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The Doctor is In
(Kendra Eilers)

A Family Dinner
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Short Story: The Doctor is In

by Kendra Eilers

     Hiccuping sobs emanated from behind the polished oak door. A calm, soothing voice began speaking in muffled tones, and the sobs began to subside. Another voice said a few unintelligible words, then the door opened and a red-eyed man emerged. A second man stood behind the first with his hand resting on the crier’s shoulder. He gave a comforting squeeze before shutting the door.
     Jeff wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and headed down the hallway. It had been nearly six months since his wife had asked for a divorce and he had moved into the apartment across town. He hadn’t been able to accept what she was saying; divorce? Impossible. They were in love, they had the perfect life, two kids, two cars, they even had a dog. She had seen the dog in the pet store window and fallen in love with it, and he had gotten it for her, even though he was incredibly allergic to dogs, because he wanted to make her smile. Her brought her flowers, candy, jewelry “just because.” When she wanted to go back to college, he paid for her classes and helped her study for exams. When she took up pottery, he cleared out the shed out back so she could have her own little studio. He held her hand when she was pregnant, he held her shoulders when she cried, her held her up when she was struggling, and he held her back when she was about to say something she’d regret. There was no way she could want a divorce, no freakin’ way.
     He had started seeing Dr. Mann when she placed that restraining order on him. A court-mandated psychiatrist. Yeah, like that’s what he needed, a shrink to tell him his mother was at the root of all his problems and that he needed to find his “inner child.” He had entered Dr. Mann’s office that first day with apprehension and belligerence since he knew he wasn’t crazy and didn’t need this crap anyway; he could better spend his time trying to convince his wife that she didn’t want a divorce after all.
     After a few sessions with Dr. Mann -- Al to his patients, Doc to his friends -- Jeff began to think that maybe this wasn’t such a waste of time after all. He got to tell Al all of his frustrations about the divorce, like how he wasn’t allowed within 100 feet of her, or how if he didn’t “get better” he may not ever be able to see his kids again unless he was supervised by a social worker, or how she got to stay in the house while he had to live in that crappy one-room apartment with no heat and the mildew on all the walls and he had to pay for her bills and the kids’ bills and his bills and the doctor’s bills and the legal bills.... How could she do this to him, after all that he did for her? Was their whole relationship a lie? Was she seeing someone else? Al helped Jeff face these questions while Jeff lay on the couch sobbing, or pacing around the room yelling, or just sitting across from the doctor, completely inanimate except for a periodic brief bobbing of his head. Jeff felt they had grown close, like brothers, he could tell Al anything and Al would listen and often make it better. How had he lived without Al before? It was like a missing part of his life was now found and stuffed snugly back into its proper place.
     A few sessions back Jeff and Al had been discussing -- what else? -- his wife after a particularly nasty encounter. Al was in the armchair next to the window, his left arm draped across lap while his right hand played with his beard, his glasses hiding his eyes behind the glare from the sunlit afternoon as they slowly slid down his Romanesque nose. Jeff sat facing him, on the edge of the couch, his elbows perched on his knees, his five-o’clock shadowed chin clasped between his fists, one foot tapping incessantly, nearly causing his whole body to tremor with agitation. His icy blue eyes were fixated on the vine that patterned the rug beneath his feet, tracing it over and over in his mind as the scene replayed within his head.

