Susan Shapiro | Longreads | February 2020 | 28 minutes (7,036 words)
Rushing to see him that Friday evening in August, I turned the corner and was shocked to catch Haley leaving his brownstone. What the hell was she doing here? I prayed my eyes were wrong and it was another tall redhead, not my favorite student. Inching closer, I saw it definitely was her — in skinny jeans, heels and a pink blouse, her unmistakable auburn hair flapping down her back as she flounced away. I froze, so crushed I couldn’t breathe.
Darting inside, I shrieked, “I just saw Haley walk out of here. You lied to me!”
“I never lied to you,” he insisted, quickly closing his door.
“Don’t tell me you’re sleeping with her?”
“Of course not.” He looked horrified.
He wasn’t my lover, cheating with a younger woman. He was the long-term therapist who’d saved me from decades of drugs, alcohol, and self-destruction. I couldn’t believe that right before our session, Dr. Winters had met with my protégée, whom I’d loved like a daughter. For the past three years, she’d sat in my classroom, living room, beside me at literary events, and speed walking around the park. She was the only person I’d ever asked him not to see, and vice versa. I felt betrayed from both sides.
Earlier that day, Haley had emailed to see if I’d recommend my gynecologist, housekeeper and literary agency. “Want my husband too?” I’d joked. In the spring, when I’d first sensed she was ransacking my address book and life, I’d asked Dr. Winters about the eerie All About Eve aura.
“She sounds nuts,” he’d said.
“That’s your clinical assessment?” I asked, adding “Don’t be flippant. She’s important to me.”
He’d sworn he wouldn’t treat her, laughing off my paranoia.
Now I could barely speak as I realized she’d broken her vow. And he’d let her in, giving her the slot directly before mine, then ran late, as if he wanted me to catch her. Perched at the edge of his leather couch, I imagined Haley sitting right where I was, leaning on the embroidered cushions, spilling secrets she’d previously shared only with me to my confidante. His plush work space morphed from my safest haven for 15 years into the creepy crawly Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
“Then why was she here?” I couldn’t process her so out of context.
“That woman is not my patient,” he insisted.
His technical wordplay sounded like Bill denying Monica. I craved a drink, joint, and cigarette.
The charming acolyte, who’d reminded me of me, hadn’t been harmlessly competitive, as I’d rationalized. She’d ruthlessly conspired to be my replacement, and succeeded. She’d somehow become my rival, whom Dr. Winters preferred. She was 20 years younger, prettier, breezier. At 29, her youth mocked me. A time machine was suddenly transforming me into a distorted funhouse reflection of myself, like the actor in the Truffaut film “Two English Girls” shocked by seeing his image in the car window, yelling “I look old!” I went from hip urban success story to pathetic, needy middle-aged, hair-dyeing wannabe.
She was 20 years younger, prettier, breezier. At 29, her youth mocked me. A time machine was suddenly transforming me into a distorted funhouse reflection of myself…
On my way to his West 9th Street office, wearing a flowery summer skirt, T-shirt and sandals instead of my all-black armor, I’d felt lighter, envisioning how proud he’d be when I handed him the first signed copy of my novel, hidden in my purse. After spying Haley, my world twisted darker.
“You’re not having an affair with her?” I asked, recalling she’d recently split with her fiancé.
“No, of course not. I would never touch a patient,” Dr. Winters insisted.
“Aha. You just called her your patient!” I yelled, all the impulse control he’d taught me flouncing down the street with Haley. “Is she paying to see you? Or not?”
“I am not her official therapist,” he repeated, sitting down.
“You’re arguing semantics?” I yelled.
He should have been straight and said, “I need the money,” or “I’m sick of your boring issues. I want new blood.” I could have handled honesty. If I understood, I’d forgive him anything. I respected his candor. Once, when I asked why he called me his “most taxing patient,” he told me: “You have a chronic anxiety level connected to a hyperactive mind that’s plugged into an analytic level of consciousness. There’s no rest or rhythm. It’s all high-pitch. There’s a continual idiosyncratic intensity that’s exhausting.”
Captivated by his weirdly apt description of me, I’d scrawled it down in my notebook and quoted my personalized diagnosis everywhere, like an alibi to get me out of acting normal.
