Short Stories

The Toe Ring

“It makes me feel invisible, like I’m in some kind of limbo.”

“I know who you are.”

“But–some of us need to hear our name!”

“I don’t always say my patients’ names at the start of the session.”

“You didn’t say my name, Dr. Stoner–not once during my last two sessions. Maybe it’s my twin stuff–if you don’t say Lauren, I’ll think I’m Laurel.”

“I think it’s a Midwest custom–I’ve noticed that. Easterners don’t say each others’ names as much.”

“Wouldn’t that be a therapist’s thing to do? Reinforce her patient’s identity by repeating her name?”

Dr. Stoner’s silence was good. Even if she felt miffed by my challenging remark, maybe she was finally getting something essential about me. My name held me to myself! I wasn’t asking her for my whole name, Lauren Ann Louise West, just plain Lauren.

“Lauren, what would you like to talk about today?”

“I’m trying to figure that out.”

“Take your time, Lauren.”

Asking for what I needed and getting it encouraged me to jump into a topic I had not yet discussed, my father’s death. “So, six guys were carrying my father’s casket out of my sister’s house–two were my brothers and four, nephews. And I jumped in to help them. We lifted dear Dad into the funeral parlor’s limousine headed for the crematorium. You have to understand! This was an earth-shaking event for all of us. My father’s body would not be put to rest in a cemetery. My parents are the first in their families, for generations, to decide to be burnt up and not buried whole! Oh, I remember how good the weight of my father’s coffin felt on my shoulder. But the women in my family…they were giving me these accusing looks like, ‘Now what is Lauren up to?’ ”

“This was the last time, Lauren, you would be near his body.” Dr. Stoner’s tone was remarkably tender. “And this is the first time you’ve really talked about your father. You couldn’t let his coffin go without touching it.”

“Carrying it! Why shouldn’t women in the family help carry the coffin?”

“Lauren–tell me. Why do you think you did this?”

Was she pushing a father-connection to balance the mother-obsession? I felt an adrenaline rush. The new me emerging in therapy was not going to hide behind apologies!

“What are you feeling right now, Lauren?”

“You’re doing it again!”

“What do you mean?”

She uncrossed, and then crossed her legs again, a sign to me of agitation.

“Therapists have a way of being, well, like therapists. Removed and following their own agendas. Just when I was trying to tell you something really profound about myself, which you didn’t get, you turned to your stock question: ‘What Are You Feeling?’ ”

“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t! We talked about that, Lauren. This is the place for you to find and name your feelings. That’s all I’m asking. It’s about how you are feeling now around your father’s death.”

“You didn’t sound like you really cared.”

“Alright. Tell me when I make you uncomfortable.”

“I just did. Don’t you understand? I had to jump in there and help the men with the work. Death isn’t only their job. I did the same at my ex-husband’s funeral. While the women watched and cried, I took up the shovel with the men and put dirt on Jake’s grave. All those women standing by weeping in their long, pretty dresses! If you act, if you help carry the dead and bury them, you own what is happening, you’re doing the necessary work. I could help bury Jake’s body, but not my father’s. But I could carry it. We women used to wail for days at gravesites. I mean death is a tragic and messy business. And you have to work to get through it.”

“You wanted your father to be buried, rather than cremated?”

“By then, I was more worried that we weren’t going to throw him to the Four Winds.”

When her puzzled glance lifted to an etching of train tracks on the wall behind me, I felt a tiny rip inside. Her attention was straying from my father and I. That etching was her own dead father’s work; maybe it had even been a gift to her. Then I understood: she placed it there to help her think.

And, she was right on two accounts: thinking of my father burnt to ashes was horrifying; plus, she couldn’t do anything right by me today. How could she? I was a needy little kid! Overwhelmed. I craved constant stroking. ‘Lauren, dear, I know what you mean’–like that. I didn’t want her to analyze me, just feel me. Then something hit me, right in my chest.

“Oh my god! That must be why!”

“What are you thinking, Lauren?”

“Jake’s widow hasn’t spoken to me since his death. Two years ago. It was the dirt–the dirt I threw on his coffin!”

Dr. Stoner’s wince could have meant many different things: this client makes mountains out of molehills; Lauren can’t accept death; Lauren can’t stay focused on her father; or, she was empathizing with Sara, Jake’s widow. That’s how little I could read her face. I didn’t know what she was thinking most of the time. Okay, all of the time. I should ask her: What are you thinking, Dr. Stoner? Right now!

