By Rivka Galchen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2008 Rivka Galchen
All rights reserved.
On a temperate stormy night
Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife. This woman casually closed the door behind her. In an oversized pale blue purse — Rema's purse — she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy. And the real Rema, she doesn't greet dogs on the sidewalk, she doesn't like dogs at all. The hayfeverishly fresh scent of Rema's shampoo was filling the air and through that brashness I squinted at this woman, and at that small dog, acknowledging to myself only that something was extraordinarily wrong.
She, the woman, the possible dog lover, leaned down to de-shoe. Her hair obscured her face somewhat, and my migraine occluded the edges of my vision, but still, I could see: same unzipping of wrinkly boots, same taking off of same baby blue coat with jumbo charcoal buttons, same tucking behind ears of dyed cornsilk blonde hair. Same bangs cut straight across like on those dolls done up in native costumes that live their whole lives in plastic cases held up by a metal wire around the waist. Same everything, but it wasn't Rema. It was just a feeling, that's how I knew. Like the moment near the end of a dream when I am sometimes able to whisper to myself, "I am dreaming." I remember once waking up from a dream in which my mother, dead now for thirty-three years, was sipping tea at my kitchen table, reading a newspaper on the back of which there was the headline "Wrong Man, Right Name, Convicted in Murder Trial." I was trying to read the smaller print of the article, but my mother kept moving the paper, readjusting, turning pages, a sound like a mess of pigeons taking sudden flight. When I woke up I searched all through the house for that newspaper, and through the trash outside as well, but I never found it.
"Oh!" the simulacrum said quietly, seeming to notice the dimmed lights. "I'm so sorry." She imitated Rema's Argentine accent perfectly, the halos around the vowels. "You are having your migraine?" She pressed that lean russet puppy against her chest; the puppy trembled.
I held a hushing finger to my lips, maybe hamming up my physical suffering, but also signing truly, because I was terrified, though of precisely what I could not yet say.
"You," the simulacrum whispered seemingly to herself, or maybe to the dog, or maybe to me, "can meet your gentle new friend later." She then began a remarkable imitation of Rema's slightly irregularly rhythmed walk across the room, past me, into the kitchen. I heard her set the teakettle to boil.
"You look odd," I found myself calling out to the woman I could no longer see.
"Yes, a dog," she singsonged from the kitchen, still flawlessly reproducing Rema's foreign intonations. And, as if already forgetting about my migraine, she trounced on, speaking at length, maybe about the dog, maybe not, I couldn't quite concentrate. She said something about Chinatown. And a dying man. Not seeing her, just hearing her voice, and the rhythm of Rema's customary evasions, made me feel that she really was my wife.
But this strange impostress, emerging from the kitchen moments later, when she kissed my forehead, I blushed. This young woman, leaning over me intimately — would the real Rema walk in at any moment and find us like this?
"Rema should have been home an hour ago," I said.
"Yes," she said inscrutably.
"You brought home a dog," I said, trying not to sound accusatory.
"I want you to love her, you'll meet her when you feel better, I put her away —"
"I don't think," I said suddenly, surprised by my own words, "you're Rema."
"You're still mad with me, Leo?" she said.
"No," I said and turned to hide my face in the sofa's cushions. "I'm sorry," I mumbled to the tight wool weave of the cushion's covering.
She left my side. As the water neared its boil — the ascending pitches of our teakettle's tremble are so familiar to me — I reached for the telephone and dialed Rema's cell. A muffled ring then, from the purse, a ring decidedly not in stereo with the sound from the receiver in my hand, and the ersatz Rema thus hearkened back out to the living room, now holding the dog, and then the teakettle whistling, and, literally, sirens wailing outside.
She laughed at me.
I was then a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalizations and no relevant past medical, social, or family history.
