Diane Mehta | Longreads | February 2018 | 21 minutes (5,195 words)


I’m writing to inform you that you have a terrible way with people. We hired you because you offered predictability in a hectic world. The point is that each day you have sent a different person to walk our dog. We’ve been polite about it. But it stops now. Imagine if every day you came home to a different husband or there was a weird substitute for your onion bagel. But I like variety, you might say. Well, imagine that your substitute for the onion bagel was a kishka and you were a vegetarian, or that the different husband you came home to every night smelled like a kishka, and you were a vegetarian. Consistency over kishkas is the point. You’re supposed to send a regular person on a regular walk on a regular schedule.

When I hired you, I told you about the migraines. Daily since March. I’m not sure how old you are, and whether you’ve had children, but a full-blown migraine is like childbirth in your head. Put it in dog terms, you say. Think of a ferocious, rabid dog inside you clawing to get out and you’re on all fours, crying, stuck with it, and you think there’s no kind of chew toy or meat treat in the world that can stop this.

A two-hour window for dog walking is just the edge of what I can handle. What happens if she is late? Then I will get angry. One of my migraine triggers is waiting. I have learned to avoid situations in which I am waiting, and now here I am stuck waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Kishka of whatever aptitude or variety to arrive. This is not okay for me. Neither is it okay for my new dog.

This dog has gone through a lot. We have had her three weeks. We got her from a shelter on Canal Street. There we were, looking at a dog that was shipped from a Miami shelter during the hurricane, and from the vet record it appears she was spayed this summer, and because of her nipples you can see that she had already had pups before that. She is only 2. I have my good guesses about her past. She has this odd habit of sitting in the dark, in our bathroom, which, sadly, must be reminiscent of a life in a puppy mill — or she lost her family or someone kicked her out of the house like she was some pregnant teenage girl. Then she got shipped in a truck with a bunch of other lost or unwanted sorts to New York.

Last week a new dog walker came and he looked like a serial killer. Or a millennial. I asked my son, 13, to stick around just in case. The walker came in and I said a friendly “Hi!” and his eyes grazed the floor, finally making eye contact with a throw rug. He had another dog locked outside on a huge chain that I know doubles as some S&M contraption — don’t ask me how I know this, I just do. He looked dirty, not like a kishka but like a burrito with a mop of knotted dark hair and droopy jeans. I had to put a password on my computer and hide the watches and my checkbooks before he returned. I shouldn’t have to worry when I hire a service. I need normal people in my house. I have no idea if it will be three or eight or 20 people coming in and out any day and it stresses me out and I can’t have stress like this on a daily basis. I live in New York!

When I hired you, I told you about the migraines. Daily since March. I’m not sure how old you are, and whether you’ve had children, but a full-blown migraine is like childbirth in your head.

Who will walk in my door? What will he look like? Will the next guy have a Weimar-era haircut or a Confederate flag tattooed on his forehead? Will he be a pornographer with a greasy smile that oozes lube and tacit vulgarities? Do I have to say hello? Then he will get the wrong idea. There are dirty people with poor hygiene and poor judgment and I do not want their sicknesses or their evil. You haven’t mentioned if you do background checks on your walkers. I can’t afford to wonder. I need this now. The migraines are oppressive and I’m only on this anti-epileptic drug Topomax, used off-label for migraines, for a few months in order to buy me enough headache-free days per month so I can fit into the clinically proven category of migraine sufferers who respond to the beautiful little Botox shots in their head. These next few weeks are critical or it’s back to the beginning. I’ve had only seven headache-free days, all in August when my boyfriend and I returned from Italy to blissfully cool weather. Since we got the dog, because of the dog walking situation, the migraines have been lingering, and because of the stress and unpredictability, when I’m not at full-blown migraine, I’m at about 20 percent of a full-blown migraine — daily.

