The Smart Oneby Jennifer Close
The Coffey siblings are having a rough year.
Claire has broken up with her fiancé and is hiding from her debts. Martha’s in a career crisis and even her therapist is losing patience with her. And Max, the baby of the family in his final year of college, is keeping a life-altering secret. Before long, all three of them have moved back home/p>/p>… See more details below
The Coffey siblings are having a rough year.
Claire has broken up with her fiancé and is hiding from her debts. Martha’s in a career crisis and even her therapist is losing patience with her. And Max, the baby of the family in his final year of college, is keeping a life-altering secret. Before long, all three of them have moved back home.
But things aren’t so easy the second time around. Martha and Claire regress to fighting over the shared bathroom while their mother continues to plan Claire’s thwarted wedding (unbeknownst to Claire). But it’s only a matter of time before Max’s secret comes out and changes all of their lives…
“Wit and vibrant characters make The Smart One an engaging exploration of a thoroughly modern family dynamic.” —People
“I want to be friends with all of the narrators of this addictive novel.” —Megan Angelo, Glamour
“A pleasure to read.” —Daily News
“This bighearted novel examines a generation of nonstarters with a mix of empathy and Close’s signature deadpan, pathos-driven humor.” —Entertainment Weekly
“The Smart One is emotionally engaging and thoughtful; like Anne Tyler, Close goes straight into the heart of a group of people to show all its flawed, complicated members clearly and deftly and totally without judgment. There is not one dull moment—Close is a subtle and incisive writer who gets better with each new book.” —Kate Christensen, author of The Astral
“The novel sings in the small moments when its women express uncomfortable truths, undercurrents of sibling resentment and parental disappointment, which usually remain unspoken. . . . Perfect for the beach or a long plane trip.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The Smart One has such authentic, multifaceted characters.” —Book Riot
“A well-written family drama in which all the characters keep moving forward, but not all the loose ends are completely and neatly tied. . . . Sure to please.” —Library Journal
“Close’s gift as a writer is her spare but delicious prose and unflinching way of describing her characters.” —The Globe and Mail
“The Smart One focuses on the intersections of self-discovery, independence, and reliance in the modern family, all enlivened by Close’s signature wit and warmth. . . . A touchingly tender, emotionally honest novel about shifting priorities and the nontraditional career paths so many find themselves on.” —Booklist
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Read an Excerpt
To be a manager at J.Crew, you had to be organized. That was what Martha always told people. She had, after all, risen to the position of manager faster than any other person at this particular branch. (Well, she was pretty sure of that. Someone had told her that once, and it seemed true.)
“You have to be willing to fold clothes all day if that’s what needs to be done,” she always said. “People don’t want to scrounge around through a messy pile of pants to find the right size.”
Martha was being a little modest when she told people this. You did have to be organized, that was true. But you also had to have the right work ethic, and Martha knew she had it. Some of these people treated this job like it was nothing, like the store was lucky to have them. Well, Martha was a registered nurse who had graduated at the top of her class, and she still worked harder than everyone else. She wasn’t too good to take the extra time to help a pear--shaped girl find the right kind of pants. If her job was to steer that pear of a girl away from skinny cords and point her in the direction of some wide--leg chinos, then that was what she was going to do.
The store was just a ten--minute drive from her parents’ house, which was why Martha decided to apply there in the first place. She’d never worked in retail before, but she figured it couldn’t be that hard, and so she dropped off applications at Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and Anthropologie. She was turned down almost everywhere.
“But I went to college,” Martha would say, when the managers asked her about previous retail jobs.
Then they would shake their heads no and apologize. “I’m sorry,” they’d say. “We really need someone that has prior experience.”
It was a godsend, really, that the manager at J.Crew was someone that Martha had gone to high school with. They weren’t exactly friends, but Margaret Crawford had sat next to Martha for years in school, and they’d had a sort of friendly alliance, since alphabetically they were always stuck together.
