Featured in Colorado Review
Published Summer 2020
Photo by Marcie Casas
These days she moved through the world with the sense that she had either escaped from prison or been set free. The relief never left her; no matter what she did or thought about, it ran beneath—a current of euphoria at finding herself on the other side of captivity. A dozen moments a day, she felt shocked by her own happiness. It kept revealing itself to her, a surprise each time. She had not since she was a child been tempted to believe in God, but she considered it now because she so often felt the impulse to thank someone—or something—for the tectonic shift that had sealed shut the fault lying under her life.
What the fault consisted of exactly, she did not know. She had not discerned it in all the years with so many therapists or during the hospital stays she endured when her condition paralyzed her to the point that she could not keep herself safe, to use the therapists’ words.
Act as if, the last one had counseled her, when Helen said she didn’t feel worthy of having the kind of life that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else. Pretend you’re the person you want to be. They’ve done studies. You’ll start to feel that way. Helen scoffed at this New Age hooey—weren’t they supposed to uncover, together, what lay at the heart of her despair?—but she must have followed the advice without being conscious of doing so, and it had worked.
Her husband, John, said it was all to her credit, that she alone had pulled herself out of what he referred to as her “bad time,” which he had never witnessed. Helen herself was sure that the only thing separating her from the dead patients was luck. She certainly wasn’t a better person than those who never recovered themselves; in fact, she suspected she was worse. Though once it happened—the correction, the conversion—she resolved to try to believe she did deserve a better life and to live up to the kind of person she seemed to have become.
The truth was that she rarely let herself think about the woman she had been before she married John, before they became parents to Caroline, before they moved to the town she’d once driven to three days a week for appointments with a psychiatrist Helen could barely bring herself to look at because the other woman was so clearly superior to her in every way that just meeting her eyes caused her to choke with humiliation. She did not let herself remember details from her stays in the hospital, such as eating meals with plastic forks because she couldn’t be trusted with stainless, or the pride she felt when she worked her way up to the privilege of going to sleep without a “sitter” assigned to watch her all night from a chair by the rubbery bed.
She knew that she probably should have figured out, by now, what it was that accounted for her transformation from a psychiatric patient on suicide watch to someone who managed other people’s money for a living, not to mention an attorney’s wife and a soccer mom. Soccer mom! As ridiculous a status as she knew it was to aspire to, when she sat on the sidelines to watch Caroline play with the other kids in the Hobbit League, she had the distinct feeling that this, this, was what clinched it—she was normal now, and there was no going back. She didn’t let herself think about the time she’d tucked her hair up into a baseball cap, then pulled the cap down over her eyes, before sneaking into these same bleachers to watch her therapist’s son playing offense for his team. She’d watched the therapist chatting and laughing with the other mothers, feeling her own failure grow and gather in her gut. By the time she left the field, she was doubled over. She never told the therapist what she’d done, and—improbably, inexplicably—it was soon after this episode that she began waking in the mornings feeling lighter than she could remember, pods of hope pinging in her heart.
A fluke, she thought. At least at first. But when the hope persisted—when she felt stronger, and the strength kept building on itself, multiplying, pitching her forward into a life more joyful than she had ever dared to imagine—she made the decision, without quite realizing it, to forget about all those years, or at least to push them so far aside that they rarely, if ever, intruded on her now. And though she did not acknowledge it explicitly, she knew in some unvisited cellar of herself that by not understanding why her unhappiness left her, she might be inviting it to come back.
It had not returned, so far. But Dina Broward had.
Helen recognized her immediately. She hadn’t bothered to read the resumé beforehand, and her punishment was a mouthful of metal verging on vomit as she reached out to shake hands. It took Dina a few more moments, but by the end of the greeting she’d put it together, Helen saw. “Oh,” Dina said, having to reach behind her to locate the seat before she lowered herself into it. “Oh, God. Goodness. You’re the last person I expected to see. I mean, in this situation.” She thumped her chest with a fist in the gesture Helen remembered, as if dislodging something that had come to rest uncomfortably inside. “How—how are you?” She leaned across the desk, then pulled back when she recognized (Helen could read it in her face) that it was not an appropriate question for a job applicant to ask the interviewer.