So Italy. We, really it was me but, okay, we planned it for five months, researching one country and then the next, trying to figure out just-the-right vacation. Ireland was too unpredictably rainy and cold, Greece was hot with too many homogenously picture-perfect sand-and-water islands, Croatia too unpredictably inconvenient transit-wise, Peru too up and down with the altitudes. I’d gone to India alone last summer so we hadn’t been away together alone since Paris, right after we met. It was supposed to be grand. We went to Lake Como but it was right as the heat wave was happening and the migraines were at their worst. My new neurologist put me on prednisone three days before we left. It’s supposed to kill migraines when they are unkillable. It started working but the stress of the day before traveling put the migraine into high gear and then the flight, exhaustion, and the first night I could’ve slept my son called in a panic from fencing camp, where he was in a room alone and terrified because some prankster left a note in his desk that said: “Whoever sleeps here shall die tonight,” and he didn’t care that I was on Italy time. Then hours of phone calls for another few days with the guy who ran the fencing camp, who threatened to send him home, ensuring the total destruction of his self-esteem and his fencing career, if he didn’t stop panicking. After days of being strung out, and I’m not good with jet lag anyway, I flipped out and threw the house keys at my boyfriend when he couldn’t explain why the AC wasn’t working. “It’s on,” he said. “No, it is not,” I said. He kept talking in some philosophical way about an air-conditioning that was Italian “On” vs American “On.” “What do you mean Italian ‘On’? It’s not on,” I said. “Precisely, but in fact, technically it is,” he said. “Not like in America where it’s continuous AC.”

I screamed like a harpy that he should leave our house, though of course, we weren’t in our house, we were in some Garden of the Finzi-Continis villa on the northern end of Lake Como in a town called Dongo, where Mussolini was captured and shot. Dongo is pretty, but by the time you took the afternoon ferry, the return ferry was returning and there was no way back. Some of the ferry landings, such as Bellagio, were terrifying mobs of people and there was never any information and when there was it was kept from you until the last minute, or changed suddenly, and then the mob panicked and people got trampled and a British woman screamed, “Monsters, all of you!” and got separated from her child in the melee while one Sophia Loren look-alike pressed her young son like a sticker against her body and scowled prego loudly, and stepped aside with an elaborate bow to a rambunctious older Rumpelstiltskin of a woman shoving everyone out of her way with a toothless grin.

This is the country that houses the Vatican, and the epicenter of Catholicism. This is the home of Mussolini and of the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose movie Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I happened upon late one night in my twenties, and, clueless and captivated, I watched the whole thing, growing more and more horrified. I was traumatized for weeks. True, it was based on the namesake book by the French Marquis de Sade, that nut, but those mid-forties fascists who tortured those 18 teenagers, I felt they were still alive and probably in that mob with us. The mob had gathered, waited, and congealed for an hour-and-a-half until we all sat there on the landing pier pressed together in our cruel Dantesque Inferno even though if you just turned around and looked at the shiny white yachts sitting on the lake it was heavenly. There was also the persistent fear that you would miss the ferry or that it just wouldn’t come and you’d be sleeping on the sand because the last ferry and bus came simultaneously so you’d be doubly screwed at once. Timing became claustrophobic, sort of like the pained timing riddle of which days to take Sumatriptan, the migraine-abortive medication, when you have daily migraines of varying percentages and you have eight pill days allowed per month. That’s why we never took the last ferry.

Eventually, my boyfriend and I fixed things and I wondered if I was bipolar yet again or if it was the jet lag or prednisone or migraines or menopause, I couldn’t separate one from the other anymore. This was aging. It was boiling for the first time in the Lake District’s history. The ferries were ovens. Restaurants served pizza. The rich Fascists smoked. A bat flew in the house. The one place we found to eat, usually perch, the waitress cheerfully called us vicini vicini (close neighbors) because we wanted to sit next to one another instead of facing one another. The frescoes of angels and the dead Christs hanging everywhere consoled me. At some point, perhaps in the tiny commune of Varenna, we fell back in love, and he took care of me in a way that made me realize we could truly grow old together. It was there that we saw these three churches that told a thousand-year story, from the simple medieval stonework and frescoes of St. John the Baptist to the paintings of stark, hard-suffering saints placed so symmetrically around a rococo altarpiece that dazzled. All of it touched me.

