by Noni Bird
Story continues (Paul's POV)
Now it was a week later, and Rosh Hashanah was starting at sundown.
Isabel was on the phone.
“Yes, Isabel. Or is it Elisheba now?” He rolled his eyes. She reverted to his Hebrew name on Jewish occasions, ever since the first time she’d heard him called up to read the Torah, an honor he was given every year on Rosh Hashanah morning, and also on Yom Kippur ten days later.
“Pinchas, I forgot to remind you to bring the apples and honey. Do you have both?"
"Settle down, Isabel, there are stores near you too, not just here in the big city. It's 2017." But it was an image hard to put into focus: Isabel pushing a shopping cart, looking down the aisles for a jar of honey. Not unless he added that Isabel was talking with the Bluetooth in her ear, checking her messages on another phone and filing her fingernails at the same time.
He took six apples out of the refrigerator and tied them in a plastic grocery bag, then found the unopened jar of honey. Fran would help Isabel slice the apples when they got there. But just in case Isabel didn’t have an apple slicer, he threw his own from the drawer into a bag with the honey. That ought to do it.
With the exception of Isabel's divorced brother, Stephen, who could be excused for being cynical of marriage, it seemed everyone that night was excited for Fran and Paul, especially when she showed them the impressive diamond from Cartier. Isabel sat at one head of the table this evening, admiring it too. Paul knew Isabel's knowledge of gemstones could be trusted.
The dinner was excellent, prepared by a kosher caterer somewhere in the city. The apples were on the table, along with the Lenox gold-rimmed bowl filled with honey. They dipped the apples in the honey, to signify a sweet year ahead. Day one.
Paul and Fran spent the night at his home afterwards. It was already after 10:30 p.m., but he stayed up a little while after lovemaking to let Fran talk; they hadn’t done very much of that since he proposed, and not much before that either, and now she was full of questions. He would try his best to answer them, but he prefaced his agreement by reminding her his answers might be influenced by fatigue, and they would probably have to address them all over again in the morning.
Now he heard her asking his opinion about major things for their marriage. Apparently she’d been thinking of quitting her job and becoming a writer, and wanted to know if he thought she had what it would take. Would they move to the suburbs? She’d even remembered he once mentioned giving up surgery and doing something he loved more – lab research. Did he still plan to do that? Where? He had a headache after just the first question, which he couldn’t answer except to say if she wanted to quit her job, it was not a financial worry, and she could stay at home and write all she wanted. The other two questions he hadn’t thought anything about, and so they would have to wait for another time.
Then, when he was on his side and nearly asleep, she pressed her body into his and whispered in his ear. “When can I get pregnant, Paul?”
What? Had he actually been asleep and dreaming? No, because there was Fran looking over his shoulder, seriously waiting for an answer. Trying not to sound too alarmed and offend her, he asked, “You are still on the pill for now, right?” What if she had decided to surprise him? Her question was enough of a surprise on its own. He knew they should have discussed this months ago, even before meeting. Had he assumed too much of Isabel to think she had cleared all this with Fran ahead of time? Women talk about these things early on, don’t they? But it had not occurred to him after seven months to verify it, and now she wanted to talk about it? Maybe she’d just conceived a child tonight. Would she do that before the wedding?
He could do nothing but stay immobilized in his shock.
‘Paul?” she nudged him. “Are you asleep, honey?”
He sure wanted to be. So he said, “Yes." But to get her off his shoulder he added, “We’ll talk about this after services tomorrow, OK?”
He’d be praying for some serious help tomorrow. It wasn’t too late, at least. Too late for what, he didn’t ask himself. At least Shirley and the kids had changed synagogues four years ago and he didn't have to consider them right now too. He felt overwhelmed, and just wanted to tune out for awhile, let things get resolved on their own, as they often did.
In the morning, sitting with Fran and Isabel’s family, wrapped in his prayer shawl, he was tense throughout the morning service. Then the Torah service started, and he heard his name called, as though from God himself in a cloud, far away.