Dina’s unease made it possible for Helen to act benevolent, even serene. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, reminding herself without words that she held the power now, and that if she tried hard enough, she might be able to erase from Dina’s mind (as she had almost erased from her own) the images from their time together in the women’s unit at Goddard Hospital ten years ago, after Helen had been transported there by police who’d been called when the security guard at her place of employment—she worked as a receptionist for a firm of lawyers—found her, after hours (long after hours—it was two a.m.), climbing up and down the three flights of stairs comprising the firm’s floors and couldn’t get her to stop. She’d explained to them that she was only trying to exhaust herself because she couldn’t sleep, hadn’t slept in ages. There must have been some other reason that they took her to the hospital instead of home because just climbing stairs didn’t seem like enough to commit someone. But she never asked and so she never found out, but that was okay because she didn’t really care to.
At the hospital she was given something that put her to sleep, and she could not have felt more grateful for those hours of blank peace. The next morning they moved her in with Dina, whose favorite thing to do was stand in front of the corkboard leaned against the wall above her bureau and look at the photographs she had arranged there. Famine. Funerals. Bombings. Stampedes. They wouldn’t let her use thumbtacks because of the sharp points, but one of the nurses had supplied a pad of yellow sticky notes that held the photos in place. Occasionally one came undone and fell to the bureau, and Dina drew in her breath as if trying not to panic, breathing heavily through her nose as she hurried to replace the sticky and press it more firmly onto the board.
The pictures, clipped carefully from magazines and newspapers, depicted an assortment of suffering. Dina said they made her feel better because they reminded her of all the people who were worse off than she. They gave her perspective, she said. The doctors on the unit were of two minds about the display. One supported it because he said it provided relief to Dina, a distraction from the spinning loop of destructive thoughts that plagued her every moment she was awake. The other doctor believed the pictures should be taken down because they only perpetuated that loop. In the end they compromised: she could tape the photographs up to the board every morning and spend as much of her unassigned time looking at them as she wished, but after lunch she had to take them down and turn them in to the nursing station, where they would be held until after breakfast of the next day. Dina agreed, but Helen understood that it was only because she knew she had no other choice.
Her second day in the unit, Helen walked by as Dina was removing a photo captioned Kwashiorkor. Helen leaned forward to sound out the word under the picture of the African child whose face was swollen but whose bones were visible through his skin. Kwashiorkor, Dina told her, was a disease caused by lack of protein. “I like it because it’s a beautiful word for something ugly,” she said. “I like things like that.” The word was from a Ghanaian language meaning “dethroned,” because the first children diagnosed with it had been replaced at their mothers’ breasts too soon by subsequent children who deprived their older siblings of what they still needed, causing them to grow sick. In group therapy later that day, Helen would learn that Dina had a special sensitivity to this circumstance: she herself had been an unexpected, hidden twin, not known to exist until her sister had been pulled from their mother’s body. Even then, it was only an observant nurse who noticed there was another baby inside. The first twin had sucked up most of the nutrients, leaving Dina the dregs. She weighed a little more than two pounds at birth and spent her whole life trying to catch up. Dina believed it was because she hadn’t received enough oxygen in the womb that she’d never been able to drive or earn a degree, live on her own or talk to strangers. One of the other women in group said, “Bullshit, you just like being a victim,” but the doctor shushed her and told Dina he understood why she felt that way.
Helen and Dina shared that room in the corner of the women’s unit for twenty-seven days, until Dina’s state insurance ran out and she went to live with an aunt who offered her room and board in exchange for chores and Dina’s monthly disability check. Helen said they should exchange phone numbers so they could call each other when they needed to and remain friends “out there.” Dina gave a crooked smile indicating she believed she knew better, but she scribbled her number on a yellow sticky and pressed it to the bureau between their beds.
