If stories come to you, care for them.  And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. – Barry Lopez

C’mon! Tell us a story…

Sad, silly, or suspenseful, funky, fascinating, or fantastical – give it a whirl! This is our fiction section, where we tell the truth disguised as entertainment. Something about a good yarn captures the imagination, and opens the heart to possibilities like nothing else. The form is wide open, we have no particular agenda. So sit down with your imaginative self and spin us a tale.

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Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Arvada, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here
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Chapter 19

To be or not to be? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to let the little bastard live or to send him on his way.

My, my, what shall we do?

Hmmm…If I’m gonna do some soul searching I’d better have a cigarette…

Ah, yes. Better.

I have to say it was impressive watching Tracy do her thing in that hospital room. Not that she could have done it without Susan…

But still, standing there looking at him, doing her soul business. It’s like she was duking it out with the guy just by standing there breathing. Didn’t say a word, but she was fighting, you could see it in her face. Winning some unseen battle. I guess it’s true what Susan says, once you let someone take up residence in your head, it’s hard to kick ‘em out.

She looked like she was doing some major ass kicking. I could feel the power shift in the room.

Very impressive. Inspiring.

Susan, on the other hand, is a basket case. Jeez, she’s fragile…Almost lost her a couple of times tonight.

If I’d known the little bastard was gonna give us this much trouble I’d have done things differently.

Maybe the bat was too much. Too much muscle memory. Too much excitement.

Maybe we could use a little less drama next time.

Or maybe the combination of the bat and the guy and the ICU was just too much. Too many things for poor Susan to manage.

How about this for next time: make sure the guy doesn’t end up in Fairview Hospital, in the same room as dad for God’s sake.

Didn’t see that coming.

Shoulda just shot him with his own pistol. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the left-overs. And that’s just what we have here, isn’t it? Leftovers from a futile object lesson.

How to dispose of them – him, I mean.

Susan would definitely not approve. If it were up to her she’d walk with Tracy all the way through the trial and the verdict and the sentencing. Let the guy feel the full weight of the law. Let Tracy see them put him away. She as much as said that tonight after the show down.

Always the conscientious therapist.

Well, maybe we just can’t afford to play by Susan’s rules anymore. She’s played by the rules all her life and where did it get us? Besides, she doesn’t really know what’s good for her now does she? Always looking out for everybody else. What’s good for them. Never a thought for what she herself needs.

No, I think it’s time for Psycho Boy to meet his maker. For Susan’s sake.

And I know just the thing…

Let’s see if I can find that box of dad’s old medications…I’m sure we have some somewhere…yes. Here it is.

Insulin. What a hassle dad used to have to put up with. All those little shots. And for what? His pancreas never had a chance.

Insulin. Deadly in large doses. Easily injected into the tubing. Probably not included in any post-mortem tox screens.

I guess this means I’ve officially gone over to the dark side.

It’s about time.

story by phyllis mathis, all rights reserved

back to voca femina home

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Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Arvada, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here
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Cold Counsel, Chapter 18

At 5:30 on Monday evening Susan started her car, waiting a few minutes for the engine to warm up before she headed back to the hospital for the evening. Rosie had pulled out of the shock of her condition and become quite cranky on Sunday. Liz had promised to be with her as much as she could, but she was working late tonight, so Susan  volunteered to take the early shift.

Her day had gone surprisingly well. Susan arrived at the office in a fog, bleary and insecure, dreading the revolving door of her busy Monday. But by noon she was in her rhythm, alert and engaged, feeling whole for the first time in two days. She marveled again how her work seemed to ground her, energize her, and set the world right again.
The weekend had presented a tidal wave of mixed emotions, and Susan had ducked for cover, leaving her feeling vaporous. It was good to be back.

As she rode the elevator up to ICU, she took a deep breath, bracing herself against another wave of emotion. She stepped onto the floor and moved right toward the ward, just as a woman exited the restroom next to the elevator. Susan excused herself and stepped around her.

“Susan?” the woman said. “Oh my God, Susan? What are you doing here? I can’t believe it!”

Susan stopped and turned toward the woman. It was Tracy.

“Tracy! I’m so sorry. I guess I was caught up in my own thoughts. I didn’t expect to see anyone I knew here.” Tracy. What was Tracy doing here? Her stomach dropped to her knees, threatening her newly recovered confidence.

“I can’t believe this! I was just about to call you. Jeff is here.” Tracy’s eyes were round and bright with fear, wispy strands of hair framing her pale face, hands gripping Susan’s forearm like a vise.

“Jeff? Here?” Susan managed to reply. Her voice sounded far away.

“He’s in a coma. Somebody attacked him and he’s been here since early Saturday morning.”

A wave of tingling energy moved through Susan’s arms, shoulder to fingertips. Her stomach clenched and her vision shifted as if she was looking at Tracy through a tunnel. She wanted to vomit.

“Detective Olson asked me to come take a look, and maybe answer some questions. He’s waiting for me at the nurses’ station.”

Susan blanched as the room began a slow spin. She struggled to gain composure, digging for the confidence she must have left in the elevator.

“I’m so afraid to look at him. I don’t think I can face him, even in a coma. Oh God, you’re here! Would you come with me? Please?” begged Tracy, “I can’t do it alone.”