• • •

     They had had a meeting with the lawyers. Something about assets and payments and deals and compromises; he wasn’t really paying attention, he was too busy staring at her hair. She had changed it. The long, glistening locks of cocoa brown that had given him so much joy when he ran his fingers through them had turned into short, chunky strands of auburn red. It was so drastic a change that it threw off his perfectly rehearsed behavior that he swore he wouldn’t deviate from during this meeting. Instead of being attentive, cordial and cooperative he was fixated on those damn red chunks of hair that were like little mocking tongues jutting out at him. The lawyers were squawking back and forth across the glossy table, completely ignoring the couple, the family, the love that was being torn apart by this whole preceding. Jeff sat playing with the pen in his hand, staring at her hair, while she deliberately ignored him, avoiding his eyes, arms crossed across her chest. He just couldn’t believe that she’d go and do something so dramatic, so out of character. She had rarely even curled her hair, let alone dyed it, when she was with Jeff; she hadn’t needed to, she was perfect, flawless, an angel on earth. Why now?
     The lawyers were done deciding what was best for their clients, and they set some papers in front of Jeff to sign. He barely glanced at the forms, his mind still focused on her hair. He signed the documents, then she signed the documents, then the lawyers took the documents and put them into their briefcases, then the lawyers shook hands, and then the lawyers led their clients out of the room knowing that they had triumphed in getting their clients the best deal possible while simultaneously screwing over the other guy.
     Jeff’s lawyer clutched his briefcase and Jeff’s shoulder, congratulating Jeff about how he had reduced the amount of the payments to a manageable figure, much less than what his wife’s lawyer had wanted. It was a feat of legal prowess, his best yet.
     They were headed down the hallway in the wrong direction; she was going that way. Jeff broke away from his lawyer and headed toward her. She turned at the sound of Jeff’s lawyer calling to him, telling him to stop. Her lawyer tried to step between her and Jeff, but Jeff was already too close.
     Jeff asked what she had done to her hair, what was she thinking, she had had such beautiful hair. He reached out to touch the mutilated strands and she shrieked, stumbled backward a half step, and slapped him. The lawyers grabbed their clients, hers pulling his client out of harm’s way, Jeff’s preventing his client from doing any more damage to their case. The lawyers said something to each other, their voices raised, hers looking slightly smug, but Jeff had stopped paying attention again. He was crushed; she had slapped him. She had actually physically slapped him. She had never slapped him before, not before this...this...D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
     When they got out of the building, Jeff’s lawyer severely chastised him. He had violated the restraining order for the second time, was he trying to mess up his only chance at financial stability, did he forget that this would seriously hurt him in the custody hearing, what the hell was he thinking? He had better clean up his act before his behavior landed him in a jail cell, ‘cause then there’s nothing to be done, it’s over, kaput, finito, down the crapper. If he did anything stupid like that again, he’d be out of luck, and out of a lawyer.
     That night Jeff lay on his mattress on the floor, digesting all that had happened. She had changed too much. Something was wrong, something was up, this wasn’t her. She had cut and dyed her hair; her hair, the one thing she never messed with because he liked it so much and she liked having him like it. At least, that’s what he had thought...but now...no, it was her, something had happened with her, he hadn’t changed, something must have happened to her. She hadn’t been wearing her wedding ring at the meeting either, although that wasn’t a big surprise, she had taken it off and thrown it at him in that first discussion that had ended in the restraining order. But there was something else, what was it, it was right on the edge of his mind, if he had only been paying more attention.... She had been wearing a ring! But, wait, it was on her ring finger, her left hand, but he had the wedding ring, so why....
     She was seeing someone else. But this couldn’t be, it had only been a few months since they he had moved out, how could she be seeing someone else already? But she was wearing a ring.... That bastard had given her a ring, and she was wearing it on her left hand. Her left hand. Maybe he was imagining it, maybe she wasn’t wearing a ring, maybe it wasn’t her left hand. He had to talk to her, to straighten this out.
     He drove to the house. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be there, he wasn’t supposed to come within a block of her unsupervised, but this was important and she had some explaining to do anyway.
     He rounded the corner and was about to pull into his usual spot in the driveway, but there was already a car there, one he didn’t recognize. He looked at the car for a moment, then pulled up to the curb across from the house. He walked up to the front door and tried the knob. It wasn’t locked; he opened it. He crept silently, avoiding all the creaky boards he knew so well, the kids would be asleep and he mustn’t wake them. No lights on downstairs, she must be upstairs.
     He saw the strip of light outlining the double-doors to her bedroom -- their bedroom, he had spent twelve years in that bedroom. He passed the open doors to his kids’ rooms; the rooms were empty, no sleeping children, the bed linens weren’t even rumpled. They must be sleeping over somewhere, or perhaps they were at her mother’s house across town? He’d been almost completely shut out of their lives since this started; seeing the empty beds filled his chest with a debilitating pain.
     He heard her muffled voice from behind her door. He resumed his approach, and heard another voice, separate from hers, entwined in her sighs and soft speech. It was him, Ring Man, the bastard was in his house, in his bedroom with his wife...
     He couldn’t remember what happened, not floundering into the room, not finding them in bed together, not how she screamed and cursed, or how he wanted to grab her and hold her and stroke her hair. He remembered sitting out on the curb as the police showed up, along with his lawyer and Al, silent due to the tennis ball lump in his throat that forbade him to speak and caused his anger to come out in racking tremors and pearl-sized tears. He was in violation of the court order, so he would spend the night in jail, but Al convinced her not to press charges due to his “highly fragile psychological state.” Now the restraining order was for five blocks, and he had to take those goddamn pills...