The next morning, Helen woke up to find they had moved someone else in with her, an anorexic sixty-year-old who chewed her sheets in her sleep. Only then did Helen appreciate how much Dina had meant to her. They hadn’t just been randomly assigned roommates in a hospital; they had come to know and recognize each other like dying people or like two people in love. Much of it happened through whispered conversations at night during the half-hour intervals between the nurses’ flashlight bed-checks, when everyone in the unit knew enough to close their eyes and pretend to be asleep.
And they had laughed. Helen knew most people would not expect psychiatric patients to have such acute senses of humor or anything to laugh about. But if humor involved reducing things to their essence, what better place to locate the essential than in a hospital for the most sad? Were you dead or were you alive—that’s what it came down to. Dead, not so funny. But the realm of alive gave you so much room to play—a giddiness that came only from knowing how bad things could have been, but weren’t, at least not right then.
On the thirtieth day, Helen signed herself out. She’d convinced the doctors that she was better, and she’d convinced herself too. She graduated from the hospital’s constant care to the three-times-a-week sessions, then two, then only once a week with the therapist who was the mother of the soccer-playing son. Shortly after that, she met John and got the position as assistant branch manager in her therapist’s town. She threw away the sticky containing the phone number she’d never called and began moving through the world with the sense that she had either escaped from prison or been set free.
And now here came Dina Broward, looking for a job. Grateful to be able to gaze down at her desk for as long as she might need, Helen read her old roommate’s resumé and couldn’t help feeling impressed and a little proud. Dina had pulled herself together and gone back to school, then worked at a bank in an entry position for two years before being promoted to customer liaison. With Helen she was interviewing for a job at the next level, account representative.
“It wouldn’t be too stressful?” Helen said, not exactly intending to put the idea into Dina’s mind. But she did not want to see this woman every day. She wanted the opposite, to flick Dina Broward back to where she came from. Start the day over in the now familiar luxury of forgetting that she’d inhabited that space too and lived in dread of returning to it, no matter how much she tried to pretend otherwise.
She could tell they both recognized her question as one she would not have asked of anyone else. Dina stood and began to collect her belongings. “This is totally awkward—I get that. But I promise, I had no idea I was coming to see you.” Her tone turned just the slightest bit defensive. “You have a different last name.”
“I got married.” Helen shrugged a little, feeling the need to apologize; surely marriage was a life development Dina could still only imagine.
“Anyway, I don’t expect you to hire me. I understand it’s too weird.” Dina was standing now, though Helen had not risen to join her. “If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t do it.”
Later, Helen would wonder exactly how calculating Dina had been in making this last remark. They both knew what she said wasn’t true; they both knew that in the same position, Dina would not hesitate to offer her old friend the job, no matter how much trepidation she felt in doing so.
Not wanting to appear any less generous, Helen stood and held her hand out, and Dina paused in bewilderment before shaking it again. “I’m glad to see you again, Dina,” Helen said, hoping to convey a warmth that didn’t look as manufactured as it felt. “I’ll recommend you to the manager for the position—you should fit in just fine.”
The time to have told John about her encounter with Dina, and the apprehension it raised in her, was that night. But something held her back from saying anything as they sat with their decaf after dinner, and after that it felt too late. Giving Caroline her bath, Helen tried to wash her daughter’s hair with the bottle of body soap instead of shampoo, and Caroline shrieked and laughed, thinking her mother was playing a joke. Of course Helen pretended this had been her plan all along.
After the branch manager approved Dina based on Helen’s recommendation, Helen assigned Dina to Trevor for training, without acknowledging to herself the secret hope that his ornery, impatient nature would scare off the new employee, create enough anxiety in her that she’d feel compelled to quit. She hadn’t counted on the rapport that seemed to spring up between them almost immediately; later on that first day, Trevor told Helen she’d made a great hire—Dina was a quick study, and she’d work out well. “Great,” Helen stammered through her falsest smile.