After the impostress fell asleep (the dog in her arms, their breathing synchronous) I found myself searching through Rema's pale blue purse that smelled only very faintly of dog. But when I noticed what I was doing — unfolding credit card receipts, breathing in the scent of her change purse, licking the powder off a half stick of cinnamon gum — I felt like a cuckolded husband in an old movie. Why did I seem to think this simulacrum's appearance meant that Rema was deceiving me? It was as if I was expecting to find theater tickets, or a monogrammed cigarette case, or a bottle of arsenic. Just because Rema is so much younger than me, just because I didn't necessarily know at every moment exactly where she was or what, precisely, in Spanish, she said over the phone to people who might very well have been perfect strangers to me and whom I was respectful enough to never ask about — just because of these very normal facets of our relationship, it still was not necessarily likely — not at all — that she was, or is, in love with some, or many, other people. And isn't this all irrelevant anyway? Why would infidelities lead to disappearances? Or false appearances? Or dog appearances?
Around 2 a.m.
Amidst the continued nonarrival of the real Rema, I received a page. An unidentified patient — but possibly one of my patients — had turned up in the Psychiatric ER. Instead of phoning in I decided to head over immediately, without further contemplation, or further gathering of information.
It seemed so clearly like a clue.
I left a note for the sleeping woman, though I wasn't quite sure to whom I was really addressing it, so it was sort of addressed to Rema and sort of addressed to a false Rema; I simply let her know that I had been called to the hospital for an emergency. And even though this was slightly less than true, still, leaving a note at all, regardless of what it said, was clearly the right and considerate and caring thing to do — even for a stranger.
I took Rema's purse — the comfort of an everyday thought of her — and left to find out about this unidentified someone. A patient of mine, a certain Harvey, had recently gone missing; Rema had accused me of not doing enough to locate him; maybe now I would find him.
When I arrived at the Psychiatric ER, it was quiet and a night nurse was dejectedly resting his face in his hand and playing hearts on the computer. He, the night nurse, was boyishly handsome, very thin, his skin almost translucent, and the vein that showed at his forehead reminded me, inexplicably, of a vein that tracks across the top of Rema's foot. I did not recognize this man but, given my slightly fragile state, and my slightly ambiguous goal, I hesitated to introduce myself.
"You're late," he said, interrupting my dilemma by speaking first, without even turning around to look at me.
And maybe for a moment I thought he was right, that I was late. But then I remembered I wasn't scheduled to work at all; in an excess of professionalism, I was coming by extra early to follow up on the faintest lead that could have harmlessly waited until morning to be attended to. It was, therefore, impossible that I was late. Probably he was mistaking me for someone else — someone younger, maybe, of lower rank, who still had to work nights.
"Who's here?" I asked, while nodding my head toward the other side of the one-way observation glass. Over there: just an older man asleep in a wheelchair, wrapped from the waist down in a hospital sheet.
Not my patient, not Harvey.
The deceptively delicate-looking nurse didn't stop clicking at his game of hearts, and still without turning to make eye contact he began mumbling quickly, more to himself than to me:
"Unevaluated. Likely psychotic. He was spitting and threatening and talking about God on the subway and so they brought him in. He's sleeping off a dose of Haldol now. Wouldn't stop shouting about us stealing his leg. I'd leave him for the morning crew. It'll be a while before his meds wear off."
Then the nurse did turn to glance, and then stare — actually stare — at me. His look made me feel as if I was green, or whistling, or dead.
Furrowing his previously lineless brow, enunciating now more clearly than before, the night nurse said to me, "Are you Rema's husband?"
I caught tinted sight of my slouched figure in the reflection of that observation glass that separated the staff from the patients. I noticed — remembered — that I was carrying Rema's pale blue purse. "Yes," I said, straightening my back, "I am."
He guffed one violent guffaw.
But there was no reason to be laughing.
His Rema-esque vein pulsed unappealingly across the characterless creaminess of his skin. "I didn't know you worked nights," he said. "I didn't know if —"
I should explain now that ever since I'd gotten Rema a job working as a translator at the hospital, I'd come to understand — from various interactions with people I didn't really know — that many of Rema's coworkers were extremely fond of her. She does often manage to give people the impression that she loves them in a very personal and significant way; I must admit I find it pretty tiresome dealing with all her pathetic devotees who think they play a much larger role in her life than they actually do; I mean, she hardly mentions these people to me; yet they think they're so important to her; if the night nurse — apparently a member of Rema's "ranks" — weren't so obviously barely more than a child, then I might have wondered if he could help me, if I should ask him something, if he might have knowledge of the circumstances behind Rema's absence, behind her replacement, but I could divine — I just could — that there was nothing — nothing at all — to be learned from that man.
