Laura and Emma

by Kate Greathead

Clock Icon 10 minutes read

1980

LAURA SOMETIMES WOKE UP IN the night, rattled by thoughts she’d never have during the day. A reoccurring nocturnal concern was that her apartment wasn’t really hers. She owned it, her name was on the door, there were official papers, but this wouldn’t always be the case; someday it would belong to someone else.

Looking around her bedroom envisioning everything packed up in boxes to be hauled off by movers was very unsettling. But this was the inevitable outcome of apartments—no one’s really belonged to them. In a hundred years the apartments of everyone she knew would be inhabited by future generations, whose taste in music and art and films and clothes would be completely foreign to her. Not that it mattered, as she, and everyone she knew, would be dead.

It was ridiculous to worry about, but in the sobering still of the small hours these thoughts consumed her, and were she to have a husband, Laura imagined she’d wake him up to unload them. And his laughing at their absurdity. And her laughing back. And then, feeling reassured and safely contained within the walls that surrounded her bed, drifting back to sleep.

The other time Laura thought having a husband would be nice was when something broke and it was too late to call the super. If it was after nine o’clock and she discovered her bedroom window was swollen shut from the humidity, or the smoke detector started beeping in need of a new battery, she had to live with it until the morning. That was it, though; these occasions aside, Laura was getting along very well without a man in her life.

But still—it upset her, the idea that she didn’t truly belong in her own apartment.


*  *  *


REALLY, IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO you marry,” Laura’s mother had said more than once. “However madly in love you are in the beginning, one day you will find yourself sitting across a table from him thinking, ‘Anything, anything, an-y-thing would be better than this!’ ”

Laura had never been madly in love—or even sanely in love. She didn’t hate sex, but she didn’t particularly like it either. The idea of being expected to do it all the time seemed exhausting. She was not a romantically or sexually inclined person. She’d heard that this was the case for some people and suspected she fell into this category. But upon turning thirty she decided to seek a professional opinion, and made an appointment to meet with a psychoanalyst.


*  *  *


THE OFFICE WAS ON THE ground floor of a Turtle Bay brownstone, and the analyst was comfortingly older, with a kind, intelligent face. Laura could tell he’d been handsome in his youth but in a nonthreatening way. After inviting her into his office, he took a seat behind a desk and gestured for her to take the chair across from him.

“Before we get started, I’d like to answer any questions you might have about how this works, and hear a bit about you and what brings you here.”

“I know how it works,” Laura told him. “I’m afraid I’m not here as a long-term patient.”

Laura paused in case he was interested only in long-term patients. When he didn’t say anything, she proceeded to explain her reason for coming.

Marriage had never appealed to Laura the way it did to other women. She was flattered by and appreciated the attention of men, but could do with just that. She was more than content with her life choices and current situation.

“Then what brings you here?”

“I’m not sure,” Laura admitted. “I recently saw my internist for my annual appointment, and the results came back and everything looked fine, and I guess I came here hoping you could perform the psychoanalytical equivalent.”

“A routine mental,” the analyst said, chuckling. “You want a clean bill of mental health.”

Laura smiled sheepishly.

“Well, from what you’ve told me, it sounds like there are no issues.”

“It was probably silly of me to come,” she said.

The analyst’s face suddenly turned serious. He stood up and pointed to the couch at the other end of the room. “If you would lie down, we can get started.”

Laura felt funny lying down in front of a stranger and asked if she could sit on the couch instead.

“Your choice. However, many people find it easier to open up lying down.”

In the spirit of cooperation she reclined. Notebook and pen in hand, the analyst settled into an armchair beside her.

“Should I start with my childhood?” she asked after a minute of silence.

“If you like,” he said.

