Grace Simms waited patiently for her client to reply. The awaited moment arrived when Becky closed smoky lids lined with dark lashes to summon the image she kept stored in her damaged mind. Slipping into a dreamy state, the girl continued, “I think about his eyes. I think about–– the way he looks at me.” She inhaled deeply, surrendering a sigh. “His eyes are so beautiful, sexy —compassionate.” Becky’s furrowed brow relaxed, her pained expression dissolved. She opened her eyes, uncrossed her legs and shifted her weight. Her smile disappeared. “When he looks at me a certain way—I feel like I’m under a spell or something. He reaches into my soul seeking a part of me that even I haven’t dared to explore.”
“What does he find?” Grace asked, settling comfortably in her red chair.
“My secret yearnings…my impure thoughts…”
Becky’s fingertips dance across her collarbone, mimicking heedless butterflies. Suddenly, she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her tanned knees, her haunting words spoken through splayed fingers cupping her face. “He affects me like no other,” she cried.
“How so?” Grace penciled a note on her yellow pad.
“He holds me in his gaze until my heart beats like a captured bird and I can't breathe...”
“He smiles…and he lets me go… slowly.”
“Sounds cruel.” Grace flipped her note pad shut.
“It’s not like that. He’s my angel.”
“Do you think angels wield that kind of power?”
Becky stiffened. “You don’t understand!”
Grace willed herself not to argue the accusation. She knew the hold a man could have on a woman’s heart. She referred to Jess---and the phone call she received last night-- out of the blue. A slight shiver traveled her spine. “I’m afraid its time to quit. We can continue the next time we meet.”
“Fine.” Becky sprang from her seat. “He’s not a monster!” she cried, slamming the door.
Grace begged to differ.
* * *
“Damn!” Grace cursed, pounding the steering wheel with her palm. I’m never late, she chastised herself, checking the clock on her dash to confirm. She hated to keep Becky waiting. A week had passed since their last session and Grace anticipated another go-around regarding Becky’s “mystery man.”
How could she give the girl sound advice when her own life was beginning to resemble the aftermath of a summer storm. Because Jess called to announce his new job in Sacramento? Or because he hasn’t called since? Deep down she wasn’t surprised. The last time he promised to call was eight years ago, she thought, stopping short of ramming the green car occupying her assigned space. “What the—can’t you read? I pay for that spot!”
Trolling the aisles for another parking space added to her frustration. Her temper flared, she began to lose hope. Finally, on the fourth floor, she swung into a tight spot next to a cement post, nearly shearing off her side-view mirror. She caught her harried reflection. Damn Jess. Why Sacramento? Why now? Jamming the gearshift into park, she flung her purse over her shoulder, stuffed the remainder of a glazed donut into her mouth, grabbed her coffee, car keys, and opened her door. She squeezed through the narrow opening stretching a long limb toward the pavement exposing her shapely thighs and ivory lace. While licking sticky glaze from her fingers, a prickling sensation crept along the nape of her neck. She swallowed hard. Someone was standing behind her…watching.
She turned quickly ready to throw her coffee, but no one was there. Not again. She scanned her surroundings, paying close attention to shadows, expecting one of them to move. It’s nothing, the practical voice inside her head mocked. Come on, you’re a grown woman now, a psychotherapist for Chris sakes! Nevertheless, her pulse quickened. Heat blossomed in her cheeks. Blood coursed through her veins and pounded in her ears. Breathe.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed in the concrete structure. No one answered. Chills, raced along her spine.
Slamming her car door, she looked around one last time. Someone is there. I know it. Adrenaline alerted her nervous system. Run! Spiked heels hit cement--- >bam<, >bam<, >bam< resounding like firecrackers popping on the fourth of July, chasing her across the parking lot. She looked over her shoulder twice, expecting to see a crazed gunman shooting at her.
All she saw were rows and rows of cars. Like before.
Charging into the elevator, she collided with an old woman, "Sorry!” she huffed. The woman yowled, rubbing her foot. “I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?” Grace queried, trying to slow the stampede in her chest. Years ago, she reminded herself, the stalking ended years ago.
