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Anyone can walk a tightrope. All it takes is practice and luck. I had the practice. For as long as I could remember, I had walked cautiously through life, careful to please whoever might be near. I was so expert that hardly anybody noticed I didn’t have feelings or thoughts of my own.
Practice and luck. I used to be very lucky. School was easy; I never had a job that I couldn’t handle. It used to be that everybody always liked me.
It was different now. Keith wanted us to separate. Maybe he didn’t want to be married to anyone, certainly not to me.
I figured that he didn’t really mean it. He must be warning me to shape up. Sometimes I forgot about trying to please him.
When he first told me that we should live apart for a while, I tried to do everything I thought he wanted. I let him stay in our house and found an apartment for myself to make it easier for him. That should have counted for something, but after three months, just as I was getting ready to ask him if I could come home, he said he wanted a divorce.
There had to be a solution. If I could just figure out the right button to push, he’d like me again. But when I tried to think about it, I got scared, so scared that the tightrope swayed and I began to fall.
I leaned back and jerked reflexively to regain my balance, startling myself awake. I was no longer sitting at my desk. The typewriter I had been working at continued to hum, but now I was ten feet away, sitting on the wide windowsill.
I had no memory of leaving my desk, of crossing the room, of climbing onto this perch. Nevertheless, I was now tucked against the old mullioned window, chilled by the March cold that seeped through the pane.
“Damn it,” I muttered, “what’s going on?” The blankness throbbed within, so I looked out at the gray urban sprawl. My life was centered here, at the University of Chicago.
I was working on a master’s degree in political science. My lover was a biology professor; my job was secretary in his department. I could see my apartment, clearly visible in the afternoon sun. And if I faced north and squinted just right, I could pick out the United Way building, where Keith worked as a fund-raiser.
Then I looked down.
“Jump!” I heard the voice, felt the nudge. “Jump!”
As if I had been mentally rehearsing a part in a play, I envisioned myself pushing the large window open, hopping to my feet, pausing briefly in exhilaration, and then diving strong and hard at the parked cars five stories below.
I shook my head to flick away the mental scene and hopped back down quickly from the window, as though the ledge itself might compel me to leap.
I returned to the typewriter, breathed deeply for a moment to relax, and set trembling fingers on the keys.
Where had that come from? I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be married.
It didn’t matter where it had come from. I knew this kind of thing was dangerous.
It had happened before. I didn’t want to kill myself, but suicide was on my mind.
“I’ve got enough to deal with without this,” I said, giving up on the typing and resting my head in my hand.
It had to be the drugs. High school had been a series of psychedelic experiments, a little LSD, a little mescaline, more than a little marijuana and hash, enough of something so that I had virtually no memories prior to the summer I was fifteen.
My memory was spotty even now, ten years later. Mostly I didn’t worry about it. Proper payment, I figured, for having had so much fun. It was only a problem when someone guessed that I didn’t know something I should have known. But that didn’t happen often. When I walked my tightrope with care, no one seemed to know that I sometimes lost it.
But suicide was different. I had been frightened like this before: once I’d discovered pills hidden in my dresser; then a collection of razor blades; this was the second time I had found myself looking longingly from a window ledge and fighting the urge to jump.
In college, after I uncovered the cache of pills, I happened on a way to relieve the pressure at the campus counseling center.
I didn’t tell the counselor about the pills or feeling out of control. I just played a game that proved to make me feel better.
I relaxed and let my inside come out.
Sometimes I could sit on my shoulder and watch. Sometimes I watched with interest, sometimes with apathy, while a detached part of me talked to the therapist. And sometimes I forgot to watch altogether.
It was a lot like what happened to me when I got high on drugs. Whatever it was, it worked, and the out-of-control feeling subsided. After three visits, I couldn’t do that “inside-out” thing in the counselor’s office. I stopped seeing him, but everything was OK for a while.
This quick-fix therapy worked so well that I had subsequently seen eight counselors or therapists or psychologists. I always went somewhere different and stayed for no more than three or four visits. Sometimes I felt a little guilty about wasting their time, but I figured that’s what they were paid for.
One therapist told me that I was passive-aggressive. I growled at her when I left.
The last guy I saw just after I moved out of the house I shared with Keith and into my apartment. I thought he could help me figure out a way to get Keith back. He didn’t and he scared me away when he started asking questions that made me uncomfortable. I had been woolgathering in my “inside-out” position when I suddenly woke up and realized that he was looking at me curiously. “I asked you if you ever forgot things,” he said.
That jarred me.
“Yeah, sometimes,” I said teasingly and ran my tongue over my lip. “What about you?”
“I’m asking the questions,” he said lightly, “like when do you forget? At work, in bed, here?”
“Oh, sometimes I get distracted and find that I got someplace without planning to.” I grinned, letting my eyes convey that I thought he was sexy.
“Like the shopping mall or work.”
“You mean that you drive yourself places and don’t really think about it?”
“Something like that,” I said.
This seemed to satisfy him, and he explained that a lot of people get distracted when they’re under stress.
I didn’t tell him that sometimes I found myself in distant cities when I had gotten really distracted. I didn’t want to get into discussing the drug use with him. And he didn’t ask me out, even though I made it clear that I was interested, so I never went back.
Now I turned off the typewriter and went into Steve’s office. “I’m going to knock off a little early,” I said.
He looked up from his book and smiled at me. “Has anyone told you today that you’re lovely?” he asked. “How about if I take you out to dinner?”
“Not tonight—I’m tired and need to get home.” But I kissed him goodbye so that he wouldn’t feel rejected.
I drove home, changed into sweat pants and running shoes, and raced outside with my two springer spaniels. They bounced along, black and white, then brindle and white. It was easy to slip into fantasy while my body stretched and moved, the dogs yelping at my bursts of energy: after my run, I’d find myself back at the house I shared with Keith, back where I belonged. I’d make something interesting for dinner. Thai. With lots of lemon grass. Keith liked that.
The fantasy dissolved, and I was at the door of my temporary home. I showered, lit a cigarette, and called the nurse practitioner whom I had seen a couple of months ago when I had a virus. “I’m feeling kind of stressed out right now,” I said. “Do you know someone I could talk to?”
Lynn Wilson was the name, and she was a social worker. I hadn’t liked that woman therapist who called me passive-aggressive, and generally preferred to be around men, but I decided that the gender of the therapist didn’t matter. I only needed to see her a few times. Within a month, everything would be fine: no scary suicide thoughts, and I’d probably be home with Keith.
Excerpted from "The Flock"
Copyright © 1992 Joan Frances Casey.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
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