Who will walk in my door? Will the next guy have a Weimar-era haircut or a Confederate flag tattooed on his forehead? Will he be a pornographer with a greasy smile that oozes lube and tacit vulgarities?

Getting back to the migraines. Being on edge all the time is not good for me, and I have no idea if the sub dog walker will steal something. Any tech-savvy millennial will eventually gain access to my bank accounts and there are three laptops in the house at all times. I hate putting a password on mine. I want the freedom of not having to type it in every time I get an idea, and then having to open it like a safe to access my repository of ideas, as if I am the criminal. I have already protected my home with cast-iron gates on every window and specialized locks that are unpickable and metal plates that make doors un-pryable. You cannot break your way in. But your subs can sashay right in and scoop up loot: the computers, chachkas, underwear, or my mother’s chunky purple ring, for which I have no receipt. I want trustworthy people. It is unacceptable to put a client on edge like this every day.

For others, the stress of a daily sub may be minor but for me it is not. Chronic stress increases your stroke-risk four-fold, according to the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. Unlike many other migraine sufferers, I have chronic daily migraines, so it’s not a matter of simply popping Sumatriptan. Each day you take it you have an increased risk of a stroke. Each migraine day is also a stroke risk day. Basically life has become one giant stroke waiting to fell you once you hit 50, and then suddenly you are looking for a hospital on every corner, measuring your heart rate, wondering if you should go into the ER or whether it would waste an evening, or is that stupid because would you waste your life instead by worrying about whether you might waste your evening? This is what it feels like to be old. This is what it feels like to be my dad. This is what it must have felt like to be my mother, waiting for her heart transplant. “They’re going to slice my chest open and cut my heart out, Diane,” she said crudely, years ago. Hearing it that way is terrifying but also accurate. Imagine how that feels. That is what it feels like to be old and know what comes next, and to entrust your life to medicine and hospitals and worry that you are running out of options but hope for the best.

I want to know who will take care of me. Can’t you see that I need a predictable routine with predictable people? Will your dog walkers trample leaves in with angry faces? Will they make my dog sad because of their toxic personalities? People have so much anger and they will put their pain on me. Will they kick my dog? Will they set her free?

Recently my 85-year-old father who has had six strokes and who fell on the street recently because he can’t lift his foot properly offered to come over and sit with me because of the pain I’m in. Do you have a father like that? He is a physician. He had to look up a new rare thing I have: patent Eustachian tube. My last ENT didn’t diagnose it all year. I can’t remember how long it has been exactly because the Topomax has wiped out my memory. It’s when your Eustachian tubes are always open and you feel like Darth Vader because your own voice resonates loudly inside your ear, a condition that’s called autophonia, and the related pain feels like stinging wind whipping into one ear and out the other. Talking hurts. It’s torture to have to ask your subs, “Did my dog do #1 or #2? Are you the regular walker? Can you fill the water?” They should just tell me. It is unendurable to have a different person in my home, and no certainty for the foreseeable future who is coming, when they are coming, and whether they are a normal person or insane or a thief. I cannot tolerate that. I would also rather have a woman. Some days I’m zoned out on the couch with a cold washcloth on my face and a stress thermometer hooked to my finger while I do biofeedback with a migraine relaxation app and my body is just sort of out there.

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Not that I think you’ll take note of my suggestion. You never responded to my previous email about whether that guy was going to be the regular walker. I have no objection to a service technically, I only object to your low standards. But I can’t go to sleep properly each night (and I must) stressed out about anything at all. If I do, I wake up and then it’s an issue I must cut out of my life the next day. I’m tired of watching people get away with indecent behavior towards other people. People should be held accountable for service that creates suffering or pain. I hired you as part of a solution to mitigate my pain and instead you increased it. I don’t believe in forgiveness but I do believe in camaraderie because it loosens the noose of loneliness, and believe me it’s tight lately.

