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Ward 6

Ward 6
by Sheila Kohler
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt

It is a warm June evening, and they are driving up from the city to the hospital in upstate New York.

Andrei slows down, opens his window, says a few words in his rudimentary Russian, flashes his pass at the guard, who opens the iron gates with alacrity and waves them onward with a grin.

“That’s Nikita, a Russian immigrant, somewhat crazy himself, and probably a thief, but interesting,” Andrei says, waving, as they draw away from the tall, bearded man who stands with the sun behind him in his tattered greatcoat with his fake decorations pinned to its lapel, his dusty boots.

Cecily turns from the Russian to look along the driveway at the Georgian building with its white columns and the high, dark door which looms at the end in the twilight, flanked by bushes of blue rhododendron.

She exclaims in surprise, “Such a lovely place!”

Andrei says, “Yes. Not as bad as one might imagine.”

“Very pleasant buildings,” she says, staring at the small, grey clapboard cottages nestled discreetly into the shrubbery on either side of the driveway, where she presumes most of the inmates are housed.

“We call them cottages,” he corrects her, driving slowly under the old oaks, light and shade passing over his face. He adds, “Sometimes, I think it might be a pleasant place to stay for a while: no responsibilities; no tasks to perform, no demands. Interesting company to boot. No small talk. People who tell you what they think. An aimless life of leisure. Think of the books you could read!”

She laughs and thinks Andrei is rarely this loquacious. When they first met, she would ask, “What are you thinking?” But she gave up as he would reply, “Nothing.” Yet was that possible? Or was it that his thoughts were so secret that they could not be shared with her? He is a silent, mysterious man who will sometimes hold forth and even lift his voice to sing—he loves music, particularly in a car.

She says, “Perhaps the inmates might not agree with you, darling, shut up sometimes for years, no? Are they ever allowed out?” gesturing to the lawns and beyond them the blue hills.

“Very few. Some do protest. I had to hospitalize a poor woman who protested. I felt awful,” he says, frowning and looking for a place among the cars parked in rows under the trees in the gloaming. “Kept saying she wanted to go home.”

“How awful!” she says, reaching for his hand.

“They are in locked wards—we used to call it Ward 6, from the Chekhov story—you know, when I first came here as a resident. It was not very clean then, but they’ve spiffed it up,” he says, maneuvering the Jaguar skillfully into a small space, palming the wheel.

“Why did she have to go into a locked ward?” Cecily asks.

“Unfortunately, she’s become paranoid—violent with her husband,” he says.

“Violent?”

“She imagines he wants to harm her. She’s jealous, says he is giving her jewelry to his lover,” he replies, turns off the ignition, resting his long-fingered hands, with his father’s crest on the gold signet ring, on the wheel.

“Goodness,” she says. “And is he?”

“I asked her if she really thought her husband—the man’s well over sixty, respectable, and they’ve been married forever—would give her jewelry away to another woman. But she insisted—an idée fixe, I’m afraid,” he says, opening his car door and then hers.

As they walk across the lawn, arm in arm, going toward the main building, he says, “The few allowed out are supervised in the grounds. Very few psychiatric hospitals have been able to keep such extensive grounds.”

“The flowers are beautiful!” she says, looking at the pink and blue hydrangeas, the white roses which grow up the walls and remind her of her childhood.

“That’s Monica, my former chief resident. Has a green thumb—organized a gang of gardeners.”

“Who are those men?” Cecily asks, seeing two burly men in blue who stride along from one cottage to another with a woman who floats between them held by the elbows.

“We call them the blues because they wear blue—guards, called in when necessary.”

“How convenient,” she says with a shiver as they enter the high front door, and she glances down at the rare blue diamond she wears, inherited from her mother and said to bring bad luck.

 

They are all crushed together in the large, high-ceilinged hall, the crowd spilling out of French doors into the gardens. Cecily notices a tall, pale, flame-headed woman in a glittering green dress, the bodice spangled with sequins, her white shoulders and arms both exposed and covered by filmy stuff, the tight, short skirt showing off long legs. She stands with several men and women around her, obviously admiring her restless curls, the freckled nose, the fragile form, as she lifts a glass of amber liquid to her glistening lips, drinking greedily.