“Pinchas ben Aharon”. Fran nudged him. He set down his prayer book and went up to read. There was a woman standing beside him to recite the blessings that came before and after each reading. Paul took the silver pointer from the rabbi, but his hand was trembling noticeably. The rabbi placed his own hand over Paul's, then took it off when he felt Paul had it steady. In fact, Paul had frozen with it there. The rabbi was patient; he'd seen this happen too many times before to get ruffled by it. He hummed the first few bars to prompt Paul, and the gabbai whispered the first few Hebrew words to jog his memory. A few moments later, the woman came closer and held his arm just above his elbow, to stop the movement. He felt her turn her head and whisper to the gabbai, "Is he OK?" From somewhere in the front row he heard someone quietly say to another, “Is Dr. Feldman having a stroke?” Paul knew Fran would be panicking by now, and he didn't dare look at her. But there was Isabel, next to Fran, with her book to her chest, nodding repeatedly and rapidly, and he locked eyes with her for several seconds before he looked down again. But it was long enough for him to imagine her saying. "It's OK, Paul, It's going to be OK."
When his head went back down, it was as though the needle had gone back on the record, and he started singing. There was an audible sigh of relief from the room of four hundred people.
He broke his promise to Fran. After services there was a lunch to attend at the home of a friend of his, a pediatrician named John Wise. It was unfortunate the man was a pediatrician, but what could he do? He had accepted the invitation weeks ago. He told Fran they would eat something, be sociable, and leave after forty minutes, no longer. Maybe she could make an excuse for them to use. He couldn't say he was called to the hospital; that would only prompt questions. It's not often the services of a neurosurgeon are needed on an emergency basis. He thought of one case, though, and it involved a patient of John's. The baby had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and Paul implanted a shunt to temporarily relieve the swelling on her brain. He saved the baby’s life, and John and he had become friends after that.
Forty minutes later they were on their way home, as planned. He had to give Fran the nod, because she forgot all about the time passing while deep in conversation with an obstetrician who was among the other guests. Paul hadn't thought about him being a guest. Fran told Paul he should have heard the amazing stories the obstetrician told. Paul prayed they had discouraged her from childbirth.
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, honey. The guys are pretty nice, aren’t they? We’re not all arrogant assholes.”
“That’s true. You never know when you might need the services of a doctor, so I’m nice to one and all. Even you,” she teased.
“Only in case your life is ever in my hands,” he added.
“I could say my life is in your hands now.”
She doesn't really believe that. “That’s too much pressure on me, honey. I might drop you.”
“What do you mean by '"drop me?” Fran asked cautiously.
Paul laughed. “You might slip out of my hands, that’s all. It’s happened to me enough times.” He tried to explain. “Women are complex creatures and I’m a simple man with simple needs.”
The two of them took seats in Paul's living room.
Fran told him, “All I want is to love you, and have you love me back. That’s not so complex, is it? You’re far more complex than you think, unless I’m completely mistaken. Maybe I am making too much out of things.”
“What things, honey?” He was curious to know what more Isabel had told her. It couldn’t be too disparaging, considering Isabel wanted Fran to marry him.
“Isabel said you broke down in her office, on Friday, September 9th, 2012, to be exact, on Rosh Hashanah, even. If it wasn’t over Shirley or Isabel or the money, why else would you have been crying? I was very hard on Isabel for making you cry. Isn’t that what happened?”
He wasn’t expecting this. He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. He studied her face, and thought back to five years ago.
Then he asked her, “Fran, you know me, and you know Isabel. Which one of us was more likely to be crying in her office?”
Fran paused, while her eyes opened wide. “It was Isabel…?”
“To be perfectly fair, I might have gotten teary-eyed when I broke it off with her. Isabel can have that effect on people.”
Fran’s eyes opened wider. “You broke it off?”
“Wouldn’t you expect me to? I was a free man, Fran. There was no point in carrying on an affair with another man’s wife. Does that sound cold-hearted? I suppose it is…”
He knew he had just pulled the veil off Fran’s eyes, and he was afraid he was upsetting her. She loved Isabel. But wasn’t it better for her to know he had never loved Isabel himself? Why would Fran want Isabel anywhere around if he loved her in the least?
As he expected, Fran seemed intent on defending Isabel. “She loved you, Paul. She told me her whole world revolved around you.”
He sighed heavily. “Yes, when she was eighteen. Believe me, she never lets me forget it. It’s just a tired cliché for dramatic effect. What did her world consist of? We hadn’t begun to live yet, and already she was claiming me for her own. I should have known better than to take back up with her when she moved down here, because she hadn’t settled down as I thought she would have when she finally had a world outside of her dorm room. If I were a psychotherapist, I’d swear Isabel’s sense of self-worth back then was dependent upon the attention of a man. I’m tempted to say it still is.”