When my estrogen dropped, my life changed in an instant. When you have a stroke, or your organs shut down as you go septic, everything changes in an instant. When you get a call to cut out your heart, everything changes in an instant. It turns out I plummeted from my last period straight to menopause, which sometimes happens to women. My mother never got the transplant. Something happened to the heart that night when she got to Yale Hospital and while she was nervously waiting they said go home. Thirteen years later, my father went septic at midnight, hours after being released from the hospital after recovering from his last stroke, and I woke up the next morning to dozens of texts and phone messages from my sister and ex-husband on the day of my son’s birthday party, and made my way to Cornell Medical Hospital, when my sister was born and my mother had died, to find my father had made it through the night. He knew he was on borrowed time. So I asked him the questions I hadn’t asked my mother: “What does it feel like to know you’re about to die? Do you have any regrets?” He had a hard time answering and started crying. I almost-cry a lot, and try not to because it gives me a migraine. As I mentioned, the stress of the migraines and the new dog and the new consulting job have been overwhelming.

I hired you as part of a solution to mitigate my pain and instead you increased it. I don’t believe in forgiveness but I do believe in camaraderie because it loosens the noose of loneliness, and believe me it’s tight lately.

A substitute dog walker is never going to take into consideration the heightened worries of an owner with a chronic illness. Will this person forget to write down if my dog peed? Who will clean the carpets when that happens and my dog pees on the rug two hours later? I already titrated down one dose on my Topomax because I’ve lost 10 pounds, which is why I needed the dog walker. The Topomax had given me a severe stutter, along with Alzheimer’s like symptoms, stroke-like symptoms (speech is difficult, but writing is lucid), and often I forget what I’m doing in the middle of doing it. I can’t keep track of the pee. If she pees, I will have to scrub the carpet five times, and then soak the carpet again with enzymatic cleaner. It is labor-intensive. I’m hypoglycemic and I have extremely low blood pressure (90/60), so leaning over makes me dizzy and often the throbs thump their way into the beginnings of a migraine. I’m iron-deficient, too, and until the iron infusions are finished, which takes a month, leaning over and scrubbing pee out of the rug will tense up the already knotted muscles in my neck. I can barely hold my head up, and neck spasms cause migraines, too. Our dog clearly has hound in her, or was kept in a basement in Miami, because the squirrels make her like Ahab going after his whale. Until she gets desensitized, she will yank my neck off. That’s why I hired you to help me. You are in the service industry. This should be your motto: “Easy dog walking, nice safe people.”

This point about accountability is critical if you continue to conduct your business in this leafy family neighborhood that is Park Slope. An airplane crashed here once — did you even know that? I have a complicated relationship with the neighborhood since my divorce. There is quiet wreckage below our feet. This whole place is a cemetery. My mother grew up a few miles over, in Crown Heights. She has been dead 17 years. She liked dogs. Her sheltie was named Alex. She’d wouldn’t’ve liked the way you’re handling yourself and she would’ve typed a letter to the Better Business Bureau on her manual typewriter and then sued you.

I guess you figure there are so many families here, so many potential married clients with children and puppies, that it is fine to be sloppy. Park Slope has so many married people that it’s an outlier of a community in the U.S. population per Pew Research, and I think that’s because of all the whiteness and therapy and desperation to stay together for the children even though the children see the icy misery first. When you ask people how their vacation was and they always say amazing as if the world is one giant Like button, you start to wonder is it you or is it vacation or is it people? I get tired of asking people about their vacations. I tell people the truth. I had a secret wish, always hearing about amazing vacations, to write a story in which all the people on my wide leafy street get divorced one by one and panic ensues. It turns out to be the PTA cookies, and it’s a scourge as in José Saramago’s Blindness, and soon the supermarkets are empty and the real estate prices are dropping but people are happier and they are having more sex, and suddenly in school there is more recess.

Anyway, I got sidetracked. My endocrinologist noticed it, too, the other day. It’s Topomax, not your personality, she assured me. I’ve lost weight. I haven’t been 105 since ninth grade, and my son told me I look like a cancer patient. (I should be at least 120 pounds because my thyroid has slowed down considerably, so I should be sleeping nine hours but I’m all amped up and I’ve had to triple my Klonopin. It’s the stress of your unpredictable service.)

