by Robin Reinach

I recognized Jack’s wife immediately from the wallet-sized photo I’d found one afternoon, tucked behind his MasterCard. Yes, I’d rifled through my lover’s wallet while he’d lain napping on my bed, naked and defenseless. Now, stepping into the reception area my psychiatrist shared with a colleague, I identified the demure visage of Jack’s wife. I’d memorized her face during that soporific tryst, studied it carefully while lounging nude and sweaty on my rumpled sheets with Jack sprawled beside me, long-legged and bare-assed, snoring.

Mrs. Jack Shore was pale-skinned and oval-faced, her brown hair rippling down to her shoulders. She sat straight-backed in a beige-upholstered chair, her hands folded in her lap. Not reading a magazine, or even pretending to, her brown eyes looked up. Could Jack’s wife be stalking me?

Walking toward the coffee table, my breath caught; my gaze lowered. Could this possibly be a coincidence? I studied the display of outdated magazines, feeling Emma Shore’s gaze follow me in violation of shrink-waiting-room mores. During the last two years—since the insane highway pile-up that had stolen my husband’s life and left me a widow at 28—I’d seen Dr. Klein often enough to learn the protocols of shrink-dom. Here in the reception area, quick glimpses were tolerated; brief, grim smiles got exchanged, but staring was definitely out.

“Hello,” Emma said, as my hand reached for a four-month-old New Yorker. Her tone was artless, as if we were at the hairdresser.

“Hey,” I shot back, turning away, sucking my cheeks in. I’d have rolled my kohled, blue eyes if there’d been anyone to appreciate the contempt that only a Manhattan female can feel toward another just for acting friendly.

“I think my watch stopped,” she announced, as I scanned the room for a seat that offered the most distance. I chose a chair five feet away, which was as far as the limited space allowed.

Turning toward me, tapping her watch, Emma asked, “Do you happen to know the time?”

My gold Movado was a gift from her husband, celebrating our recent three-month anniversary. “11:20,” I said.

“Thank you.” Emma gave me a smile, soft-lipped and shiny. Her gaze felt unbearable.

What if our meeting was an accident? I wondered. What if this event was just another random twist in a universe that had already proved meaningless? A simple, ordinary kink in the arbitrary world I’d inhabited since the crash that took Danny. Only a chaotic cosmos could have allowed that drunk to traverse the grassy partition between north and southbound traffic, smashing into the driver’s door of our rented car and killing my husband on impact. Yes, I’d recognized the monstrous, impersonal nature of destiny the day it shattered Danny’s body and the life we’d spent seven years building. It had been a glorious, sunny morning, the beginning of our summer vacation, and we’d finally agreed it was time to have a child. Then fate, like some hideous octopus, had flailed its slimy arms, slaying Danny, but flinging me back out into an empty world with a just small wound on my forehead.

That tiny Frankenstein gash had inspired my metamorphosis to Goth, a style I felt just young enough to get away with at 30. When Danny was alive, I’d looked sweet like Emma Shore in her sky-blue sweater and pleated slacks. But since the accident, I’d dressed in black and hennaed my hair redder than blood. I’d pierced six holes in the tender cartilage along the rim of one ear and displayed six spiky, silver studs.

What would Danny think—in his polo shirt and khaki pants—if he could see the way I look now? My light blue eyes were heavily lined with black, my complexion whitened by make-up. I crossed my legs, shifted in my chair, and reflected that Danny’s opinion was something I no longer had to worry about. Taking a deep breath, I threw Emma’s face a quick, hard look, noting her high cheekbones, brushed peach with blush, her mouth tinted pink with lip gloss similar to the color Danny had liked on me.

My husband would probably have liked Jack’s wife, I thought, swinging my foot back and forth in its high-heeled, black leather boot. He’d have sympathized with Emma, sensed the brittle courage crackling through her straight spine and seen the weight of her problems in the set of her narrow shoulders.

Emma Shore might be here for her own issues, I told myself. For all I knew, she could be consulting the shrink who shared Klein’s waiting room about her relationship with her parents. It might have nothing to do with me and Jack. In this bizarre world, anything was possible. Raising the New Yorker up in front of my face, I shot a glance at my watch. One hundred and twenty seconds had passed; it was now 11:22 a.m.—eight more minutes until my session started.