• • •

     “What is it you want to discuss, Jeff? You’ve obviously got something on your mind.”
     Jeff continued to concentrate on the swirling rug vines, avoiding looking at Al. Al was his friend now, his confidant, how could Jeff dare to criticize him?
     “Jeff?” He removed his glasses and leaned forward in his chair.
     Jeff squirmed on the couch, his foot still tapping, his arms clutched around his torso.
     “Jeff, don’t hide things from me.”
     Speaking towards the ground, Jeff stuttered, “I-it’s the p-p-pills, Al.”
     “What about them, Jeff? Aren’t they working? You said they kept you calm, that you weren’t so upset all the time.”
     “O-oh no, they work just fine for that. I-it’s the...the, uh...dreams....”
     Al paused, eyebrow raised. “Dreams?”
     Jeff shifted and reshifted his position on the couch. His hands were folded on his crossed knees, now they were under his arms, now one was running through his hair while the other picked at a strand of thread poking out the cushion.
     “Jeff, calm down. Tell me about the dreams. Why do you think they’re related to the pills?”
     “They started about a week after the meds kicked in,” said Jeff, the fingers of his right hand frolicking near his mouth. “I’ve never had dreams like this before, Al, never, and they’re so....” He stared into space, rocking slightly on the edge of the couch.
     Jeff struggled to find the right words. “Ugly. T-terrifying. Holy shit, they’re terrifying...”
     “Do you want to tell me what they’re about?”
     “But they’re just so...it’s like...there’s this thing that...they’re just so damn crazy, I mean, I’d never do anything like that, I couldn’t do a-anything like that, never...”
     “I-I-I couldn’t do that, it’s not me, why would I be doing these things? It d-doesn’t make any sense, b-but I keep doing it and it keeps happening and the screams and the blood and oh my god I keep doing it but I can’t be doing it I wouldn’t do that...”
     Jeff stopped in mid-ramble and looked up at the doctor. His eyes were red, his face haggard and damp from his tears. His shaking hands faced upward as if asking for an explanation.
     Al kneeled in front of his patient and put his hands tenderly on Jeff’s shoulders. Looking directly into his eyes, Al said evenly and quietly, “Now I want you to focus on me. They’re just dreams, they can’t hurt you, it’s not real. It’s your subconscious trying to tell you something, and we have to figure out what that is. I know you’re frightened, but I’m here to help you. I’m not leaving, I’ll be here the whole time, and you can go as fast or slow as you want, whatever you’re comfortable telling me, that’s fine. But you to tell me so we can figure out what’s going on.”
     Jeff took a raspy breath, clenched his fists, and began to describe his dreams.

