Alix Strauss

Excerpt:

Shrinking Away

Helen is dreaming of snakes. Massive, slimy creatures that wind themselves around her body and throat. They are heavy and thick and make it impossible for her to move. In other dreams, sneering black birds latch onto her shoulders and fly off with her while bugs crawl into her mouth. She often wakes, gasping for air or leaping out of bed to jerk on the light and search for roaches or spiders that have crept under her sheets. Her therapist, Marty, says she's repressing guilt and this is how her body deals with it. Helen thinks he's wrong. Helen thinks its Marty who interrupts her thoughts, attaching himself to her fantasies and commandeering her subconscious.

The sound of the alarm is jarring and hauls her out of this reverie. Her shirt is wet and clings to her damp skin. The room feels dizzy. She feels dizzy, as if she's been treading water for too long. Boxes, newspaper, and brown tape litter her Upper West Side apartment. She hasn't packed the coffee machine yet and the fridge is still stocked. On the door is a list of meetings which is pinned down by magnets in the shape of handbags. Next to it is her gym schedule. If she can get organized, she can hit her 9:00A.M. debtor's meeting followed by the 10:30A.M. aerobics class.

Helen keeps a dress list, recording what she's worn to each meeting. Every week, in honor of the occasion, she purchases a new outfit. No one in the group has noticed that she's never worn the same thing twice. And if they did, no one has commented.

No matter what she buys, whenever possible, she pays in cash. That way, her father won't find out. All of her credit card bills are sent to him and he must give his verbal approval before any purchase is rung through. Her father asks the salespeople a litany of questions ranging from "What is my daughter charging?" and "How much is the outfit?" to "Do you feel this is something she needs to have or is she being extravagant?"

Every now and then she gets an eager seller who is desperate to make their commission. They disobey the annoying notice that pops up on the screen when the card's numbers are punched in. Sometimes, she bribes them or gives them head in the back room. Last week she swayed the manager with a hand job for twenty percent off of the earrings at Barneys. It was surprisingly easy. They were leaning up against the end of the glass case, he on one side, she on the other, their hips just touching at the corner. She slipped her hand into his unzipped fly and earned her discount. She never told that to Marty. She simply showed him her new purchase, leaned in close, invading the special space between patient and doctor, outlined by the two identical leather chairs. He liked them. She could tell. They dangled from her ears and she asked him to touch them. If Marty were her husband, she would dress him in T-shirts from The Gap and suits from Armani rather than the crew-neck sweaters and crisp Polo shirts his wife buys him. Helen thinks this makes Marty look too "Father knows best," and ages him by ten years. She bought him a pipe once, but he didn't get the joke.

Helen likes Marty. He's tall and charming. Though he won't tell his exact age, he did say he was in his early forties, which makes him six or eight years older than she. Sometimes she doesn't talk, she just watches him. Takes visual notes of his sympathetic eyes, his pressed-together lips, his open and accepting face as if trying to take a tiny piece of him with her. He has a small scar over his left eyebrow and sometimes during a session, when she is close to crying, Helen stares at it. Her friend, Tess, told her that at $110 an hour, twice a week, she should stare at Marty's dick. Tess is also in Debtors Anonymous. The two have been going for almost a year and a half. If the meeting is taking place in the late afternoon, they gather for lunch first with other women from the group and sometimes shop afterwards, perusing the sales racks, browsing department stores. Helen doesn't mind the meetings, she rather likes them. A handful of gruff men talk about Home Depo. Or they spew stories about appliances and home fix-it jobs, shiny cars and box seats at sporting events. Some bitch about their wives and the enormous bills they ring up. That they can't keep going to work and coming home to stuffed closets and empty bank accounts. The women discuss shopping trends, sample sales, outlet stores, and warehouses. Last week one woman explained how the tactile feeling of suede turned her on. That a velvet shirt gave her an orgasm in the stall at Nieman's. Other women talk about the void shopping fills, the supposed hole they are trying to cram with objects and clothing. The need to be loved. This might be true for most, but not for Helen. It's not about the void, it's about the taking in. The holding onto. Bags make her hands feel occupied. They hold her down, anchor her to the ground, make it impossible for her to take flight. If she were to drown, her many bags would keep her afloat. She can almost see herself coasting on a huge raft made out of protective bubble from Crate & Barrel.

