Fiction · 02/24/2010

Obelisk

There was a storm expected to come in from the west — snaps of lightning and leagues of rain pummeling down — and for that reason I’d taken Sam out for a good long walk. Without it, he’d spend the night crouched by the window in the kitchen, yelping at the phantoms of wind smoothing the grass in the front of the house, his grass.

Sam sniffed at the morning glory vine coiled around the neighbor’s mailbox post, finally lifting his back left leg and zapping the purple flowers with some glory of his own. He looked at me. I turned my head. He liked privacy while he carried out his business.

There was no one in the street. No walkers or joggers, no children playing. All the cars were stowed away in their respective garages and all the garages were sealed up. I was fidgeting with my cell phone when I heard it — my name, carried along on a swell of wind, soft and rasping, like a sudden rustling of leaves. I couldn’t place the voice, though it was somehow familiar. I looked from house to house, to the empty decks and patios and porches, the driveways and walkways and curtained windows. A strong gust of wind toppled a garbage can a few houses down; it rolled in lazy circles in the middle of the street, rumbling like a tribal drum. I looked down at Sam, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. I heard my name again, though this time its source was impossible to mistake.

I ran inside to tell Linda that Sam spoke his first words. She thought I was barking mad. “The dog said your name?” she repeated, holding on for the punchline.

If this was what our marriage had come to — doubt, derision, tension — so be it. Who was I kidding? I probably didn’t have the knees to take a leap of faith either. We had enough good memories in reserve to see this thing through to the end.

The talking dog episode was the latest in a series of missteps, blunders, solecisms, call them what you will; there was no longer any doubt in Linda’s mind that my rocker had capsized. And while I didn’t agree with her, I couldn’t argue with her. We both knew I would get lost in moments of abstraction at odd times during the day. And only once my name had been called just so many times — say six on average — would I snap out of it. I’d also fallen into a habit of waking in the middle of the night to take Sam on long walks when all he wanted to do was sleep. Two doctors later, after numerous tests, on treadmills and in bathrooms, with needles and with cold, frisky hands, we were confident there wasn’t anything physiologically wrong with me. (The only thing that the MRI scan proved is that I’m deathly claustrophobic.) Linda was referred to a psychologist by her best friend, Darren, who assured her that therapy is perfectly natural. Did it bother me that my wife’s best friend was a man, and a straight man as far as I knew? A little at first (he was the maid of honor at our wedding), but I’d gotten used to the fact, as, in time, you get used to all friends and family of your spouse, however unpleasant they are to be around. Darren had been going to see Dr. June, the shrink, since the custody hearing following his second divorce. He was surprised that in this day and age more people didn’t seek out professional help to tidy up their “emotional attic,” as Dr. June called it. Another friend — a woman, Suzanne — referred Linda to a church support group that met on Thursdays, but after a decade of neglecting church, I was less inclined toward that alternative.

+

I went to see Dr. June on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I lose track of days during the work week, but Linda called to remind me of the appointment. I’d told her countless times to call me on my cell phone and not my work phone, because my boss, Mr. Santos, doesn’t like personal calls being taken on the company’s dollar. It had been five years and she still hadn’t adapted to dialing my cell phone.

I arrived at Dr. June’s office a few minutes past six. The place was an old Queen Anne Victorian, rezoned for office use, a stone’s throw from downtown. The front lawn was fanged with dogwoods, rooted on either side of the walkway leading to the front door. Inside, the foyer had been converted into a waiting area, high-ceilinged and magazineless. It smelled like roasted marshmallows. There were two office doors: Dr. June’s, and a personal injury attorney whose advertisements were all over billboards, bus kiosks, and park benches. I sat down and toggled with my cell phone, scrolling through the different options and settings until the door to Dr. June’s office opened a crack and I took that as my cue to enter.

The room was burgundy-brown, and the sofa and throw pillows were stiff. Dr. June, sitting across from me in a red leather chair, was long-legged and slender, with the austerity and professionalism of a new Ph.D. still finding her bearings, but the matching furniture and shelves of thick, jacketless books to match the furniture gave the impression that she was well-settled. There were pictures and diplomas on the walls. I immediately recognized one of the men in the photographs — it was Clifford Benz, the weatherman on Channel Nine Action News. His unabashed smile was a funny contrast to Dr. June’s hardened expression as they shook hands in the photograph.

“Is that Clifford Benz of Channel Nine Action News?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know him?”

“He was a patient of mine,” she said. I nodded. “Impotence.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Impotence. He was impotent. Did you know that most people who report on the weather are impotent? Meteorology gives them a sense of control over something greater than themselves and, thus, helps them to keep the fragile vase of sanity intact. That’s why most weather people on television are men.

“I didn’t know that.”

“Few do.”

“Isn’t that confidential?”

“The pictures on the walls are the patients I’ve rehabilitated. Once you’ve been treated, confidentiality is irrelevant because you’ve become the master of your malady.”

I nodded.

She went on to ask me questions about my work and my social life. I told her that I worked in customer service and that I had only a few close friends who I saw maybe once a month. Then the hour was up. The time passed easily enough and I was relieved — and surprised — to find myself leaving unscathed, with all my parts intact.

