The Broken Line, 49: Snake in the Garden

(missed the last chapter? Go to 48: The Other John)

GETTING STRONGER. GAINING weight, which I need, though John says I’m beautiful just the way I am. I wonder why the anti-psychotic medications haven’t made me puff up the way my mother did.

Kitty. Flashes of her riding bareback, thighs gripping the horse’s glossy flanks. Her hair whipping like snakes. Her tense forearm grasping a knife, stabbing sacks of meat. I see her glance up from her drafting table, green eyes sharp, sketching with slashing strokes. Her finger jabbing at demons in her scrapbook as she lectures me. Yanking the white rose beads from my neck. My mother. A song I can’t get out of my head.

Dr. Rolfe says all children become disillusioned, to some extent, when they discover the frailties of their parents. But my mother attacked and injured my father in our house while I was there. More like a psychic earthquake.

I ask Dr. Rolfe if I’ll have to be on guard my whole life.

“Not necessarily. Your breakdown was triggered by unresolved anxiety, exacerbated by hallucinogenic drugs. As long as stay clean, you may never have another episode.”

His words give me hope, as does every day that passes without hallucinations. Almost three weeks now.

After I take my shower, I wander downstairs, admiring the details of the house. The cherry spiral of the newel post, burnished smooth. The stained-glass transom above the front door. The signed Escher. I can’t get used to the transformation. John says we remodeled three years ago, after we got married, but I remember the house as it was, back when I was single—thrift store furniture, marred paint, scuffed floors.

I still have my favorite things from old days in the den upstairs—the mechanical animals, the vintage movie posters. But the rest of the house, renovated and professionally decorated, seems like a foreign country: a big new bathroom off the dining room, with the custom stonework, a huge glass shower, and a Japanese soaking tub; the living room done in craftsman furniture and striped rose and gray silk upholstery; Limoges in the cupboard; hand-woven silk rugs on the polished oak floors; and original art on the walls, including a Georgia O’Keefe—a painter who John says inspired my own work as an artist.

I toss the word up in my mind—artist—but it curls into an obsidian ball and bounces off of the soft cushions of my brain. Artist. It reminds me of my mother, and the painting that hangs shrouded above my bed. The word evokes a dark, edgy feeling that I shove away.

I glide down the hall to the kitchen. Restaurant-grade gas stove, glass front cabinets, and granite countertops. Copper pots hang from the ceiling rack, stoneware dishes sit in stacks on open shelves. John stands at the sink, carefully washing his glass.

“It looks like something out of a magazine.”

John laughs. “Darling, don’t you remember?” He holds up his finger, walks out of the room, and returns with an issue of Richmond Living. He opens to a spread, “Surgeons with Style,” that features a photo of our living room.

“We were so proud that they chose a photo our house, even though it was one of the smallest, remember?” He swings the magazine in the air like a bat. “Take that suburban McMansions.”

As John grins at me, I feel a surge of giddiness tinged with disbelief. This is my husband—a prominent surgeon who doesn’t mind making pancakes for his unfaithful, mentally ill wife. He has the dazzling demeanor of a Greek god, yet acts like I’m the one who deigned to come down off Mount Olympus.

So I smile and nod, as if it’s all coming back to me.


MOST DAYS, I rest or have therapy, and John works on articles for JAMA or other medical publications—something to keep him busy during his leave of absence.

Evenings we spend together, watching movies, eating take out, trying to put together the pieces of the past three years.

John tried to update me about our circle of friends, but it was obvious that I couldn’t remember any of them, so he gently backed off.

I think of myself as intelligent. In college, I never found my studies particularly difficult, despite working full-time. John’s in a whole other class of intellect. He has an encyclopedic memory, able to hold forth on everything from classical music to biomedical engineering. Sometimes, I lose the thread of the conversation. Dreamy and disoriented. Tired. It doesn’t help that John is ridiculously handsome, with a hypnotic, melodic voice.

When John notices me glazing over, he never gets annoyed. Just says, “I’m tiring you out with all this talk,” and suggests we have a cup of tea or watch a movie.

“Only comedies, though, until you’re completely well. Then you can watch twisted thrillers to your heart’s content.”

I sigh, like I’m making a sacrifice, but, really, I can’t even bear to read the newspapers laid out on the kitchen table each morning.

I worry that my grip on reality is still tenuous, but Dr. Rolfe disagrees.

