By: Christie Tate
When I swing open the door to the group room, everyone’s already in their usual seats around the circle: Dr. Rosen at high noon, Rory and Patrice to his right, Marty directly across, and Ed and Marco on his left. I’m late. I hate being late. It always feels like I’ll never catch up, never get the gist of the movie, the conversation, the lesson.
Only Rory looks up and mouths “hello” to me. Patrice, Ed, and Marco wear impassive expressions and stare the floor. Dr. Rosen’s mouth is set in a grim line. In the fifteen minutes since the session started, something has happened. Something serious judging by the heavy silence. Tears stream down Marty’s cheeks, and his handkerchief rests on his knee, which is a clue, but nothing definitive because Marty is a crier—almost every time he speaks, he chokes up. There’s also a silver tin in his lap the size of a small child’s drum or a tin of William Sonoma Christmas cookies. My stomach growls. I left the house before eating breakfast. Next to the hunger swirls a ribbon of panic. Will they let me in?
I tiptoe to the empty seat between Dr. Rosen and Marco, shuck off my backpack, and sit down. No one jumps to catch me up. I’ll either have to ask what’s going on or try to catch up on my own. In the six months since I started group therapy, I’ve never been late, and although I’ve watched other people arrive twenty or thirty minutes into the session and ask what they’d missed, I lack the courage to demand a recap. I can’t imagine taking up that much space—asking these five people to retread their steps on my behalf.
I fold my hands in my lap and wait for someone to speak.
Ed gestures to the tin. “So, what’s in there?”
Marty clears his throat. “It’s…it’s…” he swallows hard and holds his fist to his mouth. I lean forward so it’s easier for Marty’s words to reach me. I sneak a peek at Dr. Rosen, searching for a hint in a raised eyebrow or facial expression, but his impassive gaze is trained on Marty.
Rory pats Marty’s hand. “It’s okay,” she coos. “Take your time.” I want to her to take my hand and say those things to me.
“It’s the ashes of,” Marty sucks in his breath and then pushes out the words, “a baby.”
“Oh, God,” Rory and Patrice gasp in unison. I draw back in my chair, afraid that Marty’s sadness will hit the bullseye of my heart. I’m full up on sadness.
For several beats, no one speaks. The only sounds are Marty’s jagged sobs. I purse my lips and bite down, petrified I might lapse into my old habit of laughing in the face of unfathomable sorrow. In high school, I got called to the principal’s office for giggling at the funeral for the sister of one of my best friends. I tried to explain to Sister Margaret that I couldn’t help it, it was just how my body and brain process grief, but she waved her hand in my face and refused to let me speak. I’d lost the right.
“You’re a dad?” Marco says. We all know Marty, who started group the same day I did, as an isolated bachelor in his sixties with a girlfriend he’s kept at arm’s length for almost a decade. He’s also a therapist who works with refugees suffering from PTSD. It was clear from Day One that he was better than me, more pure. He never shows up late.
Marty shakes his head. “The baby belonged to my patient who couldn’t deal with his grief.” He holds up the tin that catches the morning light from the corner window. “The patient asked me to hold the ashes until he could face the loss.” Marty breaks down again. “He died—the patient—and I still have the ashes.”
“How long have you had the tin?” Dr. Rosen asks.
Marty blows his nose into his handkerchief. “Almost fifteen years.”
“Are you ready to let go of them?”
Marty nods. Dr. Rosen beams, proud that Marty finally let the group witness an item in his “death stash,” which we know includes his father’s and two step-fathers’ ashes, his mother’s suicidal poems, and, most disturbingly, a handful of cyanide tablets he keeps “just in case.”
Marty continues to cry and blow his nose. The rest of us watch in reverent silence. Rory, who cries whenever someone else does, plucks tissue after tissue out of a box on the window sill. Ed pats Marty’s arm. I’m not given to dissolving into tears or displays of compassion. I prefer to skate the surface of emotion and hide behind petty complaints, sarcasm, and deflection. Joining Marty in his pain is beyond my skill level. I fight the urge to make a joke.
I sit quietly in my chair hoping someone will change the subject. If I was more emotionally available, I would let myself picture a beloved baby drawing his last breath and leaving behind bereft parents. I would wade into the tragedy of a lost life, a life that never got to thrive, a life reduced to a tin can. The very fate I fear for myself, the reason I’m in this room in the first place: an unlived life.
In my first appointment with Dr. Rosen, an individual session half a year earlier, I told him I wasn’t sure my life mattered to anyone—not in any real, everyday way—which made me want to curl into a ball and die. In my second appointment, I got more specific: I didn’t know how to let people get close to me. I didn’t know how to do anything well except earn good grades. I was sure I would die alone because intimacy was too foreign, too frightening, and too impossible for me to achieve. That was why I’d gone to law school—so I could bury myself in an all-consuming career that would distract me from the painful reality of my failed personal life. In my third appointment, my last individual session before joining group, I laid it out for Dr. Rosen: If he couldn’t get me into a stable, healthy, romantic relationship within five years, I would kill myself.
