This is the first chapter of my novel, "The Stalker's Notebook.
August 16th, 2013 6:05 AM
She felt at least momentarily reconciled with herself and therefore an elusive connection to humanity. She let the sense of peace rush over her.
In her mind’s eye, she could picture the semi-organized chaos that was morning midtown rush hour unfolding on the streets below.
As a real estate agent, she had done well. It was always a volatile job. She liked the mixture of superficiality and depth the work could encompass. The position had granted her the savvy to spot “a good deal”. Having enough cash was another matter even with the years that she made over a hundred thousand dollars. In Manhattan’s terms and amongst peers and neighbors that could still be the salary of someone just barely making it. Helped by her father with the down payment the now unrenovated studio apartment had been a lucky purchase with a view down an emerging “Billionaire’s Row” with it's obnoxious ever taller half vacant buildings of second, third, and fifth homes.
The buzz of the intercom interrupted her thoughts. Out of habit, she pressed the black button on the device cutting off her doorman’s familiar voice.
After the brief delay, which would be the approximate time it took for a person to enter the elevator and ascend twenty floors, there was a banging coming from behind her closed front door.
'Has Itamar forgotten something?'
She hated the name ‘Itamar’. Their chemistry was so flawless at the bar that she had invited him back to her place. Kissing had led to more. The condoms had already been disposed of. She smiled at her design choice of the painted pickled “white coastal” parquet flooring. The evidence of last night remained in the form of a bottle of Merlot sideways and empty at the foot of the sofa. Her face flushed a slight crimson as she recalled how just hours ago their gaze met and Itamar glided his hand up her blouse. Her nipples were still sore.
Sex on a first date. These were her adult choices. At least he's both a doctor and Jewish, she justified to herself. Dr. Ferreri would totally approve.
Itamar had asked her out again while they both lay half asleep as they cuddled in the moonlight which illuminated the twinkling bold Manhattan skyline. The image of him lying on her bed on his back in his playful polka dot red and white boxers, with his taut muscles and his soft half-tousled sandy hair on her pillow, was enchanting. He was superior looking in person than his online profile picture had suggested. She had hoped that they would have breakfast together even if it was just a ‘Starbucks’ run downstairs. Long ago she had let go of how her doormen perceived her, as she often lived and worked in the same building, but Itamar had slipped his jeans over his tight ass and was out the door before the morning broke.
Laura hopped out of bed and covered herself with a bleach white robe as she called out “one minute please, I am coming”. Through the peephole, she could see two unfamiliar faces. A man and a woman. She wondered what they could be doing there.
“This is investigator Steve Dickov,” the man announced.
Laura opened the door. A short stocky man and a slender younger black woman stood at her threshold. He wore a light blue plaid shirt with belted khaki pants. The woman had on a navy blazer. Under it, a crisp white shirt was tucked into a stiff pencil skirt.
"We have some questions about a complaint you filed,” Dickov said.
Laura looked them over, noting how strange of a coupling they made.
“My complaint from a week ago?”
“Yes,” he said. “In regards to Dr. Bender and Altheim?”
The words were electric to Laura. They were taking her complaint seriously and so fast. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Laura knew this did not add up. The government is not that responsive.
“Ah, yes, yes my complaint. Uh Great! Let’s discuss it. Wait, here in my apartment?”
“Well, would you mind coming with us to discuss the matter further downtown in the office?”
“I would not mind at all.”
She was ready to face this albatross. Depending on how you measured it this had been plaguing her for over a decade. Unlike either therapist, she had always preferred to face things dead on.
Like, duh isn’t that what therapy is supposed to be? To challenge your deepest held assumptions and unmask your darkest self? And if so then why could there be no reconciliation? She asked herself this many many times over the years always arriving at the same frustrations. She had, of course, asked them this too (separately) over and over again in various formats. Mostly it was a message left on their answering machine.
Sometimes it was said through anger and through the very act of defiance in contacting them when they had asked her not to. Sometimes it was loud and angry and at other times it was a roaring whisper spoken with the vulnerability of a child or an air of defeat.