I knew I’d relied too heavily on Dr. Winters. With his short, brown hair and glasses, he was nerdily handsome like my chain-smoking Midwest dad, but 20 years younger. The shrink who’d helped me nix nicotine dressed more fastidiously, in khakis, buttoned shirts tucked in and slim ties. At 6 feet and 160 pounds (I asked), he was also thinner and more diet obsessed than Dad (or anyone in my family.) Perhaps that was why Dr. Winters could help me give up all my bad habits — including the Juicy Fruit gum I’d chewed compulsively post-cigarettes, joints and vodka. I’d even lost weight while giving up tobacco, which felt miraculous. When he advised me to “depend on people, not substances,” I told him that a feminist dependent on a sexist male like himself was ridiculous.
“To stay clean, you have to trust me,” he’d said. A chain smoker himself for 20 years, he confided that his mother was a raging alcoholic who chose booze over him. Softened by the disclosure, I lost my skepticism, anointing him my sage, sponsor, and higher power, though he was only eight years my senior. As I battled what he called “the worst nicotine withdrawal in history,” he taught me to “suffer well.”
While I relinquished my toxic habits, he revamped my existence: pushing Jake to propose, helping me land more teaching gigs and book deals in my 40s, tripling my income. When my dad trashed my memoirs, Dr. Winters said, “He’s threatened. He’ll come around to seeing how important your work is.” He urged me to teach, do charity, “Err on the side of generosity.” In his office-sanctuary, he was the WASP rabbi I confessed to with religious devotion. “Everything is too important to you,” he declared. If I felt snubbed, he said, “The slight is never your imagination but then you overreact.” Was I overreacting now? I couldn’t ask him or be rational when he was the one I was slighted by. The only compulsion I was still addicted to was him.
What happened when your crisis management strategy became your crisis? With our trust broken, my sobriety and success could unravel, my fierce reliance on him going haywire.
“This deceptive mind game is counterproductive.” I tried to breathe.
“I’m not playing mind games. I don’t lie.” He crossed his legs, ruffled.
“I just can’t fucking believe Haley was here,” I said.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“What happened to ‘Always lead the least secretive life?’” It felt like he was parodying his mantra, which I’d repeated in my classes and books, like a chanting Moonie. I imagined tossing a chair through his window, shattering glass on his gray carpet, storming out for good. But after 15 years, I needed an explanation. Plus he’d charge me $200 for the appointment regardless.
“Is this about finances?” I demanded, recalling his fee was higher for new patients.
“If you don’t like how I run my practice, let’s cancel all your sessions,” he snapped.
I winced. I had an intense, unconventional link with Dr. Winters, but this threat was out of character. Sensing I’d been deceived by the doctor who knew everything about me, I never felt so abandoned or vulnerable. Being trustworthy was his job.
Had I been deluded to believe I was important to him? He’d shown me poetry about his abusive mother. He’d described being distraught when his Battery Park townhouse was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. He answered my emails quickly. Unlike my real dad, he loved my work. We’d discussed one day co-authoring a substance abuse book together. My best friend Claire viewed our rapport as inappropriate. I argued that addiction therapy was unorthodox. I was convinced I was special, more like a colleague he confided in, a prized pet, his star protégée, the way Haley had been mine.
“You realize you colluded with my student to deceive me?” I asked.
What happened when your crisis management strategy became your crisis? With our trust broken, my sobriety and success could unravel, my fierce reliance on him going haywire.
“I hope you can forgive the imaginary crime you envision I’ve committed,” he sneered.
I was stung by this sarcastic non-apology. “I didn’t imagine you’d treat the one person you agreed not to. Haley’s a former student now in my private writing group. She’s my exercise buddy and good friend…”
“That woman is not your friend,” he interrupted.
“What the hell does that mean?” The thought of Haley as my enemy poured gasoline onto my heart-flames. His statement was out of line on so many levels, my brain was exploding. “So she was just sitting here, trashing me?” I asked, mind-fucked, tangled in an Oedipal tornado that wouldn’t stop spinning.
“Susan, what do you want from me?”
“An apology for screwing up, and an end to this disturbing triangle. Can’t you refer her to someone else?”
“You don’t tell me which patients I see,” he yelled. “It’s my institute. You don’t control my baby!”
I’d never heard him raise his voice or refer to his practice that way. Now it was official: The person in charge of healing my psyche was even crazier than I was.
When I met Haley in my feature journalism course three years before, her beauty was hidden under overalls and a fishing hat. “Lighting Up rocked my world,” she said with a Southern twang as we went around the room, introducing ourselves. “I knew your husband Jake when I studied at NYU. The best professor there.”