Unaccountably, Cecily feels a painful constriction of the heart, a flutter in her throat.

She has stepped outside, thinking of Africa, the freedom of the veld, how hopeful she had once been, as she looks up at the darkening sky, the pale sickle moon, and in the distance the blue hills.

She has found a quiet stone seat, on the periphery of the party. She hunkers down until they can politely leave, perching with a glass of white wine, her plate on her knee, when she catches sight of this glimmer of youthful brilliance in the center of the room.

In her early fifties, Cecily is suddenly aware of her age: the fine lines, the dark marks from years in the strong sun in Southern Africa. She smooths her hair, which has turned white, worn in a loose bun at the nape of her neck in a vague imitation of Virginia Woolf. Her black designer dress seems suddenly dull and shapeless. Even the food—the white of egg stuffed with tuna, celery sticks, a shrivelled mushroom—looks tasteless.

Like a deer caught in the headlights, she watches the shining redhead, listens to the silvery laugh, stares at the wide, avid mouth, the glistening teeth, the long, gesturing fingers, the swift predatory gaze. Cecily cannot move, gazing enthralled, when her husband comes to her: “Everything all right, darling?” Putting his hand to her elbow gently.

He is a sensitive, thoughtful man, particularly when she helps him with his work, which she has done and not just by attending parties but reading, critiquing, and encouraging his writing, the numerous scholarly articles that have advanced his career. She herself has a graduate degree in psychology and once worked as a psychologist.

He follows her gaze. “Ah! That’s our Monica. My discovery. Isn’t she great? Everyone adores her. You would never take her for a doctor, let alone a psychiatrist, would you? Do you want to meet her?”

“It can wait,” she says, detaching her gaze with difficulty, looking up at him as though aware that something terrible is in store for them.

What she feels is close to dislike and yes, something like jealousy, and simultaneously, strangely, as their gazes meet for a moment, and Monica smiles, a shock of recognition. But she looks like me! The same green-gold cat eyes, the pale, freckled skin, the poise—a younger, seemingly more self-assured and vibrant version of herself. She has no intention of meeting her. She remembers reading somewhere that there is no one more hated than someone who resembles you.

Andrei has spoken of Monica with admiration, first as one of his chief residents: “So smart,” he would say and go on to recount how she had been a poor girl, had made her way despite considerable odds.

“I think I’ll leave her all to you,” Cecily says and purses her lips. . . .

 

She met him twenty years ago, in the late seventies while doing graduate work at Columbia. She wrote her thesis on fairy tales, using, among others, Winnicott and Melanie Klein, and the concept of the “good” and the “bad” breast. She has always been fascinated by the fairy tale.

From the first glimpse she had of Andrei, introduced by a friend, in the gloaming of the street outside a French restaurant, she had found him handsome. A good ten years older than she; she liked his smooth fair skin, the slanting grey-green eyes, the high cheekbones, even the thinning hair and the long, narrow form. She liked the way he moved his fine hands and walked fast in the street coming towards her.

He made love to her that night without much encouragement, after dinner with her friend and a brief tête-á-tête in a coffeehouse, as though he could not wait. She had found his ardor hard to resist. It is the way he lives, she thinks, with élan, a sort of restlessimpatience and intensity.

Watching his lithe, still-youthful form from the back in his grey suit—he dresses well, prides himself on his excellent taste—as he walks over and mingles with the crowd, she thinks he has not changed much with time, his body still slim, though he has lost much of his hair and stoops a little, as though apologizing for his height. He cuts through the clot of men around Monica to stand close, putting his hand on her arm, saying something that makes her laugh.

Cecily does not like the way he approaches women so closely: leaning too near, talking to them at a dinner table, brushing his shoulder against them, putting his arm behind their chairs, or greeting them with a baise-mains, stooping low to breathe on their hands, or brush the back with his lips, or even kissing them on the lips.