Why if therapy was about confronting shit had both of them essentially abandoned her? Accepting that they had abandoned her made her feel fundamentally unlovable. If the people that could and should know you best don’t like you what does that even say about you?
And in the depths of despair when their ignoring her was great and it felt hopeless she did quietly end up wondering why she even cared. But she knew why she cared. They had come to represent order, and reasonableness and adulthood to her. For so long she didn’t know how to quit them and to never get their friendship let alone their approval.
“Let me just get dressed quickly and grab my bag.”
The couple waited for her in the hall as she slipped on an uninspired outfit. Absentmindedly, she reached for a black canvas bag rather than her Prada purse.
As she was getting dressed she could overhear Dickov say “This is a really nice building”.
She knew to go into a car with strangers as a rule always presented a danger. Maybe this could be some elaborate kidnapping scheme she amused herself with the thought but pushed it aside knowing her life wasn’t that interesting. She more than reassured herself that they knew of her specific complaint and recalled how even though she had been the one to say the actual names their faces had lit up at the mention of the Bender and Altheim so they had to be legit and from Albany, right?
She even joked about ‘seeing their badges’ as she climbed into the black suburban and the car sped off.
“Did you want to see them?” They had responded.
“No. No. It’s ok.”
Crossing through midtown and seeing the construction cranes was always a reminder of how much the city had changed since she was a small girl coming into the city to visit her grandparents on the Upper West Side. Back then it was a sometimes scary smutty gritty whore of a city. It was still very much a whore but a different kind mostly to and for servicing the wealthy.
They effortlessly found parking right out front. The black woman walked behind her as Dickov took the front, leading them into a side entrance of a dull looking building. The facade of the attached adjacent building screamed “Old New York”. This building looked tired and municipal. With the metal detector there the security did seem stronger than what had become common in every office tower in post 9/11 New York. Dickov waived his ID to the security guard who seemed to already have recognized him. They were waved through cutting the small line that had formed.
The main hallway with its checkered floors was large enough to accommodate two adult elephants. Laura resisted the urge to only step on the white tiles. They walked past people busy at their desks and a video camera set up on a tripod in a waiting area as she was led into a tiny conference room. The only furnishing was a cheap brown rectangular desk cold to the touch and three uncomfortable looking plastic chairs. There was a kind of octagonally shaped metal webbing on the windows that made Laura immediately think of jail and the claustrophobia of being penned in behind bars.
Steve Dickov broke the silence. He launched into his introduction.
“This is just going to be procedural and then I can listen to your side, Ok?
She had once been in a house fire. She was thinking the webbing over the windows was for sure a fire hazard. No way that metal webbing could be to any kind of fire code.
“You have the right to remain silent and anything you say or do can be used against you in a court of law..”.
Yeah, yeah, the phraseology was a familiar cliche. Laura had already expected that her complaint to the licensing board in Albany could turn “legal” and so she understood the need for this to be “on the record” and therefore took it as a disclosure that she acknowledged.
He asked if she wanted an attorney. She wanted to do this quickly and on the cheap and didn’t sense impending doom that would irrevocably change her and therefore did not feel a lawyer was necessary.
Yes, she knew she had emailed Altheim over the last eight months when she was told specifically not to but in the grand scheme she felt on the surface her behavior was justified given their core betrayal of her and her overwhelming need for answers and or a genuine apology where she could actually feel like Altheim gave a shit. Underneath the hurt, she found she couldn’t help herself. The anxiety of the botched relationships would become so great that she couldn’t stop herself from pressing that send button. Like eating potato chips it was hard to just send one email. She would get stuck in a thought loop of all the things she wanted to say or could potentially say but that that first or second email didn’t do justice too. The typos even would even eat away at her. Altheim had responded one time. At least she acknowledged that she knew she had hurt her in that one solitary email. But that one email was in no way enough to satisfy the avalanche of emotions Laura had felt. She literally could not eat more than one small meal a day with just enough calories to keep her going and so she quickly shed 20 pounds without trying. She had a tendency to put on weight from being an emotional overeater but at times with just the right kind of trauma, the scale went the other way.
