Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
THE DOCTOR IN THE BIKINI
“Your panties? They’re in the top drawer, next to the Gideon Bible.”
She laughed. “This is the first time I’ve put anything in the drawer. And definitely the last.”
Jenna Kirkpatrick got out of bed and reached into the drawer. Was the Gideon Bible frowning at her? She stood on one foot, then on the other, as she slipped her pink lacey panties onto her beach-tanned legs.
“Think I’ll wear my new sundress,” she said, removing it from a hook in the bedroom on the third floor of Watson’s Regency Hotel, a short walk to the boardwalk at Ocean City, New Jersey.
She twirled around in her pink sundress, with its pattern of swirling circles, before her newest lover.
She went over to him, as he lay in bed, tousled his dirty blond hair, and whispered in his ear.
“Pardon me, love. But I’ve forgotten your name.”
He jumped up and laughed.
“Pierre,” he said. “Just call me Pierre.”
They had until noon. The brightly lit digital clock read 9 am. They would stroll along the board walk, get a cup of coffee at Ocean City Coffee Shop and then he’d report for duty. He drove the power boat for one of the parasail companies.
As they strode up the ramp to the boardwalk, Pierre asked if it were normal for a psychiatrist to be “on the make,” as he phrased it.
“Normal for this one,” she said. “My therapist told me to join Saint Augustine Fellowship, which is a nice way of saying Love and Addictions Anonymous.”
She pointed at the waves on the ocean. “Would you mind if we said hello to the ocean? It’s one of my better addictions.”
Jenna removed her sandals and watched her footprints as they sunk into the warm sand. Then she broke free and ran to the ocean, its sound like a thrumming Beethoven symphony. She walked in up to her ankles, then knees, and finally her waist. She laughed as she felt the cold salty water soothe her unquenchable heart.
“Okay,” she thought. “So I’m messed up. But I’m still a good psychiatrist.”
Pierre came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, lightly touching her large spongy breasts, that poked prominently from the pink sundress. She turned around and they enjoyed a long delicious kiss.
Hand in hand, they walked back to the boardwalk, and strode onward until they came to the coffee house.
They positioned themselves by the self-serve section and viewed the varieties of coffee, both regular and decaf. Pirate’s Coffee (strong Costa-Rico and Columbian); Ocean City Blend; Raspberry; French Roast and seven other varieties.
Jenna chose a 20-ounce white cup, squirted some Raspberry into the bottom and filled it with French Roast. She sniffed it and offered Pierre a smell.
“Very nice,” he said.
“What’ll you have, love?” she asked. “My treat.”
“Can’t drink while I’m on the boat. Gotta concentrate on the riders two hundred feet off the ground. Can’t be worrying about taking a leak.
They sat down on a bench facing the ocean. At nine in the morning tourists were already marking off the spots where they would spend the day. Colorful umbrellas were twisted into the warm sand, blankets set down, then the coolers came out, while gray and white sea gulls swooped low with their practiced “Feed me! Feed me!” cries.
“I love it here,” said Jenna. “It’s the only time I feel free.”
She sipped through a tiny opening on her hot coffee.
Pierre watched the breeze blow her long black hair. With his fingers, he combed it across her shoulders.
“Beautiful woman,” he said.
“Well, my patients like me anyway,” she said and brought her iPhone out of her pocket.
“Not a single call,” she said. “Not yet at least. They have no idea where I am or what I do in my spare time.”
He asked what she did other than screw total strangers.
She explained her reading habits: psychiatry journals, which she found “absolutely fascinating,” a dose of crime fiction such as the Jack Reacher novels and was impressed to find Pierre had read every single one of them (she hadn’t) and a selection of literary novels, like Gone Girl, if she could get through them.
“Start and stop, that’s me. I just don’t care if I pick them up again.”
“Sounds a lot like your Saint Augustine friends.”
“Aren’t you the smart one?” she laughed.
The July sun was getting hot. A few fluffy white clouds passed leisurely by, as if out on a Sunday stroll. Jenna explained she’d rent one of the blue and white striped umbrellas, lie on her blanket in her two-piece bikini, and let the sun melt her cares away.
“Speaking of the devil,” she said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out her blue iPhone.
Without hesitating, she pressed a button and said, “What’s going on Mr. G?” She walked away from Pierre so he wouldn’t hear her confidential discussion.
She listened a few moments and nodded. “Tony, I know how hard it is, I really do.” She walked on the boardwalk, staring at her blue-painted toenails. “If you were to jump off that little bridge, you wouldn’t die. You’d lay there on the rocky bottom in more pain than you’ve ever had in your entire life. Do you hear me?”