She attributes it to his different upbringing, as she does his attitude to money. In his family it was a subject that came up of necessity. Andrei’s father, a Russian aristocrat who emigrated after the revolution, had lost his fortune, accused of embezzling, when Andrei was a child, the adored benjamin of four boys. The father was imprisoned, the Park Avenue apartment, the fine paintings, the antique furniture sold, the fleet of cars driven down the driveway of the New Canaan house, the father’s heart failing within months of his disgrace.

Andrei’s mother, a thin, tall, critical woman who prided herself on her intellect and energy, held the family together, darning and polishing, feeding the children on scraps, and using every penny for their education.

He himself made his way, thanks to his energy and the ability to read and retain information fast. Always first in his class, he stayed up the night before an examination and covered the material.

From the start, he told Cecily, he was determined to wipe out the stain of his father’s disgrace. Was the father wrongly accused, as the son firmly believed? Or was there a strain of dishonesty in the family? At times during Andrei’s studies he drove a taxi at night. Yet he and his three brothers have all become doctors, though Andrei had, as a very young man, considered becoming an Orthodox priest, an idea that appalled his mother.

Cecily’s family, on the contrary, having more of it than needed, never mentioned money. “On ne parle pas de l’argent,” her French governess snapped. Her family being in the diamond business, Cecily has inherited a priceless collection of diamonds, including the one she is wearing. Indeed, not only money was never talked about but also sorrow: Everyone was always having a lovely time.

Now, as she watches Monica looking up at Andrei, Cecily is not having a lovely time. Monica is staring at Andrei with obvious admiration. Or is what she sees in the girl’s gaze a glimmer of love? Adoration? Or does she look at all men like that—with that irresistible glimmer that says, “I would do anything for you. Anything!”

Cecily gazes at Andrei’s strong profile. She knows women find him attractive. He runs four times a week, plays good tennis. She admires his physique, his good mind, his passion for his patients, and what she considers his integrity. Above all, having grown up in a home where nothing was said openly, she admires his sincerity, though she is aware it does not always make him popular. She knows he is outspoken at work, and that his high standards and what is taken for arrogance sometimes make enemies.

Often silent and withdrawn, he breaks out suddenly passionately, either with exaggerated enthusiasm or with righteous indignation, which he voices without compromise.

He speaks of the inefficiency, the stupidity, the greed of people in the healthcare business; the corruption of the doctors by the pharmaceutical companies; doctors who order expensive and unnecessary procedures, or even operations, charging exorbitant fees simply to maintain their lifestyle. Fee-for-service medicine necessarily leads to waste.

He sees everything in black and white, or so it seems to her, rather like the fairy tales she studied in graduate school. He divides the human race into two distinct categories: those who are honest and the scoundrels.

He has told her from the start that after his youthful marriage to an unfaithful woman who bore him three daughters in quick succession, and had “taken him to the cleaners,” that he could not afford any more children or to marry someone who was not financially independent.

It never occurred to Cecily to draw up a prenuptial agreement. She and Andrei share their bank accounts, the household expenses, even the big house at the ocean.

“Fifty-fifty, not a penny more or less,” he insists, and they split the bill in a restaurant. “Good marriages are made between independent people,” he says if she complains that he is too often absent, works too hard.

He says, “Women want to fuse, but men need to establish their separate identity. They need space.”

Thinking of this, she looks for him in the crowded rooms. It is late; she is tired. She wanders through the rooms, weaving her way, smiling vaguely at people she might be expected to recognize.

She has worked only briefly as a psychologist, but feels her studies were helpful with her work. She writes the sort of plot-driven romance fiction that comes out in paperback and sells many copies, under a more romantic name, borrowed from Russian nobility.

She wonders where Andrei has gone. Hearing voices, she climbs the circular staircase. She goes along a corridor, opens a door, and walks into a dimly lit room. Guests stand about the empty fireplace, drinks on the mantel, or sit in muffled light in the corners, speaking softly, intimately.