As I stared into her piercing look–May’s eyes were simultaneously unreadable and probing–somehow my feelings changed. Maybe I was being too hard on her. In reliving my experience of death and funerals, I was dumping on her. I tried to smile, but my face wouldn’t go that way. So, I returned to what I had set out to do–talk about Dad.

“It was always assumed that Dad would die first by the two of them, and he did. Sometime during his hunger strike, he announced that he wanted his ashes thrown to the Four Winds. I’ve always felt, it’s a psychic thing, that through my father’s ancestry, particularly through his young dead mother who’s guitar haunted me from childhood on, that I am part Mohawk Indian. Mohawks come from Montreal where Dad’s mother was born. And they are tree planters. Did I tell you my performance name in the 70s was Tree from a dream I had? Besides, I like that possibility.”

“Which one?”

“That I’m part Mohawk and maybe part tree.”

“I can see you do!”

“Why else, when he was dying, would Dad call up the Four Winds? He could have said, ‘Bury my ashes ‘neath the old oak tree.’ But what he said was, ‘Toss my ashes to the Four Winds.’ That metaphor appears again and again in Native American literature. I think Dad called up an image that gave him comfort, just as thinking of her final resting place in the sea comforts my mother. She wants us to throw her ashes to the dolphins. Besides, Dad had other habits that didn’t seem English or even Pennsylvania Dutch.”

“Tell me.”

“To my mother’s horror, he loved wearing an old hat with a feather in it. He could make tunes using only his hands. And he loved growing vegetables and watching clouds. Okay, maybe I am pulling at straws, needing him to connect to me as an artist. To me, he was much more than a left-brained civil engineer who supported his family.” Stoner’s gaze fixed on me and though her look was opaque, she was in deep listening mode.

“Dad was so quiet and Mom talked a lot about herself–where she came from. She was not a tabula rasa on whom I could project my needs.”

I gave Stoner a quick glance. Had she caught my offhanded reference to a basic aspect of therapy–transference? She did not know that I was determined to see her only as my therapist. I wanted all my transference stuff to be put on the twin I was imagining for her. Maybe this meant I was determined that any acting out on my part had to be conscious and creative.

“You were talking about your mom, Lauren.”

“She loved to tell stories about her entrepreneurial ancestors. Her grandparents on both sides came from the Alsace Lorraine region to Southern Michigan. One side published the first bilingual, German to English newspaper and the other established a huge landscape gardening business. It seemed clear what I got from them. With Dad it was harder to see. He talked about what he did, his work. But, his Four Winds, his clouds and feathered hats, his mother’s guitar…. Only gradually did they become potent influences on my identity.”

“You wanted a deeper connection to your father.”

“Yes. Do you see that? Art and psychic phenomena did not interest him, to say the least. Engineers are in love with facts and scientific processes. But, he really did say–‘Just toss me to the Four Winds.’ ”

“What did you do with his ashes?”

“They’re buried in an urn in Laurel’s back yard. Is it legal to do that? I still can’t believe it–there’s no cemetery, no grave where his bones rest.”

“Was your father’s death the first family member’s death?”

My chest tightened. I heard Dylan Thomas’ voice: After the first death, there is no other.

“No. My sister’s eldest daughter died in 1987 in a car crash. My father’s ashes are buried next to hers. See? That’s why we buried him in my sister’s yard, so Julia wouldn’t be alone!”

“Now, that’s the unspeakable tragedy. A child’s death.”

I saw the lid opening on Julia’s coffin in the chapel in Napa. Heard again how I screamed out and felt my sister’s hand on my leg to quiet me. “Is it normal for a grandmother to distance when her granddaughter dies? Mom couldn’t grieve with Laurel.”

“Do you need a Kleenex, Lauren?”

“Just give me a few seconds. Talking about Julia makes me so sad.” I welcomed the plants by the window, the many small paintings on the wall behind her, someplace I could look other than into those slate blue eyes. “The thing is–death was supposed to be funeral processions, cars lined up with those small, flickering, white cemetery flags. Jake’s death was that kind. He was buried in an orthodox Jewish cemetery. It’s so orthodox, in fact, you can’t place your own flowers there. Awful –”

“Which one was he buried in?”