“Are you that man, Paul?”
“What man, Fran?”
“The man giving Isabel self-worth.”
“I’m sure I was back then, and during my affair with her here in Philadelphia. I’m sure that’s all it was too.”
“She cried when she told me you’d left her at school.”
“Not to diminish her pain, Fran, but it didn’t last long. As soon as I left, Dave took my place. He did a damn fine job of it too, since she married him. It was never about me, Fran. I sometimes wished it was just to satisfy my vanity and ego, but it was always about satisfying Isabel." He shook his head in bafflement. “Isabel suffers from low self-esteem. I don’t know why. She’s got more going for her than any woman has a right to ask for.” The words just came out that way, maybe not the best way for Fran to hear them.
Fran nodded her head in agreement, but dejectedly.
Paul took her face in his hands and said, “Fran, you’re going to be my wife. You’re not stealing me from Isabel. Isabel practically had to beg you to agree to marry me, to hear her say it. Is that true, by the way?”
Fran laughed. “Yes. I thought you were a philanderer.”
He rolled his eyes. “She could take some blame for that.”
“Oh, but she did! She said she was selfish, and you couldn’t be expected to be perfect, even though you’re a brain surgeon.”
“Ha! That’s a relief! She didn’t happen to mention that – aside from being selfish of course - she wasn’t perfect, either, did she?”
Isabel selfish? That's quite the understatement.
Fran was twisting in her seat, with a restless leg, and sighing.
“What is it, Fran? There’s something bothering you, isn’t there? Get it off your chest, I’ll listen.”
“I’ve worked at Buckman for six years and don’t have a job at Isabel’s level. You’ve known her for a long time, Paul. How did she jump from being an accountant, to a literary agent, just like that? She has no experience in publishing, she’s not an author, never edited, not degreed in English or anything related to it. I’m sure I’ve read ten times the literature Isabel has.” I expect by next year, she’ll even be promoted."
She was quick to add, “I don’t begrudge her anything, Paul. She’s worked very hard, I’m sure. I just want to know why she’s so lucky on top of it all. Don’t you think she’s lucky?”
Paul dreaded having to disabuse Fran of another misperception she held of Isabel. Why hadn’t Isabel just told Fran herself? Why wouldn’t she rush at the chance to boast? Did she put such a low value on herself she didn’t see how exceptional she was? Was she ashamed of her success? Maybe she thought it was all dumb luck.
“Apparently Isabel has told you more about me than she has about herself,” he started explaining. “What if I told you that Isabel’s mother was a prominent literary agent for many years in New York City? She discovered some famous authors.” He didn’t know who, because even with him, Isabel was circumspect. “What if I told you Isabel interned at both Farrar Straus & Giroux and Random House even before college?" He paused to give Fran some time to collect herself. “She’s told you, surely, that she’s authored two children’s books of poetry.” This wasn’t even a question.
It pained him to watch Fran’s jaw drop and her whole body deflate with a look of defeat, not just dismay. He searched hard for something to do or say without sounding patronizing, but she interrupted.
“Aren’t you forgetting to tell me she’s had a string of best-selling mystery novels and several poems published in The New Yorker?”
Paul cut short a laugh when he saw Fran was deadpan. Her sarcastic comment betrayed a hint of jealousy. But every time he sat down with Fran she only wanted to talk about Isabel. He would take that subject off the table now.
He asked Fran to look at him, and affirmed to her, “I could have married Isabel – many times over – but I love you.”
He hadn’t succeeded in restoring a smile to her face.
He tried it again. “I never loved Isabel. Not eighteen years ago, not eleven years ago, not even five years ago. She could be Emily Dickinson, J. K. Rowling and the Virgin Mary all rolled up into one, for all the difference that makes to me.”
Fran broke out laughing. He was relieved.
But she demanded to know. “How did you meet her, exactly?”
He moaned to himself, "Oh, brother." To Fran he said, “I met her at the NYU Library." That was exact enough for him, anyway.
“Then what?” Fran prodded him. He saw a glint in her eye. He didn’t know what she expected to hear.
He’d never told his story to anyone else, not even to Isabel. He was sure Isabel had her own version. But only the two of them would ever remember that night. He guessed there was no harm in telling it to Fran. Before she heard something different from Isabel.