Man, this chick aced Networking 101. I was a 46-year-old childless teacher known only within my 12-block radius; her flattery was intoxicating. The memoir she cited chronicled my extraordinary treatment with Dr. Winters, the dashing rule-breaker who’d let me explore in print his provocative disclosures about the violent alcoholic mother who hated him. Some critics felt it made his ardent theories credible. Others branded him a renegade for sharing personal details with a patient. Yet he was the only one who could rid me of the toxic habits I’d wrestled with since I was a teen. He was my “core pillar,” as he called it, along with my husband, a curly-haired charmer addicted only to me.
I’d been jolted by Dr. Winters’ move to Arizona the year before. Our twice weekly sessions switched to monthly, when he’d fly to New York. Jake took a gig as a producer with long hours on a TV cop drama. Having given up my scene of drinkers and partiers, I was lonely. “Just when you think you lost everything, you find you have even more to lose,” Bob Dylan sang. I was so substance-restricted, when my best friend Claire came to town she asked, “Hey, let’s go out and get some water.”
“Teach more,” Dr. Winters had advised. “You’re doing good in the world.”
Teaching at night became a balm for social isolation, especially since students chronicled their estrangements and emptiness. For my assignment on “your most humiliating secret,” Haley wrote how she and her fiancé spent a year buying her fantasy downtown loft, but broke up an hour after they moved in. She was the first to sell her piece to an editor who spoke to our class. Yet some time between rough draft and publication, she changed her last line about the breakup to “I finally found my true home.”
“What happened to your original ending?” I asked.
“We got back together. You said in nonfiction, you can’t lie,” she told me.
“If you stay in past tense, you’re not lying,” I said, not one for corny endings.
A week later Haley brought her fiancé to my Cooper Union event. Donald was tall, slim, well dressed. In her miniskirt and heels, with makeup and wearing her red hair down, she was a bombshell. She followed me to the ladies’ room. “I saw you at another panel here a year ago,” she confided, tinting her lips pinker in the mirror. “The way you showed off about your successful students made me want to study with you. So I tracked you down.” I was just moderating the star literary headliners. To Haley, I was the rock star.
Months after my six-week course ended she requested one of my walk-and-talk office hours, speed walking around Washington Square Park.
“Sue, can I ask you something?”
She fired off questions about how I’d quit addictions, and found my husband, agent and editor for my upcoming autobiographical comic novel. Haley wanted my life. I did too — at least the external, effortless version. I urged her to lose alcohol and her non-committal rich guy, and make her own money. I recommended her for an assistant newspaper editor job she wound up landing. She thanked me by buying the essays of several current students, making my new class exciting.
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That season I missed my husband — always on the set — along with my best friend, Claire, and my shrink, both now thousands of miles away. Haley’s fiancé was jetting off on foreign business, leaving her alone too. She worked only 20 hours a week. She joined the private workshop I ran from home, line editing my rough drafts. After each session, she’d stay to teach me yoga while discussing which of my pages she’d liked best.
My novels had been rejected since I was her age — until this one, inspired by my obsessive quest to find a local weekly replacement for Dr. Winters, screening eight shrinks in eight days. Instead of Speed Dating, I’d been Speed Shrinking. Finally selling my fictional debut with that title, I felt reborn. I went out every evening, handing out postcards with the aqua cover of a girl on a couch in a row of eight different shrink sofas. I turned Haley on to the old guard, whispering “Dan was the New Yorker editor I worked with in the ’80s.” She brought young lions to meet me, saying “Kurt’s the new book editor at newyorker.com. You have to speak to Sue’s class.” We were the perfect literati-hunting team. I gave her gravitas; she made me hipper. Book events (where nobody smoked, drank or ate) bored everyone I knew — except Haley. She was insatiable for fame and my attention, which she seemed to have conflated.
Once, teaching me to instant message on Facebook, she called my landline while texting me, our wires all literally crossing. If we didn’t speak for a day, she’d email “I need my Sue-fix,” like I needed my daily dose of Dr. Winters. I didn’t see I was shifting my codependence on him and Claire to Haley.
When Haley said she wanted to do something special for her 29th birthday in May, I suggested she throw herself a party in her spacious home, a rare commodity in our suffering artist scene. My urban frontier days, where dozens of poets crammed into my old 300 square-foot studio for free beer and popcorn, were a far cry from the possibilities in her Lower East Side penthouse duplex with a wrap-around terrace. I looked forward to a late bash I didn’t have to plan, finance, or schlep to Brooklyn for. “Come early,” she emailed. “I need your eye.”
I’d never heard Dr. Winters raise his voice or refer to his practice that way. Now it was official: The person in charge of healing my psyche was even crazier than I was.
