The Day Charlie Died

Melanie pulled a lock of hair from in front of her eyes and peered into the Plexiglas tank. She sank down onto her knees and leveled her gaze with the creature inside. She whispered, "Don't die," then dug her nails into her palm to distract herself.

She wasn't supposed to be looking at the dying firefly. She knew this. She should've been filing or paying bills. She should've been doing laundry or putting away the dishes. She should've been doing a lot of other things that she wasn't because she couldn't stop herself from looking into the tank. She wanted to be able to ignore its presence, to go about her daily tasks as if it wasn't even there. But she couldn't. She couldn't break away, and so she was failing the experiment--she was caring too much again.

The first batch was easier not to care about, and she didn't, and Dr. Chodesh was very pleased and he said so. He said, "Melanie, I am so pleased. We're making progress now, you'll see, you'll be better in no time." And Melanie had been pleased too, but she hadn't said so. She hadn't wanted to jinx herself, so she just smiled.

She knew she couldn't tell Dr. Chodesh that she looked, that she watched the actual process of death overcoming the insect: the body squirming, the wings flapping slower and slower, the little light refusing to glow. She couldn't, because then she'd have to admit that she had been watching all day and that his therapy had been wasted on her. If she did confess, if she told Dr. Chodesh how she spent her day, he would snap straight up in his soft brown leather chair and stare at her. Then he'd jot mysterious notes down on one of his brand new yellow legal pads while Melanie stared at his diplomas and listened to the ticking of his old Swiss cuckoo clock. She would count the ticks, she would count over two hundred ticks, before he capped his pen and placed it in front of her. Then he'd clasp his manicured hands together and say--Melanie didn't really know what he'd say. She thought it was possible that he'd say, "Okay we'll try the medications again." She hoped he'd say, "Don't worry I have another idea." But she feared that he'd lean his head back and look away from her, that he'd declare, "That's it Melanie, I have no more tricks up my sleeve, no more options, no more thoughts on the matter. I just don't know where to go from here." And Melanie couldn't bear to hear this, not from him, so she couldn't tell him about her day. She couldn't even say, "Charlie died." She'd refer to him by number, number 4; she'd say, without the slightest bit of sadness, "Number 4 is dead." Then he'd ask, "And how do you feel about this, Melanie?" and she'd have to say, "I don't. I don't feel anything," And then Dr. Chodesh would smile, still pleased with her detachment but even more so with his brilliant new method for making people stop caring.

Melanie was lucky that this was her day off. She was lucky because if it wasn't and her husband, Seth, found out that she had stayed home because Charlie didn't look right, he would have reported it to Dr. Chodesh like a cold war spy. He would have reported Melanie for caring too much again. At least this was how she saw it, being punished for caring too much. Seth hadn't always said that she cared too much. In fact, for most of her life people had said that she had cared too little, that she had been careless, selfish, unaffected by others' pain and suffering. They told her that she needed to care more. They said this then, but now her husband and mother and friends, her boss and colleagues and doctor told her that she cared too much. Well really "worries too much," that's what they said, and she tended to agree, but only partially, because she didn't really see the difference between worrying and caring.

Dr. Chodesh pointed out the "too much" part, the part that compelled her to call her husband every hour at work just to make sure he was alright, the part that made her demand that her mother check in with her every morning and every night to report on her health status, the part of caring that had slowly enveloped her life, pushing aside the necessary functions, like work, to make room for the discovery of impending disasters and strategies to intercept them. She understood the "too much" part, but she still had trouble differentiating caring from worrying, there was such a thin line separating the two, and what started innocently enough with a smile or a second glance or pleasantry ended up a concern. Dr. Chodesh had isolated the danger zone, the over the line/gone-too-far-moments, but there were so many, too many to keep lined up. And when he did--point them out--the worrying actually got worse, because she saw the worries like cells filling up all the space in her mind. She saw them multiplying at such a rate that she wouldn't have room in her brain for anything else, and when she pictured this she started to panic, because now that she had been assessed, evaluated, diagnosed, it was all too serious. And she thought that maybe she would never be able to stop worrying because now she had a condition.

Dr. Chodesh identified the date the condition set in as the date of the accident. Melanie wasn't sure about this. She couldn't be sure it started the day Lilly died, but she couldn't be sure that it didn't either. So, she didn't object when he said it. It was possible, she thought, it was possible that it started at that moment when she wasn't looking, when she turned her head to stare at a skirt in a store window, and that yellow blur jumped the curb and hit her Golden.