So he went on. “I honestly think she was trying to pick me up that night, Fran. I recognized her from a class we both took, but I didn’t let on. I kept my eyes and nose down in my textbook, I’m sure I did. It did no good, because she came right over and sat next to me. I mean this close to me!” He held his hands out six inches apart. “She’s got the whole bloody library there, but she has to sit right smack up against me!” He could still feel his blood boiling. “Who does that to a virtual stranger, Fran?”
Paul detected Fran was on his side in this story, at least. She also looked about to burst out laughing.
He insisted, “I didn’t want her there. I picked up my books and started off for another table, as far away as possible. But I wasn’t fast enough. She said, ‘Aren’t you Paul Feldman? I’m Isabel Stern!'" like I was supposed to recognize her from a fashion magazine, or a blockbuster movie. What did I know or care about an Isabel Stern? But I have good manners, I'm a polite person, so I said "Hello, Isabel." That was all, but that was my first mistake. The second mistake I made was actually looking at her. My heart stopped, I’ll admit to it, Fran. She was astonishingly beautiful, that’s the only way to describe it. To this day I’ve never been more disarmed by anyone, more intimidated by anyone, than that girl in the library that day. The only ammunition I had were words, but she took them all away from me. She was an enchantress. I was under her spell instantly."
“Wow.” Fran said quietly. She had a starry-eyed look.
“Long story short…it’s not even a long story… I followed her out of the library and into her bed.”
“Oh, come on, Paul!” She was alive as ever now.
“I’m not kidding, Fran. I’ve never told anyone else this. Why would I? It's not very flattering to either one of us. I lost myself to her that very first night, once I got over my fright and trusted she wasn’t going to kill me.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Are you surprised? Doesn’t this sound like Isabel?”
“It doesn’t sound like you, that’s what I’m saying.” Fran looked at him suspiciously.
He elaborated, to prove it. “I needn’t have worried about my inexperience, either; there wasn’t anything Isabel didn’t know already. To be honest, Fran, I would never have guessed she was a virgin. But I was one too, so I didn’t know the difference. If she bled or it hurt, she hid it from me. I only cared about getting it into her in time.” He smiled boyishly. He knew he was a marvelous lover now, and he wanted her to say so.
“You’ve gotten better with practice…thanks to Isabel.”
“She could have done anything or nothing at all for me and I would have been just as satisfied. I could come just from looking at her. But that first night, I had to go back in four times until she had enough.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” Fran scolded him.
“I wanted to! That’s what I told her." He laughed.
“That didn’t happen at all, I bet.”
“OK, maybe it was just three times. Ask Isabel, she’ll remember.”
“What about now?”
“What about now?"
“Does she arouse you that much?"
The alarm bells were going off in Paul’s head now. “Let’s talk about you, for a change.” he pleaded.
But Fran snuck another question in. “What about a younger woman?”
So, this is where she was going? He would put this one to rest too.
“How young?” he asked. He knew she had an age in mind.
“ A 25-year-old nurse, say.”
He leaned back and studied her, with his chin in his hand, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair, and fixed his intelligent eyes on her. She blushed.
“Anita, for instance?” he asked.
“Yes...just for instance.” She replied.
“You want to know if I’ve slept with her. The answer is no, Fran. Isabel knows that too. The only extramarital sex I’ve ever had was with Isabel herself.”
Paul felt Fran needed more reassuring. He didn’t know why she wouldn’t stop talking about Isabel when they had the stories of their own lives to share. He told her, “I do feel a connection with Isabel after so many years. But if she should ever interfere with our relationship, our marriage, I would not see her ever again.”
“You would do that for me?"
“For my wife, of course. The wife Isabel chose for me herself…”
“No, the wife you chose for yourself.” Fran corrected him.
“Forgive me, Fran. Of course. I want to be clear about that. I am quite capable of finding a wife for myself.”
“She said it was a favor, the least she could do". Fran looked at him for a clue. “Is it because of Shirley, Paul?”
“Yes, she hurt Shirley.” He answered rather brusquely.
“What I meant was…”
“I know what you meant, Fran...my divorce from Shirley. Isabel didn’t force me to break my vows.”
“You loved Shirley, didn’t you, Paul?”
“Of course I loved Shirley, Fran.”
“Until Isabel came along…”
He corrected her. “Until Shirley stopped loving me.”
Fran protested. “She adored you, Isabel said.”