At 9 p.m., I stepped from the elevator into her majestic 2,500 square-foot palace, taking in the chic minimalism. Clearly her fiancé paid for the luxury pad. She hugged me, wearing cut-off shorts, high heels, and a glittery top.
“Sue! You’re here! I’m so psyched you came!” she gushed like I was a dignitary.
“You look hot,” I said, handing her a Strand bag filled with books, crudités, hummus, cheese and crackers.
“Thank you, Jewish mother,” she laughed as a few others she’d hired to help dribbled in to set up.
Haley unwrapped my gift, the novels High Maintenance and Little Stalker by my colleague Jennifer Belle since Haley too wanted to write urban fiction. “And here’s a signed advance copy of my book, like you requested.”
“Wow. I’m so honored. I can’t wait to read it.”
“There’s still some mistakes,” I said. “And you’ve seen it in the group 10 times.”
“But not in print. What a rave in PW! Is that why you look so pretty and lit up?”
I smiled, feeling youthful and festive in my swingy summer skirt and high sandals. “When I sent the review to my mom, she said ‘Go ahead, tell the whole world you’re in therapy.'” I used a Yiddish accent.
“My mom says that too! ‘All you crazy New Yorkers with your therapists,’” Haley said, mimicking her mother’s Alabama twang. “Sue, can I ask you something? Do you really think that without Dr. Winters you wouldn’t be sober, published and married?”
I nodded, sensing something wrong. “Where’s Donald?” I glanced up the winding staircase.
“After we had a fight, he jetted off to Belize this morning,” she said.
On her birthday? Damn him. The timing of his exit before her big soiree made their romantic troubles seem melodramatic. Then again, my best party at her age was motivated by the loss of my heart to a sociopathic biographer I’d also stupidly moved in with too soon.
“I keep begging Donald to try couples therapy,” she said, looking fragile.
“Jake only tried when I walked out on him,” I told her. “What did Paula say?” I’d recommended my old therapist, Paula Goode, who Haley was seeing. “Remember ‘Love doesn’t make you happy. Make yourself happy. Then you’ll find love,'” I said, quoting Paula.
“Last night in bed I was reading Donald the scene in your memoir where Dr. Winters said you’re not allowed to criticize your husband. Donald said, ‘Now that doctor is smart.’ You think it’s bad to criticize your guy?” Haley asked, forgetting the whole “Make yourself happy” part.
Picturing her reciting the dialogue between Dr. Winters and me to her fiancé in bed made me cringe. It felt too intimate, even for an over-sharer like me.
“Can I call Dr. Winters?” she asked.
I said no, explaining that the patient-therapist relationship is based on confidentiality and transference and that therapists weren’t like dentists. There was an unspoken rule not to see the same shrink as your close friend, relative or teacher. I certainly didn’t want to bump into her in his waiting room, my safest harbor, where I removed my teacher/author mask. That was why I referred her to Paula. “Would you prefer I recommend another smart, male shrink?” I asked.
“You’re so generous, Sue.” She leaned her head on my shoulder. “I won’t call Winters. I didn’t mean to overstep.” Then she asked, “Is the number of the Jungian astrologer you wrote about listed? He has a Ph.D in clinical psych, right?”
Before I could reiterate that she should stop shrink-stalking me and find one of the other 20,000 head doctors in the city, she spun off to greet guests. Two students from my last class stepped off the elevator.
The girl with a nose ring shouted, “Hey, Prof Sue, what are you doing here?”
“I’m helping her promote her dazzling roman a clef, Speed Shrinking, coming out in August, the month shrinks are away,” Haley said, flitting by. “There’s a keg, and red and white wine by the bar.”
She was a fun hostess, like I had once been — before I quit alcohol and drugs and became a workaholic.
“My shrink is actually coming to town in August,” I clarified.
“So cool about your novel,” said nose ring, who also had a silver hoop through her lip.
I handed her a postcard, wondering if it hurt when she kissed.
By 11pm, the space was packed. My editor Robert walked in. “Aside from the fact that a newspaper assistant making $200 a week lives in a $5 million loft, notice anything strange?” he asked.
I looked around, clueless.
“Is there anyone here you don’t know, Sue?”
“No wonder I’m having a good time,” I said.
“Everyone upstairs for a surprise,” Haley yelled, guiding the crowd up the winding stairway.
“My back is too old for that staircase,” Robert said.
We sat on the couch together, catching up. The nose ring girl came back downstairs ten minutes later.
“What’s happening up there?” I asked.
“A flame-thrower’s eating fire on the roof,” she said on her way to the loo.