She likes jewelry best. Small trinkets that fit comfortably, easily into pockets and handbags, slip off her fingers or wrists before dinners with her parents, sessions with Marty, meetings in church basements. Pockets allow her to caress them without anyone knowing. The safety of objects, she thinks. That's what it's all about.


She and Tess are shopping at Tiffany's. The necklace, a gold link chain, is too constricting and reminds Helen of her snake dream. The air is cut off from her throat and her hands shake as she rushes to remove it. In her harried state, she almost cuts her finger on the sharp safety clasp.

Earlier that day, she and Tess saw the perfect sweater for Marty. A navy blue cashmere V neck. She longs to dress him up, take him out for dinner, pretend he isn't married and that he isn't her shrink. Her parents would approve of him, finally feel as though she had done something right with her life. Marty would be what her mother calls "a lucky snatch." She visualizes having a family dinner at Mr. Chow's. Her brother and his wife, her mother and her much older, wealthy acquaintance, her father and his secretary (or hat check girl or some woman he met on the subway) and her and Marty. Her mother would order steamed vegetables and several glasses of wine, her father would feed his lady friend, and her brother would haggle about the bill, commenting how the lo mein tasted pasty. Helen can see Marty clasping her hand under the table as he bites into an egg roll or chomps on a rib. In between the digs and vicious looks her father would throw her mother and the sneers and nervous coughs her mother would make, Marty would lean into Helen and say, "Your father's so clearly passive aggressive and I had no idea how truly dysfunctional your mother was." Then he'd kiss her right under her ear lobe smearing a hint of Peking sauce on her pricey earring. But instead, all she has are weekly fuck sessions with Marty that take place at the Four Seasons. She hasn't told Tess about this. It's her and Marty's secret.

The urge to hit Bloomingdale's supersedes her morning meeting at work. Her boss won't miss her. He's an alcoholic and as long as she looks pretty, provides coffee and Advil, she could come in at 3:00P.M. and he wouldn't care. He allows her the long lunches. He takes them, too. Her job often requires her to be out of the office most of the day, scouting for locations. She works on Scavengers, a reality show where real people are given a list of items that they must acquire. The first team to complete the list wins. Helen is in charge of securing the objects, finding the sites, and obtaining the rights to film in them. Department stores and malls love her. It's because she's a good customer, and they feel comfortable with someone who frequents their shops so often. The free publicity doesn't hurt, either.

People like Helen. She's friendly and effervescent, a brilliant negotiator and knows the ins and outs of every mall and specialty store from Manhattan to Vermont. They are unaware she's afraid to sleep. That she takes pills and drinks pots of coffee before bed. That she often feels invisible. That the receipts and the useless objects she insists she have make her feel alive. Very often she leaves these stores with free stuff or coupons and discount cards given to her by well-meaning managers and zealous salespeople.

At 6:30P.M., the realtor stops by with the new clients/soon-to-be-homeowners. Mr. Kramer wants to add molding to the ceiling and make the two closets into one large walk-in. Mrs. Kramer is adamant about turning Helen's small office into a baby's room. They are lovely people, and Helen almost offers to help them furnish the apartment with the perfect home decorations and fabrics.

All Helen can think about is the profit she's making, practically doubling her investment, and the things she'll buy. The gifts she can give friends and co-workers. Once a week she visits the children's ward at Sloan-Kettering. She brings stuffed animals or painting sets, coloring books and packages of pretty pastel beads. She loves shopping for other people. Loves feeling needed. Selling her apartment is a smart move. She really needs the money, and her parents never visit. What they don't know won't hurt them. She's promised Marty she'll pay off all her debts and fix her credit rating. It's part of the deal. She's staying at her brother's for the next six months while he's away on business in Tokyo. His office is sending him there to head up a new banking system or something. Every time she asks him specifically what he does for a living, he gives her the same non-linear answer so that Helen never really knows what he does, except that he works for a bank, but isn't a banker. "Your brother is a very important man," her mother told her last week. "They're investing millions in him." Helen plans to spend the next four months looking for another apartment, maybe a walk-up. Something smaller. Something near Marty's office or even in his apartment building. She needs no doorman. She's hardly home. Besides, her apartment is more for storing her possessions then it is for storing Helen. She wonders if moving closer to Marty means she'll see him more. Catch him jogging or walking with his frumpy wife. A woman who, Helen envisions, has a bad sense of style, frosted hair, and sports last year's suits cut too big and hemmed too short.