Dina made friends fast. Two days during that first week she brought her lunch and ate it in the employees’ room (or, as the weather was unusually clement for September, on the bench in front of the bank), but on the other three days she went out for sandwiches with Trevor or one of the tellers. Helen recognized what they all saw in her. She remembered it—a paradoxical mix of vulnerability and the distinct sense she exuded that she had been through the worst already and could not be hurt. It intrigued people, made them wish they could feel the same way.
On her first payday, Dina stopped by Helen’s office door and said timidly, “You wouldn’t want to go to lunch, would you? My treat? I wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for you.” Helen declined, saying she had too much work to do, and Dina retreated, looking abashed and vexed with herself for having asked. Of course Helen couldn’t have told her the truth, which was that even if she wanted to have lunch with Dina, she made it a point not to leave the bank premises or walk around town during the workday, when she might run into her former therapist. (Which didn’t mean she didn’t hope to glimpse the therapist through the window someday, when the other woman was unaware of being watched. But it hadn’t happened yet.)
On Monday of her third week, Dina came in early, and Helen watched as she pinned up a few maple leaves that had begun turning color, along with some photographs, next to her desk. She swallowed the impulse to tell Dina it was discouraged for bank employees to show personal items where customers could see them. She waited for Dina to put up images of chaos and disorders like kwashiorkor. Surely when she did so, Trevor and the others would see how peculiar she was, and it wouldn’t be long before there was a mutual decision that her departure would be for the best.
But no: moving closer, she saw that the photos were of landscapes and seascapes—beautiful pictures, intended to soothe and inspire. Looking around to make sure no one else had come in yet, Helen leaned across the desk and whispered, “These?” as she pointed at a peninsula in blue water, reflecting the brightest of skies.
Dina smiled. “I know. It’s a change, for me. But we thought we’d try it.” Helen recognized that we: it was the way a patient referred to her therapist, the same way a wife might refer to a husband—we are one and the same, a united front, do not even think about untangling the separate parts. Helen didn’t have a therapist anymore, and now John was the other half of her we, but she remembered how necessary a comfort that first we had been. Dina went on, “I read somewhere that people, potential customers, tend to be motivated by scenes like this. They’ve done studies. I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Well, good luck with it.” Helen felt the fraudulent smile on her face again. She believed she could feel Dina watching her as she returned to her desk, though when she looked, the other woman appeared intent on tacking a waterfall to the wall.
Later that day, Dina and Trevor came back from the sandwich shop giggling together. They stopped when they saw Helen. “What?” Helen asked, trying to give the impression, lighthearted, that she wanted in on the joke.
“Oh, nothing,” Trevor said. “You had to be there.” He touched Dina’s arm and said, “Later, girlfriend,” and they laughed again.
Helen went back to her desk feeling her legs numbing beneath her, insisting to herself that she stop perceiving a threat where there was none. She knew Dina; Dina would never tell anyone about the past they had shared. She would not. She would not.
And yet: look at all the other things that had changed since then. Dina had gotten a degree, an apartment, a job only a level or two below Helen’s. The pictures she looked at now were pretty ones. Didn’t it make sense that other things might have changed too?
But if she were being honest with herself (though she’d never understood why people held this value in such regard; it could be so painful), she knew it wasn’t the prospect of other people identifying who she’d once been that made her sight go white. The real threat was harder to acknowledge, more shameful to name. The real threat was that she’d become that person again. Worse, that she’d never really been anyone else.
She held her breath and let it out again only when she began to feel light-headed. She hadn’t done that in years—her trick for making herself float for a moment above what she wanted to ignore. Self-intoxication, her therapist had called it. It’s bad for you, destructive. So? Helen had wanted to say, but she didn’t. Only now, holding her breath again, did she remember how good it felt.
She had also forgotten about Dr. Cardoza, until he walked into the bank on the first Wednesday of October, Dina’s second month. “Forgotten” was not really the right word, she knew. In the language of psychiatry, you didn’t forget—you repressed.