“Weird. We met the flame thrower at a book event I took her to last week,” I said, miffed that Haley hadn’t mentioned hiring her.
“That your agent?” Robert pointed. I nodded as he added, “So you trust red-headed Vampira?”
“Of course,” I answered. “With my life.”
“Is it weird that Haley had 100 of my friends at her party?” I asked Dr. Winters at our next session. “She sees my old female therapist and wants to call Stargazer and you. Is it unhealthy if she’s shrink-stalking me?”
“If she calls, I’ll recommend a colleague,” he’d reassured.
Cool. Case closed. Until four months later, when I learned they’d been shrinking behind my back. After catching her leaving his office, I stumbled to my apartment, mumbling to myself, then picked up my landline.
“Why did you call Dr. Winters when you said you wouldn’t?” I asked her.
“I can’t fathom what business of yours my therapy is,” she replied.
“It wouldn’t be if you hadn’t called my therapist after I asked you not to. You can’t just co-opt my editors, saviors, and existence. That doesn’t even work,” I told her. “How long have you been seeing him?”
“Since May,” she said, quietly.
Since her party? “So you ask if you can call my shrink, I say no, and you steal him anyway?”
“Sue, I adore you. I’m closer to you than my family. But seeing him has nothing to do with you. I’m quitting the newspaper and your workshop. I can only have one guru. I need to listen to Daniel now.”
Using his first name while dumping me — and the editorship I’d recommended — stung. I hung up in disbelief, emailing Dr. Winters: “You’ve been seeing Haley for four months?”
He responded right away that she was getting smart advice from him, and I should “Let people move on.”
They acted like I was crazy to care if he saw her, or that they’d double-crossed me. Was I?
That night, I had a nightmare my father was eloping with the daughter I never had. I couldn’t concentrate or eat. I lost 13 pounds over the next 13 days. I wasn’t sleeping. Paranoia reigned. “Don’t tell Sue. It’s just between us,” I pictured Haley whispering. “Don’t listen to her. She’s not a doctor, she just repeats what I tell her,” he’d answer. As daily cyber arguments with Haley and Dr. Winters built, so did my resentment. One Wednesday, when they both ignored my emails, I really lost it.
Picturing Haley reciting the dialogue between Dr. Winters and me to her fiancé in bed made me cringe. It felt too intimate, even for an over-sharer like me.
That stormy September dawn, as Jake snored, I broke free of his arms. I sneaked to the living room, opening the windows. The lightning outside mirrored my frenzied mood. I turned on the old rhythm and blues mixtape my first heartbreak had made me in high school. I’d never officially hexed anyone before but recalled the time my mother, invoking her maiden name, whispered, “The Goodman women are witches.” Sitting on the floor, lights dimmed, I lit a wildflower candle. Groggy and frazzled, I put a double curse on Dr. Winters and Haley. I chanted in Yiddish, adding confessional poetry and Edith Piaf, scrawling in my secret notebook that the identity thief was forever banished from New York and Dr. Winters should hurt as much as I did.
Eight hours later, Haley emailed that she was on a plane to Europe. My curse had chased her bad juju away from my city. Next Dr. Winters responded that he’d been bedridden, in pain from kidney stones; he could barely move. Wow. I felt wildly powerful. Then I was petrified she’d die in a crash and my spell would kill him. Sleep deprived, my sanity was slipping.
“Sorry you’re sick,” I typed, freaked out, imagining he was doing daily phone sessions from the hospital long distance with Haley, where they kept insulting me:
“You should see the sucky first drafts Sue brings to the group,” Haley would tell him.
“You should have seen her while she was drinking and smoking,” Dr. Winters would confide.
Jake woke to find me sobbing at my desk. “Step away from your computer,” he commanded, imitating the voice of a policeman from his TV show. He read the email chain.
“Remember the nickname I gave Haley the first time I met her, when she acted like she’d been my best NYU student and I had no idea who she was?” he asked. “Crazypants.”
I wondered if my loneliness had caused me to misjudge her affection — and sincerity. Patting my head, Jake said, “It’s time we lose Haley and Dr. Winters altogether.”
I told Haley not to call me again. Insisting I break off all contact with Dr. Winters, Jake left a phone message on his machine instructing him not to contact me anymore. That provoked an incendiary email: “So your husband speaks for you now?”
For the first time in 15 years, I didn’t respond.
Haley’s Facebook post read: “Lead the least secretive life = best advice I ever got from a fortune cookie.”
She’d stolen my favorite saying and the shrink I’d taken it from.