“I’ve already discontinued the tranquillizers, and we’re stepping down the dosage of your anti-psychotics. I don’t believe you need them, now that you’ve relinquished the delusion that your husband is your uncle. But, you can’t stop taking them all at once.”

Now that the weather’s turned warmer, we meet in the garden behind the house. A winding brick path around raised, herb beds leads to a gazebo with stone benches and a fountain. My eyes kept straying to the endless bubble of water.

“Which drug is the anti-psychotic?”

“The liquid you take in the morning. I have it specially compounded for you. It contains antioxidants, GABA rice and other supplements to help during the transition. It’s also very important to get enough sleep.”

“I sleep too much,” I say. “I wake up fuzzy.”

I don’t tell him that I also wake up thinking I’m still dating Branson. Branson. The name sings far off in my mind, distant and lonesome. “Sometimes, after breakfast, if you’re not coming to see me, I just go back to bed.”

“Perfectly normal during the healing period. To help your body adjust, I’ve also changed your anti-depressant.”

“Is that the pale blue pill with the lightening bolt on it?”

“That’s right.”

That pill. I flash on Branson. Making love. Glowing lights, and bubbling water. But this reminds me of the sex dream with him and John. I push the memory away, and stare at drops of water on smooth rocks. Reflected in each droplet are mountainous white clouds, tinged with violet and blue. Another world. If I were small enough, I could slip inside.

“Withdrawal from anti-psychotics can mimic a psychotic episode, though.” Dr. Rolfe taps his pen on his notebook with that syncopated rhythm that means that something’s bothering him.

I avoid looking at him. “No, nothing like that.”

“What is it, exactly, that has you worried?”

“On days I’m awake, I just wander around the house, looking at things—”

“Reacquainting yourself with your surroundings.”

“Or I sit out here in the sun like a cat.” I feel silly, complaining about paradise.

Dr. Rolfe waves his pen like a wand. “It’s spring. Enjoy it!”

“It’s just that … this is like a fairy tale.” I frown at the roses climbing the privacy fence.

“You don’t believe you deserve beauty?”

I shrug, still looking at the roses. They remind me of the painting. I had hoped someone would remove it, but nobody did. Finally, yesterday, I’d worked up the nerve to ask John to get rid of it.

“Of course, darling. If that’s what you want.” His face was polite, unreadable.

“Where did it come from, anyway?” I tried to keep my tone neutral.

John raised his eyebrows. “It one of yours, Lacy.”

My mind went blank for a moment, as if someone had covered it, the way I’d covered the painting. Then, John had said I looked pale, and suggested fried chicken for dinner.

When I went to bed, the painting was gone, but it still felt as if those vines were dripping their white sap into my veins—a blank flow of doubt. Veins like vines, branching. Sap like blood, pulsing.

“Lacy?” Dr. Rolfe leans closer. “You’ve been through a rough time, but you’re healing now. You’re lucky you have a beautiful place to do it in.”


A bee hovers over the honeysuckle, her filigreed wings golden in the sun.

Dr. Rolfe stands, stretches his spine, and stows his notebook and pen inside his briefcase. “I’m going out of town for a conference. I’ll see you when I get back next week.”

“A week?”

He smiles. “You’ll be fine, Lacy. You have John!”

I nod bleakly, and Dr. Rolfe pats me on the arm. “You’ll see.”

Dr. Rolfe strides toward the house, his lean athlete’s body as sinuous as the curving path. I stare at the bed of flowers nearest to me. The bleeding hearts have just bloomed, their drooping red petals framing tubular organs.

I stretch out on the bench and pull my tee-shirt up, letting the sun warm my stomach. I feel the first stirrings of desire, and think of Branson again. I have an entrancing husband. Why is it only thoughts of Branson that make me crave the taste of lips, the feeling of skin on skin?

When John and I snuggle on the couch watching movies, I enjoy the closeness of another body next to mine. I welcome the calming touch of his hand stroking my hair or rubbing my shoulders, but that’s as far as it goes.

John’s been sleeping on the couch in our guest room and never complains, which only deepens my guilt. I clearly have a sex drive, and it’s picking up speed—in the wrong direction.

I make a conscious effort to turn my arousal away from Branson and toward John. I imagine John taking off his shirt, then mine, kissing me, running his hands over my breasts … but there my imagination fails—or rather, my libido does. Fizzles like a match dropped in milk.

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