Rather than sketch out her parents or brother or the general emotional atmosphere of her upbringing, she began describing a morning routine from her early childhood. It was of sitting on the toilet trying to go “big jobbie,” as her nurse called it. Marge insisted that this happen every day at the conclusion of breakfast, and Laura’s day was suspended until she did it. Marge would come into the bathroom afterward to inspect the evidence. Laura’s digestive system wouldn’t always cooperate with the schedule, and there were many lonely mornings of sitting on the toilet for hours, pushing and pushing and pushing until she was gasping for air—and having nothing to show for her efforts.

As Laura lay there reliving this, the contours of the light fixture on the ceiling went slack, and she realized she was crying. She was glad she was lying down, as it meant her analyst couldn’t see her face. But then a box of Kleenex appeared and hovered above her chest. He was leaning across the space between them to offer it. Her deep breathing must have given her away.

“This is embarrassing,” she said, taking a tissue and dotting the corners of her eyes.

“Not at all,” he said kindly.

Laura excused herself to use the bathroom. She blew her nose and splashed cold water on her face. When she felt composed, she returned to the couch, where she resumed their session upright.


*  *  *


AMONG THE MISPERCEPTIONS OTHERS HAD about Laura was that she was oblivious to her looks. This was largely due to the simplicity of her wardrobe. To work she wore a white turtleneck, one of five rotating Laura Ashley skirts, and a pair of Frye cowboy boots. One year earlier, a photographer named Bill Cunningham had taken a picture of her in this outfit. Laura had been waiting at the crosswalk of Lexington and Sixty-first and hadn’t known her photograph was being taken until it appeared in a series of street portraits in the New York Times. Her mother had been the first to spot it and called Laura to tell her. Laughing too hard to speak, she’d put Laura’s father on the phone, who directed her to the page of the newspaper.

Laura had put the clipping under a magnet on the fridge. But then this struck her as egotistical, so she took it down, and with the intention of keeping it safe, she’d put it somewhere she couldn’t remember.

Others in her social circle had also laughed at the photo. Of everyone they knew, Laura was the last person one would expect to see in the New York Times as a paragon of Manhattan style.

It was true Laura had little interest in clothes, but what people assumed was her absentminded ignorance of fashion was actually concern for the fate of the Earth. Everything she owned would one day end up in a landfill, and she avoided acquiring anything she didn’t need. She’d once heard the phrase “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” and guiltily thought of it every time she bought new clothes—which was itself an ordeal, as it was difficult to find clothes that fit her. Laura was so small that most things had to be tailored, and to avoid the hassle she often found herself browsing the children’s section of whatever store she was in.

One afternoon she was in the boys’ department of Morris Brothers department store on Eighty-fifth and Broadway looking for a new winter parka—they were having a sale—when she felt something warm and moist against her thigh. She looked down and discovered a little boy, maybe three or four, burrowing his face into her jeans, seemingly for the purpose of wiping his nose.

“Excuse me,” Laura told him, realizing he must have mistaken her for his mother, “but we’re not related.”

The little boy looked up at her. His face darkened and he began breathing in a husky, emotional way. With each exhalation, a green bubble of mucus protruded from his nose.

“You’re not my mom,” he told her, shaking his head. There was a petulant, accusatory edge to his tone, as though Laura had posed as his mother with the intention of kidnapping him.

“It’s okay,” Laura attempted to reassure the child. “Your mom is somewhere in this store. I’ll help you find her.”

She reached out to pat the top of his head, but this only made the boy more suspicious, and after batting her hand away he took a doddering step backward, lost his balance, and fell on his bottom. For a moment he sat there in silence, a confused, slightly panicked look on his face, like he was playing the part of a little boy in a movie and had forgotten his line. Then he opened his mouth and screamed.

“Joshua!” an equally loud voice shrieked from the other end of the store. A woman came galloping toward them.

“See, I told you she was here,” Laura said cheerfully, and stepped aside as the mother swooped in like a bird of prey, scooped the child up with feral urgency, and began pecking his face with kisses.

