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The Surgeon's Wife
By Kieran Crowley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Kieran Crowley
All rights reserved.
PARTY OF ONE
Gail whizzed effortlessly down the linoleum aisle of the Manhattan supermarket on her roller skates, her wavy chestnut brown hair fluttering gently over her shoulders. A talented dancer, her fluid movements turned the heads of people pushing squeaky shopping carts. Petite and lithe in her shorts and a halter top that bared her back and slim midriff, Gail breezed past the brightly stocked shelves with feline grace. She rolled to a stop in the beverage aisle. Her hazel eyes scanned the prepared drink mixes until she found what she wanted — a bottle of pre-mixed, non-alcoholic piña colada drink. She took it off the shelf with a willowy hand, her thin fingers and thumb adorned with several rings, and took it to the express lane. It was a Friday afternoon in New York and it looked like the bright, sexy 23-year-old college dropout who worked as a bartender was on her way to a party. A piña colada party.
Gail Katz skated out into the warm afternoon and over the downtown pavement toward her fifth-floor walkup apartment on West 14th Street. She closed the door behind her but did not lock it. Alone in her apartment, she put the bottle of creamy coconut, pineapple juice and sugar syrup aside on the kitchen counter and picked up the phone. She called her parents on Long Island and chatted awhile. Manny and Sylvia Katz ran a stationery store on the Island where Gail grew up. Her younger sister Alayne was in college and their brother Steve was in the fourth grade. For a change, Gail did not squabble with her mother. Before hanging up, Gail made plans to get together with the family soon. She then called several friends, had similar conversations and made plans.
After she finished her calls, Gail put on some music, got a bottle of vodka out of the cabinet and blended it with ice and the piña colada mix, producing the familiar frothy, festive beverage. The sweet smell of coconut filled the small kitchen. Gail knew piña colada should be laced with rum but she didn't have any. Her favorite drinks were piña colada and a liqueur named Kir. She took the pitcher of the potent aperitif, a straw and a single glass, and headed for the bathroom.
Gail gazed briefly in the medicine cabinet mirror at the strong nose dividing the delicate features of her pretty, tanned oval face. From inside the medicine cabinet, she took a plastic bottle of thick, round white pills. She brought everything into the bedroom and put it on the night table. She got a pencil and a pad of paper and also put them on the night table before crawling into bed and pouring a frosty white glassful of piña colada. One by one, Gail popped snowy Quaaludes into her mouth and washed them down by sipping the milky white cocktail, which tasted like an ice cream soda, through the straw. When her glass was empty, she filled it and continued her task. She didn't cry or become emotional. She was cold, dispassionate, deliberate. Gail was distant from herself, determined to escape her unbearable feelings of loneliness and disappointment.
"People think I have everything to live for and be happy about but they don't understand," Gail thought, as she gulped the chalky tablets and washed them down with the icy cocktail.
She thought about people who tried to talk her out of her depression, who told her that she was young and smart and good-looking. She listened to her psychiatrist and her family and friends when they responded to her complaints but she couldn't help herself. Sometimes she could see their point — faintly, as if through a blizzard, but their logic froze in the cold blast of her pain and misery.
The avalanche of iced booze chilled Gail from the inside out but the alcohol warmed her a bit. She picked up the pencil and drunkenly began to scrawl on paper all the reasons why she wanted to die. Unemotionally, Gail had made her phone calls to her family and friends because she intended to mask her plans. She wanted them to have a pleasant final memory of her. She didn't want them to blame themselves.
"If our last conversation was pleasant," Gail thought, "they can't reprimand themselves for not responding to my depression or pain."
She was determined to make sure that there was absolutely no indication of any problem or difficulty that they could reproach themselves for not having acted upon. Gail did not see that her plan might make her death more of a shock — more powerful and mysterious — to those who loved her. If she had, the fact that her effort to end her pain might freeze their hearts forever was not enough to stop her at that point.
Partially under a white sheet, she passed from drunk to anaesthetized when the "'ludes" kicked in. Their depressant effect further frosted her mind, like a frigid climber on Mount Everest attacked by both frostbite and numbing hypothermia.
"It feels like splitting," Gail decided. There were two opposing parts of her that were battling and she couldn't pacify either of them. "It doesn't make any sense," she thought. "It eliminates and destroys."
The cold was separating Gail from herself but she was no longer in pain. Slumping into unconsciousness, she floated on a peaceful white cloud of sensual happiness.
Gail Katz whirled away in the wind like a snowflake.
