The Tenth Annual "Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest Results

First Place Winner: Valium

by Diane Fleming

To get around, I plotted my excursions carefully. I drove everywhere in right lanes only, afraid that to venture into the unprotected left would cause me to separate from my body. To turn left, I turned right, circling in stranger's driveways. I used my kids as an excuse for why I missed social engagements. "I'm sorry, Kevin's not over the flu." I ate my fingernails for protein, I sifted my hair trying to untangle the mess. I averted my eyes. I wondered how people on TV maintained their composure. I thought I had a vitamin deficiency.

I managed to get to work and back (a ten-mile excursion through curvy icy roads with no pull-offs) for most of the winter by carrying a six-pack of beer in the back seat and a pocketful of hard candies. I had a notebook I could write about panic in, when it came to that. I chanted, "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen."

Most days, I thought I was dying. Sometimes, I heard two distinct voices in my head. One voice spoke from my left brain, saying, "Your husband loves you. You are happy." My right-brain voice needled me, asking, "What's wrong with you? Why are you so miserable?"

So I called Dr. Masterson, whom I found on the back page of the newspaper. His group was a "Psycho Educational, Cognitive and Behavioral Program for Panic, Agoraphobia, Social Anxiety and Most Related Obsessive/Compulsive Disorders." When I told my husband Roger that I was going to Dr. Masterson, he asked, "Will I still like you when you get well? Will you still love me?" His words assumed that I loved him right then.

Because I could barely drive, Roger drove me to Dr. Masterson's the first seven or eight times. On the first visit, Dr. Masterson had me fill out a form outlining my fears. Could I go to the grocery store? Could I drive? How far? Could I give a speech? I told him that I was depressed, that I couldn't drive more than two miles away from home. I told him how Roger drove me to work now, how speeches required drinking. I carried a little flask and I went to the ladies room and slugged whiskey before my talks about software diagnosis, about mainframes, about bytes of code. I talked about how when a program tries to write into unallocated memory, the computer screeches to a halt. This was how most things break -- by accidentally ending up in places they should not be.

Dr. Masterson asked me, "And how is your marriage?"

"Oh, good," I said reflexively.

"Yes?" He adjusted his monogrammed cuff links and brushed a piece of lint off his sleeve.

"Good." I rubbed the side of my head, trying to tame my nerves. "It's good."

"Uh huh." He looked up, his strong chin pointed at me. He sat silently. Maybe he was giving me a chance to undo my lie.

"This probably has nothing to do with anything," I said. "I only mention it because maybe it does have something to do with something, but it's probably nothing." The chair's wooden slats rubbed against the flat wings of my shoulder blades. "Anyway, my husband doesn't want sex. At least not with me."

Dr. Masterson studied my olive green stretched-out rugby shirt from Land's End, my pale makeup-less face, my body still plump from the birth of two babies, my hair pulled into a skull-tightening ponytail. He rolled closer to his heavy desk and wrote something down. Without looking up from his notebook, he said, "Have you tried injecting some spice into the bedroom?"

Roger was not a spicy man and I was not a spicy woman. I did not respond.

"You might try a few things. Lingerie? Soft-porn?"

"I can't drive more than two miles."

"Uh huh. Of course. Well, then, you'll enroll in my group. But I must tell you -- I warn all my clients of this -- when you start to feel better, the people in your life might feel worse."

"This is contagious?"

"Right now, you're the sick one. But that can change."

I wondered if he'd ever caught a phobia from one of his clients. He handed me a sheet with the assignment for the first group meeting.

"Write down your therapy goals," he said. "What is it you'd like to be able to do when you finish the group?"

"I'd like to be able to drive my kids to school, drive myself to work."

He said, "You don't need to worry about the why of all this. You can get better without understanding a thing."

end story

At the first meeting of Dr. Masterson's 16-week phobia group, he displayed his book The American Marriage in Peril prominently on his bookshelf. He'd been on Oprah with it. It seemed most of America was in need of his secrets, secrets that had turned him into a happily married man with three kids. I was not sure why he was qualified to treat panic disorder or what The American Marriage in Peril had to do with anything. In group, he revealed that he'd never had a panic attack himself.