I didn’t hear from Dr. Winters or Haley until six months later, when he emailed me an apology. Tears fell before I could process his words, asking if I’d meet him at his office so he could say he was sorry in person. Defensively, I refused. He offered to meet me for coffee, anywhere I chose, with Jake — if I preferred. My husband pushed me to go alone. “He was kind for 15 years. At least let him explain what happened.”
“How’s Jake doing?” Dr. Winters asked, sitting across from me at a local diner.
He hates you, I didn’t say. He had to save me from you. “Good,” I answered. “How’s your wife?”
He’d mentioned a year ago that his spouse, Karen, had needed an operation to remove a benign tumor. It had something to do with 9/11 fumes. When I’d asked about her over the summer, he said she’d be fine.
“Not well,” he said now, his voice cracking.
“There was nerve damage after her neurosurgery that hardly worked. She’s half-deaf, can’t drive, can’t walk without a cane, work, or fly without seizures.”
“I had no idea!” I said. “I’m so sorry.” His eyes no longer seemed menacing, just agonized and haunted. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Hard to talk about,” he mumbled. “At first, they said she was dying. There was nothing we could do. It threw me back to the nightmare of my childhood. I was scared I was losing my wife. I couldn’t fix her.”
My Jewish guilt toward my Protestant shrink ricocheted all over the place. I wanted to reach for his hand to comfort him. But physical contact was the one boundary we never broke. He morphed from monster into a healer who couldn’t save his own wife, a proud man too overcome with grief to focus on work. I felt lighter; the unbearable burden of believing he’d wanted to cause me harm was lifting off my skull.
“You’ve been having a rough time,” I conceded, becoming his shrink.
“I mishandled everything,” he said. “I feel like I lost the whole year.”
I was guilty of mishandling it all, and losing the year too.
I’d naively expected complete disclosure on both sides, assuming he’d reveal what was going on in his life and ask if I could handle him seeing my protégée. Over the months we didn’t speak, I’d transferred our intense bond to my husband, now my closest confidant. Yet there were weaknesses and secrets I’d rather share with my shrink than my mate. Like how distressed I still felt that Winters had become closer to Haley than to me.
“It still pains me that you’re treating my student after you promised not to.”
“I’m not treating her anymore,” he said.
I was shocked. “Not at all?” I heard his past voice saying, “Susan, everything is too important to you.”
“I haven’t seen her in five months. It was a mistake,” he now told me.
“So you’ll have no contact with Haley?” It came out like an ultimatum, as if I’d been betrayed by a cheating lover and was debating whether to take him back.
“I will not see or speak to Haley again,” Winters said.
I was sure he was sincere. Haley was out. I was elated! But wait — I didn’t want to get back in.
The waiter brought the check. The thought of bidding Daniel goodbye forever felt paralyzing.
“My mind is racing,” I said. “I keep coming up with different subtexts for what happened.”
“You scheduled Haley right before me, then ran late so I would catch you lying. You felt guilty. So having me see her leave your office was a way to get out of the deception,” I tried. “You alienated me, expecting me to cut you off, like your mother did. Then you apologized and wanted a reunion, knowing I’d forgive you.”
“How would I know you’d forgive me?” he asked.
“Unlike your mom, I’m not a raging alcoholic. You fixed my addictions the way you couldn’t fix hers,” I said, adding, “I read over the addiction book we worked on. We should revise and publish it.”
“We should.” His eyes lit up, like it was the best idea anyone had ever had.
I felt like we were a married couple, seconds away from getting a divorce, deciding to have a baby instead. Was I being competitive with Haley? She may have seen him, too. But if Dr. Winters and I were coauthors, I’d be the one having his metaphorical child.
Enveloped in the magic dust of our reconciliation, I reached out to Haley. My six-month period of hating her haunted me. She was a small town kid estranged from her mother. Even if she’d acted reckless or insatiable, I’d once been a hungry girl devouring the city and everything in it too. I recalled she was turning 30 the following week. I wanted to liberate her the way my former guru’s mea culpa had just freed me.
“Dr. Winters and I reconciled. I hope we can too,” I emailed.
“Thanks. I never meant to hurt you,” she instantly replied.
Six months of fury melted to memory. I almost said, “Let’s take a long walk.” Then I caught myself.
“Protégés aren’t real friends,” Dr. Winters had warned. “Mentors have all the power.”
At 9am the next morning, my phone rang. “Oh Sue, I’m so glad to be back in touch. I just hated fighting with you,” Haley said.