As for accountability, let me tell you a story. There’s a woman who until last week worked at a cheese shop. I’d never have met her but for my friend Minna Proctor’s launch for her book of essays, Landslide, at Emma Straub’s Books Are Magic bookstore. I wanted everything to go smoothly for Minna’s reading. I brought my portable single-use plastic cold pack and had my boyfriend massage the crystals quietly to make it icy, and had 2 liters of cold water, and 200mg of Sumatriptan in case I got a migraine. I was prepared. I’d eaten a lot. I put the cold pack on the back of my neck. I hoped her reading would last exactly 40 minutes, at which point the cold pack would warm. I ate two shortbread cookies. You can’t skip meals if you’re a migraine sufferer. Her reading was vividly eloquent and at one point I almost cried, the way she wrote about her mother, with such tenderness: “How the light caught the soft cut of her cheekbones and her tall forehead, her startling blue eyes, so often diverted because she was shy.” Her kids were there but not really listening but I felt glittery, feeling her mother suddenly come alive, the way dead mothers do, as you live with them privately in your mind. Her mother smelled like water and pencil shavings, she said precisely. It was beautiful, and coincidentally Minna is beautiful with her Goldilocks hair scrolling down and her Italian gestures (she is Jewish but was partly raised in Tuscany because of her bohemian mother), so it mattered that I went and saw her in her element. I gave her my shiny new earrings for the event. I noticed for the first time not only her storytelling but the musical rhythm of her prose, the way she stitched sentences together with a poet’s pacing. I suppose that came from her mother, a composer, and that’s just in her. There were twists and lifts but within the language, and that made sense to me as a poet but also maybe especially now with all the commotion in my brain, making the inside of my head such a pained, misshapen place. They say music helps mitigate suffering a little.

I’m 51 and I’m in menopause. I’m impatient, intolerant, and I have no qualms about saying or doing anything. I use my flaws wisely, like Margaret in A Wrinkle in Time. I’d go to jail in an instant, for the right reason.

I felt a headache building as my ice pack warmed and bolted the moment the reading was over, to find some cold water. My boyfriend chased after me. I dumped my sweater in his arms as a hot flash overwhelmed me. I saw a cheese shop. I grabbed two bottles of water, one to use as an ice pack for my face immediately and one to drink from. I wandered over and saw a thin, mousy-haired 30-ish woman behind the cheese. I noticed some crostini. I asked her what kind they were, as they were tinted different colors. “Crostini,” she said in a computerized voice designed to resemble a woman’s. I looked up, surprised. Usually, I’m not patient. A friend told me that as a migraine sufferer I have to avoid anger, so I make every effort to do so. “Well, I said, but they are different colors. They must be different.” She looked at them. “One’s raisin,” she conceded, irritated. I grimaced. “Oh. Okay. I’ll take one. And I’d like to buy these.” I held the bottles up and looked for the register. “Over there,” she said, and tossed her head in the direction of the interior, a vast empty space. I wandered into the middle of the store and looked around. “Over there,” she repeated. I moved closer to nowhere. It felt like a child’s game of hot/cold. “Over there.” She must enjoy making people feel discombobulated. The power, the feeling of others’ vulnerability. Finally, she appeared by some butcher’s block table. She was annoyed, and I tried not to say anything because everything seemed to annoy her. But a few more interactions of disinterest and dislike happened. I stayed calm. I handed her the money. She said to us, in a hard voice, “The doughnuts are free.” I smiled. “Not for me.” (I’m pre-diabetic. My A1C and cholesterol are probably high because of all the triple-fat cheese and butter I’m eating to keep my weight up.) My boyfriend was interested. I looked at this lady and wondered what kind of person was so rude.

Like you, she was in the service industry.