"I don't think that's a requirement for me to treat you," he said. "I've had a lot of clinical experience with agoraphobics."

With nutcases, I thought. Spend enough time with nutcases and you know just what they need. But he did know something. In week one, we learned about "fallacious beliefs." In week three, relaxation. Week eight, desensitization. By graduation from the group, I could drive back and forth from work, to and from my mother's house. I could bring my sons swimming at the Y. I could spend money. But I promised Roger that I would not spend too much. What else could I do? He acted normal most of the time, but sometimes his blood pressure soared, he turned red with anger.

One night, I went grocery shopping. When Roger opened the cupboard under the sink, he saw too many bottles of water. He calculated quickly. I'd spent $4.12 too much.

"Who told you to buy seltzer?" he screamed.

I backed away because he wasn't meaning to be funny.

I mumbled my mantra, "I'm sorry."

"Don't fucking tell me you're sorry."

"I'm sorry."

He saw that I was not taking him seriously. He punched his hand into the wall, into the mustard yellow wallpaper pattern, the teacups and saucers, the bows that float in mid-air. "Fuck," he yelled.

I felt fragile like a bubble. For a moment, I grazed alongside the high cupboards, the ones where the waffle iron hid, where the six wicker baskets waited for Easter, where dust collected, where there was an old key to a missing room.

I'd once found him funny. Roger was a bartender. One steady drinker, John Lee, would drink all night and then leave Roger a quarter for a tip. Roger took to pouring John Lee's beers, turning away from John Lee, and spitting into the froth. I hated John Lee too. But now it seemed like I was getting nicer. The old brutal jokes, the ones I couldn't believe Roger would dare, no longer shocked me with pleasure.

end story

I could drive now, but being back in traffic, I was sure something would go wrong. I asked Dr. Masterson what I should do. He recommended more counseling for me -- both marriage counseling (he thought I might need some intensive work) and individual therapy (he thought I might need some intensive work). So my life split into two therapy directions: couples counseling with Dr. Masterson, marriage master, and my husband Roger, marriage survivor, plus a revolving door of individual therapists. I became a therapy slut -- Tuesdays, I saw Jean, Wednesdays, Rita, Thursdays, Anna Maria. Jean was a Jungian. I told her that Roger had grabbed a kitchen chair and threw it against the floor until it cracked apart. She asked, "Well, how did that make you feel?" When I couldn't answer, she wanted to hear my dreams. I told her a dream I'd had about a heavy dining room table. I sawed off a leg. Roger came into the room. I beat him to a bloody pulp. Jean crossed her hippie legs and let the fabric of her flowered skirt settle upon her ankles. "Anger," she said, chewing the word like it was a caramel. All I could think was, "Hunger." I was getting mixed up. Together, we looked out of her office window to the snow-covered street. I moved the copy of Yoga Journal back and forth across the coffee table.

At marriage counseling, Roger told Dr. Masterson that he loved me. "We have a good, regular-marriage sex life. Did she ever tell you that she was raped once?" Dr. Masterson looked at me as if this explained something. "The results of the psychological evaluation show that you do have sexual issues," he said. And I guessed this meant that Roger was fine, just fine.

Rita, my Wednesday appointment, was an advocate of recovery. A short plump Jewish woman with a gray mop of hair, she was the owner of a bookcase of pulp mysteries. She sipped decaffeinated hazelnut coffee from a stained ceramic mug. She talked too much, mostly about her other clients. We had a little gossip thing going. My insurance from work paid her to tell me about the woman with two kids who lived with the abusive carpenter who had pulled the thermostat right out of the wall one day because she turned on the air conditioning without asking him first. I let my eyes roam to the Agatha Christies on her shelf.