Yes, after all those years of ignoring her Altheim had finally met with Dr. Ferrari and Laura to make amends. But it was only after seeing that photo months after the meeting that it had finally come out and dawned on her the depth of the situation. That they had forged some sort of alliance going back to her and Altheim’s last therapy sessions. In essence, they had betrayed her. They knew she had wanted friendships with both of them. Secretly, becoming friends with each other and excluding her in that was the ultimate betrayal to her. Having been her therapists and confidants for eight years collectively they would have each understood this and for her where those sensitive lay. It was as if they had used her own fears and insecurities against her and worse it felt purposeful as if to get back at her for being sick and needy. While she had suffered alone with the deepest feelings of inadequacy, that their rejections of her had echoed in her, they had each had each other for comfort. She imagined phone calls between them where they must have been mocking her behind her back as she had begged them each individually for reconciliation. In Laura’s mind, their alliance had buffered them from ever having to question how they had dealt with her. What had come out from that photo for Laura was proof that their betrayal had been ongoing for years.
Altheim had acknowledged it in the meeting with Ferrari that she had sided with Bender. That she had favored how Bender had felt over Laura’s feelings. Despite Laura’s protestations that Bender was exaggerating and what she had said was untrue Altheim had chosen to side with Bender. Even though she had sensed it perhaps all along because there had always been that lack of communication and acknowledgment which made her question at times her own sense of reality. Their gaslighting her had made seeing the photo and what it confirmed that much more explosive. Now hit with the truth it had still been almost unfathomable to her the depravity in them that led them to do that.
Altheim’s line that “it had been for my daughter” that she had gone to that dinner honoring Bender made it all the more sickening. That she could step on “someone else’s daughter” to help her child get a leg up. Just the idea that to Altheim apparently that this would seem like a justifiable explanation disturbed Laura. Laura saw it obviously completely in opposition to Altheim. Altheim going there to honor Bendheim was Altheim being a terrible leader and a terrible role model to her daughter.
Laura talking about Bender’s sons and therefore family had been at the core of the alleged statement that had gotten her kicked out of therapy with Altheim in the first place. Laura’s words had of course been twisted.
Amongst leaving a stream of voicemail messages Laura had said to Bender something to the effect of “how would you feel if your children felt the way that I do?”. It was really to Laura a statement that got at the heart of what she was struggling with in terms of the tug and pull of empathy and othering within the bounds of therapy. Laura could feel dramatically like a homeless outsider because her parent's marriage was broken and her parents were if not at times abusive and manipulative then merely distracted with their own concerns to really see Laura for Laura.
She left the messages because Bender had lied to her. Altheim had organized a phone call between them. The call had gone well to the point where Bender had said it would be ok if Laura called her again in a month. When she did call a month later it was as if Bender had forgotten their entire conversation and that it had meant nothing to Bender to dismiss Laura.
Bender’s exact words were “why are you calling me?” Bender’s attitude had launched Laura into an emotional tizzy. Now Laura started to feel like almost nothing she could say mattered. She learned the hard way that that wasn’t true. The reality was that to Bender only the bad things she said mattered. Anything good at that point was ignored.
“I am here to help”. The detective said. He grinned.
Help? help. help. Laura thought how simple and friendly the word sounded as she tossed it around like a salad in her head.
“Well, you’ve seen the photo I sent in?”
“What photo?” He asked.
“What photo?” Laura repeated to herself. And then it hit her like a train barreling off its tracks- she was fucked!
Fuck fuck fuck she thought.
