by William Cass
Glen had mixed feelings about having his last phone appointment with Dr. Bey. On the one hand, he finally felt pretty much like himself again and strong enough to face whatever might lie ahead on his own. On the other, he’d been having those weekly counseling sessions for going on two years since shortly after his wife moved out without warning; she’d simply left her wedding and engagement rings on their bureau on top of a note that said: “I can’t do this anymore.” He was served divorce papers outside the elementary school where he was assistant principal a week later.
All Glen’s immediate phone messages, texts, and emails to her went unanswered. She quickly closed each of those accounts, and he had no idea where she’d gone, so any chance of communication with her quickly became impossible. In those early days, he just wandered around in a kind of numb fog, hardly sleeping, stumbling his way through work, a feeling ever-present like he was falling in a bottomless well. He often found himself gazing with disbelief at the framed photograph from their honeymoon, the one where their tanned faces smiled into the camera with a white-sand beach and blue waves behind them. When he hazarded glances in the mirror, hollowed eyes in a pale face stared back, and he found himself crying often and at odd moments. He finally realized he had to do something to regain some sort of functionality. He was too embarrassed, too proud he supposed, to seek face-to-face help, but found online counseling services that offered sessions by video, chat, or phone. Glen chose the phone option and Dr. Bey after scrolling through the counselors’ profiles on the site because it was the only one that didn’t include a personal photo, furthering the sense of anonymity he sought.
On that first counseling call, Glen was surprised to hear a woman answer.
“You’re Dr. Bey?” he asked after she’d already said so.
“That’s right.” She sounded about his age, fortyish, and there was a distinct accent to her voice.
“Are you British?”
“I was raised in Australia,” she said. “But I became an American citizen while I was still married.”
“You’re divorced then?”
She paused. “I am, yes.”
Glen squeezed his eyes shut. “Well, I’ll be going through that soon myself, so I hope you can help. I’m really struggling with things right now. Badly.”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” Her voice was calm, steady, reassuring. “Tell me what’s happened.”
So, he did. And, he continued to do so every Friday afternoon at five o’clock from that point forward. Over time, she did help him understand the roots that were likely at hand in his wife leaving and his own role in that, helped him separate and dissipate blame and anger, helped him navigate the divorce itself and its aftermath. In short, in her even-handed, honest, and gently direct way, she helped him slowly but gradually put the pieces of his life back together.
It was a journey that for the first six months at least Glen frankly never thought would be possible. And even though she’d now also helped him see that he’d arrived at a place where her assistance was no longer needed, he was hesitant to end it. Although their weekly discussions had for a while become more like conversations between friends about increasingly routine and mundane daily life topics, both his and ones they shared, he was sorry to see them stop. An intimacy of sorts had somehow developed, one that she also, it seemed to Glen, had come to appreciate and enjoy. It might have just been his hopeful imagination, but he thought he heard the tiniest bit of reluctance creep into her own voice when they agreed to make this session their last. Perhaps that’s why, in hindsight, there appeared to be insistence in it, too.
As the conclusion of that last hour together approached, Glen sighed and said, “So, I guess this is it, then. The end of the road for us.”
“You can always get in touch through the website and set up a new appointment if you need it.” She paused. “But I don’t think you will. You’re doing really well now.”
“Thanks to you.”
He waited and listened to the soft static on the line. “So, listen, since we’re signing off for the last time in a minute, can you tell me where you live?”
A moment passed before she said, “Here. The same city.”
He felt his eyes widen. “But your area code…”
“It’s a cell number I got a long time ago. Before I moved after my divorce.”
“Wow. All this time, I thought you were in another part of the country, but you’ve been right down the block.”
“So to speak.”
A longer moment of silence passed, then Glen said, “How about a first name, do you have one of those?”
“I do.” Another pause. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to share it with you.”
He nodded, pinched the bridge of his nose, and watched the minute hand on the clock above his desk move into a new hour. He supposed she was looking at the same thing.