The moment seemed to stretch into eternity as Susan fought for composure. She gathered all her determination and stuffed her shock and dread into a special container inside. She willed herself to seal off her body’s sensations – the tingling, the nausea, the rubber-like limbs – as if sealing off the flooding compartments in a damaged submarine. She released her breath and took another, trying not to gasp. Her vision returned to normal. She took Tracy’s hand.

“Of course,” Susan said softly. Come on, Susan, fake it till you make it, she thought. They headed for the nurses’ station.

Detective Olson was leaning against the wall across from the nurses’ station with his hands in his pockets and a toothpick in his mouth. As the women approached he stood up and buttoned his navy blue sports jacket, ran his hands down the front of his coat to smooth his look, and deposited his toothpick in the trash can next to him. He was tall, over six feet, with dark wavy hair in need of a cut. Just about my age, Susan thought.

She felt his eyes fixed on her as he took a step forward and held out his hand for a shake.

“I’m Detective Olson of the Minneapolis Police Department. And you are…?” he said. Susan looked at her right hand, thinking she should make an effort to move it toward the man.

Tracy slipped her arm under Susan’s, linking elbows, and said in a rush, “This is Susan Nelson. She’s my therapist. She’s the one who’s been with me since I got out of rehab. She knows everything.” Tracy leaned forward and put her hand on Detective Olson’s forearm. “I was hoping she could be with me when we go in.”

His eyes became wider as his hands returned to his sides. He seemed suddenly self-conscious. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” he said with sudden deference.

Susan remembered that some people are still intimidated by psychotherapists, thinking, evidently, that they live a plane above, magically reading the thoughts of all the people around them. This always baffled her. As if, she thought. As if we’re totally sane. As if we never feel insecure. As if we don’t stumble around in hospitals wondering what the heck is wrong with us. As if we’re even capable of running our own lives. Still, it boosted her confidence a little, and shifted the power in her direction, helping her to focus.

“Nice meeting you too,” she said. “Can you tell me what happened here?” Her voice sounded like it came from somewhere else. Confident, serene. Whew.

Detective Olson reached inside his breast pocket to retrieve his notebook. He flipped it open.

“Three o’clock on Friday morning the department got a tip to check out a house in south Minneapolis. Turns out our boy Jeff here got himself whacked with a blunt instrument out in his front yard in the middle of the night. When the officers got there they searched the house and found a load of cocaine. They’ve been working the drug bust all weekend, rounding up the other guys in his little play group. Yesterday they ran his prints and that’s when we found out it was our old friend Jeff. A buddy of mine called to tell me he was here.”

Susan felt the sensations of dread again, but his time they were a faint disturbance on the other side of a deep, wide canyon. She easily dismissed them.

“So…are you investigating the attack?” asked Susan.

“Me? No,” he said. “I’m pretty sure no one gives a sh- uh, a darn about who attacked this guy. Whoever he is, he did us all a favor. Narc squad is anxious to talk to him about it because they think it might lead to more arrests, but I’ve been after this dirt bag for a long time. Ever since he tried to kill Tracy here.”

Tracy was standing slightly back, biting her fingernails.

“Couple weeks ago she called to tell me he might be stalking her, so we reopened the case. And now he’s here at Fairview – on a silver platter. It was a lucky break. This guy is in for some serious time when he comes to.” He looked at Tracy and then back to Susan. He smiled, chagrined.

“It’s never this easy,” he said. “Anyway I thought Tracy might wanna take a look at him before he wakes up, so…here we are.”

“So are they confident he’ll recover?” Susan asked. Tracy froze, fingers in midair.

He glanced at Tracy and then back to Susan.

“Yeah. The docs say they’re keeping him in a coma until the swelling goes down. After a day or two they’ll back off on the drugs and see if the lights come on. Narcotics will question him about the attack in case there are some dirtbags they missed in the bust.” Olson shifted his weight and flipped his notebook closed.

“So why is there an officer outside his room?” Susan asked.

“It’s just a precaution,” he said, waving it off. “In case whoever did it wanted to finish him off. More to protect the hospital staff than our boy here. We don’t want anyone to get caught in the middle of some kind of vendetta. Now that the story’s off the front page, we’ll pull the guard. Tonight’s his last night.”

“Have his parents been notified?” asked Tracy weakly. Her face was fading to pale.

“They tried. The number we had has been disconnected for some time. The hospital’s trying to track them down, but so far no luck.”

He flipped his notebook open again and asked, “You don’t have a current number for them do you?”

“No…” Tracy stared at her fingernails, remembering. “Uh, we were never close.”

“I figured,” he said, tucking the notebook away again. “OK. Well, are you ready? I got permission from the doc for you to be in the room. You can’t touch him or anything, but it’s ok for you to go in. And Ms. Nelson too, I guess. But I have to be at the door.”

Susan turned her attention to Tracy. She appeared to shrink before their eyes, shoulders slumped forward, eyes sunk back in their sockets, staring at nothing, immobilized. This must be what she was like when she was with him, thought Susan. Such a contrast from the the Tracy she knew now. It’s right that I’m with her. She’d never make it on her own.

Susan put her hand on Tracy’s arm.

“Tracy? This is why we’re here. I’m with you. You can do this, ok?”
Tracy looked up at Susan, struggling to return to the present.

“I…I don’t know…”  She crumpled back into herself.