He mumbled a yes. He was a good looking Italian man around forty years old. Women loved him but it didn’t help.
She had a knack for helping her suicidal patients. She had made two half-hearted attempts to end her own life.
“Tony, I just had an idea.”
She paused and took a sip of her coffee.
“Would your dad let you buy a dog?”
“Well, go to the SPCA and buy yourself a dog. You need someone to take care of other than your old father.”
“Yes, I’m positive, Tony. And you call me when you’ve gotten the dog. And give him a good name.”
“Sure, Dr. Fitz,” he said.
She walked over to the bench where Pierre was conversing with a young woman on the next bench, who held a big white tub of Johnson’s Carmel Popcorn. She patted the iPhone in her pocket and immediately forgot about her patient.
Pierre handed the woman a business card that read “Best Shore Parasailing.” He had launched into a promotion of what it felt like to soar above the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps to spot a couple of dolphins or even the long fins of the sharks, who at this very moment in July, were tasting human blood in North Carolina.
“Yes,” said the woman. “I saw it on television. What’s going on?”
“Sharks are unpredictable,” said Pierre. “Often times they think a person is an enemy. They have poor eyesight so the swimmer might be making similar movements to the fish they like to eat or could even have an open wound or wear something shiny, like the skin of their prey.”
The woman shivered and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Shall we walk?” Jenna interrupted.
“You think about it, ma’am, and get back to me if you’re ready to have the best experience of your life.”
He doffed his Yankees cap. He and Jenna walked on the old wooden boards as bicycles of all sorts whizzed by, some with bells warning pedestrians they were coming by.
On they walked, passing a raft of women’s clothing shops that had Jenna craning her neck to see what was in the window.
They also passed “Shore Paintings” fifty percent off. Leaning against the door way were colorful paintings – “Museum Quality” screamed a banner – and a couple walked out with a painting under each arm.
“This so-called sex addiction of yours,” said Pierre.
“You know what?” said Jenna. “I like you but this is something I do not discuss.”
“No prob,” he said.
“And don’t get mad if I bring up someone else to my hotel room. It’s the way I am. It makes me happy.”
“I think you’d really love to parasail. What do you think?”
Jenna said she would try it the next day, which was her last in Ocean City. She had patients to see on Monday morning at her office in Philadelphia.
After a refreshing sleep, Jenna awoke alone and changed into her two-piece bikini and pulled a white beach dress over it. The digital clock read seven a.m. She thought about Jack Reacher, who had an internal clock that never failed him.
She’d always been an early riser. She was the oldest of six children, evenly divided between boys and girls, from an impoverished Catholic family in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia.
To wake up was to hear her parents yelling at one another, pounding the kitchen table, her mother throwing bacon grease in her father’s face, the father slapping his wife until she got welts on her cheeks.
Then, “You brats!” her father would call at the foot of the stairs. “You lazy goddamn brats. Sleeping your lives away, are ya? Get down here for breakfast or I’ll take the strap to ya.”
Jenna felt guilty when she prayed every night that her father would meet a horrible demise, maybe be burned to death like the saints, but apparently his mean temper kept him alive.
She rarely thought of her childhood any more except when a memory pushed its way up from some corner of her brain – the frontal cortex and hippocampus, she learned in med school – and now, as she readied herself for the boardwalk, a memory escaped. Jenna found herself in shock, holding her hands over her face.
Father had seen her new Cinderella lunch box that she’d traded with a classmate in first grade.
“Where’d you git this?” he yelled, as she prayed he would drop dead.
“I…. Mary Ann didn’t want it,” she stammered.
“And neither do you,” he said, throwing it onto the kitchen floor with a clatter, then smashing it with his work boots.
“Oh, go away!” Jenna said aloud in the hotel room. “I’m glad you’re dead, you goddamn bastard.” The ultimate analyzer, she tried to think what triggered the memory.
Nothing came up.
Under the blue sky with its slow-moving clouds, Pierre adjusted Jenna’s life jacket over her blue and white bikini. He could smell her sun tan lotion and watched her black hair sway in the breeze on the boat. God, she was lovely, he thought. He reached into a box on the boat and brought out a small elastic band.
“Tie your hair back with this, Jen,” he said.
He helped her into a swing, fastened all the straps and cords, and then told her that as he drove his power boat, a huge parachute would open up, trailing her in the swing, and upwards she’d glide.
She nodded her head.
“I won’t be killed,” she stated matter of factly.
“Do you think I’d let anything happen to my beautiful Jenna?”
She smiled and then cleared her throat a few times, as he climbed over to the bow of the boat and fired up the engine. As the boat sped away from the dock, she jerked in her seat and all thoughts vanished as the ocean spray drenched her and she shot upward into the air.
