The day of the commencement, when my friends got their diplomas, I dove into an abysmal attack. My chest throbbed. My vestibular system shut down. I swayed like a ship caught in a storm. My clammy hands slipped on the moving walls as I searched for something stable. I felt an invisible boa wrap my neck. I gasped for air. I turned blue and fell to the floor. I woke up in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
“Do you think she’ll get worse?” my mother asked the doctor.
“Maybe you can prescribe her something,” my father added.
“Agoraphobia can be successfully treated in many cases through a process of gradual exposure therapy, combined with cognitive therapy,” the doctor said.
Now I look out the window of my home office. A blanket of snow covers the sports field of the high school across the street. There’s not a soul on the street or the field —nobody to disturb the peace the settled whiteness brings to my solitary world. Thousands of flakes are rushing down to the ground, but as I place my forehead on the window pane I discover they are spiraling, almost waltzing. I’m trapped inside a snow globe and giant hands are shaking it.
The ringing of the phone wakes me from my white trance. I check the caller display and answer.
“Hi, Sarah. How are you?” Dr. D’Alessio says.
With a doubtful tone I say, “I’m fine. Do we have an appointment today?”
“Yes. As usual”
“Okay then, I’ll see you at 3:00.”
Dr. Salvatore D’Alessio has been my therapist for five years. I see him twice a month. Dr. D’Alessio was there when I moved out of my parents’ home. My parents worried, of course, and they still do, but Dr. D’Alessio said, “If you want Sarah to get better, you have to give her some space.”
When Dr. Russell, our family doctor first diagnosed my condition, I refused to seek help. I became worse than a hermit crab. My friends came to see me, but I refused their company. I didn’t want their pity. I didn’t want to see relatives and sink in shame —I was the first in the family with some sort of disorder— I repudiated the idea of seeing specialists. I didn’t want to take antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Sulking became my new career. Nobody was able to reason with me. I was despondent.
Once, I admitted to Dr. D’Alessio that the reason I chose him was because I liked his name. He told me his parents are from Cassino, Italy, but he was born in Montreal.
“Your illness is curable, Sarah,” Salvatore said in our first session. “You just have to keep focused and do all the gradual exposure in order to make some progress.”
I knew I had made the right decision to keep him as my doctor. “I’ll do anything to get my life back,” I said. But I didn’t believe myself.
When I started my therapy, I refused to take pills, so Sal taught me breathing techniques. Writing daily in my journal is also part of my therapy. Stepping outside the threshold to pick up the newspaper is one of my biggest accomplishments of my day (especially when the newspaper has landed a distance from the door). On snowy days like today, I step out on the balcony to sweep the thin layer of snow before it accumulates or turns to ice. So far I have not conquered the biggest challenge: going after my cat, Dante, when he manages to sneak out.
“You want to go to Italy again, don’t you?” Salvatore said, almost reproaching me, when I was being difficult in one of our sessions. “Then, take the bull by the horns.”
I was ready to take this bull (but I didn’t know how big its horns were). I ordered Italian novels online, I joined Italian chat groups, and I registered at an online university —ten years ago these universities were rare but now they are the trend. Unfortunately, the degrees it offered were very limited, so I had to settle with a Bachelor of Science in Communication.
Suddenly, the doorbell rings. It’s time for my session with Salvatore. I hope he’s wearing that cobalt blue shirt. I look at myself in the mirror: my hair is bouncy, my lips are rosy, and with a quick twirl I approve of my burgundy dress. The doorbell rings again. As I come downstairs, I can see Sal’s tall silhouette through the frosted glass. I rub my sweaty palms against my dress, breathe deeply, and open the door.
“Hi, Sarah. For a moment I thought you weren’t home,” he says.
“I love your sense of humor, Sal,” I say. “Come in quickly before Dante gets out.”
“You look nice. I would ask you if you have plans but …”
“Save it, Sal. That joke is getting old. I’m a girly girl no matter what. Although I can’t deny agoraphobia has helped me save tons of money on clothes and I can save even more if I go au naturel.”
Sal doesn’t answer, but his blushed face says it all. He looks at me, not saying a word. He waits for a cue from me, I guess. I like the way his amber eyes stand out against his cobalt blue shirt, my favorite one.
“Would you like something to drink?” I ask as I walk to the kitchen.
“Oh, I’m fine, Sarah, thank you.”
“Okay. I’ll be right there. Let me get some water for myself.”
When I step back into the living room, I find Salvatore looking at my photos from Rome that were strewn over the coffee table. He stares at one in particular and picks it up: me and Giacomo, my Italian ragazzo (or the extracurricular activity as my best friend calls him). I met Giacomo atop the Spanish Steps in the Piazza di Spagna. He was an artist. He was finishing a painting when our eyes met.
I stand a few feet away from Salvatore with the glass of water in my hand. I stare at his temples, highlighted by silver strands. His designer glasses fit his chiseled face. His manly hands —manly, yet delicate like those of a pianist. He raises his gaze.
“Who is he?” Sal asks. “Your boyfriend?” His direct question surprises me, but I like what I hear.