The old woman’s protesting ceased mid-sentence. What is it? Grace froze. The doors! They’re not closed all the way. Her eyelids squeezed tight. She braced herself for the worst. Any moment someone would force the doors open, snatch her from the elevator, slit her throat and dump her body on the stained concrete floor. She imagined herself lying in a pool of blood, oil and antifreeze, with her eyes fixed wide on a rusty muffler. Not again.
Relief came when the doors finally sealed shut. Grace opened her eyes to find the old woman pointing at her face. “You have–you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Grace muttered. She took another deep breath.
The old woman continued to stare. “Go like this,” she said, brushing under her nose.
Grace obeyed and discovered crunchy icing stuck between her nose and upper lip. “Part of my breakfast,” she said, unclenching her jaw and forcing a laugh. “I was in a--- hurry,” she explained. No one there…let it go.
* * *
The figure watched Grace’s smooth legs maneuver in her short skirt as she emerged from her car. Her blond hair spilled across the curve of her spine, as she twisted into an upright position. When Grace stood motionless, and her cool voice called out, the figure wanted to rush to her---say things. Hurtful things. Not yet. Be silent. For now-- revel in her fear.
When the car door slammed and clicking heels darted across the parking lot, the figure watched the beauty scurry toward the elevator.“Not your typical psychotherapist…”
Ugly thoughts began to brew. Sharp objects inserted in small places. So much blood.
After the elevator doors closed, the figure freely peered through the windows of Grace’s parked car. The passenger seat held a manila envelope, on the label– Grace’s home address. A dangerous smile spread in celebration of the discovery. Heading for the stairs, the figure committed the delightful tidbit to memory while singing a daunting tune:
“I know where you li-ive
I know where you li-ive…”
* * *
The elevator came to a halt on the second floor. Grace stayed back, letting the old woman exit first, mindful of minutes ticking away. When her path cleared, she raced down the hall to her suite. Before entering, she stopped to smooth silky layers over slim hips and fluff trapped heat from the heavy curls clinging to her neck. After a cleansing breath, she squared her shoulders and entered her office as if it were any other day.
“Morning, Sal,” she said to the petite woman minding the front desk.
“Good morn-ing,” the woman chirped, looking up from her typing. “You’re late –– everything okay?” Besides Grace’s office manager, Sal was her friend, her very ‘intuitive’ friend.
“Am I?” Grace asked, brushing off the implication. How could she justify lazing in the mirror for over an hour, inspecting her face for visible signs of aging? Clothes strewn from one end of her bedroom to the other...shoes, kept neatly organized in boxes, piled in a heap on her closet floor? How could she explain getting spooked in the parking garage? “Everything’s fine,” she said.
“Your face is flushed.”
“I was running. This creepy– it felt like– never mind. I’m sure it was nothing.” Grace chose not to share the details. Sal tended to worry. “Do you have my first appointment ready to go?”
“Breathe. Becky arrived a second ago. Here-- today’s mail.” Sal studied Grace carefully. “Goin’ somewhere after work?”
“What’s with the questions?” Grace tugged the black fabric clinging to her curves.
“Your outfit for starters–” Standing on tip-toes, Sal gave her boss the once over.
“What’s wrong with it?” Grace adjusted the scooped neckline on her red knit sweater.
“Noth-ing.” Sal smirked. “Make-up looks nice, too.”
“A little lipstick and mascara –– it’s not a big deal.”
“That eye shadow brings out those pretty brown eyes of yours.” Sal said, peering over her glasses. “Sure you don’t have a date?”
“No! I don’t have a date.” Grace snapped up her mail, shuffled through it, stacked it briskly, and tossed it back on the counter.
“Then what is it?” Sal drummed her fingers.
“What’s what? I didn’t feel like wearing a suit today, that’s all.”
“How many times did you change this morning?” Sal persisted, removing her glasses to monitor Grace’s reaction.
“Three–okay? I felt frumpy.”
“Ah, hah!” Sal put her glasses back on and flipped the page on the calendar. “Now I get it!” She laughed. “You have a little birthday coming up!
“It’s not just a little birthday, Sal. I’m going to be thirty-one!”
“Aw, that’s nothing. You’re good until at least –fifty! Sal peered over her thin frames. “Trust me. One day, you’ll wish you were thirty-nine!”