“She needed more than her love for me. I was busy making a living she could enjoy, and she became very dependent on me to take care of all her needs, make her decisions, make her happy. Nobody should be given that responsibility for another, it's not fair, is it? There's only so much a man can do. There weren't enough hours in the day to give her."
“And yet you had time for Isabel.”
He caught his breath. Her statement sliced through his argument like a knife. It was the first time she'd said anything in that accusatory tone of voice to him. What was behind it? He thought she was on his side when it came to Isabel. Now it appeared she had taken up with Shirley. He was confused. He looked at her questioningly, careful to avoid a confrontation.
She was no longer looking at him, however. She was studying her watch, and announced it was after 3:00 p.m. already. He didn't recognize any significance to that. Had she made her own plans for today? Here she was now, grabbing a light jacket, and heading out the door. He jumped up to kiss her at the door, where she had paused. There was no feeling in her kiss. What had just happened? He wanted her to stay, to hear him out, at least finish the conversation, but she said she was late. He asked, to what? To where? She didn't have her car there. No, she was walking to meet Melissa for a drink at Dolce a few blocks away. He didn't understand at all. Had he missed something?
Only after she'd been gone ten or fifteen minutes, and he was sipping a scotch on the rocks, did it occur to him to wonder if she had lied. That would be totally out of character for Fran. But something else was happening in her mind. He knew how the brain worked; he was a neuroscientist, not just a neurosurgeon. He was working on a lecture for the medical school in three days. The PowerPoint presentation was already up on the screen, waiting for him to get back to it. He could only stare at it.
When he sat down, he looked around the room, to get his bearings. Two walls of his mahogany paneled study were nothing but built-in bookcases, filled to overflowing. His eye traveled down the shelves, one by one. On one whole shelf were the complete volumes of the Talmud. There were his medical texts, a few textbooks he'd co-edited, reference books on many subjects, and dictionaries for many languages. There were biographies and autobiographies of contemporary luminaries, as well as those of the great philosophers, writers, artists and scientists. He had a fine assortment of classical literary works, including all of Shakespeare, and some popular fiction too. A few thousand books it must be He believed he'd read or studied them all.
He knew enough not to go looking in any of them, however, for the answer to the age-old question, "What do women want?"
With every sip of his drink, he heard Fran saying in his ear, “You had time for Isabel.”
Technically, he never had time for Isabel, she just made time for herself in his life. She’d take care of the logistics - which hotel, when, where, how long. She would put it on his calendar, in his cellphone, or on his beeper if necessary, so he wouldn’t forget. She was a busy person herself, and one with excellent time management skills. She accounted for every minute - and every penny too.
He couldn’t deny it; he’d taken advantage of Isabel’s accessibility and generosity. When he was with her, the last thing on his mind was Shirley, who might be waiting at home, just twenty minutes away, but a world away from himself. A picture of Shirley came unbidden to his mind: she was at the dining room table, helping the kids with their homework, explaining what the teachers had assigned. A mother devoted to her family. The kids were looking up from their papers to let her check their work. Meanwhile, the kids’ father, the bigshot brain surgeon, Dr. Paul Feldman, wasn’t around to answer their questions or teach them himself. Where was he when Shirley wanted someone other than the children to talk to? Couldn’t he have invited her to the city for lunch now and then if he couldn’t leave? Why didn’t he just go home after work, regardless of the late hour? Shirley wouldn’t have minded him waking her up, so long as she had his warm body to hold. For God’s sake, if he was going to give himself the pleasure of another woman’s body, couldn’t he at least show his wife some appreciation!
In the end he had, hadn’t he? He gave her all his money.
He set the glass of scotch down and turned his head around to his credenza,and the framed photographs of his children. How cute Joanna and Asher looked in their day school uniforms. Those were happy times, weren’t they? He was making money, they lived in an affluent township, Shirley even had a job she loved. He enjoyed the company of Shirley’s family in New Jersey, and his sisters would bring their kids over. They’d even entertained Dave and Isabel in their home in those days. He could still hear the squealing of all the kids in the backyard, where he’d put up a rope swing and built a tree house, with winding steps. A wistful smile came to his face when he remembered Isabel joking it was the first and last time she’d ever see a Jewish doctor with a hammer and nails in his hands. A scalpel? Much more believable.