• • •

     It’s different every time, the setting, the people, they change. But it’s the same dream. It always ends the same. And there’s always me, and a woman...and the ending....
     In the first dream I was in a bar. I was drinking alone at one end, and I saw this beautiful woman sitting at the other end. She was tiny and had long brown hair, and her fingers were running up and down the stem of her wine glass. So I bought her a drink. We talked, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying, I could hear anything, but I knew we had a sort of chemistry going, the one-nighter kind. She was a little drunk, she had this way of swaying on her stool. But I was completely alert like I hadn’t been drinking at all. We left together, and we ended up in her apartment. We were kissing, we were in the front room, she was trying to...please me...but nothing was happening, so I got upset. She started trying to console me, I think, and she headed toward the kitchen for some reason, and I was angry. I was so angry at her for what she was doing, for acting like it happened all the time, for acting like she knew how to fix it, for acting like a slut who picked up every guy who bought her a drink in a crummy bar...I was so angry, I was fuming, it was like she was teasing me, like I was inferior to her...there was something else, too, some other reason I was mad, but...I don’t....
     I followed her into the kitchen. Her back was turned, she was reaching into a cupboard or something, and I grabbed a knife from the block on the counter and I...I s-stabbed her, again and again, and now I could hear it, I could hear the knife going in, I could feel it resisting when it hit a bone, I could hear her screaming and the blood dripping, and she fell and the blood ran all over the floor...and that’s it, that was the end....
     There was another dream, the next night I think. It was the same, except...the bar was different, it was a different bar. I was still sitting alone, but in a different place, and then this woman, this small, bird-like woman walked in; beautiful brown hair fell down her back in waves. I watched her for a while, and then I went to talk to her. Again, it was this same chemistry thing, and I still couldn’t hear anything. We went back to her place, and we were...trying to...but I couldn’t, and I got so angry again...but this time there wasn’t a knife, so I grabbed this statue thing on the end table and-and-and...oh, God, I saw...I saw her
brains slide across the floor...
     Then another dream, and another, and another, night after night after night.... They were all just like that; the girl changed, the bar changed, the apartment changed, the weapon changed, but every time I ended up killing her before we got to...to the bedroom...before we could....

• • •

     “But I know that wasn’t me, I could never do anything like that, so it couldn’t have been me in the dreams, it just couldn’t, I’m not a monster I’m not I couldn’t I wouldn’t I’m not a k-killer I’m not a m-m-murderer...” Jeff’s sobs drowned out his rantings.
     Al had moved beside Jeff on the couch, holding his shoulders in a fatherly embrace, comforting him with his professionally soothing voice. His glasses were back on his nose, and his eyes were once again hidden behind the glare from the afternoon sun. His brow was furrowed in concentration.
     “Jeff, I think the women in your dreams are representative of your wife....”
     “No! No, I would never....”
     “Jeff, just listen. I’m not saying you would hurt your wife, I’m saying that your anger and frustration with the divorce are being dealt with in your dreams. By confronting a woman who is a manifestation of your wife, you are confronting the pain your wife is causing. You’re acting out the old saying, ‘I was so mad I could have killed her.’ In this case, you’re ‘killing’ the pain and mental conflict caused by your wife and the divorce.”
     “I don’t really want to hurt her...”
     “I know; and you’re not.”
     “But why am I dreaming about these girls? None of them looks familiar, or even vaguely like her...”
     “You said they all have brown hair, right? And your wife used to have brown hair. And she’s on the small side.”
     Jeff paused. “I g-guess so....”
     “Well, there you go; each woman has features similar to your wife, though none look exactly like her because that would be too traumatic, even for your subconscious.”
     The two men sat on the couch for several minutes. Jeff sniffled every few seconds and wiped his eyes occasionally. After Jeff seemed to calm down, Al asked, “Are you okay? Do you feel better?”
     Jeff thought about it. “Yes, I think I do. I-it makes sense now...but....”
     “But why did the dreams start when I started the medication?”
     Al paused and stiffened slightly, imperceptible to Jeff. “Well...one of the, uh, drawbacks of this type of medication is...well, it’s a mind-altering drug...and since it’s blocking some stimuli and letting others in...it could be letting some things slip that...need to be dealt with. It’s supposed to control your anger, so if you can’t express it externally then you express it internally, in your dreams. You see?”
     “Oh. Yeah, okay, that makes sense...” Jeff remained slightly puzzled, but he wasn’t about to second-guess Al twice in one session. But...the dreams seemed too real to just be made up in his head, it was like they were coming from outside himself, from some unknown source.... But Al was the doctor, what he said had to be right, Jeff just needed to think about it some more and he’d see it too.
     “Alright, then, if you think you’re good to go, then I think you need to go home and get some rest; relax.” Al stood up and crossed to the door. After a moment Jeff followed, thanked him, and turned to leave. Before he stepped out of the therapy room, he turned to the doctor.
     “You know, at first I didn’t think I could do this whole psychiatry thing, I mean, telling all my most personal stuff to a guy who’d analyze every word I said? That’s one of the most uncomfortable things in the world for me, sharing my feelings, my secrets with other guys...but you...with you I feel like you’re my big brother who I could tell anything to.... I mean, I know I’m just your patient and you’re just my doctor, but you’re not, you know? You’re like a best friend or something...like we have this deep connection, like you know me, like we’re on the same level. I think I may trust you more than anyone I know.” Jeff’s chuckle sounded strained. “Silly, huh?”
     Al looked at Jeff encouragingly. “Not at all. I think we’ve made tremendous progress, and I’m glad you feel we have this strong of a bond that you can share everything with me. That’s kind of the whole point of this ‘psychiatry thing,’” he grinned.
     Jeff smiled as he shook hands with the doctor, then turned to leave. Dr. Mann watched as Jeff reached the end of the hallway and turned the corner, then slowly closed the door, his face a mask of control and calm, his eyes hidden behind his glasses.