Gail Beth Katz was born on March 8th, 1956, in Brooklyn. Almost two years later, her younger sister, brown-eyed Alayne, was born. They shared a red-and-white bedroom in their second-floor apartment. Little Gail had an imaginary friend in grammar school — an older girl who scolded her and, once, ordered her to crawl around the house on her knees until blisters formed on her skin.
When Gail was in the fourth grade, her parents moved the family to a large, brick-and-shingle split-level home in the suburbs. Gail was an adorable child, a good student, and close to her little sister. By the time Gail graduated from grammar school and moved up to junior high school, she had acquired adolescent insecurities. In private, when she was reading, watching television or sleeping, she still sucked on her finger like a small child.
Gail discovered the opposite sex in the seventh grade and went boy-crazy, even scratching one guy's name into the flesh of her left arm with a razor blade when she was fourteen. Her lack of self-confidence seemed to drive her to seek constant attention from boys. From that time on, Gail always had a boyfriend. She never broke up with one until she had the next one lined up.
To neighbors, the Katz family seemed like every other happy suburban family, but underneath — like most families — there were undercurrents of conflict and money worries. Manny was the president of a specialty advertising company called Columbia Pen & Pencil. When the business was sold to a large Florida firm, he planned to move his family to the Sunshine State and continue to run the concern as a division of the larger corporation. But his plans fell through and Manny was shut out of his ideal job among the beaches and palm trees. Instead, Manny took out a second mortgage on their nice split-level in order to buy a stationery store in West Hempstead. Running a little card shop in a quiet neighborhood was a big step down in the world for a guy who had run an entire company. Also, Sylvia was needed as an unpaid worker to help Manny in the shop, to make ends meet. In the summer, the kids some-times helped with the family business. Disappointed, carrying more debt and looking at bills for three kids and college on the horizon, Manny became stressed out and unhappy.
Some observers thought Sylvia seemed very flighty and high-strung, like Gail. Sylvia always seemed to be quarreling with her daughters. Steve, who was still young, realized his dad was under pressure and noticed that there were fewer good times. Sometimes Gail had arguments with her father that would end with neither father nor daughter speaking to the other for weeks, even though they ate at the same table, sat in the same room to watch TV and rode in the same car. Manny favored Alayne, who was more like him. He couldn't deal with the emotionality of Gail, who took after her mother. It seemed to Alayne that Sylvia put all her energy into helping Gail — because she was so needy. Alayne would hear her parents arguing — and sometimes yelling — about Gail, with Sylvia trying to get Manny to be more sensitive to Gail's needs.
Gail was still an outstanding student and she graduated in 1973, a year early, from Mepham High School in Bellmore. She went to the State University of New York at Albany. The following year she roomed in an off-campus apartment with Alayne, who also came to the school. But Gail dropped out during her sophomore year, in 1975, when she lost interest in college and started using drugs. It did not please Manny and Sylvia, who had many arguments on the subject. Sylvia, of course, wanted her daughter to finish school and be able to make a living. But, being a Jewish mom from suburbia who had worked as a receptionist in a doctor's office, Sylvia had a rather typical ambition for her eldest daughter — she wanted her to marry a doctor.
Alayne also took a year off but dropped back in. She transferred to another state school on Long Island. She did well and decided to enter law school after she graduated.
After she dropped out, Gail moved to Manhattan and entered a dance program at New York University. She moved with an easy grace and was a natural dancer. But the college dance scene left her dissatisfied and she again dropped out. She took a course in social work that she also dropped out of, and went back upstate. She dated musicians and tried to become involved in music and choreography but it led nowhere. Alayne, who occasionally visited her sister upstate, thought that some of the musicians Gail dated were crazy. Alayne felt her sister was lost — she was going nowhere and didn't know how to get anywhere. Gail's family rejected her boyfriends as either too old, too young or not Jewish. They referred to her choices as "Gail's reformation projects." Alayne felt that her older sister did not feel good about who she was, so she found damaged goods and tried to fix them.
In 1976, Gail lived in Albany with *Phil Lester, a musician in a local band. She made some efforts to choreograph the musicians' movements. She wanted to somehow dance with the band during performances but that also never worked out.
Upstate, Gail became friends with another band member named *Amanda Klein, who played synthesizer and guitar and wrote songs. Amanda, who had been a model, was a striking 5-foot-11 beauty. The two discussed their lives and loves. Gail was torn between her love of creative people and her yearning to make a life for herself, to fulfill the goal she shared with her mother — to marry a doctor. In fact, Gail's therapist was also onboard with the doctor plan. They all felt that Gail needed security and stability. That way, she wouldn't have to work odd jobs to pay the rent and could go back to school and get a degree. Phil was a very handsome, talented musician and a nice guy but he wasn't a doctor and would probably never be rich.