When he’d come in a year earlier to transfer his checking, credit, and retirement accounts from another bank, and to open a college fund for the kids Helen never (of course) knew he had, she hadn’t realized who it was in time to hide herself as he sat down at the desk that was now Dina’s, with the account representative who held the job before her. The doctor had caught Helen peering out from her office, and she blushed, gave a small exclamation she hoped he wouldn’t hear, and immediately bent down to pretend she needed something in her bottom drawer. A few minutes later, looking away as she walked past him on her way to the employees’ room but trying also to gauge his face for recognition, it seemed to her that he sensed she was familiar but couldn’t place where he knew her from.
But Dina was another story. She’d been confined to that unit twice before the time she overlapped with Helen, and during one of those times Dr. Cardoza had been her primary. Helen watched as, reaching to shake each other’s hand when he approached her desk, they both jerked a little at the contact, understanding only at that moment who the other was. Dina murmured something: the doctor murmured back. Helen waited for him to get up, smile with embarrassed apology, and step away as he looked around for someone else to help him; she waited for Dina to look at him blankly, lip quivering, as Helen had seen it do so often in the hospital, always before Dina tried to shut herself in the bathroom but was restrained from doing so. She tried to deny in herself the pleasure she felt in this anticipation—the anticipation of Dr. Cardoza reminding Dina of her place, even in this establishment where he was the customer and she possessed the authority to give or withhold from him the services he desired.
But the doctor did not rise from his seat at Dina’s desk. As Helen watched, both of them laughed a bit, and Cardoza gave a little wave as if to say, That was another time, another world. Water under the bridge. He leaned across to look at the papers Dina showed him. Asked her some questions. Signed where she indicated, took the copies she peeled off for him. Shook her hand as he got up and said (Helen made it a point to listen), “I’m happy to see you looking so well. You’ve worked hard; you deserve all the good things that are happening to you.”
He’d barely exited the building before Dina—who until then had been so careful to avoid letting on to anyone that she knew Helen as someone other than the person who’d hired her—seemed unable to resist jumping out of her seat, scurrying to the edge of Helen’s office, poking her head in, and with her crooked grin whispering, “Remember?”
Of course, Helen did. She knew Dina was referring to the day Cardoza had filled in for the regular doctor on the women’s unit where they were inmates (no, she corrected herself, inpatients), and it was his job to lead the morning check-in circle. He wanted everyone to state a personal resolution for that day, and when somebody asked him, Why don’t you start—what’s yours? he shifted in his seat, took a sip of the fancy coffee he’d bought for himself at a shop none of them had access to, and said, “I don’t have to say one; I’m not a part of the group.” His answer had not gone over well, which he no doubt realized even before the first person checking in said that her resolution was to have a better bowel movement than the one she’d had the day before. It was this moment, Helen knew, that Dina referred to as she stood in the doorway after seeing Cardoza out.
Passing Helen’s office, Cardoza had looked at her with a flicker, but she believed she was safe, believed he had not identified her as a resident in his psychiatric unit all those years ago. She’d lifted her head as he passed her desk and nodded the way she’d learned to when she met John and entered her new life—the life of competent and confident adults, to all appearances equals. But then she thought she saw the dawning of recognition in Cardoza’s face. Was it the context—seeing Dina and Helen together, a few feet apart—that caused him to remember he knew both women from the same place? She thought he almost made a noise, an exclamation in realizing, but then checked himself and gave her an awkward, uneasy smile as he passed by.
Dammit, Dina! The words were so loud in her mind that she worried for a moment she’d said them aloud.
A few minutes later, Dina and Trevor stopped to ask if she wanted anything when they went to the sub shop. She gave them a curt No thank you and did her best to ignore the look they exchanged when they heard the distress in her voice.
Distress. It was a word her therapist had used often because Helen told her how anxious the word anxiety made her and how much she hated the word depression. People said they were depressed when it got cloudy, when a dress they wanted to buy didn’t come in the right size. They had no idea.