“No, I won’t.” Grace fancied her spiked heels. She had spent the better part of her morning rummaging through her closet on her hands and knees. Digging through boxes, until at last, she found them. The teardrop cut-out above her pinky toe looked sexy. She tried to remember the last time she’d worn them. Her last date? I was twenty-five then. The guy was a loser. She cleared her throat and announced, “I better get to work.”
Stepping into her therapist role, Grace approached the waiting area. Becky appeared as stunning as the model posed on the fashion magazine she held in her lap. “Hi, Becky, sorry for the delay– I'll be with you in a moment.” Becky didn’t respond.
Grace unlocked the door to her familiar, eclectic space. Morning sun illuminated Café Crème walls with a soft, warm glow. Down-filled pillows, black, crimson and sage, were tossed strategically on an off-white, faux-suede sofa. Matching chairs with a black lacquered table between, divided the room. Across from the grouping– tall, multi-paned windows filled one wall. Grace looked around. My world. Each item in the room, meticulously chosen to make a person feel special, worthy, empowered, yet comfortable and secure. She admired her red chair; relishing its height, depth, and the way the soft, sumptuous leather embraced her body each time she sat down. Walking towards the back of the room she passed a black lacquered bookcase and took her place behind her antique, mahogany desk.
She skimmed through Becky’s chart doing a quick review, beginning with the call she received from her dear family friend and mentor, Dr. Meltz. The psychiatrist said Becky had been working at a department store in the mall, when according to co-workers, she physically accosted a customer, then snapped. A failed attempt, made by mall security, to quiet the girl, led to a 911 call. When paramedics arrived, Becky remained hysterical, lashing out at anyone who tried to touch her. Dr. Meltz explained the need for restraints, meds. “She’s calm now, lucid, I can’t keep her here,” he said. “There are no beds available and I don’t want to transfer her to County.” He sighed, his tone softened. “She told me about some guy, says he’s her angel, will you talk to her?” Although Grace was intrigued, her schedule was already packed. Dr. Meltz sensed her indecisiveness, he was good at that. “I held you the day you were born,” he reminded her in his jovial manner, “do an old man a favor, will you?”
How could she refuse? Grace’s dad and Dr. Meltz were med-school buddies, best friends at one time. She adored Dr. Meltz, maybe even worshipped him a little, she didn’t want to disappoint. She agreed to take Becky on as a client. Now, she was stumped.
Flipping through notes from previous sessions, Grace felt determined to unlock the mystery of the man her client claimed to be her ‘angel’. She suspected that Becky's pain manifested in early childhood, her innocence scarred with ugly memories. Becky was twenty-three, highly intelligent, but emotionally stunted. Her voice and behavior seemed more adolescent, like she was stuck. Grace knew that when pain became the result of trusting and loving, the unconscious mind dealt with the instinctual needs of the id–and something else formed. In Becky’s case, she’d developed an imaginary savior, one she carried in her head at all times. He made her feel safe, perhaps even loved. Grace concluded the girl managed to hide whatever horror she experienced, if any, by splitting from reality and fixating on this savior. This coping mechanism served Becky well…until that day at the mall… when everything changed and her psychological attachment appeared in ‘physical’ form.
Ready to begin her day, Grace dated a clean sheet of paper and went to retrieve her client.
“What would you like to talk about?” Grace prompted, once they were seated.
Becky recalled very little about her week, her thoughts, scattered. Grace took the lead.
“When you drift off like that Becky, I wonder what’s going on. Can you tell me what’s on your mind?”
Becky’s slender shoulders sank deep into the cushions. Draping her arms across her chest, she slid one bare leg over the other. “You know what I think about."
Grace identified with the girl’s angst, flustered by her own thoughts. Just friends– He can’t wrap you around his finger again –unless you let him. “Tell me more about the man, Becky,”
“No.” Becky’s smile flickered. Her jade orbs blurred into watercolor seascapes. “You just want to make me believe he doesn’t exist. He does!” she cried. He’s gentle– kind – he’s my angel!”
“Who is this man to you?”
The girl stifled her tears. Turning away, she withdrew her trust…she wouldn’t say.
Grace wasn’t about to let her slip away. She moved closer.