“I’ve never seen a psychiatrist before,” Jack’s wife confided from across the room into the back of my magazine.

“First time for everything.” Behind the pages, my tone came out guttural.

“I only spoke to the doctor once.” Her voice quavered. “On the phone he sounded nice.”

Peering over the top of the magazine, I saw Emma’s eyes darken as she glanced down the short hallway at the closed doors of the shrinks’ private offices.

“I’m sure he’s nice,” I replied in spite of myself.

“Nice,” she murmured, rendering the word meaningless.

I swallowed hard, thinking, she doesn’t know who I am. Suddenly, I felt certain. To Jack’s wife, I was nothing more than some patient in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, albeit an unusual-looking one, with kohl-lined eyes and chin-length, hennaed hair.

Sure, Emma Shore was checking me out, but many people did. My appearance was striking. Dr. Klein had suggested—more than once—that I take responsibility for my facade. My Goth make-up, tight jeans, and clingy black tops made my mesomorphic body look much bolder than I felt. But that didn’t stop me from scorning other people’s negative reactions. Raking my fingers through my wine-red hair, I examined Emma’s expression over the top of my magazine.

There, on my rival’s smooth, oval face—I had to admit she had lovely skin—I saw neither fear nor disapproval, but the rosy tinge of excitement, even respect. It was the kind of response I rarely evoked in slender, delicate-boned women wearing soft, sky-blue sweaters and slacks ironed stiff in the front. The kind of person who dressed that way—as I had before losing Danny—usually didn’t appreciate the glamour of Goth. Oh, a woman like that might have a hidden tendency, a secret desire to go crazy now and then. But most of the sweet-and-wholesome set cloaked any esteem of my current style with ladylike disdain.

That’s certainly what I’d done before Danny died. Two years before, my hair had been brown instead of burgundy; I’d worn pastel sweaters and peach blush like Emma Shore. I’d been a different person then, before black became my wardrobe staple and “Fuck it!” my philosophy of life.

Leaning back in my chair, regarding Emma Shore through my heavily mascaraed lashes, I reflected that—given our current situation—the advantage had to be mine. The question was: what strategy should I adopt in response to the irony of Jack’s wife reaching out? What gesture should I offer this woman whose hopelessly naïve gaze still clung to me?

I gave her a dip of my hennaed head, pursing my reddened lips. I checked my watch before turning back to the New Yorker—five minutes left.

“You look so at home here,” Emma pursued me. “But I feel terribly awkward.” Raising her finely-plucked eyebrows, she shrugged an apology. I couldn’t help noticing the movement was dainty.

“You get used to it,” I allowed, feeling the words sucked out of me, feeling my cheeks grow warm.

“I probably shouldn’t bother you,” she continued as—without deciding to—I half-lowered my magazine. “It’s just that you look so together, so strong and confident.”

“Don’t let that fool you.”

“If I had your courage . . .” Jack’s wife showed me a bright smile.

“You don’t know me.” My fingers pinched the magazine pages; the crinkling noise was much too loud.

“I know some things.” Her tone was soft as mine had been curt. Her voice wafted toward me like a fragrance.

“Yeah?” I tensed. What did she know? The air in the room seemed too dense.

“Take your hair.” Emma wound a lock of her own hair around one finger. “I wish I had the nerve to chop mine off and dye it some bright color.”

“No kidding.” I was flattered, despite myself.

“Uh-huh.” Her tone was wistful. She let the shiny brown strands fall back onto her shoulder. “I’d never have the guts to do it.”

“Why not?” Unbidden, a spark flared in my chest.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged again, another dainty one. “That’s part of why I’m here.”

“Hair?” I tried to be flip while something electric rippled through my arms, causing my hands to drop the New Yorker into my lap.

Then I peered openly at the pretty woman whose wallet-sized photo hadn’t done justice to her brown eyes’ depth and shine. Between us, the air thickened. I was drawn to this woman—in spite of everything—how opposite we were. Not only our clothes, but our attitudes were antithetical. Where Emma was open, I’d shut down. Where she was friendly to strangers, I was mad at the world. Her emotions obviously flowed close to the surface, but mine had been buried deep with Danny two long years ago.