Helen has always had a talent for fashion. Senior year she won best dressed and most likely to succeed. She learned quickly that people bonded over clothing and makeup. That the cool, popular kids were always the best dressed. And that complimenting someone on their watch or handbag was a great icebreaker. She worked as an accessories editor at Seventeen, and then Glamour before working as a costumer on One Life To Live. Eventually she ended up at ABC and shopped her way through the food chain, becoming a locations director for TV shows. Before her shopping problem developed five years ago, she was the favored child. Now her father rarely speaks to her and her mother no longer asks how she's doing.

Her parents divorced when she was fourteen. Aside from a few holidays, they rarely saw each other. After Helen was arrested for shoplifting, and given a court date, her parents formed some bizarre friendship. In reality, Helen's purchasing compulsion forced her parents to get along for the first time in their lives. If nothing else, she is responsible for that. Now, along with the mandatory sessions with Marty and 12-step meetings, her parents get together once a month with her and her brother as a sort of family therapy. They go over her bills, ask her for additional receipts and look at her bank statements, checks, and pay stubs. All of this is kept in a large, red, accordion folder.


Her arms are laden with packages when she walks in and notices the machine blinking. The first call is from her mother. Her voice is slurred. Helen looks at the clock: 5:49P.M. She must be on her third martini by now. She keeps meaning to introduce her mother to her boss. She envisions them having hazy liquid lunches. The next message belongs to a voice she doesn't recognize. "This is Doctor Pinter. I share space with Dr. Radkin, and was given your number through his service. I'm afraid Dr. Radkin will be unable to keep your 6:30pm appointment tomorrow. I'd like to discuss the reason for the sudden cancellation. Please call back when you can. I can be reached at 212-445-9676. Thank you."

She calls Marty's machine first and gets his normal out going greeting: Please leave a message and telephone number and your call will be returned within the hour. His deep, soft spoken voice—which reminds her of melted dark chocolate—sends instant comfort through her body. She tries Dr. Pinter.

"Hello?" The voice is crisp, almost irritated. Tired.

"Hi. This is Helen Shapiro returning your call."

"Could you hold for a second?" Helen hears the ruffling of papers. "Yes, Helen. Thank you for phoning back." He breathes deeply into the phone. "I don't quite know how to say this, but there's been an accident, and Dr. Radkin will be unable to continue treatment."

"What? Is Marty okay?"

"There was a freak incident and he passed away last night."

Helen drops the bags and hears something crack. The pitcher she bought at Tiffany's. A thank-you for her brother and his wife for the use of their home. "How? What happened?"

"He was leaving an appointment, and pressed the elevator button. The doors opened, only the elevator wasn't there and he unknowingly stepped forward and fell."

Helen visualizes Marty's lean body free-falling down the dark shaft. She sees him dressed in one of his crew-neck sweaters that makes him look like an old man, his gray trench coat still folded neatly over his arm.

"Are you all right?" Dr. Pinter continues. "I realize this is a shock, and if you'd like to talk with someone...I know you don't know me, but I'd be more than happy to see you. Or perhaps I can recommend someone else. A woman, maybe, if that would make you more comfortable."

Helen has moved on to another scene. A hotel room. The hotel room where she and Marty had sex. They would finish their session late Thursday night. Helen would walk out first, take a cab to the four Seasons, check in, and wait for him in their room. Fifteen minutes later, a knock would come. "Who is it?" went the game. "Room service," he'd answer back. "But I didn't order anything." She'd open the door, swaddled in a plush terry cloth robe. This last time, Helen inquired about purchasing it. She billed it to Marty. One more charge her father would never know about.