I barely heard her question. It was like I had left the room. Then I realized that Stoner was staring at me, or through me, I couldn’t tell. Maybe my deaths had brought up hers.

“… so Dad is in my sister’s backyard, in a small urn with a cover on it. I personally thought it looked like a cookie jar. We weren’t ready to throw him away to any kind of wind.”

It seemed like I was going on and on, filling in an empty feeling with endless comments about Dad’s ashes–how they felt gritty, not silken, as I’d imagined they would. I told Stoner how we never found his ruby wedding ring, the one Mother bought for him that he loved so much. The one she promised for me one day because I didn’t have one. And maybe it wasn’t taken off his finger; maybe it melted with his fillings in that wretched burning.

Where was that ring! I tried to see it again, the back worn so thin it had split apart.

My eyes opened suddenly to find Dr. Stoner still staring through me. Why didn’t she say it–that phrase which jarred me? How are you feeling now? I needed it–a Zen master’s whack–to awaken me, shake me from so many disquieting emotions. How to accept the loss of my father when in many ways, I had never found him. That ineffable love between us–a love as distant as a cloud and as light as a feather and framed with tears. That love puzzled me again, as it had so often before. Stoner! Get me back here into this room! Ask me: What are you feeling now?

“I’m drowning in a pool of emotions with no words to cling to. That’s what I’m feeling right now, Dr. Stoner.” I couldn’t lean on her! I had to push on alone.

Then she was speaking in a summing up fashion: “You have to act, do the work, be responsible. You want to be more deeply connected to your mother’s death than you were able to be with your father’s. Now you want to make peace with your mother before she dies.”

Each of her points about me was punctuated with a nod as if something about me was finally making sense.

“And aren’t you writing about her, too? That your mother never acknowledged your published novel is sad. It’s why you feel you might fly apart when she dies. If she’d given you what you needed, support when you needed it, her dying, I believe, would be easier for you. You’re probably afraid of your anger for her.”

Overwhelmed! That’s what I was feeling. Did I want to be sad with my dead father, or angry with my dying mother? Confrontational with Stoner or somewhere else altogether? I was conscious of the weight of my hands on her couch, the pull of my feet to her floor. Then I felt my eyes widen and all weepiness vanish as I tensed into defense mode.

“Oh, I became my own mom and dad a long time ago,” I snapped. “And actually, I’m their parents now! When they argued, I told them, ‘Stop or I’m going to leave the room.’ When I spoke up like that, they gave me sheepish smiles. Then we could decide what to do that day–buy groceries or take a ride to the Russian River. This was when they lived in the retirement community in California.”

“Were you always a mediator between your….” Dr. Stoner’s legs shifted; the left one was now over the right. Because she was wearing a short skirt, I saw them clearly. Not thin and graceful, but hardy, strong-boned, the kind of legs that helped one stand up for herself. Then suddenly another leg dance happened. Was she uncomfortable with me?

“I have to know this, Dr. Stoner! Do you answer personal questions?”

“If I feel they can help you in the therapy, yes.”

“Well, have you always been, are you one hundred per cent staunchly heterosexual?”

“Is that important for you to know? Besides, no one is one hundred percent anything.”

I didn’t bite. I was afraid something really sarcastic might come out of me. It was one thing to be testy about her not saying my name, but I was pushing into her personal life. Was my interrogation the first signs of transference? I had determined to not let myself be fooled in any way in that room.

Things were getting complex very quickly. Here I was writing letters to Mom, in my journal because she was dying in Greenwood Nursing Home, about my plan to twin Stoner. This meant I was imagining a twin for her, not twinning her to me. How I would go about this odd process wasn’t clear yet. I just had to do something about the fact that what I didn’t know about her was getting in the way of my therapy. If I didn’t know who she was, why would I want to expose myself? This twin of hers would give me everything Stoner couldn’t. For one thing, she would talk about herself in a warm, enthusiastic way. But, God forbid that I should confess my secret plan to her, to Dr. Stoner!

Suddenly I felt tight in my chest, and then angry. Why hadn’t I thought to ask her about her sexuality before? I could work on my Jake stuff with her, my father and mother, sister and brothers stuff. But my Rose and my Naomi stuff? And then with Hannah? It would be like trying to explain myself all over again to my whole family.

“Did you hear what I just asked you, Lauren? If you were black do you think a white therapist could understand you?”