Susan gave Officer Olson a look. He stepped away, looking uncomfortable.

“Tracy, look at me. Look at my face.” Susan took her hand in both of hers. “Now, breathe with me. Ready? Breathe in like this, and then slowly out.”

Tracy tried to obey.

“Good. Again.” Susan exaggerated her breathing, blowing the air out in a slow narrow stream. Tracy followed her.

“Hold both of my hands. Can you feel me here with you?”

Tracy nodded.

“Now close your eyes and find your feet. Think about them, down there inside your boots. Holding you up. Competent as ever…Got them?”

Tracy nodded again.

“Don’t forget to breathe. One more, in and out. This time, find your knees, your hands, your shoulders. Are you with me?”

Once more Tracy nodded, eyes closed. The color seeped back into her face.

“Ok, one more breath…in and out, that’s it. Now, keep your eyes closed. I want you to remember that day in my office. You know what I’m talking about, right?”

The hint of a smile appeared on Tracy’s face. “Emancipation Proclamation,” she whispered.

“That’s right. What did you do that day?” Susan asked.

“Took away his weapon. Declared my independence.” Tracy voice was barely above a whisper, but gathering strength.

“Yes you did,” Susan replied, remembering the power and fury Tracy found that day. It was three years ago, the culmination of her trauma work. That day Susan brought Tracy into her office, where she had placed a baseball bat on an empty chair. As they progressed through the session, Tracy was able to take the bat from the imaginary Jeff, claiming it as her own. When Susan asked her what she wanted to do with it, Tracy said, “I want to beat the shit out of that son of a bitch!”  Susan then replaced the real thing with a Nerf bat, and for the next five minutes Tracy attempted to beat the stuffing out of that empty chair. Next she raised the real bat over her head and made some remarkable declarations of personal power and independence. After that day Tracy spoke and moved with a confidence she didn’t know she had. She nicknamed that session her Emancipation Proclamation.

“What did you say to him?”

“You lose. I win. You don’t own me,” Tracy said softly.

“What was that? I didn’t hear you,” Susan said curtly.

Tracy inhaled, opened her eyes and said, “You lose. I win.”

“And how did you win?”

“I crawled out of the shit hole he put me in.”

“Yes you did.”
Tracy’s eyes were clear now, the fire returned. She stood up straight, feet planted firmly on the floor.

“I won. I’m the one standing here, sane and sober. He’s the one strapped to a hospital bed. He’s the one going to jail for drug dealing and attempted murder.” She cocked her head and looked at Susan. “It’s true. I feel it.” She smiled.

“All right then. What are we waiting for?”

story by phyllis mathis, all rights reserved

back to voca femina home

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Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Arvada, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here
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Chapter 17

Susan awoke with a start, pushing herself upright and wiping a bit of spittle from the corner of her mouth. She shivered, cold from the lack of covers, suddenly aware she was not where she should be.

“Now that’s a sight. You’re cute when you’re drooling, just thought you should know.”

It had to be Liz.

“Thanks.” She rubbed her eyes and yawned, her memory trying to arrange itself  like a jigsaw puzzle in her mind. “Oh, wow,” she said, stretching, “I must have fallen asleep.” She shivered again.

“We both did.” Liz was standing over her, coat buttoned, purse over her shoulder. “It’s two in the morning. I’m starving, I’ve got a crick in my neck, and a bed waiting for me at home. Rosie’s in good hands, so I’m going home. You should too, before the pattern of that armrest gets permanently etched into your skin.”

Susan’s fingers moved gently over the side of her face where she had rested it on the arm of the sofa. The scratchy tweed upholstery had embossed a series of miniature tic tac toe grids on her skin from temple to cheekbone. She blinked hard and looked up at Liz.

“OK… yeah…I guess I should go too…um…huh?” asked Susan, shaking her head, reaching for clarity.

“I know, I was wigged out before. I always feel better after a good cry, some first-class sympathy, and a long nap. I’ll come back tomorrow and worry some more if you like. For now I just wanna go home. Are you coming? I don’t want to go out into the cold by myself.”

Susan scrambled to keep up. She patted herself from shoulders to knees, as if checking to make sure all the parts were in place. Sliding her feet into her boots, she reached for her purse and stood up, a little shaky. Her eyes darted around the room, trying to gather enough information to orient her to time and space. The lights were dim, the room was quiet. She still couldn’t quite remember what she was doing in this place.

She tried running a hand through her hair, but it was no good. Her curls seemed to have grown thicker with sleep. She cast about for her parka, too hurried to be able to see much of anything, but Liz was waiting. It was time to move.

By the time they reached the parking lot, saying goodbye with a hug and a plan for tomorrow, Susan was fully present. She remembered why she had been there, remembered Liz’s distress, her crying, her worrying, predicting the worst. She remembered they had spent some time in Rosie’s room, listened to the nurse explain her condition, as Susan asked the questions Liz didn’t know to ask. She remembered talking quietly in the waiting room afterward, each lying on her own uncomfortable sofa, facing each other over the cheap laminated coffee table between them. She remembered Liz falling asleep. Then nothing, until their abrupt departure.

