. “Were you my doctor before?”

“No. I met you the day we admitted your aunt to the hospital.”

Save the baby! Dorothy’s face. Smeared with red lipstick as vivid as an hallucination. I feel the impact as she tackles me. I see Wanda and the orderlies pulling Dorothy, bony as a scarecrow, away. Just before she disappears into the hall, she casts a terrified look over her shoulder, and my heart breaks. Did I try to save her?

“You remember something?” Dr. Rolfe asks.

I nod.

“Tell me.”

“No,” I whisper.

“You need to talk about it. It will help you distinguish truth from delusion.”

I bury my head in my hands and scrub at my scalp. I feel itchy and strange, as if there are two of me. Lacy sane. Legacy nuts. Just like my aunt and my mother. All of us like branches on some kind of deformed tree, splitting off from ourselves.

 

I PUSH MY tangled hair back from my face. I no longer care how I look to Dr. Rolfe. I found him attractive before. Now his sharply angled face and brooding eyes repulse me. Not only because he seems to hold all the keys to my past, present and immediate future, but because of the way his personality seems to turn on and off. But I need him.

“I want to go outside for a walk.”

Dr. Rolfe smiles indulgently. “Of course. Just as soon as you’re strong enough.”

“I’m strong enough!” I mutter, knowing I probably won’t make it downstairs before needing a nap.

I perch on the edge of the bed with my feet on the floor, stretch my spine erect. “Is there anybody left in my family who isn’t crazy?”

“You tell me. What do you remember about the day Dorothy was admitted?”

“Was Wanda there?” I ventured.

Dr. Rolfe frowns. “No. What makes you think that?”

I shrug, realizing that it doesn’t make sense. If Wanda worked at Dr. Rolfe’s office, she wouldn’t have time to take care of me every day.

“My receptionist does have reddish hair, though she’s much younger.” Dr. Rolfe narrows his eyes. “What else?”

“The pictures of clowns—” I break off, sure that must be wrong.

“Good, yes!” He beams at me, and I feel ridiculously proud of myself.

“The walls of your office are beige.”

Dottie! You The commanding voice sends a chill of recognition. I know that man. I search my memory for his face, there behind a magazine. Thick glasses. The kind that make your eyes look enormous. He’s reading. Sitting in a black chair that doesn’t match the rest of the furniture. A wheelchair. “John!” I say, triumphantly.

“Very good.”

“Oh my God, this must be hard for him, with his wife gone and me sick, I mean, I know he’s very—”

Dr. Rolfe holds up his hand. “What did you say?”

“He’s very independent, but—”

“No, before that, you said, ‘with his wife gone, and me sick?’”

I don’t like Rolfe’s expression—the crafty yet patient look of a cat batting a mouse between its paws.

“Dorothy used to do almost everything for him, or at least everything he would allow her to do. But he gets around in that wheelchair better than most people can get around on two legs.”      Dr. Rolfe shakes his head. “John’s not in a wheelchair, Lacy. He’s perfectly healthy.”

“What? That’s not—”

“We’ve been playing tennis on the weekends, and I’ve won four games to his ten.” Dr. Rolfe smiles ruefully and hands me a photo from his stack.

I take it, feeling numb. I remember John in a wheelchair, with thick glasses. My mother did that to him …. But then I remember that Dr. Rolfe said she attacked my father, not John.

I glance down at the photo. John stands in a garden with a tanned, Nordic-looking woman and a guy wearing a bespoke suit and a silk tie. The three of them toast the camera with crystal glasses, like something out of a glossy magazine.

I see John laughing, remember that he wore black trousers with that gray summer-wool shirt, see the fluttering white linen tablecloths, trimmed with ice blue satin.

But then who was the man in the wheelchair the day Dorothy was admitted to the hospital?

“Was my father in a wheelchair, after …” I swallowed hard, wishing for a glass of water. “After my mother attacked him?”

Dr. Rolfe nods slowly. “I believe he was, for a time. Later, he recovered fully.”

“So he wasn’t in a wheelchair the day Dorothy was admitted to the hospital?”

“No. I’m afraid he was already … had already passed by then.”

“So, Dad died, and then a month later Dorothy had a breakdown?”

“Yes.”

I sift this information.

“Were they close?”

Dr. Rolfe smiles wryly. “John tells me they were. They lived right across the street from each other, of course. They may have had a … more intimate relationship.”

“No! They would never do that to John.” But a memory surfaces: a blonde hair on the pillow of my father’s bed. I draw in my breath, feeling betrayed. It dawns on me that maybe Dr. Rolfe has good reason not to dump the whole story of my life on me all at once—and why I’d wanted to forget. “Poor Uncle John.”

Uncle John?”

“Well, he’s my uncle by marriage.”

“I see.” Dr. Rolfe rearranges his face into a carefully neutral expression that increases my anxiety. “Are you sure?”

Yes!” I yell.

Dr. Rolfe leans back in his chair. “It’s all right, Lacy. You’re doing fine.” He opens his briefcase and begins putting his notepad and the photos inside. “We’ll stop for today.”

“No! Please.” I make an effort to appear calm, despite the panic churning in my gut. “I can’t go another day … not knowing what’s real. Please.” Impulsively, I reach out and take his hand.

Dr. Rolfe’s clinical detachment cracks. Pain plays across his face, then he jerks his hand away.

“Excuse me,” he mutters, and bolts from the room.

What the hell just happened?

I hear voices downstairs, and creep to the door.

“…can’t do this … just too … should see her….” It’s Dr. Rolfe’s voice, low and urgent.

“You can, and you will.” John’s voice. I remember it now—that authoritative tone. You didn’t argue with that voice. Not me. Paranoia will destroya, Lacy. Not my dad. Dangerous, Stevie, dangerous! Not Dorothy. Dottie, be a good girl! I hear footsteps on the wooden stairs and scuttle back toward the bed.