Their bodies fit so well together, tight and comfortable, like the robe, like the snakes in her dreams, that she had trouble relinquishing him to the other woman. Trouble understanding that there was someone else he went home to. Someone who met him at the door, welcomed him in with a gin and tonic in one hand, and a hot meal, lamb chops with mint green jelly, in the other.

She loved Marty most in this room. Here there was no pen skipping across lined paper, no sympathetic nods, no white noise machine used to drown out patients' voices, or her own as she spewed stories about her parents, about the shopping, about the bubble raft. His breathing seemed faster in the hotel, too. His actions quicker, his body language more aggressive.

Marty would leave first. He'd kiss her on the lips, then move to her forehead, and say, Good health is invaluable. Or Love has no price tag. These were things Helen should strive for, steps they were working on in therapy. After he was gone she'd shower and lounge around in the robe or she'd invite Tess over and the two would order room service and watch the Home Shopping Network. They'd wait till the last second, until the product had been marked down to the lowest price possible, and call to purchase the items (rhinestone bracelets, silver bangles, rolling rings in faux white gold), all charged to Marty. Sometimes they ordered a bauble for his wife and had it delivered to his home. The note would read: For my one and only. Marty never seemed to mind and rarely gave her the bill.

"What did Faye say when you gave her my last gift? Helen inquired one time.

"She thought it was sweet, I guess." Marty shrugged. "Who knows what she thinks. She's a simple woman who's hard to please. But that's Faye, a walking contradiction." Then he scribbled something on his legal pad.

Sometimes she bought him little things, things she felt his wife wouldn't notice: a new pen, a money clip, a key ring. During her sessions, they would talk about the gifts, why she purchased them, why she felt he was worthy of them, how it made her feel to give them to him... "Less hollow? More secure?" he would suggest. Helen would look away and sometimes cry. On these rare occasions, Marty would reach for the box of Kleenex resting on the small round table and lean forward, offering it up to her as if it was an engagement ring. She always refused. Instead, she'd reach into her handbag and retrieve a silk handkerchief. "I'm not going to become a 'tissue patient,'" she'd say. These were the people who came out of the office, eyes glassy, noses red. The women's makeup would be smeared, the men's faces would be blotchy. This look screamed My life is riddled with issues. Not Helen. Whenever she left the crowded waiting room Marty shared with three other shrinks, the patients would look up at her, the men from their New York Times or Wall Street Journal, the women sifting through Vogue or the New Yorker, and think, who is that well-put-together woman? She's too chic, too pretty to be here for herself. She must come for someone else.

Dr. Pinter is still talking to her. "At least let me give you my pager number. Please, call anytime."

She declines his offer but asks where the funeral is, and if the family is sitting shiva.

"Yes, of course, just a moment. I'll get the address."

She already knows Marty's address, but lets this Dr. Pinter share it with her so he can feel as though he's done something. So he can think he's a good shrink.

Before he hangs up, he tells her mourning is helpful, that wanting to say good-bye is a very healthy response.


Helen skips the funeral and decides to sit Shiva with Marty's wife instead. She's wanted to see the apartment for a year and walks in with a two-pound box of Godiva. It looks so pretty in the untouched gold bag that Helen doesn't want to part with it. Almost can't relinquish her hold. She feels that way about makeup, too. It all looks so clean and perfect that it pains her to dab the brush into the creamy blush or run the tiny black applicator over the eye shadows. She even has trouble removing the little piece of plastic that sits gracefully on top of the makeup, protecting the colors and the mirror.

Faye greets her at the door and almost takes Helen's breath away. Marty's wife is beautiful. She's a sophisticated, handsome woman with defined features. Her blond hair is real, unlike Helen's, and her skin is flawless. She's dressed smartly in what Helen bets is this year's Valentino suit and black, Jimmy Choo shoes. Her face is sallow and she moves slowly, as if her clothing is too heavy. They shake hands. Helen mumbles something about how insightful Marty was, that she feels lucky to have been his patient, even if it was for such a short time.