Not passion, but cheap thrills—the junk food of relationships—was all I’d lately dared to indulge. Why else would I be sleeping with Jack Shore? A married man whose seductive smiles and smooth come-on lines had been used too many times before. Yes, he was safe enough for a woman who scorned attachments and strong feelings.

In two years of sessions, I hadn’t even let Dr. Klein see me cry. The time for deep sharing had passed, I told myself; too much had died with Danny. My emotions had been purposely frozen—a cryogenic project, awaiting the unlikely, distant-future discovery capable of healing my numbed self. Yet today, sitting across from my lover’s wife, something besides my usual disdain began to stir inside. What if I’d met Jack Shore instead of Danny Littman when I was young? Would I have seen through the thick-lipped compliments and too-quick intimacies? Jack had said he’d married Emma right after she graduated college. What would have happened to me, if—God forbid—I’d met Jack Shore in place of Danny Littman at 21 years old?

I stared at Emma; her gaze held mine. We were about the same age. In college I’d been shy, not dating as much as I’d hoped until senior year with Danny. Emma’s head tilted; her pink lips parted. An unasked question hung in the air. Maybe I’d have fallen for Jack, I admitted to myself, the way that Emma had. I could have married him as innocently as I had Danny and be sitting where she was today.

Something moved in the center of my body. Thank God, Danny Littman had come into my life early, I thought. Thank God, he’d loved me. A glance at the Movado sent a pang through my chest. One more minute until Dr. Klein appeared in his office doorway; I’d never looked forward to seeing him before.

“I’m leaving my husband,” Emma Shore announced in a voice that was low and flat.

The reception area went still; the air felt electric. Did Jack know? Were things going to change between us? Jack’s full lips that made snappy remarks flashed through my head. He was so cavalier, I reflected, compared to his wife whose sincere face shone before me. Which was worse, I asked myself then, chronic infidelity or a car crash? Who had been betrayed more?

Loss was loss, I decided after a moment, beyond comparison or measurement. Then I watched Emma Shore hug her shoulders, keeping her spine straight. Her eyes searched mine and the room blurred; I lost peripheral vision. A fiery melting began in my chest as we shared something deeper than thought. Not information or even emotion, but a substance more essential flowed through us. My eyes stung, seeing our shared humanness; my cheeks burned with an intensity that belonged to both of us. My skin was the skin of Emma Shore; my blood, newly-thawed, was hers too. The current we stood in ran below the surface of our particular life stories; it ran deeper than race or gender.

The truth of our connection flamed through my body as the door to Dr. Klein’s private office swung open. My shrink’s previous patient shuffled past, and I realized my time with Emma Shore was ending. Then something like longing welled up in my chest; I felt unable to move. My blue eyes scanned Emma’s oval face, and I wondered how an event so unlikely as our meeting could have occurred in a meaningless universe.

Out of the countless, chaotic possibilities, why had our encounter constellated? I’d been convinced there was no guiding force, no pervasive intelligence infusing the world. Yet I had to admit that mercy had brought me to Emma Shore and given me a glimpse of the vital connection that lay just below my ordinary awareness. And I realized that connection was always there and never ceased, whether or not I recognized it.

What had Emma and I told each other during our short time together? I wasn’t sure, but the welling in my chest was insuppressible, and I wanted to make her a gift.

Rising from my chair, I removed the Movado. “Take this.” I held it out.

She raised a palm between us. “Oh, no.”

How much had Emma guessed in the last few seconds? I wondered. What would be best for both of us now?

“Please.” My tone was urgent. Pressing the watch into her hand, I knew I’d never see Jack Shore again.

Dr. Klein appeared in his doorway; walking toward him, I let tears fill my eyes. At the entrance to my therapist’s private office, I paused to glance back over my shoulder. In the reception area, I saw Emma’s fingers close around the Movado while her mouth gave way to wonder.

© 2006 by Robin Reinach



About the Author

Robin Reinach is a New Yorker, with an MFA from Columbia University. Her work appears regularly in literary journals, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


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