Margaret, it turned out, was pregnant. She told Martha that she was going to be cutting back on her hours and between that and all the college kids leaving to go back to school, they really needed help.
“You’re pregnant?” Martha asked. She tried not to sound shocked, but she was. Margaret looked just a little tubby all around, but not pregnant. Martha noticed a tiny diamond ring on her left hand.
“Yep,” Margaret said. She smiled and rubbed her bloated tummy. “Thirteen weeks. Can’t you tell?”
“Oh, yeah,” Martha said. “Now that you mention it, I can.”
“So why do you want to work here anyway?” Margaret said as she read Martha’s résumé. “I thought you were nursing. Career change?”
“No, not really. I was just in a job that wasn’t a good fit and I thought I’d take a break from it for a while. From nursing, I mean. You know.” Martha prayed that Margaret wouldn’t ask her what she’d been doing in the past year since she stopped nursing.
Margaret wasn’t a very pretty girl. She was average height and a little hefty, with unremarkable brown hair and a splotchy complexion. She was the sort of person who was just average at everything. She’d been in all mid--level classes in high school, had played volleyball for one year on the B team, and had some friends, but not many.
But she was nice, Martha thought. A little dim, but not completely unaware. Martha wondered for a second why they never became better friends. They could have banded together in high school, enjoyed each other’s company. It could have been a little less lonely.
Martha was mulling this over, thinking that maybe now was the time when she and Margaret would connect and they would become great friends, the kind of friend that Martha had never really had before. Maybe Martha would be this baby’s godmother, and they would laugh about it in years to come, about how they sat next to each other for so many years in school, but never really became friends until that one day when Martha just randomly walked into J.Crew.
“So where are you living these days?” Margaret asked.
“At home, for now.”
“You’re living with your parents?” Margaret asked. “Oh, no. That’s awful.”
And just like that, Martha remembered Margaret. She remembered the first day of sophomore year, when Margaret told her that bangs were not in style anymore and that Martha should think about growing hers out. Not meanly, really. Just with a sort of honesty that comes with being clueless.
Martha looked at Margaret’s chubby tummy and shrugged. She would not be the godmother of this baby. And she would get over it just fine.
That was almost six years ago, and Margaret had long since stopped working at the store. Sometimes she came in with her daughter, Addie, who always had a runny nose and the same blotchy complexion as her mother.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Margaret always asked Martha. Martha would just smile in response. She didn’t believe in lying to make people feel good. The child wasn’t the least bit attractive, and she didn’t think it was right to say so. Besides which, what kind of person stated that their child was beautiful and then asked for confirmation?
Margaret’s husband looked like Eddie Munster, with bushy eyebrows and pointy teeth. It was no wonder that their child turned out like she did. Martha could tell that Margaret believed her husband to be very handsome. Sometimes he’d accompany her when she came to visit the store, and Margaret would hold his hand with a tight smile on her face, like she thought Martha was jealous of them. Martha would look at this unattractive family, and Margaret’s stupid smile, and feel nothing but sorry for the whole group of them, most of all for that eyesore, Addie.
Martha had seen people come and go from J.Crew. She trained the college kids in the summers and welcomed the good ones back over holiday vacations. She was a tough manager, that was for sure, but she was fair. And what more could you ask for?
Folding clothes in the store gave Martha a certain sense of accomplishment that was hard to explain to other people. She wasn’t OCD or anything, but she loved the way it felt to stack the clothes on top of each other, all of them the same, crisp and ready for the customers. It was her favorite part of the job.
She especially liked folding the clothes in the morning or at the end of the day when the store was closed, as she did now. It was nice to be surrounded by quiet, to know that at least for a little while, the neat stack of shirts that you made would stay just that way, and no customer would go grabbing in the middle of the pile, looking for his size and knocking the whole thing to the side.