I usually resented being interrupted from work. But I was drawn in by her slow lilting voice. “Me too,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”
“The first thing I told Winters was, ‘Sue is like a mother to me,’” Haley said.
I was moved. Until she added, “His response was ‘Get rid of her.’”
I flinched. Man, that was ugly. He’d probably told her to lose me on the same day he’d told me, “This girl is not your friend.” Yet I accepted that his wife’s illness had induced a kind of temporary madness. In my mind it was already history.
Haley asked if she could come to a reading I was hosting at a soup kitchen that Sunday. I was flattered; that charity event meant a lot to me. “Sure,” I said.
Standing at the podium that night, I saw a shock of red hair slip into the back row. She looked lovely in a flowery dress. When she greeted me afterwards, I gave her a present: a Tibetan notebook with a silver pen.
“That’s so sweet of you. Let’s get together,” she said.
I thought this was getting together. She told me she and Donald had split for good, and she’d be leaving New york soon. Did I have time this weekend, before she left?
I felt sad for her. “How about coffee after work on Friday around 6?”
“Let’s have dinner.” She upgraded my offer.
Jake was out of town. I had no plans. “How about — I’ll take you out to eat for your big 3-0?”
“Let’s see a movie too?”
Familiar red flags flew. We’d never done dinner and a movie. While I hoped Dr. Winters and I would be linked forever, I only wanted to make sure Haley was okay. Realizing it could be the last time I see her, I offered to see Sex and the City: Two, as if to transform our Felliniesque drama into a comedy, just a couple of gal-pals on the town. She met me at the café next to the theater, already seated, wearing a soft pink sweater.
“Happy birthday,” I said.
She thanked me, then said, “Sue, Can I ask you something?”
She launched into a story about Donald ordering her out of their penthouse the day our colleague Ann said she was staying with him at his place in France the next week.
I didn’t hear from Dr. Winters or Haley until six months later, when he emailed me an apology. Tears fell before I could process his words…
I thought I was incapable of small talk. I saw why we’d bonded. But she was still stuck in an endless breakup cycle. Done with my Oedipal triangle, she’d already found another. Ann was a 50-year-old sharp redheaded critic from my workshop. I wondered if Haley’s mother had red hair like hers, Ann’s, and my mom’s.
“You and Donald don’t work,” I said. When my advice didn’t get her wed, she’d called in the shrink who’d helped me marry, to finish the job. She was grasping for help to heal her heart, like I had.
“Want to share the cheese fruit platter and a salad?” I asked.
She nodded, moved closer, and conspiratorially asked, “Don’t you think Ann’s being disloyal?”
I was not taking the bait and re-triangulating. “Ann’s only said how smart and talented you are.” I sipped water. “She’d never touch Donald.”
“Then why is she at his apartment?”
“Because she’s your friend and broke. He’d probably offered her a free place to stay in Paris when you guys were still together,” I said. “You know, when I turned 30, my boyfriend left me and my boss fired me from my book reviewing job. I thought life was over. Then I met Jake and decided to be an author, not a critic.”
“You think I should start over, get rejected daily, and live in Brooklyn with a bunch of roommates?” she asked sarcastically.
“Yes. You’re still young. I was 43 before I nailed love, work and a good apartment — the New York trifecta.”
“Sue, I want your life,” she confessed.
“I know. But it took me decades of sweat. And I’m still struggling. You can’t just latch onto rich successful older men to save you.”
“No!” I yelled. Then I softened, remembering I had the husband, shrink, square footage and career she coveted. “I worked 80-hour weeks. I still do. Jake was unemployed when we met. He was impressed by my book column. He found Dr. Winters.”
“I thought he’d help me and Donald the way he helped you,” she said quietly. I suddenly wished Winters and I could have put them back together again.
“It seems like he tried,” I said.
“He traumatized me,” she jumped in.
“How?” I was dying to know what actually had transpired between them.
“I had three appointments with him, for $400 a session, which Donald paid for,” she said. “Then Winters went to Arizona and was never available. He didn’t return my calls. I was chasing a ghost. In March, I get a message saying he’s referring me to another therapist.”
I’d envisioned the two in harmony, the way he and I had been. I was thrilled to hear he’d charged her his new high rate, had quit her (maybe because of me?), and they’d never clicked, as if a woman who’d slept with my husband was revealing he couldn’t get it up with her. Then I felt embarrassed about falling back into an immature rivalry I had to get us out of.
“I know he’s really sorry. So am I,” I said pouring the tea. “Winters’s wife was sick. Really sick,” I lowered my voice. “If I thought Jake might die, I’d lose it too.”