If he didn’t know about the photo which was central to her complaint then he hadn’t read her complaint. They were NOT from Albany but.. likely some form of local police despite their plain clothes and she now recognized she was the one being interrogated and likely soon facing down trouble. She understood all this intellectually but emotionally she was struggling. Her hope that she could be understood pushed past an intense and rising anxiety and instincts of self-preservation. The silence Bender and Altheim had perpetrated upon her had been so complete and literally dehumanizing that she yearned for the warmth of the hug of being understood.
It was Dr. Bender who once characterized to her that we all have a strange relationship to our troubles. “if everyone amongst a group of people had put their problems together and those troubles were represented as a pile of shoes and we were asked to take a pair we would each select our exact original pairs. Laura’s mother used to often say “for every problem, there is a gift. You have the problem because you need the gift.” There Laura was leaning-in to the situation and talking. Laura also wanted to believe. She was hurting and wanted to affirm there could be a world and within it a system that cared.
“It was a photo of Dr. Emily Altheim embracing Dr. Gertrude Bender at a dinner honoring Dr. Bender.” There she had said it aloud.
Laura could not unsee the photo. Laura had stumbled across it in the middle of the night when browsing her former school RJ's website. Laura saw the photo approximately six months after Altheim had agreed to a forty minute sit down three-way conversation with Dr. Ferrari after ignoring Laura for eight long years. Laura had to hard bargain for the forty minutes. Dr. Altheim had wanted to keep it to just twenty minutes. Laura balked at the initial offer of twenty minutes. What could ever be accomplished in twenty minutes after so long? They would just barely be seated and the interaction over before time was up. It had come out in Dr. Ferrari’s pre-talk with Altheim that she over the years consulted with no less than ten colleagues and all of them had told her not to re-engage with Laura.
Dickov shrugged his shoulders.
“I introduced them.” She gestured towards her own torso.
“Not only did Altheim “kick me out” of therapy over an exaggeration of Bender’s but Altheim then used the entire situation as an opportunity to become friends with not just Bender but Bender’s daughter in law as well.”
Altheim had at least thankfully acknowledged “Maybe ignoring you wasn’t necessarily the best way to handle the situation.” Laura was surprised Dr. Ferrari had coaxed that admission out of Altheim.
“So you can acknowledge that perhaps ignoring Laura was not the best course of action”. Dr. Ferrari said. Dr. Altheim nodded.
It was clear Altheim had at least held some guilt over the decision. Altheim had been stingy with expressing any emotion inside the therapy room. To Laura, it had been a revelation to hear Altheim even so much as hint at an inner emotional experience. To get the meeting at all Laura had to promise to both Dr. Ferrari and Dr. Altheim that she would never again contact Dr. Altheim ever. The meeting was so wrought with emotion and bittersweet for Laura. It had delivered an elusive peace until she stumbled upon the photo.
For Laura one of the strangest and surprising aspects of the meeting was that it was as if Dr. Altheim seemed jealous of Dr. Ferrari. Laura wondered how it could even be possible that Altheim who had so abandoned her could be jealous of her closeness with Dr. Ferrari. It was bizarre. His office was shiny, bedazzled and he offered Halloween candy. Putting it bluntly Dr. Ferrari was a gorgeous faggot of a man who had often succeeded at making Laura feel special.
In light of the photo, Laura had come to see the threeway meeting now as a way for Altheim to alleviate her guilty conscious. Altheim had moved too deliberately seek Bender out to advance her career and social standing with Queen Bee, Dr. Bender, and therefore amongst the orthodox modern community in Riverdale. Laura had just been the collateral.
“They betrayed me”. The words tasted metallic in her mouth. In explaining the little that had been revealed she knew Dickov would never understand the contradiction that she had been used by the two women who had obsessed over her transgressing the boundaries of therapy. In the end, Bender and Altheim were just fine with using those boundaries not to protect the ‘patient’ as they had been historically constructed but rather to ‘otherize’ Laura. It was much like a husband must feel when his wife sleeps with his best friend. However, Laura appreciated that while people can relate to the hurt of adultery almost no one could relate to why her therapists had meant so much. She felt the sharp pangs of shame pierce her kidneys as she thought about why she cared. Unless one had really delved into the thick culture of therapy this might just be hard to understand. She had a hard time explaining it sometimes even to herself. All she knew is it hurt like hell and made her feel like she couldn’t breathe and somewhat wanted to die. She was certain intellectually at the core of it, like everything else in this life, lay what she termed “mommy issues”. She had attached to the idea of having wanted a friendship with them. In more recent years it became wanting a sense of closure and for the therapists to admit simply that they were wrong and that they had been incompetent if not cruel.