At home under the covers, after a hot cup of chamomile and a bit of poetry from the anthology she kept on her night table, Susan felt herself sinking into sleep, her date with Kevin lingering at the edges of her consciousness. She surrendered to the pull, the ghostly image of Kevin in a police uniform drawing her into the night.

story by phyllis mathis, all rights reserved

back to voca femina home

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Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Arvada, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here
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Chapter 16 (part 2)

She’s asleep, finally. That girl Liz could worry the paint right off my car.

I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on her. Susan’s a champion worrier herself… Me? I can worry along with the best of them, but I’d rather take action. “…courage to change the things I can…” I’m all about that.

Liz’s mom will probably be OK. Shoulda stopped smoking thirty years ago though…Now it’s gonna be rough. She’s a whiner, too. Poor Liz. Now they’re just keeping her mom sedated so they can pump the brown sludge out of her lungs. She’ll be out by next weekend, dragging an oxygen tank behind her wherever she goes.

Note to self: no more Camels.

Rosie is the least of my challenges, although she does present some interesting possibilities…

Psycho Boy is the main event here.  It didn’t turn out as planned, I’m afraid. He was s’posed to just heed his warning. S’posed to see the error of his ways. S’posed to back off and leave Tracy alone. And now look where he is – Intensive Care in some kind of coma, pampered and cared for twenty-four seven for God knows how long. Guarded – guarded for christ’s sake – by one of Minneapolis’s finest, like he was prime beef.

And in dad’s room.

Unbelievable. It’s not right, I’m telling you. Not right. It burns me.

That psycho piece of shit is dirtying up a sacred place.

What to do…what to do…

I know that room like I know my own bra size. It was a long stretch of misery in that place last year. Lots of days and nights sitting in that chair. Sleeping in that chair. Talking to him. Both of us. Mostly me. Susan just cried, begged him to get better, and stared at the wall in a fog. She’s like that sometimes.

Dad shoulda been in hospice, but Susan wouldn’t make the call. She held on straight to the end. Just couldn’t admit he was dying. Couldn’t accept it.

Me? I could see it right off. Knew he wasn’t coming back. Pancreatic cancer is nasty and brutal all the way.  But I made my peace. Told him all kinds of stuff at the end. Said my goodbye’s.

Susan was another story.  Lucky for both of them I was around. Handy little thing, a morphine pump. Someday they’ll both thank me.

“Courage to change the things I can…” That’s me.

story by phyllis mathis, all rights reserved

back to voca femina home

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Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Arvada, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here
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Chapter 16

Susan’s back stiffened as she leaned slightly forward to check her mirrors and change lanes. Reflections of her day with Kevin disappeared as Liz’s crisis claimed her thoughts.  She passed the exit at Portland Avenue that would have taken her home to bed. Instead she continued west on the Crosstown Highway, past 35W, past Penn, to France Avenue, where she took her exit.

Fairview Southdale Hospital. Familiar territory. A stone began to form in the pit of Susan’s stomach. Scenes from her dad’s final weeks threatened to derail her mission: the mission to be there for Liz the way Liz had been there for her. Here at Fairview Southdale. At the ICU. She blinked hard.

“This can’t be happening,” she told herself.

Robotically she signaled and made the turns that would move her into the vast parking area. Memories of that dark time flashed on the edge of her consciousness in rapid succession like cards spinning in a Rolodex. Susan clenched her teeth and pushed them away, once, twice, three times.

“It’s about Liz now,” she told herself through clenched teeth.

She parked under a bright light near the emergency entrance, remembering that everything goes through emergency on the weekends. As she prepared to get out of the car Susan choked back a sob and spoke sharply to herself.

“Hold it together. This is for Rosie. This is for Liz. Now knock it off and pull it together.” She clamped her jaw and shook her head, blinking back hot tears. She took a breath and blew it out forcefully. Better.

A blast of cold air and the crunch of her boots on the snow helped sharpen her focus. By the time she triggered the automatic doors at the entrance she felt she had won a reprieve in her sudden wrestling match with grief. She rode the elevator to the 4th floor, dread creeping with each ding of the lift. As the doors opened, she stared for a moment at the sign, Intensive Care. She stepped out onto the floor and paused. This is where it happened. This is where we fought. This is where we lost the war with cancer.

A wave of nausea passed through her. The smell of hospital disinfectant, the dimmed lighting, the beige surroundings, the soft sounds of life support machines  – it was all the same. Just as if she’d never left. Her feet were suddenly made of cement.

Susan glanced right, toward the ward in it’s circular configuration – nurses’ station planted in the center, patient rooms occupying the outer ring. Two nurses were speaking to each other in low tones, in what appeared to be a lighthearted conversation near the central computer terminal. She recognized them. She remembered their brightly colored scrubs, their sturdy shoes, the stethoscopes hanging around their necks, their hair tied back in sensible fashion. They were good women – professional, competent, kind. She drew strength from her memory of them.

Susan’s gaze reached through the nurses’ station to the patient room beyond and a little to the left. Dad’s room, where she had spent three weeks last spring, his final days.  Memories began spinning again, reaching for her consciousness. She pushed them away as her eyes caught an unexpected sight.

A uniformed police officer appeared to be stationed outside the room. He sat on a chair next to the door, looking bored and sleepy. Susan remained motionless outside the elevator, her mouth dropping open. She froze in place as gears began to shift inside her mind, pulling her in a strange direction, making her feel dizzy. She willed herself to remember why she was here.