Martha folded a stack of navy pants, pulling the crotch of each pair tightly, so that it was taut, and then folding the legs just right to get a perfect crease. She put the sizes in order, big ones on the bottom and the small ones on the top, like the big guys were holding up the little ones. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, she said silently to herself, making sure that each size was represented.
Martha took a size 12 out of the pile of pants and put them back behind the register. She’d try them on later. She was a little surprised at how tight her size 10 pants were lately. She’d ignored it for a few weeks, but that morning she wasn’t able to button her favorite pair of khakis, and so she decided it was time for new ones.
It was a little hard to admit that she might have gone up a size. Again. She’d been a size 10 for so long now. Before she went on the medicine, she was a very respectable size 8, and once, a long time ago in high school, she was a size 6. She’d never been as thin as Claire, but she’d never been big. Even in college, when her diet of pasta and pretzels had bulked her up, she still wasn’t fat. And then she’d learned to deal with being a 10, a little fleshier than she was meant to be, but nothing horrendous. But now there was this. She was a size 12 and it felt like she was sliding toward obesity.
Lately when Martha got undressed at night, she noticed that the waistband of her pants left a circle of angry pink teeth marks around her stomach. She was starting to feel like a sausage stuffed into a too--small skin.
Martha closed down the registers and began gathering the receipts to bundle them. She couldn’t wait for this day to be over. One of their best employees, Candace, had quit unexpectedly. “I hate it here,” she’d said to Martha. “You’re like a Nazi.”
It was completely inappropriate to invoke the Nazis to describe anyone, and Martha told Candace just that. She asked Candace if she even knew the horror that the Nazis had caused. “Because if you did,” she said, “you might think twice about calling me a Nazi and disrespecting all of the people that were murdered by them.”
Candace made a strange sort of strangled sound, and threw up her hands. “You’re a freak!” she said. And she gathered her things and walked out. Martha tried not to let it show that Candace had embarrassed her, but she knew that her face was red. The other employee working that day, skinny little Trevor, gave Martha a small smile and she knew that he was pitying her.
“Good riddance,” Martha had said to him. Then she went back to the employee bathroom and put a wet paper towel on her cheeks until they cooled down.
Martha was stacking the register drawers to take them to the back when a teenage girl came to the door and, finding it locked, banged on the glass with her palm. Martha smiled and shrugged, then pointed to her watch to indicate that the store was closed. The girl outside gave her the finger and walked away.
Martha didn’t deserve that. People felt like they could treat her however they wanted, just because she worked in the store. Customers were sometimes rude beyond belief, acting like she was their servant as they sent her to fetch them striped shirts and printed skirts. Martha muttered to herself as she finished up her closing duties. Maybe she would just leave J.Crew altogether. She was, after all, a registered nurse. Well, she wasn’t exactly registered anymore, since she hadn’t worked in so long, but she could be if she wanted to.
Martha had known that she wanted to be a nurse from the time she broke her wrist when she was twelve. It was the nurses who comforted her, with their matter--of--fact answers and soothing voices. She loved the uniforms they wore, how they all had matching scrubs, like they were part of some club. They looked so important, filling out charts and taking temperatures, and she knew that was what she wanted to be. Plus, she’d always had a mind for medicine, had always done the best in her science classes.
Nursing was not a major to be taken lightly. It wasn’t like the other majors at her liberal arts college—-English or sociology or philosophy. Nursing was different. There were high expectations for the nursing students. You had to keep your GPA up, or you were out of the program. You did clinical work in addition to your classes. People’s lives depended on you, so you had to know your stuff. That was how Martha thought about it anyway.
The other girls in the program were different from Martha. They were sillier, flightier, than she was. But they all spent so much time together, studying for tests and carpooling to their clinicals, that
Martha developed a fondness for them and even began to enjoy their company.
They used to drag her out with them sometimes, to bars or to a party to stand in a random kitchen in some off-campus apartment and drink out of red plastic cups. “Come on, Martha!” they used to say. “Blow off some steam.” They used to call her Serious Martha, like that was her full name. They used to think it was their duty to try to get her to have some fun.