At the initial consultation Dr. Chodesh seemed to be fixated on what could have happened to Melanie, what could have happened if she were standing any closer to Lilly. He frowned and nodded compassionately in her direction when Seth reported, "My wife almost died," and she hoped that this had been why the worrying had started, because it seemed easier to understand for everyone else, and maybe even easier to fix. And because everyone assumed that this was why her behavior had changed so drastically, she tried to convince herself of it too. She tried to convince herself of what they believed, that she only cared about herself, but it wasn't true, had never been true. She cared, she just didn't show it, she just didn't show the caring before. And now she couldn't stop. But it was never about her mortality; it was everyone else's that she worried about. She worried what would happen the next time she looked away. So, when Dr Chodesh asked her, "How do you feel about the fact that you almost died?" she answered truthfully. She said, "I don't. I don't feel anything about it."

Dr. Chodesh didn't suggest the bugs immediately, they were a last resort. He recommended that they first try analysis. There was a couch in the room. It was black and smooth and hard looking. She wanted to lie down on it, she wanted to curl into a ball and fall asleep on it. But he never invited her to lie down on the couch, so she sat in the chair, the half back, studded at the seams, the same one she sat in when Seth brought her, a perfect replica of the one he had sat in only a few inches away. Dr. Chodesh was always behind his large mahogany desk, pressing his fingers on the surface as if to hold on, as if he would fall into an abyss if he relaxed. Melanie stared at the pink tips of his fingers as they lost and regained their color.

"So how do you feel today?" he had asked to begin her first session of analysis. Melanie just shrugged. It seemed like a difficult question for her to answer, a question she had not yet thought enough about, so she responded the same way to him as she would to the doorman at her building, she said "Fine," but caught herself before adding, "and you?"

"And how many times have you called your husband today?"

"I haven't," she admitted.

And then his face lit up, and he said, "Why that's great." It made him so happy, she didn't want to admit that she didn't call Seth because he had taken the morning off to bring her and he was downstairs having coffee. She knew she had to confess. She had to because he'd find out somehow; somehow she'd slip up. But his happiness was making her not want to call Seth ever, and she wished that Seth was at work right then so that she could consciously not call him. Though when she did admit it, Dr. Chodesh stopped smiling abruptly and said "Oh," and frowned. But it wasn't a compassionate frown and when he started scribbling his notes she felt as if she had done something terribly wrong, and then she was more sad than before she came in, and it made her want to call Seth. She wanted to call him like she called her mother from sleep-away-camp. She wanted to beg him, "Can I come home now?"

He wouldn't take her home. He wouldn't because he was the one that made her come in the first place.

"Enough already," he'd said. He had said it on the phone after she called him for the fifth time that day and then he'd hung up. She called back, she had to, she had to make sure that he wasn't too upset with her, because if he was, and he wasn't paying attention to things around him, bad things could happen. He could mess up some calculations and get into trouble at work. He could stand too close to the edge of the subway platform. He could walk down a dark alley without thinking. So she had to call back to tell him that she wouldn't call him again and not to be upset. Then she left work early and paced in their apartment until he got home.

"I got the name of a doctor," he said. They were sitting in their living room. He sat her down on the couch, she still had on her coat. "I made an appointment. We're going to go see him tomorrow."

Melanie looked down at the floor, "I won't call anymore. I promise."

"He said it sounds like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he could help you."

Melanie tried to figure out when exactly Seth had stopped liking her new caring side. Because at the beginning he liked the attention, he liked the fact that she was actually asking about his day, how he was feeling, what he might like for dinner. He liked the attention and he said so. "Melanie what's come over you?" He said it with a smile and then kissed her and then laid his head on her lap and let her play with his hair. She tried to think, was it a week, two weeks? No, it was longer, it was almost a month, after almost a month he had had enough. After two weeks he was already talking about how mysterious she used to be and how he always found that sexy. After three weeks he started complaining about the baby she stopped trying to have, the baby that before this he had said he wasn't ready for. By the fourth week he wanted the old Melanie back. But Melanie didn't know how to get back.