“I’m flying!” she screamed with joy.
What a view she had! It was better than sitting motionless in an airplane because now she was a part of the flight. She kicked her legs and waved her arms as she viewed the rippling gray Atlantic below. Pierre aimed his boat away from the shore. He wanted her to see the “pod of dolphins.” The wind was strong, whipping her ponytail back and forth, as she tried to distinguish shapes in the water.
At first she thought they were sleek gray barrels rolling in the sea. But, no, barrels couldn’t leap and dance and play and barrels didn’t have the blue-gray sheen and snouts that poked upward as if they were praying to God almighty.
She clasped her hands to her chest and shouted, “Thank you Lord. Thank you for keeping me in this world for thirty-four years.” Her words fled into the air. Filed away in God’s filing cabinet. Pink, she imagined.
Of course, it was the nuns that saved her. Sister Marcella, in particular. They knew what went on at home. Sent Father McGarry to talk to her parents. Wise old white-haired Tom McGarry knew it wouldn’t do a lick of good, but he must try.
Seated on the green davenport in the living room, where there wasn’t a mote of dust or a crumb on the floor, the priest had brought Sterling and Dorothy Fitzpatrick a gift of flowers in a milk-white vase.
“A cup of tea, Father?” asked her mother.
“I’d like that,” he said, holding his hat in his hand.
“Sterling, may I call you that, Mr. Fitzpatrick?”
“If me own priest can’t call me by my first name, I don’t know who can, then,” he said, never looking up at the priest.
“You’re a machinist, then, Sterling?”
“The finest,” he said. “They made me foreman. I can sure get those lazy bas… oh, excuse me, Father. Sometimes my men would rather talk than do their God-given work and I’m known for carrying the whip, as they say.”
With a clatter, the pot of tea and tea cups arrived on a silver platter, along with some cookies for dunking.
“Nice to have a little party during the day,” said Dorothy, who had a bruise near her eye, which could not be covered up by make-up.
The priest explained that the school at Our Lady of Lourdes enjoyed all six children – Albert, Anthony, Dorothy, Sterling, and AnnaMaria – but were especially impressed with Jenna, “a very bright, pleasant child.”
“Oh, we’re well aware of that, Father,” said Sterling. “Always wanting to go to the public library, wanting to stay up late studying, which of course we don’t allow.”
“Marvelous cookies, Dorothy,” said the father, after dunking a powdered sugar cookie into his tea.
“Thank you, Father.”
“Let me come to the point,” he said, looking at each parent.
Dorothy put her tea cup down on the little table with trembling hands.
“I’ll say it for you, Father,” said Dorothy.
Sterling looked at her and raised his right hand as if to hit her.
“My husband here is a good man but has a nasty temper. Occasionally he gets the strap out and I’m sorry to say he, uh…..”
“Oh, for Chrissakes, my love,” said Sterling, standing up and kissing his wife on the cheek.
“Once, maybe, or twice, I do admit to getting the strap, just like when I was a lad back in County Cork. Did me good. I minded my manners just as I expect my own brood to do.”
“It’s not easy raising six children,” said the priest. “And the two of you are to be praised for doing your best. But I want you to think of something.”
The priest took another sip of tea, looked at Dorothy and then at Sterling.
“Remember how Christ was lashed before they laid him on the cross?”
There was silence.
“Before you take your strap, Sterling Fitzpatrick, I want you to imagine that you are lashing our own Jesus Christ the Savior.”
Both Dorothy and Sterling gasped.
“Father!” they both cried in unison.
Father McGarry took his leave, hoping his intercession was of some use.
Pierre slowed down “The Higher Power” and pulled her over to the dock. Jenna lay exhausted with her eyes closed. He kissed her on the cheek. “Sorry, ma’am. ride’s over.”
“May I keep this as a souvenir?” she asked, as she undid the borrowed elastic band.
“Sure. You may also keep me as a souvenir,” he said.
They laughed and agreed to have dinner, after dark, and to meet at a new restaurant “The Big Fish.” For a few weeks, an airplane had flown low over the beach with a sign for “The Big Fish” at Eleventh and The Boardwalk.
Jenna was sipping on iced coffee when Pierre entered the restaurant, dressed in khaki shorts and a button-down blue shirt. She lifted up her head for his kiss.
“I actually ordered some wine,” she said, “but I forgot you’re dry around here.”
“After we eat – and I am star-ving – I’ll tell you a bit of history of our enchanted city.”
“I know a little,” said Jenna. “Started as a religious colony….