In the cemetery she’d recently taken to driving through on her way home, a couple of teenage boys were already hanging ghosts made of sheets in the trees. She watched them until they noticed and began to stare back at her, at which point she plunged into the car and sped out, leaving a skid. At dinner, John asked if something was bothering her. It wasn’t the first time he’d done so since Dina was hired, but it was the first time Helen sensed that he didn’t believe her when she put on her most normal smile and said she was fine, just a little tired. He said he would give Caroline her bath, and Helen thanked him and accepted, which she saw surprised him because he’d made this offer often before now but she had always declined. While the water was running, she opened her laptop and searched for anything that popped into her head—what movies were showing, the ten-day forecast, which stores would be having the best Columbus Day sales. The information that presented itself as a result of these searches did not even register with her. Then she let her fingers rest on the keys for a long moment before typing the name of her former therapist. She had not allowed herself to do anything like this since her marriage to John. (Well, with one exception: a day five years ago when Caroline, then ten months old, had an ear infection and Helen stayed home with her. The antibiotics wouldn’t kick in, and nothing Helen could do would soothe the baby, so after six hours straight of listening to the red screams, Helen closed the door to the nursery, took her cell phone outside, blocked her own number from showing on the other end, and dialed the therapist’s number, which still came to her by heart. She’d expected only to hear the familiar voice on the machine, but for some reason the therapist answered. Later, Helen would wonder whether she’d been aware that she made the call at five minutes before the hour, subconsciously—consciously?—hoping she would get the live person on the other end. “Hello? Yes? Is anyone there?” the woman demanded, but of course Helen couldn’t say anything, and the action of hanging up caused her heart to clutch in the same grief as when she had to leave that office at the end of each fifty-minute hour.)
On the computer now, up came the titles of papers the therapist had co-authored since Helen had been her patient, images of her speaking at lecterns, a site for physician ratings that gave her five stars. Helen refrained from looking at any of the photos, knowing it would only add to the distress she already felt. She was about to close the search window, determined to shake herself free of whatever held her and go into the bathroom to relieve John from bath duty, when at the bottom of the list of items containing the therapist’s name, she saw the town’s police log and clicked before she could consider whether it was a good idea.
The item was dated a few months earlier, July. A shoplifting incident had been reported at the Blue Flamingo, a boutique around the corner from the therapist’s office (Helen had browsed there numerous times, never buying, when she was early for her appointment and did not want to enter the waiting room because she might see the previous patient coming out), and a summons had been issued for the therapist, for larceny of property worth more than $250.
No, not possible. Not possible either to undo knowing or to undo the clicks that had led to knowing, and all of it Dina’s fault. Helen shut the computer and barged into the bathroom, interrupting a conversation between Caroline and her father. They both looked at her with puzzlement and suspicion, and she laughed to persuade them and herself that she was just in a silly mood. She told John she wanted to do the bedtime story, and when Caroline asked her to read it twice and then three times, Helen was only too happy for the distraction. Instead of joining John in front of the tv when she was finished, she went back to the bedroom, opened her laptop again, and brought up the bank’s database.
She already knew Dina’s login number because Dina kept it on a yellow sticky at the side of her terminal. Same as at the hospital: yellow stickies everywhere in the room they shared, reminding her to brush her teeth, brush her hair, call her aunt. Trevor had recommended she hide this one (Helen had overheard him), but Dina waved away the suggestion as if to say she didn’t need to, that she trusted everyone, and Helen saw that Trevor didn’t have the heart to advise her otherwise.
The only thing left to fill in was the password, and this Helen knew too, though she hadn’t realized it until the moment—now—that it became the thing she sought. On the sticky note, underneath the login, was the letter K followed by a line, as in the old novels Helen had read in college that named foreign provinces by their initials. Helen typed it wrong once, but as soon as she looked up the word and entered the correct spelling—Kwashiorkor—up it came, a listing of all the accounts Dina had opened since she joined the bank. She went to Hector Cardoza’s first and made some adjustments that were detrimental but small enough that they would not be discovered right away. She did the same to a dozen other accounts selected at random: upgraded some to levels that would incur fees that customers were not expecting; eliminated overdraft protection on others; erased existing client orders on a few more. By the time she closed the computer again, she felt calm enough to watch the news with her husband and normal enough to turn toward him instead of away when he reached for her later under the sheets.