A woman, her legs crossed neatly, her feet to one side, sits in a corner, looking down at a bald-headed man who crouches beside her. Monica. She perches there primly, like a bright bird of prey on a branch in her spangled dress. Cecily cannot see the man clearly in the dim slant of lamplight. Is it Andrei crouching down at her knee, gazing up adoringly at her? She smiles down at him mysteriously, and for a moment Cecily is certain she sees his hand on Monica’s dimpled, stockinged knee. He looks up and across the room at Cecily and smiles uncertainly, then rises quickly. She turns and goes back down the stairs, her cheeks burning with shame, her eyes blinking back tears of anger.

Surely she must have been mistaken? Surely he would never do such a thing? She has a vivid imagination, she knows, and the light was low. Still, when he appears in the main hall she says she wants to leave immediately.

“Of course, darling,” he says with his habitual courtesy, and says goodbye to a few people before they walk in silence across the lawn toward the car. When he stops to open the door for her, she looks up at him, a sudden knot of fury rising in her chest. She says, “I saw you with Monica, you know,” as she lifts her hand and hits him hard across his cheek. “What are you talking about?” he says, hitting her back just as hard across her cheek.

 

All through the summer they spend the weekdays in the city because of Andrei’s work. At lunchtime or sometimes in the evenings when she is tired of staring at the screen of her computer in the big, silent rooms of their prewar West Side apartment, she escapes to swim in the pool at a nearby club.

The pool is long and sunny, with big windows looking onto the rooftops and conical water towers of New York. She swims back and forth, in her severe black suit, goggles, and the obligatory swim cap, snatches of scenes, with dialogue, scenery, or even details that advance the plot coming to her in the silent and chlorine-suffused air. She sees what she writes in vivid pictures.

Unlike many writers and ironically, as she does not need it—stuffing checks from her excellent agent into drawers, she has made money from her books, several of which have been translated widely abroad and made into popular films.

One evening, going back and forth in the bubble of her imaginary world, the lifeguard stops her, thrusting a board between her and the blue-tiled wall in the shallow end. The guard, who wears an eye patch, gestures to circle, as someone wishes to swim in the fast lane, where Cecily has been swimming, with only one other swimmer. She stops politely—she is always polite—and watches a slim woman in a white cap, pink goggles, and a bright red bikini which shows off her flat stomach and long legs slip into the water beside her.

She feels as though waking from a dream she has forgotten, yet with an unpleasant emotion unaccountably lingering. Where on earth has she seen this woman? And why does she dislike her without knowing who she is? As she swims, she realizes, of course: Monica. Has she recognized her? Can she leave the pool without appearing rude?

She swims a few lengths as fast as possible, aware Monica is gaining on her, with the advantage of the length’s lead she has given her. The woman’s fingers brush against her toes. Is she suggesting she move over, let her pass? Breathless, she stops in the shallow end to let the younger, stronger swimmer pass her. But she, too, stops against the wall.

“Aren’t you Dr. Orlov’s wife?” she asks, taking off her cap, crossing her arms across her chest and holding her arms, leaning her head to one side, hopping on one foot to dislodge the water from her ear and shaking out her short, lively curls. Cecily nods and smiles.

“How lovely to meet you here! What a happy surprise! He’s told me so much about you. He’s so proud of you, your work. I’ve read all your wonderful books!” she says. Cecily can only murmur, “Thank you so much!” How could this psychiatrist have had the time or the interest to read her many books? She is not quite sure how many she has written! Before Cecily can turn away, Monica asks, smiling, “Are you getting out? Could we have a drink at the bar?”

“Oh, I would have loved that.” She sputters the first excuse she can think of, “but I have to get back to make dinner! Andrei will be waiting. You know what an impatient man he is!” She opens her eyes wide comically, grinning, and making a show of looking up at the clock on the wall.