Thursdays, I went to a psychic. Anna Maria told me she was psychic because her father locked her in a closet. She learned to escape her body and listen to spirits. She pulled a card off the top of the deck. "Are you divorced? I see divorce." I nodded, not in agreement, but suddenly seeing the possibility. There were no mysteries on Anna Maria's shelf. She worked off a foldout card table in the back room of a trailer. I paid her $25 and left not hearing what I wanted to hear.

end story

I caught him one day when I returned home early with the kids -- they had fallen asleep in the car on the way home from the grocery store -- I tiptoed Kevin and then Patrick into the house and into their cribs so as not to wake them. I walked quietly in our bedroom and Roger stood there naked with an impressive hard-on. He was talking on the phone. He didn't see me at first. When he did, he slammed down the phone and grabbed for his pants, which lay neatly across the bed. There was no "Hi honey, why are you home so early?"

"Do you have a girlfriend?" I asked. And then, with hope, I asked, "Do you want to have sex?" There had been no sex between us for months.

Roger said, "No, I don't want sex. I've told you, I've lost my desire. It has nothing to do with you." I thought about that morning. I had nuzzled into his back. He had closed like a clam.

"But this," I said, pointing at the simmering phone.

"I don't have a girlfriend. And would you please leave the room while I get ready for work?"

end story

My friend Kristine recommended Gloria, the unlicensed bio-energeticist. "She makes you strip to your underwear and beat the bed and it works."

I figured I probably wouldn't progress to beating the bed for some time. I was sure that there were steps I had to work through -- unbuttoning my shirt, removing my socks. Beating the bed would be a ways off, just like talking about sex.

At the first session, she didn't ask me to take off my clothes right away, but she did make me get rid of my coffee because she said it would interfere with "the work." She said, "Tell me what's going on," and then she shut up and watched me. She wore this woeful look, like she was thinking, "Who the hell would pay someone $110 an hour to strip down and beat the bed?"

Maybe she knew this was my basic problem. Anyone who would agree to her services had to be sick and thus required intensive therapy. I told her about going shopping, walking up and down aisles, worrying the whole time that I'd buy something wrong. I knew that Roger would yell later. Too many Honeynut Cheerios, too many Rice Chex. But I was learning to listen, to ask him first, "Do we need more Rice Chex?" And if he said, "No," I avoided the temptation to buy more General Mills brand cereals.

Gloria said, "Take me on a fantasy shopping trip."

I described the items on each aisle and my concerns about each. "He doesn't like generic English muffins. He doesn't like potatoes."

Minutes passed. She looked up and said, "You haven't bought anything yet!" And then she said, "What if he were dead? What would you buy then?"

Death opened up many food possibilities. My next fantasy-shopping trip included a cart full of olive oil, peaches, fresh fish, garlic, peppercorns, and more garlic.

Without foreplay, Gloria said, "Strip down to your underwear."

There was a little window near the top ceiling of her basement office. The meter man could see in if he bent down a little. How many naked women had he seen beating the bed?

The room was cold. She was wearing a hip-length Irish cabled sweater, a long wool skirt, and tall black leather boots. I was wearing cotton Hanes and an underwire bra. I kept my socks on. She never told me what to do about my socks.

She said, "You feel sad. You want your husband dead."

I said, "I hate him."

"Let it go. Pound the bed."

I clasped my hands together and I smacked the bed. "Couldn't I just find him a girlfriend?"

"No," she said. "Beat the bed."

I closed my eyes, trying to forget how ridiculous I looked, how ridiculous I felt. I threw everything into my hands, into my fists. I averted my eyes. I beat the bed.

Gloria asked, "How do you feel now?"

I said, "I feel like I want to die. But just for a little while. Can a person do that?"

I wanted Jacqueline Susann's sleeping cure of Valley of the Dolls, the ability to doze through uncomfortable events, family dinners, christenings, and weddings. I'd stay awake at funerals. I'd possess an on-demand narcolepsy, awakening only when my husband decided he wanted me. I'd wake up for panic-free moments when I'd skydive against a Valium cloud, perfect and soft, adrift in a sort of canceled check comfort. There would be enough money for all vices and everyone would be calm and happy. There were still things I wanted to do.

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