• • •

     That afternoon Dr. Mann had Jeff committed to a psychiatric facility for “deranged delusions” and “homicidal tendencies.” Jeff was placed in a locked room with soft walls and a hard bed. He was watched, observed, and tsk-tsked over as he sat in his room wondering about her.
     That night Jeff drifted into another tumultuous dream. He dreamt again of a bar, of picking up a woman, of returning to her apartment, of strangling her with a phone cord. He awoke in a sweat, screaming, his heart leaping to his throat. And he curled up on his mattress, told himself it was only a dream, only the drugs, only a stupid, utterly realistic dream...and finally returned to sleep just before dawn.
     That night Dr. Mann drove to her house and parked across the street. He watched as he drove up, let himself in, and took a romp in her bedroom. His heart ached for her, and he drove away again in a rage of sorrow.
     That night he entered bar after endless bar in another town. He bought a drink, but didn’t drink it. He waited for someone like her to walk in, so small and delicate with that gorgeous brown hair that she so foolishly cut short. He poured drinks down her throat and convinced her she wanted him to come back to her place. He followed her into her apartment, and they began the foreplay. He caressed her, kissed her, and thought of her, with her perfect lips and beautiful curves. He remembered how he had gone to her house during the first month of Jeff’s therapy, how he had tried to win her over, seeing as she would be available once the divorce went through. He remembered her rejection, how his advances were tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper, how his heart ached for her every night since, and the woman he was with noticed that something was wrong, that something wasn’t working, but that was okay, it happens to all guys eventually, they’d keep trying, she’d get them some more wine. And he hated her, hated how she turned him down, how it was her fault he was like this, how he needed her, it had to be her, nobody else would do. And he saw her getting the wine from the cabinet, saw her taunting him with that fake attitude and fake smile, and he had to do something about it. He followed her into the kitchen, removed the cord from the phone on the counter, and as she reached for another bottle of wine he slipped the cord around her slim, dainty neck and pulled. And as he pulled, she was the one struggling, she was the one pleading and clawing, she was the one who was sorry she rejected him, and she was the one who slowly dropped to the floor, her beautiful hair splayed across his shoes. As Dr. Mann left the woman’s apartment, he wondered what Jeff was dreaming, and laughed.

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