“Indeed, I do,” Monica says, smiling with complicity and perhaps a glimmer of irony in her avid eyes as Cecily turns. What does she know about Andrei’s impatience? His absence? Or is she imagining this? She makes an awkward retreat: the climb up the steps, the walk along the edge of the pool before she can scoop up a towel and wrap it fast around her waist to cover her legs and her black bathing suit, before she can disappear through the door.

 

Andrei is not waiting for her to make his dinner, though she often does. He enjoys her cooking. She once received, as part of her unorthodox education, a series of cooking lessons in Paris at the Cordon Bleu, which her mother considered important in a young girl’s education, along with foreign languages and deportment lessons. She can make complicated dishes with butter, eggs, and wine. She is a woman who aims to please. She makes quiche Lorraine, coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. Andrei loves rich food and compliments her high and trembling soufflé. Good food and drink (he enjoys a glass or two of wine at night) are important to him.

Unfortunately, this approval does not extend to her housekeeping. She does not keep the apartment as orderly as he would like. Her book-lined study is often in disorder, and she loses things: her keys, the glasses she wears to read, her checkbook, even her precious jewelry.

Brought up with servants, she never learned to clean the floor, washing herself into a corner, standing there marooned in a small island of dry space. Though she hires maids, to do what Andrei calls “your dirty work,” they often turn out to be equally disorganized, or so he proclaims, and he fires them after a brief trial.

Despite the late hour of his arrival, Andrei often stalks through the rooms positioning a painting or an oriental rug, picking up stray glasses of wine or cold cups of coffee, her gold watch or even a diamond ring left by the sink, objects she, dreaming through her days, forgets. He flips off lights in empty rooms, or sometimes rooms where she sits quietly in a corner reading, slamming cupboard doors and rearranging the food in the fridge.

In any case, he is not at home tonight, but visiting some hospital, which Cecily hopes Monica ignores. He travels often to visit psychiatric hospitals where he consults, or to see his youngest daughter, a professor in Ithaca, with her two little girls.

As Cecily lies awake in the half-dark of their large bedroom in their canopied bed with the standing mirror glinting mysteriously in one corner, she thinks of Monica. Is she alone? Does she have a lover, perhaps a secret, married lover, whom she sees rarely? She must surely be in her middle thirties, though she looks younger. Or does she perhaps have a partner, another woman she never mentions? There was something so pathetic about her eagerness and flattery. Why does she want to meet with Cecily? Has she judged her unfairly? Surely she must have imagined Andrei’s hand on her knee?

Cecily feels a pang of remorse at leaving her in that anonymous place, the glinting white tiles, the smell of chlorine in the air, the silent swimmers enclosed within their own minds and bodies, blinking blindly behind their goggles, beating back and forth separated by lanes, the splashing of water, their own skin.

Her heart flutters as she turns back and forth in the big bed. She regrets her hasty retreat. She remembers her years at boarding school, her close friendships, and how easily she was upset by a slight or an imagined one. She thinks of her older sister and their companionship. She misses her family.

She remembers the breakfasts with her mother and sister, the eggs, bacon, and sometimes even haddock or chops, with hot toast, the plentiful butter melting, sitting out on the terrace looking over the lawns, the bright mixed borders with their dahlias, gladioli, and stock, the big ridgebacks lying lazily in the sun at their feet or snapping at a stray fly. She cannot think of a breakfast that she has ever finished with Andrei sitting through the meal. He is invariably obliged to rush off.

How lonely marriage can be! Since she married she has lost touch with many of her old friends and nothing seems to have replaced them. She spends most of her time writing and if she is not writing she is reading. She remains in the silent world of nineteenth-century novels or in her own imaginary stories set far from the harsh reality of the modern world. Living so much within the confines of an imaginary world, she is aware her thoughts sometimes become exaggerated, strange.

Often, when Andrei’s away, she sleeps badly, as she does this night, tossing and turning on her own side of the bed, as though his ghost lay spread out beside her. She hears strange sounds in the apartment. She wonders where Andrei is, what he is doing.