When I returned home, Linda criticized me for not having worn something nicer than jeans and a t-shirt to the appointment. She told me that I had to start taking my health seriously. We argued for an hour or so. Too tired to cook, we had take-out for dinner. In the late evening, I walked Sam once around the block and we played a game — one of our favorites — where we count the number of silver and black cars, either driving or parked on the street. He barked his total after I told him mine. His number was one less than mine this time, even though I’d seen a funeral procession pass and was near certain the black cars had outnumbered the silver ones and he was only trying to cheer me up. Back at the house, I watched television until bed, while Sam sparred with a sofa cushion and Linda flipped through her magazines in the kitchen.

+

My next appointment with Dr. June was on a Saturday afternoon, and I remember this because it was when I’d usually catch a matinee at the AMC.

“Darren tells me that your wife thinks you spend an unhealthy amount of time with the dog.”

“Oh.” It was the only thing I could think to say.

“Do you think you spend too much time with the dog?”

“Animals need attention.”

She paused to consider how to phrase her next question. “Do you ever have romantic feelings toward the dog?”

“No.”

“How about other animals?”

“No.”

“I see.” She scribbled a quick note in the black, ringed journal leaning against her forearm.

“Figuratively speaking, do you ever feel like you’re dragging a boulder up a steep hill?”

“If anything the boulder is dragging me.”

“Interesting.” She made a sweeping stroke with her pen.

Dr. June crossed her legs and I was pulled into a salacious fantasy involving the two of us: Dr. June is straddling me on the stiff couch, her glasses tossed aside, raven hair unfettered. “Repression is hindering your copulatory performance. Stop repressing! Stop repressing!” she bleats.

I snapped out of it.

She asked me more questions about the dog, then about my wife and our marriage. I told her that Linda and I had met through mutual friends and had been married for eight years. I told her that we had no children of our own; Linda didn’t want them and I wasn’t sure I wanted them either. Well, to be honest, I hadn’t thought much about it.

+

Linda invited Dr. June over for dinner one evening to celebrate the apparent progress I had made in such a short period of time. Darren received an invitation as well. Dr. June wore a charcoal-colored pantsuit and short black heels. I had often imagined what she would be like outside of the office, in a social setting (or in bed). And to my astonishment, or lack of astonishment, she never took off her professional mask. Her posture was impeccable and dinner was suitably uncomfortable.

“Wonderful vegetables,” Dr. June said, in that cool, detached voice of hers. I was wondering if she would next ask Linda if she had ever felt any romantic feelings toward the vegetables. Dinner was quiet for the most part. I slipped Sam a piece of steak under the table. Dr. June was watching me and seemed to be making a mental note of the gesture.

After dinner, Dr. June and Linda had an impromptu session of psychoanalysis in the kitchen. Darren and I were left sitting across from one another in the dining room.

“Dr. June’s great, isn’t she?” Darren said. A warm, at-home smile stretched across his face. Darren had the physique of a triathlete, maybe even a decathlete. He was tall and broad-shouldered with tight blond curls and high cheekbones. The nature of our relationship made it impossible for us to become friends, to even pretend at friendship.

“Yes,” I said. Darren’s eyes floated over to the teak cabinet, which housed Linda’s collection of exotic teapots and decorative crystal ware. I tried to listen in on what they were saying in the kitchen. I considered going in there for a glass of water or juice, but decided against it. On several occasions, I thought I heard my name tucked away into the dales of softening voices. I imagined Linda was telling Dr. June about my company’s New Year’s party, at a coworker’s house, and how I’d mistakenly tried to leave through the hallway closet. Linda had played it off like I was drunk.

They emerged from the kitchen ten minutes later. Linda seemed content. I was grateful that Darren and I were no longer the only people in the room, coupled awkwardly together. After coffee, Dr. June said that she had to be getting home. She thanked Linda, and Linda thanked her in return. Darren stayed. He and Linda chatted in the living room, and I took Sam outside. I could tell she didn’t want me around.

+

Sam and I sat on the porch. The night was moonless, breezy. Sam was cold and nosed under my arm. I scratched behind his ears. A scruffy-looking cat darted out from behind my car and Sam’s head lifted, but he restrained himself, with difficulty, understanding that it was more important he keep me company.

Darren and Linda stood in the doorway. He kissed her on the forehead and headed to his car. Sam slipped out from under my arm and watched from the foot of the porch steps as Darren started his car, his growling harmonized with the rumble of the engine.

“Stop that,” Linda said. She looked at me. “Tell him to stop that.”

+

A couple of days passed. Linda asked for money to have work done on the yard. I signed a blank check against my better judgment, but the moles had hollowed out the front lawn and it was freckled with small holes and in urgent need of professional attention. I was glad that she was taking the initiative.

Four to six weeks later, a flatbed backed onto our lawn, somehow, miraculously, maneuvering around the scores of cavities. She used the money to have a full-sized reproduction of an Egyptian obelisk staked in the front yard, having seen an advertisement in one of her mail-order catalogs. With the yard all chewed up, the best they could do was to install it at a slight angle.