As a dramatic reunion unfolded, Laura was troubled by two thoughts, the first being that this little boy had mistaken her for this other woman, who had a homely, disheveled look you often saw on the Upper West Side. Laura knew she was not a smart dresser, but she didn’t like to think she was in the same category as this woman. The second wasn’t so much a thought as a sudden awareness of her irrelevance in their universe, the parameters of which seemed to have contracted so that it contained only the woman and the boy. That this hurt Laura’s feelings confused and embarrassed her.

With the exception of Margaret, nearly all her contemporaries had children by now. Though a few had privately admitted to feeling initially bewildered by the little creature they’d brought home from the hospital—Edith going so far as to compare its appearance to a space alien—it was only a matter of time before they fell under the spell of unconditional maternal love. Though this seemed to be the universal trend, it still struck Laura as a roll of the dice—to allow fate to assign you a person whom you were expected to adore for the rest of your life. You did not get to choose your child, and while all the mothers she knew gave the impression of having received exactly what they would have ordered, it still seemed like a cavalier thing to do.

Also selfish. It had taken the world’s population until 1804 to reach one billion, and another one hundred and twenty-three years to double. What Laura imagined people assumed would be her greatest regret—not having any children—she considered her greatest gift to the planet.


*  *  *


“HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT money?” her analyst asked during their second session.

Laura thought it was an odd question. She wasn’t sure what there was to say.

Her income wasn’t much, but she had a modest trust, which generated annual dividends that her father’s accountant would transfer into her bank account. This extra money allowed her to contribute to various nonprofits, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York City Commission for the Homeless, National Public Radio, and the Barnard scholarship fund. What remained of this money she hadn’t earned went toward Christmas tips for her super, seamstress, the man who resoled her boots, the cashiers at her grocery store, the owner of the hot dog cart where she bought her afternoon Coca-Cola, her mailwoman, and the nice family who ran the Laundromat across the street.

She didn’t share any of this with her analyst, because it didn’t feel worth his time.

“Many people are uncomfortable discussing money,” he said after a silence.

“I’m not uncomfortable discussing it,” Laura clarified. “It just doesn’t interest me. It doesn’t feel relevant to what I’m doing here.”

“And what would you say you are doing here?”

“I thought analysis was mostly for figuring out the emotional impact of your childhood.”

“And do you think,” the analyst asked, “that growing up in such a wealthy family had any kind of impact?”

The word wealthy embarrassed Laura. It was not a word she or anyone she was close to used, and she wished her analyst hadn’t spoken it.

“There are a lot of things that are difficult for me to talk about,” she said. “Things I’ve never discussed with anyone. Money isn’t one of them.”

“What about sex?” he asked.

The whole point of having the patient lie down, as Laura understood it, was to avoid seeing the analyst and thus reduce inhibition. But today the analyst’s armchair was positioned at an angle where one of his shoes and a part of his leg poked into her frame of vision. He must have been sitting with his legs crossed because the foot was suspended in the air, and it bopped with a restless energy that was incongruent with his calm and measured speaking voice. As with many men, his pants rode up his calf when his legs were crossed, and his black socks only went up so far, exposing an inch of pale, hairy shinbone.

“What about it?” Laura asked him back.

“Well”—the foot bopping picked up with the speed of a dog’s wagging tail—“do you ever masturbate?”


*  *  *


“I’M GLAD YOU ENDED IT,” said Margaret, Laura’s oldest friend and confidante. “The whole thing is a racket. Think of all the people we know who are going. Do any of them seem to be getting better?”

Laura pondered this.

“New Yorkers are so susceptible to these things,” Margaret continued. “The other day I overheard a woman in Bloomingdale’s talking about primal scream therapy.” Margaret paused for Laura’s reaction. “That’s the kind where you pay a hundred dollars for the privilege of sitting in a so-called doctor’s office and screaming at the top of your lungs.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“Apparently it’s supposed to take a year of weekly appointments to do the trick, but this woman claimed it cured her in a single session. Or saved her life, as she put it.” Margaret laughed. “Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?”

“The poor neighbors,” Laura said.

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