She calls him at the hotel where he stays, but the operator says he is not in his room. She keeps calling all through the night until exhausted, at dawn, she gives up. On his return home, she is in tears.

“Where were you last night! I called all through the night! What were you doing!” she exclaims. He tells her not to be so silly, obviously the operator was calling the wrong room. How could she even imagine he would do such a thing? “You live in a fantasy world and know nothing about life or about me, do you?” he says, looking at her with a worried glance. Perhaps she doesn’t, perhaps couples never do.

 

This time Cecily is undressing before swimming.

Since her early childhood she has had her own room, her own bathroom. Two sisters, they grew up in a house with innumerable bedrooms and bathrooms and a vast garden. At boarding school she had a private room. Even married, she undresses in her large walk-in closet or the privacy of her own bathroom.

She is carefully pulling up her suit beneath her shirt, huddling in a corner facing her open locker, when she becomes aware of a cloud of white mist in the air and a glimmer of freckled flesh on the other side of the room. She looks across to see Monica standing naked before the mirror, her breasts like two prim half-grapefruits, her stomach white and flat and anonymous, her long legs apart. She is powdering her breasts, her arms, her unshaven underarms, and her pubic hair, her thighs, the fine baby powder perfuming the air with its familiar, innocent smell.

“Oh, hallo again!” she calls out, haloed in white, and without shyness or embarrassment, turning from her reflection to face Cecily, coming over to her, the baby powder in hand like a glass, smiling, her lips very red, carnal and disturbing.

“Are you going swimming?” she asks. Cecily can only nod, crossing her hands on her breasts, and looking down at the purple carpet which must be the color of her cheeks. Monica asks again if Cecily would like to have a drink.

She says, “Andrei is in Ithaca tonight, isn’t he?” her eyes playful or mocking, the gaze fleeting as the slash of a razor.

Cecily wonders how she knows but she cannot politely refuse, nor does she entirely want to. The thought of the long, dull evening alone is not inviting.

Still, she swims for forty-five minutes, half-hoping Monica will give up. Why is she being so friendly?

To leave the club, Cecily has to walk through the bar and restaurant. Monica smiles, her teeth uneven and slightly discolored, and waves gaily to her from a table by the window, her red hair clinging in damp curls around her hopeful, smiling face.

Cecily sits opposite her with the lights of the city glimmering and a candle in a red glass flickering between them. They drink white wine. Monica leans forward, her voice jarring in its raw appeal and overloud.

She tells Cecily how kind Andrei has been, what a wonderful man he is, how he has helped her with her career. “I don’t know what I would have done without him!” she admits, her green sloe eyes glinting with tears, the words seeming to flow irrepressibly. She speaks fast, mumbles somewhat, gestures continuously, and Cecily has difficulty following the details, cannot always catch what she says. She is taken aback by this flood of words, distracted by the way Monica moves her hands, her long fingers, stretches her neck, sways and smiles, by her physical presence, her whole body leaning across the small table, the tight, long-sleeved black top exposing her small high breasts, the pungent perfume of her warm, young skin.

She had struggled so, as a girl, Monica says, her cheeks flushing. She grew up in a tough, working-class neighborhood in upstate New York where the boys threw stones at her as she walked to school. “They hated me because I was dirty, foul-mouthed, and thin, and because I had smelly wild red hair. I was cleverer and I could beat them at mental arithmetic. I could run faster, and because I hated them.” They were frightened of her, as she would find sharp-edged rocks and throw them back at them. Once, she was knocked unconscious in the road and if one of the teachers had not seen her she would be dead.

She had learned to read on her own before she was five.

“No one ever taught you?” Cecily asks.

“I learned from my brother’s schoolbooks. You should have seen the teacher’s face when I started reading! She couldn’t believe it!”

She says, “ I learned violence from my father.” Could this sort of story, which Cecily would never believe in a book, actually be true? A drunk, he beat them with a strap. “Mother worked irregular hours, at night, in different places, if you see what I mean,” she says. She did not love her, Monica maintains. “How could she, poor woman, with a gaggle of neglected children. I never had a bed of my own—sometimes we were three in a bed,” she says.