“Can you describe this man to me?”
Becky’s expression turned to ice. She rose, sauntered across the room and stared at the Picasso print. Running her finger along the edge of the frame, she said, “I knew it was him–I knew the moment I heard his voice––––I told you that!” She spun around, her cold eyes flashing, “Remember?”
Grace remained even, despite Becky’s hateful look. “Yes, I remember,” she replied, watching yet another transformation take place. Becky began to brood. They had discussed the incident in their first session two weeks prior– Becky told Grace she had been working behind the register at Nordstrom, when she heard a voice that signaled her brain to seek out the source. She said her heart accelerated as she searched the crowd. When she saw him her lungs sucked in new air before she could release her previous breath. Her skin felt warm. She said it was ‘him’. “As I recall, you said his voice was familiar.”
“It wasn’t just familiar, Grace. It was him! His voice has been stuck in my head for so long, how could I not recognize it?”
What Becky described were symptoms of a panic attack: heart palpitations, shortness of breath, flushing. Grace knew the signs. She felt the same when she picked up the phone and heard Jess’s voice. She needed to know more about the scintillating voice that haunted Becky. Where did it originate? Did it stem from fear? And where did the anger come from? “Go on,” Grace said, “I’m listening.”
Becky flopped back down on the sofa so hard Grace thought the cushions might swallow the girl whole. “If you had spoken to someone on the phone for years,” the girl explained, “and then heard them speak in person, wouldn’t you recognize them?”
“Possibly.” Grace remained objective.
“Anyway, I tried to hug him––” Becky’s eyes glistened with tears. “He said, “I’m sorry, you caught me off guard–“he said, “I didn’t mean to push you.” He asked me if he hurt me and I told him no, you didn’t hurt me. You just saved my life.”
“How did he respond?”
“He said, “You must have me confused with someone else.””
The two women sat in silence. Grace knew the rest of the story. The man departed quickly. Becky said she was shocked when he walked away. She couldn’t figure out why, since she had just found him. She frantically searched the crowd. He was gone. That’s when she began to scream.
Immediately after Becky’s release from the hospital, she showed up at Grace’s office, eyes red rimmed, hair disheveled, miserable. Grace recalled part of their conversation…
"He's real, you know––he's very real. I saw him, he's real."
"Who's real, Becky? Who did you see today?” No answer, just a smile. "How do you know this man, Becky?” Leaning closer, Grace confided, "You can tell me, Becky. You can talk to me about him.”
Grace remembered the rapture in those young beautiful eyes––until the girl spoke…
"He pushed me away!” Her face bunched with intense pain, her chin trembled. Tears welled up and ran down her cheeks. She made no effort to wipe them away.
Grace came back to the moment.
“What do you like about this man?”
"I love his hair." The girl’s buoyancy returned as if she were indulging in a delectable treat. Head tilted back, eyes closed; she conjured his image.
Grace observed as Becky slid her fingertips from one hand to the palm of the other hand and back again, lacing and unlacing her fingers slowly. Grace could almost feel the girl’s reverie…hands raking through dark hair, silky waves sliding smoothly between long fingers, the sensation stimulating feelings deep inside–– feelings kept hidden from everyone– but ‘him’.
“Can you tell me what you’re feeling, Becky?”
“He has great hair,” she replied fervidly.
Grace reverted to the word “compassionate” she had written and circled from their last session. Becky had used this word to describe the man’s eyes. “‘Compassionate eyes” and “great hair” weren’t much to go on; she smiled at her client encouragingly.
“Go on, I’d like to hear more.”
Becky placed two fingers on her parted lips, exploring the moist flesh timidly before tracing her way down her creamy neck to the bottom V of her blouse.
“When I close my eyes, I can feel the warmth of his breath on top of my head. I can feel his strong hand gently sliding the length of my arm as he whispers, “its ok...we can do this together. You’re going to be alright, I'll see to that.”
A single tear splashed on the top of Becky’s hand. Grace watched the girl disappear into her thoughts. She needed to bring her back.
“What else do you like about this man? What other thoughts are you having?”
“Thoughts I shouldn’t be having,” her client responded sheepishly.
“I have thoughts about ---- his body.”