Martha would let them pick out her clothes for going out, even sip some rum and Cokes with them while they were getting ready. They’d do her makeup and ignore her pleas not to put on too much. “Mar--tha,”
they’d say, and roll their eyes. It was the same way Claire used to say her name when they were younger, when she would get so exasperated by Martha’s very being, saying her name like it hurt to get it out, dragging out each syllable—“Mar-tha.”
She’d go to these parties and stand there for a while. She had a feeling that she was supposed to be enjoying them. At the beginning of the night, the girls would stand next to her and include her in the conversations. But as the night went on, each of them would wander away, distracted by some boy. They were all desperate for boys. The one male nurse in their year had seven piercings on his face, including a big plug in his ear. He was nice, but no one they would be interested in. They used to call him Leo the Male Nurse, right to his face.
Even if Martha found her way into a conversation at these parties, she never really had fun. There were some pleasant moments, but those were short--lived, and all that was left was a group of horny college kids waiting to get drunk enough that they could start making out with each other. It was like one big mono pool. She would wait until all the other girls were occupied, then she’d find one of them and tell her that she was leaving. She tried to find someone who was really immersed in a conversation with a boy, so that there would be no protests, so that no one would try to convince her to stay.
On the street, Martha would breathe with relief. She always walked home, even if it was the middle of winter. She didn’t mind. She liked the way the air rushed into her nose and froze her nostrils. It made her look forward to getting back to her single room and making hot chocolate in the microwave. She liked the feeling of thawing out in her cozy room, finding an old eighties movie to watch while snuggled under her covers, knowing that tomorrow she’d wake up fresh and ready to do her work, while the rest of the girls would be groggy and hungover.
Those were great mornings, when her nursing friends groaned with their heads in their hands. “Why did we do this?” they’d say. Martha would tsk at them, not meanly, just in a good-natured way. She’d smile sympathetically and indulge their requests for Gatorade and water. Martha was happy during those study sessions, pleased that she was learning more than the other girls, because her body wasn’t wrecked from the night before. She always felt like she was a few steps ahead, so she was gracious enough to be nice to these girls, to agree to take a break so they could eat greasy food, shoveling french fries into their mouths as they said, “Why didn’t we leave when you did, Martha? Why did you let us stay?”
They didn’t really mean it, Martha knew. Maybe at that moment they regretted their decision, but the thing that Martha always knew was that these girls wanted to go to parties and meet boys just as much as they wanted to be nurses. And that was the difference. Martha was in school only to be a nurse. For these girls, it was just part of the whole package. For Martha, it was everything.
It was only after she’d left college that Martha realized how much she’d loved it there—-she loved the structure of it, the study schedule, and the forced socializing. She loved her single room, where she could be alone but keep the door cracked open so she could hear people chattering in the halls, the excited way people greeted one another, their shrieks of laughter. Of course, at the time, if anyone had asked her, she would have said that she couldn’t wait for graduation, that her dorm was noisy and filled with immature girls who made it nearly impossible to get any work done.
But when it was all gone, she mourned it. She would never be back there again. Ever. Her life was a big silent white space. There were no tests to study for, no groups to meet. When she wasn’t working, she could do anything she wanted to, but she found that she didn’t like the openness of her time. It was startling, all that free space, and she ended up watching a lot of TV.
Martha got a job at a large hospital in South Philadelphia. She was hired as a floater, which meant that she rotated among departments, filling in wherever she was needed. One night she’d be in the pediatric ward and the next she’d be in the emergency room. She was always on the night shift, because she was new, and they told her she’d have to earn her way to the more desirable hours.
The hospital was large and understaffed. Martha would arrive at seven p.m. and be thrown into a pit of need. That was what it felt like. There was always so much to do, and so many people who needed things from her. The older nurses weren’t particularly nice or friendly. She’d imagined that they would take her under their wing and show her the ropes. But that’s not how it was. They were frustrated with her, impatient and bossy. And since she moved around all the time, she never really got to know any of them well.