That night she didn’t think she slept, expecting the door to be pushed open every half hour and a flashlight shined down the length of her body. But she must have slept, because even in the dream she knew it was a dream when she found herself in the Blue Flamingo arguing with her former therapist over a dress displayed in the window: which of the two of them would it fit best? The therapist suggested that they both try it on and see. Helen felt the familiar, life-saving relief of knowing that one of them had things figured out. But as she reached for the dress and asked if she could go first, the therapist began to laugh. “You don’t deserve it, and I’m going to steal it anyway!” she shrieked, showing teeth far bigger and out of proportion with her mouth than in real life—in the dream, the teeth took over her whole face.
A few hours later, in the bank, Dina knocked timidly on Helen’s door. The sound made Helen put a hand to her heart; she’d been jumpy all morning, beginning when Caroline banged a cupboard shut. “Don’t do that,” she’d said, and Caroline and John gave her the same look she’d seen on their faces the night before. To avoid encountering it again, she sequestered herself in the bedroom until they both left for the day.
Helen made a weak motion inviting Dina in. “I was thinking about yesterday,” Dina said, “when Trevor and I came back from lunch. I was worried you thought we were talking about you, because that’s what I would have thought. So I just wanted to tell you that wasn’t it. I would never tell anybody how we know each other—before. I hope you already know that, but just in case, I wanted to say it.” Her face flushed from the exertion of generating so many sentences together without a break.
Helen thanked her, trying to affect an expression indicating that she didn’t quite remember the moment Dina was talking about. Then she added, “I didn’t think anything of it. I’m used to not always being included in inside jokes—it comes with the territory of being the boss.”
Dina flushed deeper. “Oh, of course. Of course you didn’t. Well, forgive me—I’m sorry I brought it up.” She bowed her head and backed away, like a subject leaving the presence of royalty.
Helen swiveled in her seat and, holding her breath, logged a second time into Dina’s accounts. But presented with all those names and figures, she could not remember the actions she’d performed on them the day before—the little tweaks here and there, the “mistakes” she’d engineered that would appear not criminal, but patently incompetent. She’d kept no record, and there was no way for her to restore the accounts to their original statuses without calling attention to what had been changed. From behind her desk, she looked out at the people who reported to her and at the wide, bright, efficient space that had become a symbol to her of her own fitness and mastery, the esteem she’d swindled from the world. Act as if you’re the person you want to be. She looked out, but she did not see any of what she knew to be there.
It was Hector Cardoza who triggered the discovery, storming into the bank with his eyes and voice irate as he headed toward Dina’s desk. She flinched, leaning back from the force of his accusations, and in the branch manager’s absence, Helen had to rush over to assure him that it would be fixed. Would he have shown so much anger if the person responsible hadn’t been someone he’d treated because she couldn’t function the way she was supposed to? Shouldn’t this have been a reason for him to hold back? If Helen had anticipated such a reaction from the doctor, she might have held herself back from fiddling with the accounts. Oh, who was she kidding? She would have done what she did anyway.
Dina remained surprisingly stoic—her face impassive, her spine erect—during Dr. Cardoza’s venom and for the rest of the afternoon. Helen felt both disappointment and relief at the idea that her actions had not borne the results she had thought they would. But the next morning the branch manager called Dina into his office for a reason only Helen guessed, and she emerged twenty minutes later holding a hand to her head, looking so much as if she might collapse that Trevor went over to help her back to her seat. In keeping with the manager’s memo encouraging everyone to wear some kind of costume for Halloween, Dina had dressed up as a bumble bee, and Helen watched her black-and-yellow-striped face shake back and forth, the antennae attached to her head bopping comically as Trevor asked, What’s wrong? What happened? kneeling beside her in his Tin Man suit.