“Why the front yard?” I asked.

“So everyone can see it, of course,” Linda said.

I spent the evening hours staring at the obelisk through the bathroom window, like some perverted scene you can’t look away from, a peep show or car wreck. It rose from the lawn like the mast of a prehistoric skyscraper — a meteoric fossil unearthed in none other than our own front yard. I could imagine the moles surfacing at night to pray to the granite column, bowing down in dogmatic veneration, humming high-pitched Oms.

+

“How do you feel about the obelisk?” Dr. June inquired at the start of our appointment the following week. I wanted to ask how she’d found out about the obelisk, but I already knew the answer. Was I all Dr. June and Darren discussed during their sessions? I couldn’t really blame them. How much was there left to talk about after three years of therapy?

“I feel nothing toward the obelisk,” I said finally.

“Your wife doesn’t feel that you like it. Do you not like it?”

“No, I don’t like it.”

“Why didn’t you say that initially?”

“I guess I didn’t want to stir up conflict.”

“You’re in a safe environment. Don’t hold back. Everything you say in here is protected.” I glanced at the photographs on the far wall, all four rows of them. Dr. June cleared her throat. “Are you a dreamer?”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you recall your dreams the morning after? There are some who, whether consciously or unconsciously, repress the memory of their dreams. Freud considered dreaming the ‘royal road to the unconscious.’ Like Freud, I believe dreams have an incredible power to reveal our unconscious in ways our conscious mind cannot imagine.” She nodded — a cue that I was being allowed to speak. I said nothing, so she continued. “I’d like to ask you questions about your dreams, whether you’ve had ones where you’re swimming or flying or dancing, things like that.”

“Okay.”

Dr. June cleared her throat again.

“Excuse me.” She took a sip of water from the glass on the table next to her. “Do you ever dream of running someone over in a car or truck or chariot, possibly a woman from television or film that you feel a particular hostility toward, maybe someone else, a wife or friend?”

“No.”

“How about the inexplicable urge to throw someone off a tall building or plank of some kind, feelings of vulnerability and inferiority when faced with a strong-willed member of the opposite sex.”

“Are we still talking about dreams?”

“Yes.”

“No. I have never had a dream like that.”

“With a sharp object, the unrelenting impulse to cut, or dice, or impale?”

“A woman?”

“Anyone.”

“No. Never.”

“I see.” She made two quick, decisive marks with her pen as if crossing something out. “Have you ever had dreams of castration?”

“Yes.”

I didn’t know why I said it. I had never had dreams of castration. Maybe I was hoping to move things along, expedite the curative process. Her eyes brightened, as if her perseverance had just coaxed a revelatory breakthrough.

“So you do have dreams of castration then?”

I hesitated.

“Yes.”

“I see. And in these dreams is it your wife who’s castrating you?”

“Yes.”

Her eyes again widened. She jotted notes in her black journal, turning over several pages, scrabbling until our time was up. I left feeling that I had made Dr. June’s day.

When I got home, Linda was waiting in the living room. She sprung up from the couch, tossed her arms in the air and with a theatrical twirl shouted, “I’m in love! Isn’t it wonderful?” I was confused. She sat me down and told me that Dr. June had helped Darren garner the courage to face up to his feelings, and he had declared his inexorable love for my wife earlier in the day. They were moving in together. “I think I’ve always known there was something different about me. It makes perfect sense that I was Nefertiti in a past life and Darren was the great Pharaoh Akhenaten. We’ve been waiting lifetimes to be together again. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Dr. June told me to stop repressing and follow my intuition. And I finally am!” Linda said.

“What about me?” Our heads turned in unison. Sam was sitting on his haunches, his head crooked slightly. Behind him the television was on, a soap opera. The character repeated the line again, more slowly this time, “What about me?”

+

The gravity of her admission was lost in the suddenness of its arrival. The sexual jealousy I should have been feeling was missing. An unexpected declaration of love after nearly a decade of wedlock is certainly not an unwelcomed spike in the ECG of marriage. “She’ll come around” was my first sober reaction to her avowal and I would take her back like the flunky that I am. I had no women in queue. Under the aegis of Dr. June, Linda was guided through her personal transformation and never did come around.

Dr. June felt it would be best if I moved out of the house because of my aversion to the obelisk, which in its erect state seemed to suggest an emotional impotency I was grappling with. Sam and I moved into a small apartment in the city where there is not a lot of green space for him to run around, but I take him to the park sometimes and we go on daily walks. I discontinued therapy once I moved into the city. I heard from an old friend in the neighborhood that Linda was pregnant, and she and Darren had surrounded the obelisk with gnomes and fey little woodland creatures dressed like Berbers and Israelites. They also got a cat, one of those free-range breeds that roam in and out at will. I don’t know what people see in cats.

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Ravi Mangla lives in Fairport, NY. His short fiction has recently appeared online at Storyglossia, Annalemma, Pank, and JMWW. He collects lists at his blog, Recommended Reading.