“Four Methodist ministers, the Lake Brothers and one William Burrell, in 1879 brought forth onto these lands a Christian retreat and camp and forbad the public drinking of alcoholic beverages, hence we buy our liquor at Roger Wilco when we’re coming from Pennsylvania or at Roger Wilco when we’re coming from New Jersey. The New Yawkers have their choice of booze on every street corner in their city.”
A waitress arrived at their table.
“Hi, I’m Annie, and I’ll be your server tonight,” said a small attractive woman in black with a white apron.
They ordered their fresh fish.
“Annie,” said Pierre. “I’d like a cup of black coffee right now. Thanks, dear.”
Candles glowed in the center of the table and they had a view of the ocean, barely visible under a moonless sky.
Over dinner, Jenna said, “Pierre, tell me a little about yourself. You are such a clever fellow.”
“What do you want to know?”
She explained that one of her jobs as a psychiatrist was to do a “psychiatric evaluation” the very first time she and the patient met. “I ask all sorts of questions, like what’s your relationship with your family and siblings – we call them your ‘family of origin’ – if you’re able to work – who you live with – and what your goals are. If you’re living the best possible life you can. And then I tell them I’ll help them achieve their goals, little by little.”
Pierre held up his fork with the crab-stuffed flounder. “This is very good, by the way,” he said. “But, are you, my dear, living the best possible life you can?”
“Aha,” said Jenna, pointing her finger at him. “You’re trying to get out of answering the question, but I’m calling you on it.”
“Not really,” he laughed.
“Not really has no meaning,” said Jenna. “It means ‘yes.’”
“Of course I want to talk to you,” he said. “Our relationship, such as it is, goes two ways. I know so little about you – except you love having orgasmic experiences – and so do I. In fact, for, oh, about eight years or so, I was hooked on about every drug you could think of and served jail time.”
He speared a french fry. “I had a great counselor when I got out – Dr. Leah Goldman – who told me to replace pot and cocaine with risk-taking behavior that created its own adrenaline high.”
“Very smart,” said Jenna. “I’ve gotta remember that.”
He explained he was a Jersey guy, raised on a farm with horses and chickens and cows – he did a marvelous low “mooo” – and was so “goddamn bored” he started snorting and inhaling and “enjoyed it to the max.” Until his parents turned him in.
“Oooh!” said Jenna.
“I know,” said Pierre. “But they did the right thing. I never would have stopped or would have died of an overdose. When I got out, they loaned me the money to start my own business. Besides, I’m in love with the shore, just love it and can’t live without it, so, for now, this is the place where I belong.”
They lifted up their glasses and clicked them together.
That night they went to Pierre’s apartment.
“Why, it’s like a college dorm,” said Jenna, as she slipped off her sandals. There was a desk piled high with papers and magazines and a reading lamp with a swivel neck like a goose. His clothes were folded neatly on the floor and a drying rack held his wet swim trunks and shirts from “The Higher Power.”
Though they were both exhausted, they made love and fell asleep in each other’s arms. Jenna murmured, “Thank you for one of the happiest days of my life.”
Jenna unlocked the door of her office and flung her backpack on her desk. She liked to get there early – before 7:30 – before her secretary came in – and get ready for the day. She raised up the white blinds and looked at the view from the fifth floor of The Melrose Park House, ten miles south of Philadelphia. Islands of greenery swam into view as did the huge swimming pool, for this was an apartment complex with offices inside. The console telephone on her desk was already blinking and she scrolled down to see who had called.
Odd, she thought. There was a call from Lainie, the Dutch partner of Sheila Newman. Wonder what she wanted. The call could wait until the doctor got situated and Marna came in to make the coffee.
Typed on a white sheet and waiting in the middle of her desk was a list of the patients she would see today. Marna would pull their charts from the pink file cabinet in the adjoining room. Occasionally Jenna didn’t have time to review the patient’s chart and had trouble remembering what had happened the last time. For example, Shelly, a beautiful forty-year-old woman who was hopelessly in love with a married man, had had surgery. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember if it was for a cracked elbow or cracked wrist.
She loved each and every one of her patients. She knew this to be a truth. Love – call it “agape” - must radiate from one to the other or else healing was not possible. She especially looked forward to couples counseling this very day between Howard and Rebeccal, who were engaged to be married. As this was the second marriage for both of them, they didn’t want to make the same mistakes. Jenna had won a prestigious award in Philadelphia Magazine for being one of the Top Couples Counselors in the city.
“Hello! Hello!” called Marna as she let herself in the front door. “How was your vacation,” she said, as she entered the doctor’s office.