A deep breath and a shake of her head helped Susan begin to move her feet. She forced herself to move left, away from the ward, into the hall leading to the waiting room, the sight of the police officer tugging at the edge of her mind.

A dark and misty loneliness seeped in. Her sense of self began to fade. Her soul felt thin, translucent, far away. Emotions moved into the background, as did the sensations in her body. She found that special zone inside herself that enabled her to ride on the surface of consciousness. Conflicting urges disappeared as her mind fuzzed out slightly.

She breathed a soft sigh of relief. It was a tradeoff she had become accustomed to over the years –  a disturbing ghostliness in exchange for the chaos of emotional turbulence. She trusted herself more this way, in times like these.

Stepping through the door of the waiting room she saw Liz fidgeting on the sofa, biting her fingernails, blankly staring at the mounted television.

story by phyllis mathis, all rights reserved

back to voca femina home

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Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Littleton, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here<
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Chapter 15

The evening was icy calm at nine o’clock as Susan cautiously made her way home from St. Paul. The defroster had nearly cleared the windshield, and her breath was no longer making frosty clouds in the car as she breathed. Susan removed her hat, setting it on the seat beside her, before loosening her scarf and lowering the zipper on her coat. The sound of the engine and the hum of tires on the pavement carried her through her thoughts.

They had hit it off over lunch, visiting for a full two hours, when Kevin suggested they spend some time at the arboretum in Como Park. It was his favorite place in the city, he said. A warm green spot in the dead of winter, he explained. At the arboretum they found lush ferns, tropical trees with succulent leaves, and exotic flowers, alive and well, unaffected by the sub-zero temperatures outside. Kevin confessed he had spent many a Saturday afternoon over the years, strolling, journaling, enjoying the warmth of this place. He said it got him through the winters. Susan could see why.

After that they stopped at a nearby Baker’s Square for some dessert. Kevin ordered a huge piece of French Silk pie, while Susan made due with a cup of tea, supplemented with a bite or two of Kevin’s rich indulgence.

She felt the vibration of her cell phone on the seat beside her. Glancing at the caller ID, she realized she had already missed four calls from Liz, hungry for the low down. With a brief pang of guilt, Susan ignored the call, and continued to linger in her reverie. Liz would have to wait.

Throughout the day Kevin had been quite open about himself. As Susan made the left onto Lexington Parkway, she reviewed what she had learned:

He’s the younger of two boys. His brother is dead from AIDS, his parents live in Duluth.

He has worked as a nurse and a massage therapist – a body worker, whatever that means. (Susan smiled as she imagined Liz’s response to that piece of information: “I’d like to see how he works MY body…”) He now specializes in trauma work, using an approach that is focused on the body. Susan made a mental note to learn more about this.

He loves dogs, muscle cars, opera and martial arts. Likes to cook for friends. Claims he has a killer chili recipe. Plays hockey and fantasy football. Loves baseball. Does not hunt or fish, but loves canoeing, camping and backpacking in the boundary waters. Practices yoga religiously.

He never married, but has been in serious relationships with three seriously disturbed women. Evidently has a weakness for damsels in distress, the more distress the better. Susan gasped aloud when he told her his last girlfriend killed herself two weeks after he broke up with her. It was a long story, he said, involving a psychiatric disorder or two, and a lot of blood. It had left him shaken to the core. Hence the 5 years in Al Anon, his self-imposed “relational sobriety,” the expertise in compassion fatigue, and a professional practice focusing on trauma.

Streetlights poured their circles of warm light onto Lexington Parkway, aligning themselves like beads through the darkened neighborhood. Susan loved this parkway in the daylight. Tonight, it felt serene.

The man has clearly worked his issues, Susan thought. She admired his courage, and wondered what it would be like to dedicate oneself to one’s recovery that way.

She reached for the radio, tuned to her favorite station, and found herself singing along:

Girl put your records on,

Tell me your favorite song,

You go ahead, let your hair down…

Her imagination drifted to a place on the side of Kevin’s neck, just above the edge of the t-shirt he wore beneath his sweater, behind his earlobe, next to the hairline. Susan had stared at that particular spot throughout lunch.

She smiled and continued to sing:

Maybe sometimes, we feel afraid, but it’s alright

The more you stay the same, the more they seem to change.

Don’t you think it’s strange?

He plays hockey and loves opera, she thought suddenly. Who does that?

Do I like opera?

“Might have to take it up,” she said aloud.

Stopping for a red light at a deserted intersection, she considered some of the things she’d told Kevin, wondering what had made her say them. She sucked in a breath, fearing for a second she’d overexposed herself.

You’re gonna find yourself somewhere, somehow.

She told him about her marriage to Malcolm, how they had planned to be missionaries together on a medical ship; she as a social worker teaching life skills to indigenous people, he as a surgeon, performing life-altering operations in ports of call around the world. She told him how Mal had run off with a classmate whose father owned a plastic surgery clinic in Orange County, so that now, instead of cleft palate surgeries on African children, he was performing boob jobs and tummy tucks on southern California women. Making piles and piles of money, don’t forget. So much for missions work.

Kevin didn’t seem surprised. He just shook his head and commented on the irony of it all.

She told him about the year she’d spent in shock, going through the motions, after Malcolm left. How Liz had literally saved her sanity, helping her get up to go to work in the morning, helping her breathe in and out.