“What kind of thoughts?” Grace’s ears perked.
“I picture him standing before me. I unbutton his shirt… slide my hands around his waist––he feels so good! His stomach is firm. Hmmm. He has a mature physique. He's kind of–” She paused to look at Grace, as if suddenly, she were a spectacle. “Anyways, I love his body.” Placing her hands in her lap, she sat quietly.
Grace noted Becky’s intent to make her point about the man's body. Possible transference? Father? Uncle perhaps? She took advantage of Becky’s introspection to question further.
“Is he okay with you touching him in such a personal manner?” Grace wondered if, in fact, this man was forbidden fruit. “Does he resist you?”
Becky pressed a wrinkle in her plaid skirt with her palm.
“No, not in my mind, in my mind he– surrenders,” she answered ruefully.
“Tell me more about what happens after you unbutton his shirt. Can you do that?”
Grace flinched when Becky’s head snapped up and a vixon immerged.
“First, I kiss his stomach. I have tasted him over and over again in my mind.” Becky refrained, lifted herself up slightly, shifted her weight, and squeezed her knees together. Caressing her arms, slowly, a slight blush repressed the heat stirring within as she continued her fantasy. “I move up toward his chest, unbuttoning as I go.” She closed her eyes, her body quivered.
A searing thought penetrated Grace’s concentration. Doing her best to ignore the heat spreading through her own loins, she scribbled out “J-E-S-S” she had doodled beside the notes on Becky’s chart. No. Not again.
“I can feel the wetness from my mouth on my chin as I kiss his warm, salty skin.” Becky continued. “He’s so delicious– I crave the texture of his skin against mine---” Becky took a deep breath. “Mmmm, he smells like ocean air…dark hair feathers a trail from his navel to his chest and I can't resist rubbing my cheek against it. He excites me like no other.” Becky's brows knitted together. “I have imagined this so many times,” she said, opening her eyes. “I know what he looks like, yet I’ve never seen him undressed. Don't you find that strange?"
“Well,” Grace replied, “certain body types lend themselves to certain characteristics, I suppose. Continue," she urged. Who is this guy? Grace added “seduction” to her notes.
“I, um … I finish unbuttoning his shirt, exposing his chest.” Becky’s face flushed as she tried to describe her mystery man’s physical attributes. “He is–he has– ” She stumbled, unable to find the words. “I wanted to– Ohhhh, I can't do this, Grace!”
"Perhaps this is a good place to stop then. Are you okay?”
"We didn't get very far, did we?"
“Actually, I think you did a great job. You shared more of what you've been keeping inside your head– that's a good thing. And you managed to describe your feelings with less hesitation. I think we made progress; what do you think?"
“Yes,” she said. “Progress.”
The girl’s smile was hopeful. It was Grace’s intent to empower her clients with their own conclusions before ending a session. Becky had moxie. Natural survival instincts made her strong like steel, but emotionally, she was extremely fragile, like hand-blown glass. In order for them to build a solid foundation, Grace would have to be the hammer before she could be the glue.
She escorted Becky to the front desk to check for messages and to sneak butterscotch from Sal's bottomless candy dish.
Once Becky left the office, Sal turned to Grace. “Watch your heart, I know how you are,” she warned, her voice filled with concern.
“You’re right,” Grace replied. “Where's that spray can of protective coating when I need it?" A few years ago, when Grace began her private practice, she made herself too available to her clients, leaving little reserve for her self. As a result, she became run-down, emotionally and physically. Grace continued to devote herself to her clients, but Sal looked out for her.
“Your eleven o'clock is running late,” Sal announced, watering the ivy next to the candy dish. “You know,” she added, “you're going to need “Botox” if you don't get that look off your face.” She scowled at Grace, mimicking her.
“That bad, huh?”
“You seem bothered,” Sal began pinching leaves.
“– Lot on my mind, that’s all. Any messages?”
“Nope. Wanna talk about it?”
Surely he would have called by now. “No.” Grace’s heart sank.
“This is about a man,” Sal said, refilling the candy dish.
“It’s an adjustment to an uncontrollable situation, that’s all.” Grace thumbed through the pages of a fashion magazine.