The apartment is a little dark and cluttered with furniture. Folding chairs have been placed in every available spot in the living room and study. The walls are lined with shelves of books. And at first glance, Helen thought it was wallpaper. At closer glance, she realizes they are authentic. The books are real. As real as Marty's death. The couch and loveseat are done in cracked brown leather, the exact opposite of the smooth surface of Marty's black leather office chairs. Helen wishes she was sitting in one of them now. She would give anything to stare at Marty's scar, look into his eyes, and smell his faint rustic cologne.

Helen can't tell who's a patient and who's family and friends. As far as she can count over, sixty-four people have come to pay their respects. She takes a slow, thoughtful lap around the apartment and ends up sitting on the couch next to a woman close to her own age. The woman seems a little lost, as if she wants to blend in but is having trouble doing so. Helen is in mid sentence when her eyes settle on several vases filled with white roses. They stand erect on the floor in a ceremonious pose. She lifts her head up and notices another vase. Or maybe it's a bowl? Why would anyone put a bowl on the mantel? That's when it hits her. Helen wills herself to stand, to take a step closer. Like the shelves of books, the house feels deceiving. Her body feels light and airy.

"Isn't it the most bizarre story you've ever heard?" asks a woman standing behind her. "Seventy percent of his bones were broken in the fall. When they pulled him out, they said his body was like a ragdoll. Lifeless and flimsy."

Helen stares at the talking body next to her.

"Can you imagine? His face was unrecognizable. That's why they chose cremation."

Helen's dog, a cocker spaniel named Wilma, was cremated. Her father wanted to stuff the dog, but her mother threatened to leave him if he did. As a compromise, her mother bought a light blue urn and kept Wilma on their windowsill in the kitchen. Eventually she was brought to the family mausoleum when Helen's grandmother died three years later. Both the dog and her grandmother sit side by side, kept company by relatives Helen never met.

"Are you a friend or part of the family?"

Helen wants to hit this woman with her handbag, whirl it at her head.

"Which is it, Dear?"

Helen can not speak. She can not breathe. Her chest is tight, her throat swollen, mouth dry. She bites down on her tongue, trying to create some saliva. Her head feels unconnected to her body. "Do you think I could have a moment alone with him?" She looks from the pasty woman to Marty.

"Of course," she says. "Certainly."

Out of the corner of her eye, Helen sees the lost-looking woman from the couch approach. The rude woman takes her arm and glides her away. "She'd like a minute or two alone. I think it's one of Marty's patients. You know, Faye invited them all." The woman's voice fades. The room darkens. All Helen can see is her reflection in the urn, small and faint. She puts her hand on it. Feels the solidness, the cold sensation of brass. She whispers a little prayer, something about starting over, about giving away everything she has ever owned. All she wants to do right now is strip herself clean. Stand in front of Marty in their hotel room naked. No plush robe, no bangle bracelets or shopping bags. A second hand comes to meet the first as she lifts Marty down. She wants to see what's inside. Needs to know what's left of the man she saw for two years and fucked once a week. It's filled with beige-and-brown sand, and small, granular, pieces of bone. Suddenly, Helen needs to have it, have him, more than anything she has ever needed before. More than the pricey earrings, more than the untouched creamy blush or the QVC rolling ring.

A scream comes from the kitchen, a curdling cry of realization. It's the sound of acceptance. The understanding that Marty is never coming home. Helen turns to find that most of the guests have formed a ring around someone. She spots Faye on the floor. She hears "oohs," and "shushes." Someone says "Get her to her feet." Another suggests giving her water. A third insists space and air is what is needed.

Helen finds herself standing by the front door, fighting with the heavy knob. Marty is in her arms, her handbag is swung over her right shoulder. Her hands are wet with sweat but are as steady as a gunman's. She pulls the door open, steps forward, and closes it quietly behind her. She rings for the elevator, then, not wanting to wait, takes the stairs. She rushes down the steps like Jack running from the Giant as pieces of Marty dance inside his container. She checks behind her, half expecting to find Faye towering over her, but no one is there.

Once outside, she walks briskly, innocently, then breaks into a full run. Marty knocks softly against the brass walls, as if he is trying to say something. "Love is priceless. Love is priceless," she hears.

She runs all the way home anyway.