“As wonderful as can be expected,” said Jenna. “I even met a guy. And I got you a little present,” she said, handing her a pound of Ocean City Coffee in a beige-colored bag.
“I’ve heard this is the greatest,” said Marna, tossing her shoulder-length auburn hair. “How about if I make it right now?”
“Up to you, love. Or you might save it for home and use our Starbucks Breakfast Blend.”
“It’ll be a surprise,” said Marna.
Jenna smelled the delicious aroma and turned on her messages.
Sheila Newman, a woman she’d been seeing for six years, seemed to be in terrible trouble. Jenna dialed the phone number of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her patient, she learned, was in a diabetic coma and wasn’t expected to live.
Jenna crossed herself and went over to the window. “Dear Father, please help our darling Sheila, and if she must die, make it a merciful death.” She wiped her eyes and went in for her first cup of steaming hot coffee.
“The cure-all,” she thought about coffee, not for the first time. That and Skinnygirl pinot grigio, which was at home in the fridge of her condo.
She put a call in to Tony, who had been thinking of jumping.
“Glad to see you’re still with the living,” she said.
He gave a slight laugh and said he was going with his old dad to the SPCA to find a dog.
“I’m proud of you, Tony,” said Jenna. “In time these feelings will pass.”
She was lying and they both knew it. As a man with Asperger syndrome, he had never felt at home in his body. He was the consummate outsider, the man looking through the window while everyone else was having a life. For some reason, he had been born in the wrong body, they both knew it, and her job was to keep him alive and involved in life as long as was possible. She prayed for him every night, as she did her other patients.
She attended the funeral for Sheila Newman in Bensalem. As a lesbian, she had been married to Sheldon Newman, a tall, stately, gay man who came to the funeral with his lover. Sheila and Sheldon, who apparently never had sex, had adopted two boys. Jenna knew all about them and was pleased, at last, to make their acquaintance: Dov, the fun-loving ne-er do well, whose wife adored him and was happy to support him – why not, thought Jenna – and Saul, the doctor, with his shaven head, his wife and two little boys.
If a funeral can truly be a “celebration of life,” this was a first-rate gala. Several tents had been set up, with wonderful food from Jewish delis, coffee to soothe everybody’s nerves, and the knowledge that all the supposed “enemies” were simply regular folks, doing their best to be cordial and accepting of the highly unusual relationships in the Newman family.
In the open casket, Jenna viewed Sheila for the last time. No longer would she see her every Monday afternoon at five p.m., her last patient. She looked peaceful, this huge woman, with jowls like a mastiff dog, wearing one of a half-dozen button-down shirts she bought in six different colors in an online catalog. The color blue was very becoming and Sheila looked as if she found peace at last. With her bipolar disorder, she spent too many energetic days and nights when she couldn’t stop herself from her “manic buying sprees,” as they were called. And around her neck was a gold chain bearing the name “Lainie Ponsen,” her lover of over ten years. And a woman who kept Sheila as tranquil as possible.
As Jenna was biting into a pastrami sandwich, she heard bickering under a maple tree. A fight had broken out between Sheila’s former husband and Lainie about where to bury Sheila. Each claimed sovereignty over the departed. Sheldon wanted her buried right here in Bensalem, even though he resided in Long Island. Lainie wanted the casket of her lover transported to Rainbow Village near Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the first gay and lesbian retirement communities in America. Lainie, a retired anthropology teacher, would move to the home, now that Sheila had passed.
The argument continued at Saul’s home.
“Reminds me of the wisdom of King Solomon,” said Saul, who, like the rest of his family was a religious Jew. “Two people are fighting over a baby, each claiming to be its mother. One woman announces she’ll give up her rights to the child, proving to the wise king that she indeed is the mother.
“As her son and executor, the casket will be shipped to Rainbow Village in Cincinnati. It’s not that far. A nice day’s drive.”
When Jenna returned home to her condo, her head was spinning. She flopped into bed where visions of the day twirled in her head like a kaleidoscope. She looked at the huge cuckoo clock on the wall. Nearly midnight. Then, for the first time in the day, she remembered Pierre.
Should she? Was it too late? She realized she missed him. That was a first.
“Darling,” she said, after he answered his phone. “Sorry to call so late. Did you miss me?”
“Of course I missed you,” he said in a sleepy voice. “I’m counting the days until you come back down.”
“Would it be all right if I came down every weekend in the summer?”
“You know where to find me,” he said. “When you come again, I’ll have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise? Oh, tell me what it is. I can’t stand waiting.”
“You’ll wait. It’s good for you.”
“Pierre will be no more. You’ll learn my real name.”
They were quiet.
“And,” he added. “I hope you like diamonds.”