His eye moved over to a more recent photo of Joanna in her high school cap and gown. It hadn’t occurred to him before then that she had grown up to look like Shirley, at age twenty-four, when he’d met her. She had the same chestnut brown hair as her mother, spilling out of her cap down to her shoulders in this picture. He picked up the frame to look more closely. Yes, he was right. She did have his green eyes. He set the photo back and picked up a one of Asher last year posing with the lacrosse team after they won the All-State championship. Asher had grown up to be more athletic than Paul ever tried to be, but there was no mistaking he was Paul’s son; it was in the shape of his chin and mouth.
He set that picture back too and swung his chair around. No matter what, he would always love his children.
“Yet you made time for Isabel…” Fran kept saying in his ear.
Yes, he had…too often.
Despite himself, the vivid memories of his trysts with Isabel surfaced just then. Isabel would check into the hotel front desk and go up to the room. She’d call him with the room number. No sooner would he knock softly on the door than her arm would shoot out and pull him into the room, as though out from the path of a speeding car. Out of harm’s way. Into harm’s way.
She always had a head start disrobing and she’d be down to her bra and panties by then. The clothes she wore to the office were carefully draped on a chair, and her earrings would be on the dresser, along with her Movado wristwatch. He’d undo her bra, kiss each nipple, then pull down her panties, kissing her all the way down. He would turn down the bed, throwing the extra pillows on the floor. He always took the side of the bed closest to the door, in case of an emergency, like Housekeeping letting themselves in. Then she would climb in on top of him, burying her head in his neck. She would already be breathing rapidly as they kissed. He would pull her bangs out of her eyes to kiss her eyelids and murmur erotic things in her ear.
For forty-five minutes, the world was turned off, and his only thought was pleasuring Isabel, and receiving Isabel’s attentions. Once in awhile, one of them would slip up in the heat of the moment and cry out “I love you!” and the other “I love you too!” But they didn’t really mean it, did they?
She would throw off the sheets when the time was up, leaving him to watch her get dressed, with his hands behind his head propping him up on the pillow. He didn’t know how she did it, but she never seemed to age. She still had her flat stomach and softly curved hips, with not a hint of fat anywhere at all. Her breasts were still full and firm, not so different than he remembered them in college. Her lips were well-defined and full like always. To him, she was timeless. If she was getting Botox or Juviderm injected every so often he never asked and she never said. He assumed she colored her hair by now, but even at forty-two, she hadn’t needed to.
He would gaze, transfixed, as she pulled her pantyhose back on, starting with one foot on the bed and working it up delicately over that first perfectly formed leg. Then that foot would go down and the other would come up and she’d pull the hosiery just as carefully over that matching perfectly formed leg. “Stop it!” she’d giggle when he tickled her toes, which were so carefully painted. Professionally, of course.
He’d conveniently be there to zip her up, if necessary. When she was all put together again, he would run his hands all over her, admiring what, to him, was flawless. He claimed he was checking for anything amiss before she went back out and possibly embarrassed herself. Once in awhile he’d find she’d missed a button, or had a designer label sticking out, or there would be a twist in her collar, or a missed belt loop. Once or twice he’d have to carefully remove her scarf caught on an earring, or clasp her necklace in the back. One time, when she was running late, she’d thrown her sweater back on inside out and he caught that mistake. But he knew what he was really doing was stalling for time. Every moment with her, breathing her scent after lovemaking, was heaven.
Her last stop was the mirror over the vanity in the bathroom, where she would reapply the lipstick he’d kissed off her, and then, as she rubbed her lips together to even it out, she’d casually pull a brush through her hair. She would see him behind her in the mirror, and say, “You don’t think the guys will know I was just rolling in the hay, do you? You know how they are…” She would roll her eyes as though she minded her partners always checking her out.
“They’ll fantasize about it anyway.” He teased her.
Now that's what he was doing!
And in his head Fran was accusing him. “You found time for Isabel…”
He got out of his chair, and raced for the bathroom, fearing he would be sick. He was in a cold sweat. In the mirror he saw himself squeezing his temples, with a cacophony of voices in his head. He shut his eyes tight while they were all screaming at him “Don’t do this! Don’t do this! Don’t screw this up!” and he was yanking on his hair, pleading. “Please God, don’t let me do this! I can’t do this anymore!” and then trying to convince himself, “This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening.” Then, taking deep breaths to calm down, he repeated her words to him in her office that day: “It’s OK, Paul, it’s OK. It’s over now. You’re free.”
But it would never be over. He’d never be free. He grabbed a hand towel and sobbed into it.