“Sure it is.” Sal relented. Their friendship was built on mutual respect, knowing when to give each other space. She backed off. “Okay if I leave a few minutes early today?”
“Buns has a dentist appointment,” she offered.
“And how is Buns these days?” Grace inquired. ‘Buns’ the youngest of Sal’s five boys was Grace’s favorite. His full name was Brunswick. John, Sal's husband, had a passion for bowling and a warped sense of humor.
“We're finally getting that front tooth of his fixed. Can you believe he's giving me static about getting it bonded? He insists the chip gives him character.”
“Uh, huh,” Grace agreed, half listening. An unsettling feeling kept creeping under her skin. “By the way, I meant to ask you where you parked this morning.”
“Where I always park– second floor on the end. Why?”
“My spot was taken. I had to park on four.”
“That’s because you were late – ground, two and three fill up after eight-thirty.” Sal paused. “Something’s wrong. What is it?”
“Why do you keep assuming something is wrong?”
“Because. You’re making that face again.”
"I have a ton of work,” Grace said, relaxing her brow. Grace’s memory zipped back to age twelve, when she and Sal had been neighbors in Southern California. She remembered Sal coming to her rescue the day she started her period. Grace called her mother for support, but her mother told her to suck it up; there were worse things in life to come. Sal, who had come by to share tomatoes from her garden, sensed Grace’s distress and stayed with her until she felt comfortable enough to talk. After Grace told her what was wrong, Sal rushed home and returned with pads, ginger tea, a bottle of Midol and a candy bar. She never said another word about it, but when Grace turned twenty-one, Sal sent her a bottle of Amaretto, along with a little note: For your cramps. They had remained close ever since.
The last thing she wanted to do was worry her friend.
Sal’s happy-go-lucky spirit had been threatened four years earlier right after John got transferred to Sacramento. She found a lump in her breast, but refused to have surgery. She insisted on keeping her breasts and said she needed time to beat the disease. For six months Sal lived in denial, believing nothing could go wrong with her body that she and God couldn’t heal. Deciding she needed a change, she asked Grace to care for the boys while she and John went to Fiji on a “second honeymoon”. Sal learned to parasail, played bocce ball and took up crocheting. In the end, the cancer had not progressed and her surgeon agreed on a lumpectomy.
After Sal’s surgery, Graced remained on board as surrogate mother until all was well. Grace had planned on going back to southern California until Sal and John offered her permanent residency. “Brenton’s in college, you can have his room. Start your own practice”, they said. “Stay with us as long as you like, save your money, buy a house. Be your own person.” Sal words filtered deep. An only child, Grace’s parents deemed she was their world. Truth be told, they interpreted being involved in her life as being controlling. Grace found it hard to say ‘no’ to them, especially when they tried to influence her career choice. Sal was the mother she needed, one that brought balance to her life, served as an anchor and a beacon. Delighted, Grace took the offer. A week later, against her parent’s wishes, Grace packed her things and moved into Brenton’s old room. For one year she worked two jobs, saved her money, and bought a house. The day she finished her residency she put a deposit on her office and called Sal to ask if she would be her secretary. Sal immediately dialed John on “three-way” for his approval. They both said “yes”.
Returning to her office, Grace leaned against the door and closed her eyes. She couldn’t shake the trepidation she remembered feeling her freshman year in college when she was being stalked. She never saw the person, but she heard footsteps and felt a strong, ominous presence on several occasions. There was no doubt in her mind that she was being watched. She slept with a baseball bat near her bed and carried mace. She was so frightened, she went to the police, but they said without a description, there was nothing they could do. Fortunately, she met Jess, he made her feel safe …and luckily, who or whatever it was, went away. Is he the reason you’re being paranoid?
She stared out the window envisioning Jess, his image crystal clear. You haven’t seen him in eight years. Their attempt at a long-distance friendship fizzled long ago. First, the phone calls got shorter, and then the frequency decreased. Before long, Grace was forced to accept their fate, convincing her heart that things worked out for the best. She wondered if Jess was happy in his marriage. Part of her wanted to imagine he wasn’t. And if that were true? Her soul searching was interrupted by the familiar timber of her next client coming through the door, apologizing for being late. Marilyn, her 11 o’ clock had arrived.