“I guess he was. That was ten years ago.”
I stand motionless while he examines the photograph. He probably thinks that’s the reason I want to go back to Italy. Shrinks! They don’t know anything about love. The kind of love that makes your heart ache. That’s what I feel for Rome. I approach Salvatore and say,
“You know what Gertrude Stein once said? ‘America is my country, but Paris is my hometown.’ Well, that’s how I feel about Rome. Although I would have to say Canada is my country, and Rome is my hometown.”
“You never told me that.”
“Yes, and if it weren’t for this damn agoraphobia, I would have left a long time ago. No, better yet, I would be living there.”
“Well, maybe that’s not your destiny.”
“What do you know about destiny? You’re my shrink, not my astrologer.”
There is an awkward silence. Sal stares at the floor while I stand, paralyzed, not believing such scathing comment came out of my mouth. “Sal, I am so sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” I finally say.
Silence intervenes again. It is as real as the snow outside. I despise moments like this. We never used to have them before. Dante jumps on top of the coffee table, knocking over a small pewter replica of the Colosseum.
“Dante! Get down, you bad cat!” I say, but the message is not received. Dante swats the Colosseum, making it spin. I snatch the small sculpture, leaving him empty-pawed. Dante then jumps down and rubs himself against my leg, purring.
“Ah, give him a break. He’s trying to tell you something,” Salvatore finally says.
It seems that he understands my cat better than he understands me. But I don’t blame him. Nowadays I am a difficult subject to study even by Freud and Jung standards. Hell! I don’t even understand myself. The weight of the silence in the room terrifies me more than my own illness.
“Oh, Dante just reminded me…” he finally says, opening his leather briefcase. He then hands me a beautiful copy of Marco Bussagli’s Rome: Art and Architecture. I am speechless. He went through all this trouble, for me? What an idiot I am! It is me he truly understands. I tremble. A tingling sensation spreads inside like a forest fire that ends in my chest. I am breathless.
“The Colosseum needed a companion on your coffee table,” he says, smiling.
I sit on the floor. Like a toddler who has just received a Christmas present, I open the colorful book on the coffee table. As I turn the pages, I study each building, sculpture, fountain, and painting, but it’s la Piazza Navona that pulls a ribbon of tears out of my eyes. This was my Domine Quo Vadis, the only place I knew where I was going. There, I spent many afternoons reading, eating gelato, and breathing in the Roman experience. I don’t dare to look at Sal.
“Sarah, what’s wrong?” Sal says as his hand turns my chin toward him.
“Oh, I just hope…Well, it’s five years I’ve been in therapy and I can’t even go to the front yard much less Rome.”
“Oh, Sarah, remember the adage, ‘Rome was not built in one day.’”
I try to laugh but all I manage is to squeeze more tears out of me. I turn my face away from Sal. Even if I tried to hide under the accumulating snow, I would fail as the fire under my skin would melt it. But under the circumstances, I cannot go outside.
The air inside feels heavy, and the tick-tock of the clock on the wall dwindles along with my life. My fingers feel numb and my spine is no longer holding me straight. As the ragdoll of my body starts falling over, Sal holds me and helps me to a chair. “You almost fainted, Sarah. Stay still.” Next thing I remember is a whiff of alcohol. How did he find the bottle of alcohol? Is my bathroom clean? No, more importantly, did I say something I shouldn’t have? He is standing so close to me. Through his eyeglasses, I see his pupils dilate. His amber eyes stare at me. I can see his temples throb. I wonder if his heart is doing the same. His fingers interlace. I wait for him to say something, but nothing comes out of his mouth. I look away to spare him from saying the wrong thing.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
“It’s just stress.”
We both know it is not stress. I know it is weakness: the one I feel for my Saviour. I want to scream and tell him that I am not unwell but confined to watching the lights illuminate the streets at night while I am still in darkness in my own apartment. I am bound to wearing my pajamas amidst sips of coffee and blank stares, to envying the birds as they fly by my window, to sitting at my desk clutching my journal until my hands go clammy. That I have even lock up my feelings and breathe in rhythmically to avoid vomiting.
I get up, close the book, and organize the photos, saying, “That window is all I have.” Salvatore frowns and turns around. He walks toward the window without saying a word. I can see the reflection of his face on the glass. He tightens his lips. His eyes fixed on the falling snow. I find myself standing beside him as if sucked in by a vortex.
“I can’t live my life through la finestra,” I say.
“No. You mustn’t, Sarah,” he says, still looking outside.
“I opened a window of fantasy, but reality is what I live inside this apartment.”
“I see,” Salvatore says, as he turns around. He takes my hands and holds them between his. Our reflections are perfectly outlined on the windowpane.
Claudia Del Balso originally from Miami, Florida now lives in Montreal. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. One of her short stories won an ‘Award of Excellence’ and is published in the anthology, Summer Tapestry. She has edited two books – of fiction and one non-fiction respectively – for Garev Publishing in England. A short story of hers will be included in the Anthology, The Golden Road, to be published by Poetry Institute of Canada in 2010.