Martha couldn’t adjust to her new schedule. Getting to work in the evening gave her a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach, the kind that she used to get on Sunday nights in high school. She worked until seven thirty a.m. and then she’d take the train home, rumpled and exhausted, while everyone else was just starting their day. It made her feel anxious, to see them freshly showered and dressed, holding coffee and reading the paper, while she was on her way home to sleep. I’m living life backward, she used to think. And the thought of being a backward person made her heart pound loudly, strangely, so that sometimes it even felt like it was beating the wrong way, like it was going backward along with her.
When she got home in the mornings, she couldn’t sleep. She could never quite get used to climbing into bed as the sun was shining. She would lie awake for hours, wondering if she’d done everything she was supposed to. Had she given all of her patients their medications? Had she measured right? Had she filled out the charts? She was sure she was killing her patients, and that kept her awake, always. She was so tired that her whole body ached, but her mind was always moving, always thinking, and no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t fall asleep.
With each day, it felt worse. Martha was antsy, but never wanted to leave her apartment when she didn’t have to. She didn’t want to wash her dishes or do her laundry. She ate in her bedroom and let plates pile up on her desk, let glasses full of iced tea sit on her nightstand until they started to mold and little black ants crawled in them. Her laundry lay in piles, and when you first opened the door to her bedroom, it smelled like the home of a dirty person—-sour and stale. This wasn’t the way Martha kept things. She’d always been clean, always been disgusted by people who sat around in their own filth. But it didn’t seem to matter anymore, and leaving things to rot where they were was easier than trying to clean it all up.
Her roommate, a girl she knew from nursing school, told her that she couldn’t live like this and that she was moving out when their lease was up. Martha started skipping work, napping during the days and watching TV at night. Her parents came over to see her, and her father stood in the doorway to her bedroom, looking all around, while her mother said, “Oh, Martha,” and began to pick things up, gathering dirty laundry in her arms, as if the mess were the problem.
Martha quit her job and moved home. Her parents packed up the apartment for her, boxing up all of her books and clothes. “It’s just my job,” she told them. “It was too much. I’m burned out. I just need to rest.”
But she was still so tired all the time. She slept almost all day, glad to be in a bed with clean sheets, back at home. Her parents would come upstairs to see her, insist that she get out of bed for meals. Her mom would take her on errands. “You can sit in the car if you want,” she’d say. “But you have to get out of the house.” And so Martha would put on clothes, and sit in the passenger seat of the car while her mother went to the dry cleaners and the bank.
Sometimes her dad would come upstairs and sit next to her bed, to talk or just read. “It will get better,” he’d say to her. And for some reason, this made her cry, tears running down her face to her pillow.
Finally, her parents made her go see someone. “You need someone to talk to,” they told her. “It will make you feel better.” She could hear them whispering about her when she walked out of a room. But she didn’t care. She knew they were worried about her. If she’d had more energy, she would have been worried about herself.
She’d gone to see a therapist and a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist she didn’t much care for. He didn’t seem interested in her, and she’d sat there and answered his questions, and at the end of the session he’d written her prescriptions. Just like that. When she started to take the medicine, she felt loopy and in her own world, and she wanted to tell everyone that this wasn’t going to work.
Dr. Baer was her therapist, and at first Martha thought she wasn’t going to be of any help either. But she kept going, and little by little, Dr. Baer began to grow on her. It was strange, like she didn’t even notice anything was changing, but slowly she seemed to feel the tiniest bit better, then a bit more. The medicine seemed to balance out, or at least she didn’t feel so out of it anymore. Things weren’t perfect, but she slept less and got dressed more often. And one day she realized that her father had been right. Things had gotten better somehow.