She didn't want to go to the doctor. She thought that if a doctor heard about her fears, that he might lock her up for her own good. He might lock her up in a place where she couldn't call anyone anymore. But then she started thinking that maybe it was a good thing, that maybe Seth was right. Maybe it was a good thing for her to be locked up, and maybe the doctor could help her to be the person she used to be. Maybe he could help to push the wall back up, put back on the mask that everyone was so comfortable with. Maybe he could help her be mysterious again.

Dr. Chodesh seemed very serious about the analysis, but he also seemed to be really enjoying himself. And she liked to see him enjoying himself and so she tried to help, or she would have, but she couldn't figure out what he was looking for. He had to poke and prod, he had to dig and excavate her memory, he had to sift through the findings only to discover a reasonably adequate child of reasonably adequate parents, nothing to dust off and lift over one's head and say "Ah ha! I've found the culprit." And from time to time he would get frustrated and start a frenzy of writing on one of his pads and Melanie would feel badly for not offering anything up. She answered his questions as best she could, week after week. Finally he concluded that medication should be introduced. Medication would help her relax, stop worrying so much. Medication would calm her down so that he could continue his search for what was really causing all this.

The medication helped her to stop calling Seth and her mom, but Seth said it helped too much, because now she wasn't talking very much to any of them. She became fixated on other people: the little boy down the hall, the middle aged man at work who ate too many hot dogs, the young girl who jogged past their building every morning. She worried about what was or did or could be happening to them. She only told Seth when he caught her crying, but that was enough for him to call up Dr. Chodesh and shout, "What the hell did you do to her?" It was at that point that Dr. Chodesh asked them to come in together for the next session.

It was at the next session that he disappeared in back of his desk and reappeared holding the tank with a spider inside. And they both looked at each other and shook their heads. "You see," he said, "the point is for Melanie to see that life happens all around her and it's beyond her control. That--" "You want her to kill bugs?" Seth asked.

"No. I want her to see that death is part of life and it's okay."

"So what do we do when it dies?"

"You, Seth, I want you to remove the carcass and replace it with a new one.""Me?"

"And Melanie, you can only check in on them in the morning and at night, twice a day. That's it."

"I think you're the one who needs help," Seth said, and then stormed out of the office.

Melanie carried the tank home. She put it on the table in the corner by the window. She had to be strong. She couldn't take him out of the tank and bring him outside if he didn't seem to be well and if he did die she couldn't bury him, she couldn't be attached. Seth would have to find him and get rid of him and replace him. That was his job. That was his part of the therapy. To both of their surprise it was working, at least they thought it was. Seth said after the second bug, "I can't believe it's working," because she had stopped obsessing about her acquaintances, and was going to work everyday, and seemed strangely serene. She was doing well until Charlie. Charlie was hard because she liked him, because he fluttered around and flashed his little light. Melanie liked him, and so she started to care.

Melanie stared at Charlie lying on the floor of his cell. She had been crying for over an hour and her eyes were red and puffy, but calm. She wasn't really crying for Charlie, but for Lilly and for herself, for everything that didn't make sense. But when she realized that Charlie had stopped moving she stopped crying. She emptied out a matchbox and put a leaf inside. She wanted to go downstairs to the garden and give him a proper burial, and was reaching into the tank to take him out, when Seth came home and saw her.

He gasped, "Melanie! What the--"

But she ignored him and put Charlie in the box. Then she turned to him and said, "No more. I'm not doing this anymore." Then she closed the box and laid it in her palm.

Seth sat down. He rubbed his temples and ran his hands through his hair. He sighed, he said, "We'll find another doctor."

But Melanie said, "No. No, we won't."

She sat across from him and stared at Charlie's casket and thought of poor Dr. Chodesh and how disappointed he would be.

And then they sat in silence. And after a while, she felt like he was going to say something and braced herself. It happened a couple of times. A couple of times she braced herself for him to say, that's it. Or I am sorry I just can't take it anymore. Or something like that. She expected him to say something like that when he left. Then she expected to find empty metal hangers clanging eerily in his closet and maybe a note saying, she didn't know what the note would say, but she thought there would be one, because that's what she thought people did in the end, she thought that was what people did when it was so far from being fun anymore. It was what she thought she would do, though it had never occurred to her before. And so she expected him to say something like that when he sat her down, she expected him to leave.

But he didn't say anything, she sat and she waited but he didn't say a thing.

As originally published in the Brooklyn Review.