“I hated the way my mother looked, her heavy body, which she did nothing to hide, the sad folds of her sagging flesh,” she says.

A sister or perhaps a brother—afterwards Cecily is not sure—had some sort of incurable disease or defect, or was it perhaps mental illness, autism?

Monica, desperate to escape, worked nights, and obtained a scholarship thanks to the help of a mathematics teacher. Somehow, she acquired a medical degree, a foreign medical degree from one of the islands, perhaps? Things are left vague, purposefully vague? Cecily is reluctant to probe, to know more than she is told, often feeling she is expected to read between the lines, or perhaps Monica is not willing to say more, and certainly she has said more than she should to a stranger. Why is she telling her all of this?

Monica tells her fiercely, slitting her sloe eyes, how she had been fired from a residency, her reputation, her career all but ruined, by an idiot, sadistic doctor but that Andrei had understood immediately—“well, perhaps not immediately,” she adds with a grin—that the charges were false, though she admits, grinning self-deprecatingly, that there was perhaps an understandable gap—she had had a somewhat checkered past—in her knowledge, which was unfortunate for the patient involved. Here does Cecily imagine it or does the girl say something glancingly about addiction? Is she referring to the mother, the father, or even to herself?

She tells Cecily, waving her hands, turning her head, frowning, grimacing, her hair still wet and clinging to her brow, how she had been horribly humiliated. Is there some hint here of sexual harassment or physical abuse?

Dear Andrei, knight in shining armor, perceptive man that he is, had come to her rescue. How grateful she was—still is. Later, to her complete surprise, her joy! she had even been put in charge of the residents, which she can still hardly believe. “I really love the work!” she says, pressing the palms of her hands together.

She continues talking, ordering more wine, hors d’oeuvres, and then suddenly saying, “Oh, but I’ve done nothing but talk about myself so inconsequentially when what I wanted was to hear about you! To talk about your wonderful work! It’s just that having read so many of your books, I feel I already know you,” putting her hands to her heart.

Cecily smiles at her, noticing her transparent shirt, which looks damp, water having dripped from her hair to her neck and onto her breasts, which look wet and shiny—unless it is sweat? She must not have blown her hair dry or even dried herself properly. She must have rushed out here to make sure she did not miss me and then waited an hour until I emerged.

Such a vulnerable young woman, Cecily senses, with something desperate about her. She is not sure whether she dislikes her intensely, distrusts this flood of information, these compliments, the flattery, if she believes a word she has said, or if she feels just as intensely attracted to her.

“I envy you, having the leisure time to write your wonderful books!” she says. She maintains she was an avid reader as a child, losing herself for hours in the library in the world of those fat Victorian novels. Would she have had the possibility of using a library in the life she has described? Would she have had the time?

“That’s how I learned about life too, what I know about life—through those novels, mostly written by women—oh! except Chekhov, whom I adore!” Cecily finds herself saying.

“Yes, Chekhov knows about life,” Monica says with a glimmer of something which surprises Cecily in her eyes. Cecily finds herself talking about her own childhood, the privileged existence, the servants, her father dying so young, the death of her beloved sister, her mother’s illness and early death. She says, “I have no family left. Sometimes I feel very alone in the world.” Monica reaches across the table and grasps both her hands and says, “I know exactly what you mean.”

When Cecily finally looks at her watch she sees it is late and realizes she is quite drunk. She insists on paying the bill, which is large. She rises from the table with difficulty and staggers down the steps. They have both said far too much. She imagines she will never see this woman again. Certainly she has no wish to.

As she turns to go, Monica seizes both her hands, holds them tightly, looking into her eyes, saying, “Thank you so much for spending the evening with me. It was such a privilege. We must do it again. May I call you? Please?” Cecily feels obliged to give her her private telephone number. 

And so it begins . . .


# # #

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"Ward 6" by Sheila Kohler, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.

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