Half an hour ago, I’d have given anything to see a familiar face, but now I feel terrified by the things I’ve learned, and even more by the things I still can’t remember. I comb my hair with my fingers, and sit up straight on the edge of the bed. But Dr. Rolfe enters alone.

“John’s downstairs!” I can’t help the accusatory tone.

“Yes.”

“Why doesn’t he come up to see me?” Forgetting that a moment earlier I’d been terrified at the prospect.

Emotion ripples across Dr. Rolfe’s face, but it’s gone before I can analyze it. “He … we don’t feel that you’re quite ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“To relinquish your delusions.”

“Such as?”

Dr. Rolfe casts a glance over his shoulder at the empty doorway, then sits down with a nearly inaudible sigh. “You remember John Strong, but your delusion placed him in a wheelchair. Why do you think that is?”

“Does it matter?”

Dr. Rolfe frowns. “Your delusions aren’t random. They’re clues to your state of mind.”

“Oh.” A wave of exhaustion rolls over me, and I dig my fingernails into my thighs until it hurts, hoping the pain will clear my head. Do I wish Uncle John was crippled and blind? I must, because, in spite of the picture, I still think of him that way. “Maybe I’m the monster.”

“No.” Dr. Rolfe shakes his head. “Wishing isn’t the same as doing. Your mother let fear drive her to violence. You didn’t.”

Current list of accomplishments: non-violent delusions. That’ll read well on my resume. “John’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. Also one of the most powerful and persuasive. Maybe my delusion was an attempt to feel less intimidated.”

Dr. Rolfe leans forward, eyes avid again. “Yes, that makes sense. An attempt to reduce his power in your mind.” But I can tell he isn’t fully satisfied yet.

“What?”

“Surely you must be ready to remember, Lacy,” Dr. Rolfe murmurs, almost seductively. “You’ve remembered so many things today.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say!”

“No?” Dr. Rolfe’s face appears as inscrutable as the sheet covering the painting above us. “Maybe your memories need another tiny push, then.” He flashes the kind of insincere, encouraging smile one uses to get a child to take medicine. “You see, John loves you more than anyone else in this world. He wants so badly for you to be well, so he can see you….”

“If he wants it so badly, he can see me now,” I say irritably. “He’s just downstairs—”

Dr. Rolfe holds up his hand. “Lacy, he can’t be with you when you’re like this. We’ve tried it many times, and each time, it pushed you into relapse.”

He wants you. A voice in my head, sibilant and insinuating. Invasive as the vines .

“I want to get better,” I whisper.

“I know you do, Lacy.” Dr. Rolfe’s eyes bore into me. “And I want to help you. You can tell me anything.”

“When you say he wants to be with me, I feel scared.”

Dr. Rolfe nods. “Yes. Good. Why do you think that is?”

I fold my hands carefully in my lap. “I think it’s the terminology. When you use the words “be with” it sounds sexual to me, although I’m sure you don’t mean it that way.”

“And would that make you uncomfortable, Lacy?”

The hairs on the back of my neck rise, but the rest of my body freezes. I can’t answer.

“You’ve made him your Uncle John. Why do you suppose that is?”

“Because he married … Dorothy,” I whisper.

By way of an answer, Dr. Rolfe holds up another photo. John playing tennis, captured mid-lunge, his racquet about to connect with a ball.

“How old do you think John is in this picture, Lacy?”

“I don’t know,” I mutter.

“Try.” Dr. Rolfe’s lips form a grim line.

I feel like he’s toying with me. Not that he seems to be taking any pleasure in it. “Mid-forties?”

Dr. Rolfe shakes his head. “In that photo, John Strong is thirty-nine.” He presses another photo into my hands: John, dapper in a suit. “In this photo he’s forty one.”

“So?”

“That photo was taken this year.”

My mind refuses to do the math. Too many variables.

“How old is your aunt Dorothy?”

“I don’t remember.” The constants are a lie.

Dr. Rolfe flips through the pages of his notebook, then looks up at me. “She’s sixty six. Now, granted, sometimes older women and younger men marry. But is that how you remember it in this case? It’s okay, take your time. Relax and see what comes to your mind.” Dr. Rolfe leans back in his chair and gazes at the draped painting, as if contemplating mysteries of his own.

I lie down, wanting to shut my mind off and fall asleep. Instead, my head swirls with images of John and Dorothy. Pictures don’t lie. Memory, on the other hand, is notoriously unreliable, coalescing and dissipating like fog.

What do I remember, really? The same images of John in a wheelchair and glasses—in Dr. Rolfe’s office reading a magazine; in my father’s kitchen, eating pastries; sitting in front of a computer, telling me we’ll have to sell my dad’s house to pay off his debts—three flimsy memories, standing in for the totality of a life.

“I don’t remember an age difference,” I admit finally. “I see it in the pictures, but not in my head.”

Dr. Rolfe nods, but says nothing. His silence angers me. My confusion angers me. “So Dorothy married a younger man. Maybe she looked young for her age at the time, but then it caught up with her.” I shrug. “So what?”

Dr. Rolfe shakes his head, and leans forward, tapping his pen on his notebook again. The syncopated pattern creates counterpoint and emphasis to his words. “No, Lacy. John and Dorothy were never married. Never in a romantic relationship. Never a couple.”

I feel as if I’ve been dropped into a funhouse hall of mirrors—the faces vaguely familiar, but distorted.

“Who is he, then?” I whisper, half hoping Dr. Rolfe won’t answer.

“Why Lacy, you know very well, don’t you?” Dr. Rolfe leans in close, bringing his face within inches of mine. “John is your husband.”

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