Oh, Lord! She was clever. “Yes and no. Since my students are Afro-American, Hispanic and Asian kids, poor ones–I’m really trying to understand where they’re coming from. The humiliation of trying to explain myself endlessly to others. This is about my gay self–how can you understand that aspect of me?”

As for her being Jewish and myself a WASP, that was not an issue. Most of my lovers have been Jewish. I even knew some Yiddish and Hebrew.

“I have both gay and straight clients, Lauren–with whom I have a unique kind of relationship, a therapy connection. You put your stuff out in this room, in front of us, and we look at it together. We see what’s holding you back, what hurts you.”

Stoner did take my medical insurance, which meant extra paper work for her. Lots of therapists wouldn’t. She lived near me. She was a good listener. Let’s face it, there’s bound to be some discomfort with any therapist, given no two peoples’ anything are the same, accept for those almost clones, the identical twins. I am eternally grateful that Laurel and I are sister twins, sororal twins I like to say.

While Stoner was going on about my allowing, or was it accepting, complexity, I leapt into her head and was looking back at me. Suddenly I could see the fretting person she must see. My twin stuff might even be fuzzing up my thinking. It was confusing: Did she have to be more or less like me, to really grasp me?

There were other big things about me that I wanted her to understand–like I had never given birth–I had not made love with a man for years–that I missed Jake, my once husband and then my ex, who was dead–that listening and talking for twins are kind of like the same thing at least when you’re little–but that now Laurel and I can hardly talk to each other. And what about how twins can’t take attention too long without needing to give it back?

“I can see you’re very inward today, Lauren. What is on your mind now?”

Obviously she’s some kind of heterosexual, she has four grown children. She seemed to be balancing on the edge of her chair, waiting for me to say something. Maybe I just had to face it! Either Stoner felt right for me, just the way she was, or I should quit her.

“Responsible understanding of others like your students doesn’t have to be experienced as a burden, Lauren. It can be felt as healthy compassion, concern. Perhaps a mediator’s role, like you did with your parents–can help you get away from your tendency to feel too responsible.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You had to carry your father’s coffin, throw dirt on Jake’s grave, intervene in your parents’ arguments –”

“Well, somebody had to!”

“When you’re mediating, you can pull back a little and let others do the work sometimes. Let the others take responsibility.”

“You think I cross boundaries, is that it?” I tried not to look directly at her big boned, strong legs again. Why had she worn such a short skirt to my session! I was glad that my silk, summer slacks hid my very feminine legs. “It’s not about gender bending. I mean–I’m not trying to be the big butch or anything.”

What was I talking about! I was losing control, or maybe just getting paranoid. First, I was talking about Dad’s ashes, then his lost ruby ring that I was supposed to get. Then I got into my complex sexuality thing….

And that’s when I saw it. A sliver of flashing, silver light winked from her sandal. Dr. May Stoner was wearing a toe ring. A tiny ring on the fourth toe of her left foot. What could it mean for her?

The sight of that delicate shining thing adorning her pale flesh sent a spark through me. Was it a libidinous feeling, like jealousy or desire? I almost blushed, for I clearly saw myself kneeling in front of her, requesting if I might carefully examine the ring. Did it hold a ruby?

Maybe Mom was right! Maybe I was different. I mean, how many women would be talking to their therapist about serious issues and simultaneously be done in by a toe ring? Of course Mom was making a dig at me, that time she trickily mispronounced ‘lesbian’ as ‘less being.’

“We have five minutes left, Lauren. What do you want to do with them?”

“Breathe,” I uttered quickly. “I need to do some deep breathing.”

My mind was lit up. I flashed back on the previous session: I had said something about bisexual women not being given the respect they deserved in either the gay or straight community. And Stoner, for once, did not seek her father’s etching behind me but looked down to her left, directly at my right ankle. That day I was wearing shorts so my legs were bare, out there. It sounds crazy, but I swear–when she saw my beautiful legs her mouth quivered.

Slowly, within the deep breathing, I found some calm. But there I was, already imagining a session where I would wear a beaded ankle bracelet on my right ankle and watch carefully if she noticed. It would be like a secret play, a subliminal drama hovering within all this terrible reality. Maybe, just maybe, May Stoner was a little different, too! At any rate, Amy, the twin I was inventing for her, would be.


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