It’s the mid-seventies, a hot day in Pittsburgh, and Emma,* my sister-in-law and best friend, is taking ten minutes just to enter the doorway of the psychiatric hospital. She pushes in the revolving door, paralyzed with terror. Everyone looks lost here, even the doctors. There’s no sense of anyone’s getting well, and when she gets on the elevator, she doesn’t know why, but she opens her purse and swipes on lipstick.
The doors open on the fourth floor, and she takes a step forward. People in street clothes are wandering around. A nurse whisks past, arguing with a doctor. Someone is bellowing, “Ger-on-imo! Ger-on-i-mo!” and Emma looks toward the sound.
Dan, her husband, is in the far corner. He’s naked, and he’s pounding on his chest, staring straight ahead. He was a brilliant doctor, and this is his third psychotic break, his third round of shock treatment and meds, and when he gets out again, he’ll be so loving to Emma, so funny and smart, that you’d never know anything was ever wrong with him. Not until the whole cycle begins again. “Ger-on-i-mo!” he shouts, gorilla-banging his chest. Emma, heart thudding, edges quietly back into the elevator and stabs the ground-floor button. And then, as she always does, she rushes outside, gets in her car, calls me, and tells me everything.
I loved Emma the moment I met her, which wasn’t long after I married her brother, Tom. She’s small and beautiful, a talented painter, and everything about her—her willingness to reveal herself, her sense of fun, her staunch support—are things I’m beginning to miss in Tom. All of us live in Pittsburgh now, and the main topic of conversation bonding Emma and me together is the sudden sorry state of our marriages.
The day before Dan was committed to the hospital, we were all at Emma’s. She was whisking shrimp into hot oil, so it snapped and sizzled in the wok. Tom was sitting sullenly in the living room, and when I saw him get his jacket, I grabbed his elbow. “Don’t do this tonight,” I say.
“Can’t I even go get cigarettes without you thinking I’m having an affair?”
I try to touch him, and he sidesteps. “You’re always going someplace that doesn’t include me,” I say quietly. He zips his jacket.
“Stop,” he says. “Just stop.”
“That jerk,” Emma says when she discovers he’s gone. She knows the story, because I confide everything in her, and even though he’s her brother, she’s annoyed and on my side. She scatters salt over the shrimp. Dan is snapping his head back and forth like a metronome. He mutters something and taps his fingers against the wall. Emma turns toward him. “Dan?” she asks. “Honey?” He leans toward her and says something I can’t hear. He walks unsteadily out of the room, and Emma looks at me, defeated, and puts the spatula down. “He’s getting sick again. He’s hearing voices, and he’s talking to them. I’m going to have to call the doctor,” she says. Wearily, she shuts off the flame. The shrimp have burned in the pan. Dinner is ruined.
Dan is in the hospital for a month, and he has a new doctor named Alex Coter, who is tall and in his sixties, with a shock of black hair. He gives Emma a list of foods Dan can’t eat because they’ll interfere with his meds, and he wants to start talk therapy as soon as Dan is out. “It would be a good idea for you to come in, too,” he tells her. “It will help you help Dan.”
“Fuck,” Emma says, but she makes an appointment. Marriage sucks for both of us these days, but it draws us closer. Both our husbands are somehow gone, Dan locked up and Tom on mysterious business trips and late nights at the office, and when I call him, no one answers. One night, when Tom doesn’t come home, I call Emma at three in the morning. “Cab over,” she orders. “Don’t be there when he gets back,” and I do. In the morning, the phone rings at six and Emma grabs it from me. “Oh, now you want her,” Emma says. “Now that she’s the one who’s gone.” Emma winks at me before handing me the phone.
It’s winter and Emma has been seeing Alex for three months and she’s dressing for her appointment, sliding on a new black dress, taking time with her makeup. “He’s so nice,” she tells me.
Of course, it’s transference. Alex tells her that at every session when she blurts “I love you.” But so what? Feeling love is glorious. She’s energized and painting, and she has a glow. He’s warm and reassuring, and he always pulls the conversation back to why she shouldn’t consider Dan’s illness her fault. “I think,” he tells her, when she starts crying, “you should come see me three times a week now.” She looks up at him. She hides her delight. I’m jealous, but I tell myself, Think of what Emma’s going through. Think of what it would be like to be married to someone like Dan. It doesn’t really help.