A few months after that, she’d felt good enough to apply to J.Crew, and she’d gotten the job and worked hard and done well. It had really all been going well—until today. Today, Martha couldn’t stand all the people yelling at her about sizes and sales. She couldn’t stand the Candaces of the world thinking they could act however they wanted to, like they were special somehow. Today, for the first time in years, Martha almost wished she was a nurse again.
Martha left Dr. Baer’s office, but stood right outside the door and leaned against the brick wall. She needed a minute. Even though it was August, she was chilled and she pulled a cardigan out of her bag and put it on. The air--conditioning in Dr. Baer’s office was insane. Dr. Baer was always warm (hot flashes, Martha assumed), and now, because Martha had been forced to sit in the freezing room, she probably had a cold.
Early on, when Martha first started seeing Dr. Baer, she used to go home after each session and write down what her therapist had said, so that she could remember everything. Martha wanted to remember all the advice that Dr. Baer gave. She was always so calm, so practical. Martha used to carry that notebook around with her, so she could read Dr. Baer’s words whenever she wanted. It made her feel in control.
Now, after so many years of therapy, she was able to hear Dr. Baer’s voice in her head wherever she went. When she was at the store, about to buy ice cream, she heard her say, “Sometimes we comfort ourselves in physical ways instead of emotional ways.” When Martha turned down an invitation to anything, she heard Dr. Baer say, “It’s scary to put yourself out there. But sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to live in the world.”
But this visit was different. Martha got the feeling that Dr. Baer was less interested in her problems. She seemed to sigh a lot, to tap her pen before she addressed Martha. And at the end she said, “You know, Martha, it feels to me that you’ve had time to recover and now you may just be hiding. Maybe it’s time to push yourself. Find a job that challenges you more. Maybe go back to nursing. Move out, take a trip, do something that will get you going.”
This seemed to be inappropriate shrink talk. All Martha had been saying this session was that she was having some problems with her family. She was complaining about how it seemed to be her curse that whenever she tried to help people (like her sister) they acted like she was butting in. Dr. Baer had sighed and said something about small problems seeming large under a microscope. What was that supposed to mean?
At first, Martha hadn’t wanted to see a shrink, but her parents hadn’t really given her a choice. For the first few visits, all Martha did was cry. Dr. Baer just sat with her, handing her tissues and waiting. Dr. Baer was a petite woman with short brown hair and thick-framed glasses. She was compact, and looked like she worked out for many hours a day. She handed Martha tissues with purpose, pulling them straight up and out of the box, in one quick motion.
Martha took them, always taking notice of how muscular Dr. Baer’s arms were. She didn’t even know why she was crying, exactly. She just knew that she didn’t want to be there.
As the sessions went on, Martha began to appreciate Dr. Baer’s firm voice. She looked forward to the weekly appointment, picking out her outfit to go to the office downtown, walking down Walnut Street, looking in the windows of the clothing shops. Martha always felt important when she walked down the street to the office, like she had somewhere special to be. Dr. Baer’s office was on the second floor of a building that was squished in between a Rite Aid and a Lacoste store. Sometimes when she entered the door from the street, she felt like she was entering a secret passageway. There were no markings on the door, just a small mailbox card that said MD Baer. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d walk right by.
Martha wasn’t embarrassed about seeing a shrink (although Dr. Baer hated that word. “I’m a therapist, Martha,” she would say whenever Martha called her that). She was very honest about her appointments with everyone at J.Crew. “I can’t work Tuesday afternoons,” she would say. “That’s my shrink appointment.”
When Dr. Baer took her vacation in July, Martha felt a hole in her life. The hour appointment was easily the best part of her week. Martha began to think of Dr. Baer more as a friend than as a doctor; a confidante she could talk to. That is, until today.
Outside the office, Martha watched as Duncan walked inside to see Dr. Baer. Duncan had had the appointment right after Martha’s for almost two years now, and they often ran into each other in the waiting room or right outside on the street. They always gave each other knowing nods as they passed. Today, Martha wanted to grab Duncan’s arm and warn him. Watch out, she would say. Dr. Baer is in a mood. They would look knowingly at each other, Duncan understanding just what Martha meant. But Duncan walked quickly past her before she could say anything.