“Sorry to hear,” she mumbled, taking a tiny bite of cheese. “But you know, you wrote about Winters in your book. It was obvious who he was. His number is listed. Anybody could have called him.”
“You weren’t anybody. You were a student who joined my workshop, working a job I recommended, seeing my former female therapist. We over-connected. It was a perfect Freudian storm.” I wanted her to know how threatened I was, as if I’d been erased. “You had 100 of my friends at your party. It was spooky.”
“I knew them, too,” she said.
“Through me,” I pointed out. “For three years I was your guru. Then I get an email you’re quitting your job, me and my workshop, and find out you’re lying to me.” What changed in May, after her party?
I’d sold out my favorite student during our overlapping desperate dashes for success…I was the one guilty of crossing boundaries.
I treated for dinner. She bought the movie tickets, but I wanted to play the magnanimous mentor, sure this night of repair should be on me. “I’ll get popcorn,” I offered.
Post-movie, we strolled downtown, deciding I was career-crazed Carrie; she was marriage-minded Charlotte, analyzing the script, and wondering aloud whether, in real life, Mr. Big returned. After six years off and on, mine did. Haley’s didn’t. The next day she was leaving her penthouse to bunk with a buddy in midtown. Recalling how it felt to be up in the air at 30, I walked her back to the regal home she was losing.
“Why were you so mad at me last May?” I asked. “I came to your fun 29th birthday party and…”
“Yeah and what a present you gave me,” she said, “— the book where you trashed me!”
“After the party, I stayed up late reading your novel. Lori was obviously me, your redheaded yogi student, a raging alcoholic and food addict with a rich fiancé who dumps her.” Tears fell from her green eyes.
“Wait.” I stopped. “You mean the AA and OA meetings I went to with Kim? I wasn’t talking about you.”
“Another student. She had red hair too. It was a composite character, for dramatic effect. I did use the yoga and your breakup story,” I admitted. “But I never thought you were an alcoholic or food addict.”
“You didn’t?” She turned to me. “I have addiction problems, so I assumed…”
“I never saw you drunk or overeating,” I said, confused.
“Gosh, I used to go through tons of wine and devour boxes of cookies at three in the morning,” she said. “I showed you a piece about it.”
“I grade 100 student papers a week.” I shrugged.
She insisted it was a mean parody of her.
“It wasn’t. I’m used to doing memoirs. I have no imagination whatsoever. So I just glommed the characteristics of a few students together,” I admitted. “Why didn’t you tell me you hated it?”
She admitted she should have as we stood outside her building.
Since this was goodbye, I tried to wrap it up better. “Listen, Haley, you’re so sharp and special. You’ll figure it all out.” I wanted her to heal faster. “Thirty is when everything great starts.”
When I hugged her, she held on like she didn’t want to let go. We’d had five hours together, the longest I’d spent with a friend since Claire moved away. Haley was leaving her impossible penthouse and losing her love. Suddenly I was relieved to be older, boring, sober, no longer chaotically fighting to find myself. Our ending appeared poetic — unlocking mysteries of our turbulent year. But it wasn’t over.
At home, I stayed up late, rereading my pages on the student in my novel, searching for what had hurt Haley. I found it in a scene where I’d trashed the drunk red-headed yoga teacher’s breakup with her rich ex. Worse, towards the end my heroine admitted, “I was using protégés to fill in my emptiness. Yet there was no substitute for important people in your world. They were irreplaceable.”
No wonder Haley felt insulted. She thought I was saying she meant nothing to me. That was why she’d quit me.
At 9 a.m. the next morning she called. “Will you look at my book review before it’s due?”
A final reparation? I carefully went over her work so I could edit myself back into being the good mentor, not a middle-aged monster who’d wished her dead. Maybe she needed a last blessing over her words.
Then Haley returned to her Southern hometown. Months later, on Facebook, I saw she moved in with a river boat captain. Then she unfriended me. Scrolling down, I noticed she’d become “friends” with her mother, which seemed a healthy transition.
In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote, “Writers are always selling someone out.” I’d sold out my favorite student during our overlapping desperate dashes for success. Trying to publish a first novel for decades, I’d had artistic megalomania, treating my literary agenda as more significant than the humans behind it. I was the one guilty of crossing boundaries. Yes, she’d tried to poach my friends, editors and role models. Yet by using details of Haley’s life, I’d stolen hers first.
* * *
Editor: Sari Botton
* * *
Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol
The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People
We Are All We Have
Searching Sephora for an Antidote to Aging — and Grief