She told him about the months she’d spent watching her father die of cancer last year. Not everything, it was still too raw and unprocessed, but some things. Things she hadn’t told anyone yet.

He nodded without saying anything, clearly familiar with the throes of grief.

Susan trembled a little as she navigated the turn onto 7th. The lights were brighter here, the traffic heavier.

She liked how Kevin had listened, nodding at times, getting her without having to work at it. She liked that he didn’t over-emote, didn’t seem shocked, and didn’t once give her a pitying look. She liked how she could tell him without crying.

She blinked hard as she entered the bridge to Ft. Snelling, coming back to the moment. She didn’t want to miss her turn at 55. She changed lanes and veered to the right.

As 55 became the Crosstown, she shifted into autopilot, trusting herself to the well-worn path home.

Susan let her mind return to Kevin’s hands, remembering the lazy gestures he made as he talked, the way he held his fork eating pie. They were good hands.

At the end of the evening he had walked her to the car. As he made ready to say goodbye, he removed the mitten from his right hand, and pulled the mitten off of Susan’s left. He took her hand and touched it to his lips.  His hand was cool, but strong. His lips were warm and soft on the back of her fingers.

She pressed them against her cheek, remembering.

“I’d like to see you again,” he said. “Can I call you?”

She looked him in the eyes and held them there.

“Please,” she said, without fear.

When you gonna realize, that you don’t even have to try any longer?

Do what you want to.

A thrill went through her.

Careful, Susan. One thing at a time. He could be an axe murderer, for God’s sake.

Still…

You go ahead, let your hair down.

She smiled as the song played through, thinking it might be time to do just that.

Just then her phone rang again.

“Good grief, Liz,” she said. “Give a girl some room.”

“Oh God, Susie, where have you been!” Liz was frantic. “I’ve been calling and calling.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Rosie.  We’re at Fairview Hospital. She’s in the ICU.”

“Oh Liz, I’m so sorry. I’ll be right there.”

reunion-004_2

Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Littleton, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

Read earlier chapters of Cold Counsel here.

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(Susan Nelson, crack(ed) psychotherapist, has had her hands full – more than she knows. Her alter-ego has dispensed a little vigilante justice in the middle of a cold Friday night. Susan is oblivious – mostly – and has been busy getting ready for a date with Kevin, with the help of her friend Liz, of course)

Chapter 14, Part 2

At 12:45 Susan was making her way on the Crosstown to St. Paul. The streets were mostly clear, the snowplows had likely finished by dawn.

Liz had done her best, helping her select just the right outfit for her date with Kevin. And makeup – they were going for the natural look – a light base with just a hint of color on the cheeks, and mascara with no liner. Liz thought she should look a bit more “organic” than normal. Susan had chosen a hand-knit Alpaca sweater that Liz had insisted she purchase, the year they’d spent Presidents’ weekend at Lutzen Resort. Another one of Liz’s après-divorce, cheer-the-girlfriend attempts. The dark green fibers went well with her auburn hair, which Liz insisted she refrain from straightening today. Susan had tightly wound curls that tended to be unruly when allowed to run free, so Liz tied it back in a loose ponytail, with a few selected spirals remaining to frame her face.

“We’re saying, ‘I am Zen, and understatedly sexy, with just a hint of Irish lassie.’”

“But I’m Norwegian,” Susan objected.

“Tell that to your head. These curls think they’re Irish.”

Susan glanced down at the directions she’d written and then turned right off of Grand Avenue, slowing and stretching her neck to find the sign.

Soupçon. Clever name for a soup pub. Like “Soup’s On,” only classier, she thought, and what could be classier than French? Susan tried to come up with the translation, thinking it meant something like “a little bit.” Even better. Soup is a little bit of lunch, she thought, impressed.

She found street parking half a block away, wrapped her scarf around her chin, and got out of the car. Kevin was waiting inside near the door.

He smiled as he opened the door for her. “So nice to see you,” he said. “Some storm we had yesterday.”

Susan’s heart gave a little patter. “I know. I can’t believe it’s so beautiful today,” she replied. “Cold, though.”

Kevin helped her remove her coat. He draped it over an empty chair at their table, piling the scarf and mittens neatly on top of the seat. He turned to take her in, and smiled again, twinkles appearing in his dark brown eyes.

Susan was more nervous than she wanted to be. Her movements were jerky, her voice a notch too loud, and her chin thrust forward too much when she spoke. Too eager, Susan, she thought. Way too eager. She rubbed her hands on the front of her corduroys.

Kevin seemed entirely unruffled. With a grace Susan wished she possessed, he gestured toward the front counter and said, “Come on, I’ll show you the ropes. Let’s order and then we can get comfortable.”

Susan looked around and was immediately taken with the place. Red brick walls and cinnamon oak floors gave the restaurant an old-world feel. Wooden pedestal tables were arranged around the room, each surrounded by comfortable looking, ample-sized Windsor chairs, their wide seats carved in the shape of a customer’s backside. The center of each table held a wicker basket with red-handled stainless steel soup spoons, individually wrapped in black cloth napkins. No knives, no forks, just spoons. Glass salt and pepper shakers stood nearby, next to a tall narrow vase. Each vase held a single red carnation.