So, while Gail was with Phil, she was secretly looking around for better prospects. That was her style — she would test-drive a new guy before she broke up with the old one.
Amanda liked Gail, who she thought was intelligent and a sweet person but very emotional. Sometimes it seemed all Gail did was complain about how miserable she was and how Phil did not measure up to her expectations. Gail had a lot of friendships with women and she seemed to get something emotionally from her girlfriends that she didn't get from her boyfriends. She was distrustful of men, perhaps with good reason, but saw them as potential rescuers who could save her from the life of a loser. Amanda wondered what fears Gail's mother had communicated to her daughter to make her such an insecure young woman, searching for a man to take care of her. Gail, thought Amanda, was definitely a glass-is-half-empty kind of person. She was having trouble finding a calling in life. She seemed to be always starting and stopping things. She loved dancing but it seemed her real passion was herself — her soul-searching, her pursuit of happiness. Maybe she wasn't so different from everybody else, after all, Amanda thought.
"I feel so sad," Gail repeatedly whined to Amanda. "I feel so depressed."
Often, Gail's solution was a night out. She pressed Amanda to go out dancing at a disco and meet guys. And sometimes Amanda said yes. One night they went to a dance club in Albany and the men noticed when they arrived. They were an arresting pair: Amanda, tall, slim and sexy with her Raquel Welch good looks and streaked long brown hair, and the smaller, exotic Gail who only came up to Amanda's shoulder. Amanda sat down with her drink and opened a book she'd brought to the club, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm. The book examined man's misdeeds — especially murder and war — and suggested that human beings were not innately evil but did evil things when their needs were frustrated and they were unable to achieve wholeness, happiness. While Gail performed on the dance floor, Amanda sipped her drink and watched her friend, dancing to a song by Gail's favorite group, Supertramp.
Amanda returned to her book. She was fascinated by Fromm's idea that evil people were created by thwarted hopes. Turning a page, brushing her long, brown hair aside, Amanda looked up to see a darkly handsome guy with black hair and a mustache smiling at her.
"Hi," he said to her. "I'm Nick."
"Oh no," thought Amanda. "Here comes Disco Joe. At least he's good-looking." But Nick was no dummy. He began talking intelligently about the Fromm book and other subjects. He and Amanda hit it off right away. It turned out *Nick Edwards was a plastic surgery resident at the local hospital. A surprised Gail returned from the dance floor to find that Amanda — without even trying — had found a doctor. Nick was there with another resident and he and Gail began talking. Gail and the other physician never quite clicked and she later broke up with her boyfriend Phil. But Amanda and Nick fell in love and moved in together. A few years later, in 1979, Amanda lived Gail's dream — she married her doctor.
It was in that same year, 1979, that Gail whizzed uptown on her roller skates. She rolled over the dirty sidewalks and gutters and around pedestrians and cars on her way to her latest boyfriend *Ken Dahlberg's office. After seeing Ken, Gail planned to skate in Central Park. She loved the park, enjoyed skating or walking its shady paths, sunning herself in a bathing suit, meeting people. She felt Ken treated her badly. One week, Ken would act like they were getting married and then he would treat her like garbage. She and Ken had been fighting again and Gail stopped by to work things out.
When she arrived, Ken made it very clear that it was over. Gail stormed out of Ken's office and began skating toward the park. At first, she was angry and dejected. She did not have another boyfriend waiting in the wings.
"I'm not in love with Ken, so why am I so disturbed?" Gail asked herself.
His rebuff should not have had such a troubling effect on her. But it was the feeling of being rejected without any means to gain control that really got to Gail. She remembered all the other times it had happened and thought, "Here we go again." She felt that it was never going to be any different.
"I can't take this anymore," Gail decided.
She rolled to a halt. Standing still, she made a decision and her racing emotions faded away. Perfectly calm, Gail turned around and changed direction. She skated back toward her neighborhood. As her resolve strengthened, she skated faster. She remembered she had a bottle of vodka at home. "If forty Quaaludes don't do the trick, the combination of both will," she decided.
But that wouldn't taste good, Gail realized. She didn't like the taste of straight vodka. That was when she got the idea to go to the supermarket to get a piña colada mix to make the vodka more palatable. She didn't see it as a tantrum or a way of hurting Ken or her family — she saw it as a way to stop her misery.
Excerpted from The Surgeon's Wife by Kieran Crowley. Copyright © 2001 Kieran Crowley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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