Martha pulled a dusty Kleenex out of her pocket and blew her nose. Then she decided to walk to the coffee shop a couple of blocks away to get something to drink. She needed to sit and make sense of her last hour.
She hadn’t even gotten a chance to tell Dr. Baer about the dream that she’d had last night, where she’d seen a giant orange ant and grabbed a shoe to kill it. When she smacked it with her shoe, the ant turned to look at her with big eyes. Then the back half of the ant kept moving and Martha had to chase it around and hit it again. She’d been excited to talk about the dream, since she never had dreams that vivid. It must have meant something—she was sure of it. She’d told her mom about it that morning, but her mom had just sort of stared at her in a fuzzy way over her coffee. Dr. Baer would have had to listen as she described the body of the ant, how strange it made her feel. But she hadn’t gotten to talk about it. And now she would never know what the ant was supposed to be.
The coffee shop was more crowded than Martha expected. There were several people banging away on laptops with a sense of purpose, a couple of people reading the paper, and one pair of girls with their heads bent close together, whispering seriously. Martha found a small table in the middle back of the shop, and edged her way through the other customers to get there. A few of them looked up as she passed and she wondered if she looked distressed to them. She tried to catch the eye of one scraggly-looking guy who had his hands resting on his laptop and was staring off into space, but he looked back at the screen as soon as he saw her looking at him.
Martha sighed and flopped her bag onto the table. It made a satisfying thump, and a couple of people jumped. Then she sighed again and sat down, pushing her chair back so that it screeched on the floor. No one looked up. She wanted just one of these people to acknowledge her and give her a sad smile. I just had a fight with my shrink, she would say. Although that wasn’t really true. Maybe she’d say, My shrink just told me I’m worthless. That would get their attention. But that wasn’t true either. Martha sighed again and leaned back in her chair.
A waitress with hair that hung down her back all the way to her waist came to take Martha’s order. She looked like someone who wanted to be a singer or a songwriter. She probably had a guitar at home. Maybe she even played at small clubs around the city, or at this very coffee shop.
“Do you know what you want?” the waitress asked. She had a harsh voice, kind of rough, really, and Martha hoped she hadn’t pinned too much on the idea of becoming a singer.
“I’ll have a mocha,” she said. “But with skim milk.” She was trying to cut back on her calories this week.
The waitress nodded without writing anything down, then turned to head back to the counter. “Wait,” Martha called. “Can I also have a muffin? Or coffee cake? Whatever’s back there.” She shrugged like she didn’t really care what she got, like she was just realizing that she hadn’t eaten breakfast and should order something. Of course, she had eaten breakfast. She’d had a bagel and then a big bowl of cereal, but that was hours ago. No sense in starving herself to lose weight. That’s not how it was done.
“Is cranberry okay?” the waitress asked. Martha nodded. She’d really wanted chocolate chip, or cinnamon, but cranberry would do. Yes, cranberry would do just fine.
Martha rooted around in her bag, hoping that for some reason she had the Dr. Baer notebook in there, even though she knew it was in her nightstand. She hadn’t used it in so long. She did manage to find an old to-do list and a pen. She uncapped the pen and smoothed out the paper, which had been folded up into a tiny square. Now she was ready. Ready to write down all of the horrible things that Dr. Baer had said to her and to deconstruct them.
But when she wrote down, You need to push yourself, it didn’t have the same effect. The problem was that when you wrote something down, you couldn’t hear the tone of voice. And really, it was Dr. Baer’s tone of voice that was the biggest problem.
At the top of the page, she wrote, Tone of voice was disapproving and harsh. There. That explained it better. Then she continued. Go back to nursing, she wrote. Challenge yourself. Stop hiding.