The manager, who had ignored his own instructions to dress up, left by the back door. Helen knew he would stand outside smoking until Dina was gone. She kept planning to get up and go over to Dina, but her feet would not allow her to stand. After five minutes of sitting at her desk without moving and another five cleaning it out, Dina approached Helen’s office, Trevor still hovering, and finally Helen rose to meet them at her door.
“Oh. You’re a doctor,” Dina said, seeing the stethoscope around Helen’s neck. It was Helen’s only concession to the costume directive. Smiling bleakly, she added, “Just not the kind we know.”
Helen raised her eyebrows as alarm quickly singed her lungs. Had Dina figured out what she’d done? Was she going to punish Helen, now, by revealing everything in front of Trevor, which meant it would be futile to continue trying to hide?
But no: in the next moment she saw that Dina had really only meant it as a private joke, forgetting that Trevor would not understand. Maybe even oblivious to the fact that Trevor stood beside her, maybe even not knowing who he was. When Helen looked closer, she saw in Dina’s eyes the quality of confusion and psychic disarray she remembered from the hospital, which had been so impressively absent in the month or more since Dina had held the job, and apparently for some years before. “I’m sorry,” Dina said, her bee-face crumpling as she sought out Helen’s shoulder. Not knowing how to resist, Helen patted her back as if she were comforting Caroline. Appearing perplexed at Dina’s choice of confidante, Trevor retreated. “I should never have thought I could do it,” Dina said, the words barely decipherable as her mouth moved against Helen’s chest. Helen thought she was crying, but when Dina pulled her face away to make herself understood better, she noted with relief that this was not the case. “What was I thinking? I can’t believe the mistakes he showed me. What made me think I could actually hold down this kind of job?”
Helen shut the door and led her to the seat she’d occupied during their interview a month and a half earlier, but Dina declined to sit. “Does this ever happen to you?” she asked Helen. “You’re going along thinking things are okay, maybe good even, and then something happens to remind you you’re still a—someone who doesn’t belong in the real world?”
Helen didn’t answer. The response that might have made Dina feel better was the truthful one, but she could not give it. “I’m the one who’s sorry,” she said. “I mean, that you’re feeling this way. Listen, I’ll be happy to give you a reference somewhere else.” But her failure to join in Dina’s suffering, she could tell, only made things worse.
At the end of the day, Trevor stopped by her door to say, “Did he have to do it on damn Halloween?” Helen shrugged, an effort to conceal that her shoulders were shaking. “There’s just something about her, you know? That makes you want to protect her.” He’d discarded the Tin Man costume, but there were still streaks of silver on his face. “Maybe protect is the wrong word. But you know what I mean.” Helen told him yes, she did, and handed him a tissue so he could remove what remained of his mask.
She stayed in the bank until everyone else had left. On her way out, she saw that Dina had taken with her only the personal items from her desk drawers; the photographs she’d brought in, to calm herself and her customers, were still tacked to the wall. Casually, as if it didn’t mean anything, Helen went over and removed the one that had always caught her eye first: a bank of grass blades inclining toward the sun. Though her impulse was to tuck the paper into her purse, she crumpled it and dropped it into the trash.
At home, John was helping Caroline into her costume. He’d already placed a bowl of candy on the table in the foyer. “I’ll take her,” he told Helen over her protest, failing to meet her eyes as their ballerina stepped into her tutu. “You be the hander-outer. Besides that, why don’t you rest.”
Still looking down, he put Caroline’s jacket on over her leotard and zipped it up to her chin. They both told Helen to have fun, then slipped away together before she could beg them not to. The house expanded in its emptiness and went dark. By the time the first steps approached she’d forgotten they would be coming, and she ignored the knock.
Jessica Treadway’s novel The Gretchen Question will be published by Delphinium Books in June. She has published three previous novels and two story collections, including Please Come Back to Me, which received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is on the writing faculty at Emerson College in Boston.