The front counter was low and made of wood, with a curved lip at the front. On top of the counter sat a glass display case holding wicker baskets filled with loaves of bread, some grainy and seedy, some crusty and white. Each basket was labeled with a hand-lettered placard. Susan’s mouth began to water as she caught the scent of fresh baked bread.

They approached the front counter to read the sign, a framed blackboard chalked in neat pastel letters, describing the soups of the day. They stood side-by-side, considering their options, as Kevin explained the setup.

“This place is strictly soup and bread. Each day they offer four soups, three vegetarian, one with meat. We order here and they bring our food to the table.” He laid one hand on his stomach and gestured toward the sign with the other. “I see they have a lamb stew today. My favorite. Everything here is unbelievably tasty, and strictly organic.”

Susan gazed at the menu, transfixed. Basque Lamb Stew with Red Wine. Jalepeño Corn Chowder, Creamy Wild Mushroom With Truffle Oil and Crème Fraiche, and lastly, Roasted Sweet Onion With Blue Cheese and Pistachios.

“How does a person ever decide? I’ve never in my life eaten anything with truffle oil, not to mention pistachios in my soup, for heaven’s sake.” She continued to stare at the blackboard, trying to imagine how the flavors would mix, how happy her mouth might feel with each possibility. It was tight competition between the wild mushrooms and the roasted sweet onions with pistachios.

“I think I have to go with the pistachios. Otherwise I’ll lie awake nights wondering what I’ve missed.” They placed their order, and Susan made ready to pay the cashier.

“Oh, no. I’m paying today. This is my spot, my idea. How about next time you pick a place you want to show me and you can treat. This one’s on me. I just wanted to share the place with someone. I mostly come here for takeout.”

“You’re on. I’m not much of a gourmet, though. Too much Scandinavian in my blood to be a foodie,” offered Susan. “I tend to waste my calories on more conventional food.”

“You’re gonna love this, I swear,” he replied enthusiastically, as he pulled cash from his wallet and handed it to the cashier. He guided her back to their table.

They sat, looking at each other for an awkward moment. A steady stream of customers were making their way through the door and over to the counter. The sounds of boots stamping, gloves coming off, and snatches of conversation filled the room, against the complicated melody of classical piano.

Susan lowered her eyes under Kevin’s gaze. He smiled.

“I guess we’re both in the habit of letting others begin conversations,” he said.

“Oh, absolutely,” Susan replied with chagrin. “That one point was drilled into me by my counseling techniques professor. I think he came from the east coast school; he was very Freudian. He always said that if you begin the conversation, you may never know what your client had on his or her mind that day. He said we rob ourselves of precious information if we so much as smile in greeting.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. He was a trip. I didn’t really agree with him, but he was such a stickler that I learned it well. It’s a habit now, even in regular conversation,” she admitted.

“Well, I never took a counseling techniques class. I just try to keep my mouth shut whenever I can. It usually works out better that way.” He chuckled for a second and then held eye contact. One, two, three long beats.

Susan looked into his eyes and felt a strange vertigo threaten the edges of her vision. Alarms were triggered somewhere in the deep. Part of her wanted to jump up and run, part of her threatened to fuzz out and disappear, but part of her wanted to fall into the warm space he opened up for her, right there in the restaurant. For one split second she couldn’t decide.

Just then he eased back in his chair and looked around the room, glancing back at Susan, as if checking to see that she was ok.

“Isn’t this a great little restaurant? A couple buddies of mine own the place,” he said.

The mood shifted, lightened by his obvious pleasure. Susan eased back in her chair as the alarms went quiet.

“They met as burned out, drugged out chefs at a 12-step meeting. Both incredibly talented. Both sick of the drama that goes with the upscale food industry. Both drug addicts in need of some safety and control. They decided to get together and make soup. Eventually they created a successful business by doing one thing well. I respect them for that.”

“What a great story.”

“Well, that’s the short, easy version. They’ve had lots of struggle and mess along the way.” Kevin reached for a soup spoon and unrolled it, placing the cloth napkin in his lap and the spoon on the table.

Just then a young man arrived with their soup. Wordlessly he placed the steaming bowls in front of them, along with several slices of warm, crusty bread on a plate. Susan unrolled her spoon and dipped it in her soup for a taste.

“They have a huge kitchen somewhere in St. Paul where they make soup for some of the finest restaurants in the Twin Cities. This location is just for fun. More an outlet than a restaurant.”

With her spoon still in her mouth, Susan’s eyes opened wide, then closed as if in prayer. “Oh. Oh. Oh my. Oh my god. This soup is so good. Sweet and tangy and savory and so… interesting.” Susan stared at her soup in disbelief.

“I’m happy you like it. Dip your bread in it. That’s the best,” encouraged Kevin.

Susan tore a slice of bread in half, dipped it in the soup and took a luscious bite. She moaned. “Sorry. I need a moment.” She closed her eyes again and savored the combination of flavors and textures.

Kevin chuckled. “I know how you feel,” he said. “Take all the time you need.”

“How’s yours?” asked Susan. “I hope it’s half as good as mine.”

“At least.” He answered. “It’s my favorite so far, though I admit I haven’t tried yours before. I’ve never seen it on the menu.”

“Want to try it? Feel free to dip your bread in,” she offered.

“Thanks. Maybe later. I’ve been waiting weeks for the lamb to show up again. I need some time with my fave,” he replied with a wink, as he dipped his spoon in for a bite. “Oh yeah, that’s the stuff,” he said with obvious pleasure. “Maybe we both need a moment.”