"We probably did take his leg," I said. On the night nurse's desk lay the patient's chart, open. Glancing at the intake page I had noticed the high sugar.
"What's that?" the nurse said, still staring at me, but as if he hadn't heard me.
"I mean, the funny thing is that, literally speaking, doctors probably did take that poor man's leg," I answered, explaining myself in perhaps a slightly raised voice. "We say amputated, he says stolen" — I was getting my voice back under my own control — "but that's not psychosis. That's just poor communication."
A beat went by and then the nurse just shrugged. "Okay. Well. Not exactly the irony of ironies around here." He turned back to his monitor.
"You shouldn't be sloppy with the label 'psychotic,'" I said. Just because a man's in foam slippers, I almost continued lecturing to his back. But as I felt an inchoate anger rising in me, an image came to my mind, of that nervous puppy the simulacrum had come home with, of the puppy's startled look of the starved, and I remembered that I had other anxieties to which I had intended to be attending.
Even if the unidentified patient wasn't mine, wasn't Harvey — as long as I was at the hospital, I thought I should look through Harvey's old files. Maybe there would be clues as to where he might have gone; Rema would have liked to see me pursuing that mystery. And a part of me clung to the hope that if I dallied long enough, then by the time I made it back home Rema would be there, maybe battling it out with the simulacrum, as if in a video game. Rema would be victorious over her other and then together Rema and I would set out (the next level, another world) in search of Harvey.
That, anyway, was the resolution that presented itself to me.
"I'll be in the back office," I announced, feeling, I admit, a bit unbalanced, a bit homuncular, and beginning to develop the headache that had earlier, unexpectedly, and without my even noticing, ebbed.
I did call up Harvey's old records, and I sifted through them, though I could detect no trends. But as I sat there, one Rema clue — or false clue — recalled itself to me. It was this: A mentor of mine from medical school had recently been in town. He had always been a "connoisseur" of women — this pose of his had always irritated, he had in fact once "stolen" a woman from me — nevertheless I admired him for other reasons and had been eager to have him meet my Rema. I had steeled myself against the inevitable jealousy of watching him chat her up — and I'd held my tongue when Rema put on a fitted, demurely sexy 1940s secretary style of dress — but then, all my mental preparations were for naught. Strangely, my mentor hadn't seemed much charmed by Rema. He'd behaved toward her with serviceable politeness but nothing more. It was odd. At one point he'd made a joke about the election and Rema hadn't followed. Maybe for a moment I wasn't charmed by Rema. As if she weren't really my Rema. My Rema who makes everyone fall in love. Case: the night nurse.
But back then it really was still her — I'm almost sure of it.
What may be highly relevant
I have mentioned my patient Harvey, but I have failed to properly discuss him and the odd coincidence, or almost coincidence, of his having vanished just two days before Rema did. So, actually, most likely not a "coincidence." In retrospect I feel confident that the seeds of tragedy were sown in what I had originally misperceived as a (kind of) light comedy of errors.
a. A secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology
When I first met Harvey just over two years ago, he was twenty-six years old, and for nine years had carried a diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder. He lived at home with his mother, had been treated successively, though never (according to his mother) successfully, by eleven different psychiatrists, two Reichian psychotherapists, three acupuncturists, a witch, and a lifestyle coach. Additionally Harvey had a history of heavy alcohol use, with a penchant for absinthe, which lent him a certain air of declining, almost cartoonish, aristocracy.
Harvey's mother had called me after reading an article of mine peripherally about R. D. Laing. In my unintentionally lengthy conversation with her, with me practically pinned against the wall of some insufferably track-lit Upper East Side coffee shop whose coffee, she kept insisting, was "superior," I quickly came to understand that she had grossly misread my paper. (For example, she interpreted my quoting Laing on "ontological insecurity" and "the shamanic journey" as endorsement rather than derision.) But I didn't try to set right her misreading — that would have been rude — and I found the case of her son interesting. I could imagine entertaining Rema with its details. Also: it pleased me, the thought of telling Rema that a woman had sought me out after reading an article of mine. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Copyright © 2008 Rivka Galchen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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