The waitress came to deliver the coffee and muffin, and Martha made a show of moving her paper over and giving the waitress a look like, Do you believe this? Look what I’m dealing with. But the waitress just set the oversized coffee cup and the plate down, and placed the bill on the table next to her.
“Anything else?” she asked, but she was already walking away before Martha could answer.
Martha read over her list. She really couldn’t believe the nerve of Dr. Baer, suggesting that she go back to nursing. After that nightmare of a job pushed her over the edge? All of those patients that didn’t have enough care? It was too much. Way too much. She had a job now, and it was a good job, even if Dr. Baer didn’t see it that way. Sure, it had gotten a little boring, but that was to be expected. And yes, Dr. Baer was right when she said that Martha was in a more stable place now. And maybe she was even right when she said it might be a time for Martha to challenge herself. Maybe.
“I hate my job,” Martha had said, as soon as she walked into Dr. Baer’s office that day. “Retail is killing me.” She threw her bag on the floor and waited for Dr. Baer to say something comforting, something about how hard it was to wait on people, but that it taught you patience and taught you how to treat others. But Dr. Baer had just sighed, leaned back, and said, “Tell me why you hate it.”
And so Martha had. She’d talked about how rude the new workers were, how she couldn’t stand the way the customers talked to her. “I’m a college graduate,” she said. “I could be a nurse if I wanted to.”
“So, why don’t you?” Dr. Baer asked her.
“I’m . . . well, you know why.”
“I know why you stopped nursing six years ago. I don’t know why you don’t do it now.”
“I have a job,” Martha said. “It’s not easy. And some days I complain about it.”
“You don’t just complain about it some days. It seems you complain about it most days. Almost every day, in fact, in recent months.”
“Because I hate it,” Martha told her. “But I need a job. I don’t have a choice.”
“It sounds to me like you do have a choice. You’re making the choice to be there. So, if you’re complaining about something, then make another choice.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Dr. Baer kept pushing. She kept asking her questions about the job, asking her why she hated it, telling her that it sounded like she was avoiding things. It was really rude, when you got right down to it. That was the only way to describe it.
At the end of the session, Martha had cried a little bit. She was tired of defending her job and then trying at the same time to explain why it was so awful. Because she did hate it, she did. But she couldn’t hate it completely, and she knew that too. J.Crew had saved her, and maybe that was pathetic but it was true. When it had felt like she was never going to be able to be productive again, when the world seemed really awful, she was able to go there and fold clothes.
It hadn’t always been easy, but she’d been able to get up and go, at first just for a few hours at a time, and when she got home, she’d go right back to bed. But at least she felt like she’d done something. And as time went on, it got easier, and then she didn’t have to convince herself to get up and go to the store. She just did it, and now it was almost effortless. But always, in the back of her mind, was the thought that she might slip back to that place, to that time when getting out of bed seemed almost impossible.
Was she fixed now? Was that what Dr. Baer was trying to tell her? It couldn’t be. No one in her life would ever consider her “cured.” At least once a day someone told her to lighten up. Every time she talked to her sister, Claire said, “Calm down. Stop worrying.”
But she couldn’t. That was the thing. Martha would have loved to stop worrying, but she didn’t know how. Maybe Claire thought it was crazy, the way Martha always thought there was a murderer around every corner, or that she had stomach cancer, or that she was going to die in a car crash. But the thing was, those things happened. They happened every day to lots of people. And so she couldn’t understand how other people just walked through life, unconcerned, not even considering the possibility that tragedy could strike at any moment.
How did these people just assume that they were going to live a full and safe life, when all evidence pointed the other way? When there were so many ways for people to die, so many different ways that people could get hurt—-just walking down the street, or even sitting at their desks at work—-wasn’t it a miracle that anyone made it through the day at all?
As the session was ending, Martha had stood up and looked straight at Dr. Baer, to make one more attempt to try to get her to understand. And now, the last thing she’d said was playing over and over again in her head: “I can’t fold another pair of pants with whales on them,” she’d said. “I’ll die if I do.”
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