They laughed, and ate, moaned a little more, and then laughed again.

“My friends don’t make much profit here,” Kevin said after a few bites, “but they like the idea of serving slow food in a minimalist environment. Nothing artificial, no extras, just really, really good soup and bread. They’re breaking a lot of rules in the restaurant biz, but they’re getting away with it. I like that.”

“Oh, it’s lovely,” she remarked as she dabbed her lips with her napkin. “Surprising that something so simple could be so perfect. And so unlooked-for. I love it.”

“That makes me happy. It’s nice to share with someone who appreciates it,” he admitted, filling his spoon.

She watched him take another bite. He wore a brown wool sweater with a Henley neckline. It fit loosely across his chest, cuffs rolled once at the wrists, a hint of black T-shirt showing at his throat. She watched his Adam’s apple move as he swallowed.

He tore another piece of bread and dipped it in the broth, leaning back as he dropped the morsel into his mouth. He closed his eyes, lost in the flavor.

She took him in, studying his face. So different from Macolm’s baby-smooth complexion and exquisite jaw line, Kevin’s features showed signs of wear: laugh wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, worry wrinkles in the forehead. A bit of darkness under the eyes and an uneven skin tone gave him a weathered look. The shadow of a beard freshly shaved hinted that he could grow some serious facial hair if he wanted, and probably had.

She shifted her gaze to his hands. They were large and supple, thick fingers with flat, smooth nails, clean, but bluish gray. They must be cold, she thought. He lay down his spoon and placed his hands around the smooth sides of his deep round bowl.

Susan looked up. He was already looking at her, studying her as well. Her stomach dropped and she froze in her chair. He noticed. Catching her reaction, he withdrew his probing gaze and reached for more bread. He was smiling.

“There you go again, checking me over,” he said.

She recovered.

“Sorry. Can’t help it I guess. Does it bother you?” she asked, blushing a little.

“Not at all. It’s just…well, I’m usually the one doing the studying.”

“So I’ve noticed,” she said.

“Well, how about I save you the sleuthing and just tell you what you want to know. Go ahead, ask me anything. I’m an open book,” he said.

Susan paused, and then smiled. “Ah yes…except you and I both know that a person reveals much about herself by the questions she asks. No, no,” she said, smiling, wagging her finger in his direction. “How about you just tell me what you want me to know, and I’ll decide what’s pertinent, thank you very much.”

Kevin sat forward and placed his hands over his heart. “Ho ho! A worthy opponent! I see you’ve read The Art of War. Very well. Let’s see, where shall I start?” He sat back in his chair and glanced at the ceiling, his fingertips touching.

“I was born a poor black child…”

“That was Steve Martin. Try again,” she said, trying to keep a straight face.

“A little log cabin in Illinois?” he offered, sideways.

“Abraham Lincoln,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “Are you having trouble with this?” she asked, eyebrows raised, giving him her most snooty therapist glance. She pantomimed picking up clipboard and pen.

“Patient displays deep anxiety regarding self-disclosure, revealing strong Oedipal tendencies, and conflicted Id impulses,” she intoned.

“Oh, that can’t be good,” he said, laughing.

“You may proceed. You don’t mind if I take notes do you?” she asked, smiling.

Kevin’s eyebrows shot up. He flopped back in his chair and let his hands fall on top of his thighs. He shook his head once with a look of chagrin on his face.

“Huh,” he said.

“What?” asked Susan, alarmed. What did I do wrong, she wondered.

He leaned forward again, elbows on the table, hands folded.

“Ok. Here’s something I wasn’t planning on telling you. Didn’t even know it myself until this very minute.” He took a breath and plunged in. “I’ve been in Al Anon for five years, recovering from my addiction to really bad relationships. Been sober the whole five years.”

“Sober?” she asked.

“I haven’t been in a relationship in five years.”

“Okaaayyy…”

“Not until this very moment have I seen the habit that sets me on the addictive road,” he said.

Uh-oh, thought Susan. Here it comes. Let’s just be friends. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m just not ready for a relationship. The best she could do was to raise her eyebrows, steeling herself, waiting to hear more.

He shifted in his chair. “I just now realized that I take control of every conversation, keep it focused on the other person, hold my cards close to my chest and encourage the other person to spill their guts. And…” He paused.

“And?”

“And no one I’ve dated has ever turned the tables on me. Well done,” he said, impressed.

“Thank you…I think,” she replied, not at all knowing what to think.

“It feels nice to have someone interested in knowing me,” he said. “Sorry if that sounds weird to you, but it’s quite a new experience for me.”  He looked at her in wonder. “How’s that for an interview?”

Susan had frozen in her chair, gathering her wits. This was quite a revelation for her as well. Didn’t she do the same thing? Wasn’t she doing it now? I should let him off the hook, she thought, give him a break. Meet him disclosure for disclosure.

Instead she looked up, and with a sly smile said, “You think you’re going to get out of it that easily? I’m not nearly finished with you. Spill it, mister. From the beginning please.”

Kevin sat for a beat with his mouth open, then made a moony love-sick face.

“Will you marry me?” he whined.

She burst out laughing.

“Not until we finish your treatment plan,” she said.

story by phyllis mathis, all rights reserved

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