“What kind of doughnut is this one,” said my boyfriend. He pointed to one passionately sprinkled with nuts that looked like it had no hole in the middle. She said with disgust, “A doughnut.” More anxiously, he said, “But it looks like there’s something in the middle.” Her response, ruder and louder, “So don’t take it!” Now I was getting irritated. My boyfriend is so nice about my migraines, and my panic attacks, and has to handle all my confusion with my medication and my inability to count numbers — everything, really. He’s a trooper and a nice guy. He just wanted a doughnut, and he was there to help me. He’s from Texas, and he has that Southern Gothic kind of background. “But no, I mean, it looks like there’s something inside, doesn’t it?” he said, wounded. I nudged him, give up. He thought he’d said something wrong, that it was his fault. But she was the mean one. I’d had enough. “What’s the name of this store?” I asked, though I knew it already. They used to be in a tiny store the size of a bathroom, but they must have moved into this bigger space. She didn’t answer me and with silent hostility she refused to meet my eyes. I stood there calmly, sort of like a bird of prey. I was much older than her, but I’m told I look much younger, so I presumed she assumed I was her age. Which means she assumed I’d cow to her attitude, that we were evenly matched.

I’d do nothing of the sort. I’m 51 and I’m in menopause. I’m impatient, intolerant, and I have no qualms about saying or doing anything. I use my flaws wisely, like Margaret in A Wrinkle in Time. I’d go to jail in an instant, for the right reason. My mother was cutting. She wasn’t a good mother and I am loving times 500, but I have also inherited her talent. I decided to use it. I tilted my head. “How much is it?” I asked. “One minute! $4.52” she said. I handed her the money. She handed me my change. I tucked it in my wallet, folded it, slipped it in my bag and looked up. “You know what?” I said, “You’re a real fucking cunt.”

There was more. She said “karma dharma” and shooed me away, unaware that I was Indian and I understood karma on a much deeper level. It’s not a rhyme. It’s a religious concept. What she didn’t get was that she had it coming, not me. All I was doing was holding her accountable. In retrospect, she’s exactly the kind of lady who goes to yoga and says Om and does the cultural appropriation things that I hate. These two Sanskrit words don’t go together. They span different religions and concepts. I called her a cunt a bunch of times more, pointed out that she was alone for a reason, that this is how she treats customers, and so on. There was some adrenaline. “Did I do something wrong?” my boyfriend asked. “People should be held accountable, especially young women,” I snapped, holding the water bottle to my head. He checked on Yelp as soon as we got home. “It’s not just us!” he yelled. A lot of people had left that store stunned and angry. The next day I spoke to the owner. I told him everything, including the cunt part. We talked about customer service and all the cheese people and chefs we knew in common. That lady got fired. Accountability matters.

So you see, when you’re in the service industry the goal is to be invisible to the people you’re serving because you should be adding simplicity into their lives, not inserting stress into their lives.

Anyway, I got my new prescription with the right amount of Topomax (I mentioned above that I was dosing down. The secretaries at the neurologist’s office were calling in the wrong Rx for two days, and I was having panic attacks that I’d have to go from 75mg to 0mg and basically that would give me an aneurysm or some other fucked up brain thing because you have to do it 25mg at a time. But my doctor saw my messages and fixed it.) So you see, when you’re in the service industry the goal is to be invisible to the people you’re serving because you should be adding simplicity into their lives, not inserting stress into their lives. The #1 rule of customer service is “Remember the WOW.” I’m in consulting. You should have apologized the first time when we called about the 10 minutes that the lady skimmed off the walk on day two.

Clearly you are not a people person. This is my diagnosis of you. I am holding you accountable and ending my relationship with your service. I want my two sets of keys immediately. If I don’t receive the keys by the end of the day, I’m afraid I’ll have to call the police because then it becomes a safety issue and a deliberate act of aggression against me.

Diane Mehta

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Diane Mehta’s poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, comes out in 2019 with Four Way Books. She is finishing a historical novel set in 1946 India while working on a collection of essays. She has been an editor at PEN America’s Glossolalia, Guernica, and A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn.

Editor: Sari Botton