Glen could hear the slow, familiar breathing on the other end of the line. His own, he realized, had quickened. Finally, she said, “Well, then…”
“You take care.”
He heard a click on her end, and the line went silent. He lowered his phone onto the desk and stared at her number on it. The light in his study had fallen, the evening’s gloaming begun.
Glen waited a few days before doing an internet search for Dr. Bey along with their city’s name. He was surprised to only get one possible hit: just an address for a “Dr. R. Bey” with the word “Psychologist” after it. No website, images, reviews, or any other entries, which he found curious. That Friday, as five o’clock came and went, he found himself repeatedly fingering and checking his cell phone, a feeling of anxious emptiness enveloping him. He went for a run, turning up the music in his earbuds, but the feeling remained. And it persisted into the next week. He realized that Dr. Bey had become a talisman for him, a mooring. Glen felt untethered without her. He missed her voice. He missed their connection. He wondered if she felt similarly.
As time went on, the feeling only intensified, so two weeks later, he decided to bring flowers to her office to thank her personally for all she’d done for him. He chased away whatever other motives or hopes may have been involved in that decision. A simple expression of gratitude, he told himself. Nothing more.
Glen waited until that first Monday of his school district’s Spring Break to stop at a florist for a mixed bouquet and make the drive across town. He felt himself frowning as he pulled to the curb and turned off his car’s engine in front of the door that led to her office. It was in a rundown, multi-ethnic section of the city. Her nameplate was on the door of a smoke-stained brick building, and through the smudged glass above it, he could see a staircase leading to what appeared to be a small second floor apartment over an auto parts store. On the other side of the door, an old man of Middle Eastern decent sat on a stool in front of a newsstand, a burning cigarette between his lips. With the morning unseasonably warm, Glen’s windows were rolled down, and the acrid smoke from it drifted his way on the small breeze.
Glen moved the flowers from the passenger seat onto his lap, and the door leading to the staircase opened. A woman came through it onto the sidewalk, leaving it ajar behind her. She was also of Middle Eastern decent and wore a black hijab. The rest of her clothing was black, too, and she pushed up large oval-shaped glasses that had slid to the tip of her nose. More distinctive was her size: she was less than four feet tall with the short arms and torso associated with dwarfism. The old man on the stool looked at her and smiled as she came to his side, took a newspaper off the pile by his cash box, and handed him money. They began talking together about the fine weather, and at the sound of her first spoken words, Glen immediately recognized that she was Dr. Bey. Something inside of him dropped. He felt his eyebrows knit.
She and the old man exchanged pleasantries for another minute or so before Dr. Bey returned through the door with the newspaper, closed it behind her, and climbed the stairs. Glen watched the back of her until she’d disappeared. He felt frozen, unable to move. He found himself blinking and shaking his head. He remained motionless there until the old man had finished his cigarette and dropped it with a hiss in a coffee can at his feet. Glen blew out a long breath, got out of the car, crossed the sidewalk, and leaned the bouquet against the door leading to the staircase.
He turned when he heard the old man clear his throat. He was staring at Glen and said, “Are those for Rahima?”
“Well, you can bring them to her yourself. She’s just at the top of the stairs there.”
“I don’t think so, no.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Glen was overcome with shame and self-loathing. She’d guided him through the darkest part of his life. What did it matter who she turned out to be? But he just shook his head and walked back to his car.
As he was getting into it, the old man asked, “Who should I tell her the flowers are from?”
“Nobody special,” Glen told him. “Nobody she’d care to meet. Just an admirer.”
He slid into the seat, closed the door, and started the engine. He was aware of the old man’s eyes still on him. Glen met his even gaze a last time before putting the car in gear. As he pulled away, the old man raised his hand, and Glen returned the gesture. It was the closest thing to human decency he could muster. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t do better, but at that moment, he wasn’t capable of it.
William Cass has had a little over 190 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.