Dr. Rosen asks Marty to pick someone from the group to take the ashes. I avoid Marty’s eyes by looking at the skyline out the window, even though I’m positive he won’t pick me. Why would he? I spend group sessions complaining about being lonely and wanting a boyfriend who will have sex and eat sushi with me. I haven’t done a single maternal thing. The other women, Rory and Patrice, are nurturing mama-bear types in group—they pass the tissues, offer hugs, ask probing follow-up questions. Outside of group, they are doting mothers to teenaged children who are smart, well adjusted, and decent. He’ll pick one of them. I never consider that he will pick me or one of the men.
“Christie,” Marty says.
My legs and hands begin to tremble. I pray I’ve misheard him and keep my eyes on the mottled carpet because I’m not taking that tin. I don’t want to think about it, much less hold it, ride the train with it, or find a place in my apartment for it. I feel everyone’s eyes on me, like this is my moment to step up and be more than the irascible newcomer who is pissed at the world because she is single, repressed, and lonely. I’m not sure I can rise to this occasion, and being put on the spot makes my throat tighten with anxiety. This is my punishment for being late.
“Christie, would you?”
“Why me?” My throat slackens when I see the pleading look in Marty’s eyes.
“It just feels right.” Marty smiles like he’s offering a gift he hopes I will like.
“Fuck,” I whisper. My hands curl into fists. I turn to Dr. Rosen. “How about I take the cyanide when he brings it in?”
“Absolutely not,” Dr. Rosen says, his expression stern and slightly disapproving.
“What’s the baby’s name?” I ask, stalling.
“Jeremiah.” Marty’s voice breaks, and I know I’ll be taking the ashes home.
In the three individual sessions before I started group, Dr. Rosen promised he could help me get into an intimate relationship on two conditions. First, I had to join one of his groups, and second, I had to turn every single aspect of my personal life, meaning sexual and romantic, over to him and the group. I agreed because I was desperate—I’d been trying to fix myself with feng shui, O! Magazine, self-help books, 12-step programs, yoga, a silent retreat, and meditation, but I couldn’t stop dating alcoholic men who drank to black out and seemed to hate my guts after a month of dating.
In the first six months of treatment, I practiced letting the group into my business. They knew I had a crush on a hot guy from law school who smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds every day and was dating a bartender who looked like Cameron Diaz. They knew I’d flirted with an Armenian cab driver on the way home from O’Hare at Christmas and once had a very explicit sex dream about Dr. Rosen going down on me.
But I was still stuck. There was a thick glass pane between me and other people. I still feared I would die alone in my musty one-bedroom apartment surrounded by law books and old bridesmaids dresses I wore in other people’s weddings.
I believed it was too late.
As I hold out my hands to receive the tin full of baby remains, it’s hard to conceive how the hell this is going to help me get where I want to go.
Marty passes the tin to Ed, who passes it to Marco, who hands it to me. I hold it perfectly still so I don’t have to feel the contents—baby bones, baby hair, baby teeth—rattling around. As long as I hold still, I can pretend it’s just a bucket of bougie cookies.
Dr. Rosen is really velling now—glowing at Marty, now unburdened of a portion of his death stash.
“Prepare to get closer to Janine,” Dr. Rosen says. “You’ll be more available for intimacy and closeness. Maybe you’ll be ready to marry her.”
I feel something for Marty that is warm like happiness. He’s held on to other people’s sorrows and grief for most of his life. The cost he paid was high: workaholism, zero family life, health problems. It chokes me up to watch him step forward. A trill of hope ripples through my chest.
But what did it mean for me to take the baby ashes?
“What am I getting closer to?” I say.
Dr. Rosen answers with a question. “What does taking the tin from Marty mean to you?”
My fingers grip the cool surface of the tin. I close my eyes and feel the heft of it in my lap. I imagine Marty feeling lighter for having turned over this burden. I am now part of his story. His and Jeremiah’s. My heart softens for all of us.
I open my eyes. “I feel closer to Marty.”
Dr. Rosen nods and gives me two thumbs up. “Is that a good place to start?”
“Learning how to have an intimate relationship.”
I want to say how the fuck should I know? but I don’t want to curse in front of Baby Jeremiah.
After the session, I board the redline train to school. Con Law starts at ten, and I don’t want to be late. Before the lecture, I stop at my locker, unsure whether to lock Jeremiah in there or keep him in my backpack. I can’t bear the thought of closing him up in the dark locker with my lunch and my gym shoes, so I keep him in my bag, which I keep close to my body for the rest of the day.
That night, I make a nest with pillows and blankets on the top shelf of my closet. I place Jeremiah in his new home and pat the lid as if it was a real baby’s head. I hope I will one day be the group member letting go of ashes and moving closer to a partner. Dr. Rosen promised. He has four and a half years to deliver.
I lay in bed thinking about old Marty’s sad bones curled around Janeen. Across town, they are spooning, I imagine, and maybe he’s singing an old Billie Holiday song in her ear. For him, letting go of the tin was moving forward; for me, moving forward meant agreeing to take it. I am envious of Marty and his relationship with Janeen, but he’s stitched me into his story, and that counts for something.
My bedroom feels too dark, so I flip on the closet light and let the beams reach me through the cracks in the slats. I curl into myself and wait for sleep to overtake me. I hope it’s not too late.
Christie Tate is a Chicago writer currently at work on a memoir about her experiences in group therapy. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Nailed Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and others.