There was a level of nostalgia to it. Laura’s earliest memory of Dr. Bender went all the way back to when she was six years old. Dr. Bender’s daughter was spending the weekend at the house of a girl who lived in Scarsdale and was on Laura’s bus. Bender had forgotten to pack a hairbrush for her daughter. That was the first time Laura laid eyes on Gertrude Bender. This effervescent middle-aged woman is far cuter than she was beautiful who was gifted with an abundance of confidence and motherly concern emerging onto her bus that day all those years ago. Gertrude Bender had yet to even become a psychologist. She was at that time merely the wife of a wealthy and powerful man and the mother of seven. Laura now chuckled at the thought that neither would have had an idea then how the fate of the six-year-old girl eyeing her in the second row and her would collide one day with such force.
Thinking of the origins of knowing Dr. Bender always unavoidably made her think of her dysfunctional and one-sided relationship with Asher Klein. Her first crush.
She had developed a thing for Asher somewhere around the third grade. His hair was straight, an auburn brown. He was using a hair product even back then. Laura’s mother would never allow her to use hairspray as she said it contained too many chemicals. Laura yearned to fit in.
The Hebrew teacher “Morah Tora” used to call the class to sit on the carpeted floor at the front of the room except the three boys were allowed to stay in their seats in the front row. Laura would stair between his legs with utter curiosity. It wasn’t so much sexual at that age as she just wondered what he looked like there.
Bender had always said to her “if your home life had been happy school wouldn’t have been so emotionally fraught”. To which Laura politely replied “That makes complete sense” but what she was really thinking was “no shit Sherlock” and “please make it all feel ok”. It had annoyed Laura from a young enough age that the Benders were deeply admired for their money. Laura’s parents weren’t involved with the school apart from going to “parent-teacher night”. The parents of Laura’s classmates were admired for donating both time and money but the Benders were at another level. They were a legend. They donated money and were constantly being given awards by the school for giving money. Every five or so years it seemed like the annual school dinner was held to honor the Benders.
Laura’s mind returned to the present moment.
Her voice trembling as it cracked.
“My therapists used me.”
Dickov seemed to have by then lost his patience. He pulled out a blank notepad and placed it on the table between them with a pen.
“Please write down any additional thoughts and I’ll be right back. I am going to call the D.A. I am not sure we have enough”.
Dickov left the room.
The black woman remained seated behind Laura. Her presence felt like a knee in Laura’s back.
Laura didn’t write anything down but for a squiggle that resembled an angry tadpole.
She stared at the walls and window webbing which now looked a lot more ominous for what felt like 10 minutes. He then returned and told her again he wasn't sure they had gotten enough.
“The A.D.A. would like to speak with you to clear things up .“
“Can I leave? I do have plans for later on today.”
“You can leave now but I think it is best we wrap this all up today, don’t you?
Besides the A.D.A. really wants to meet you.”
He said it as if it were a social call.
Laura vaguely knew what a prosecutor was but then again not really. She had no real idea what an A.D.A. actually did. She had never had a good reason to know what the role of a prosecutor was.
She was led passed hallways and more offices. The threesome then entered and exited an old dirty elevator that had big black thick hockey puck buttons where half the painted white lettering had long worn off and led down corridors into a small claustrophobic room with a ridiculously high ceiling. The edges were clustered with stacked cardboard boxes. Their labels read things like ‘Child Rape’ & ‘ International Sex Trafficking'. A circular table uncomfortably dominated most of the room.
Laura swallowed hard.