“I did it!” Charlotte says, gleefully.
“Congratulations,” I say enthusiastically, “And welcome back.”
“I’m not talking about going by myself to Italy.”
“Oh! What did you mean?”
“I did go by myself to Italy. It was hard. And all you’ve heard about Italian men, don’t believe a word of it. No one gave me a second glance. Oh course, why look at a middle-aged woman when you have all these gorgeous young, half-dressed I might add, girls running around. But seriously, don’t you remember what we talked about our last session?”
“I thought I did but… Oh, Charlotte, you really didn’t…”
She smiles broadly nodding at me.
“You pretended you were sick,” I state matter-of-factly.
“Correct! You see, not even you can remember me unless I do something daring, outrageous.”
“Of course I remember you. I didn’t remember that you were considering presenting yourself as someone who was ill, but I remember …”
“It doesn’t matter. I figured out how to get the attention I wanted. The more outrageous I made the story the more attention I got. It’s amazing how solicitous flight attendants can be when you tell them you’re dying of cancer or that you just had a chemo treatment.”
“And is that whose attention you wanted?”
“Anyone is better than no one, but no, that’s not whose attention I wanted. But it was fun trying out different stories and seeing what provoked the most sympathy or what made people the most uncomfortable.”
“What did make people the most uncomfortable?”
“If they thought I was going to throw up all over them. That was a good one, especially on a plane with the person sitting next to me.”
“Sounds like you took a lot of pleasure making people uncomfortable.”
“Yes, I did. Felt like I was getting back at all the people who’ve made me uncomfortable, people who look at me like I’m ugly or don’t look at me at all, as if I don’t exist.
“What do you feel as you tell me all this?”
“First word that came to me? Triumphant!”
“And since you’ve been home?”
“It’s back to the same boring life. Biller in an ophthalmologist’s office. Real exciting. A great place to not be seen.” Pause. “But I am thinking about bringing my little pretense back home. Maybe in grocery stores or gas stations – I can go someplace I don’t usually shop. I’ve even considered taking it to work. Who’s to say I couldn’t start telling my co-workers I haven’t been feeling well, that I’ve gone to the doctor, that I have some kind of cancer, etc., etc.”
“Charlotte, when you first started talking today I felt annoyed with you, annoyed for the people you were duping and angry that you felt you had to stoop to subterfuge to get people to pay attention to you. But as you’ve kept talking, I find myself feeling sadder and sadder. And I suspect you also feel both angry and sad. You’re such a bright, insightful person. You could do so much more with your life.”
“Except that I’m ugly.”
“I know you feel ugly, and this is something you and I constantly disagree about, but you don’t have to be the most beautiful woman in the room to have friends, to have lovers, to have a job that fulfills you.”
“You mean billing doesn’t fulfill me?” she asks sarcastically.
I sigh. “I know your mother didn’t value you. I know you feel your older sisters were prettier and smarter than you. And given all that, it is still possible to have a meaningful life.” Pause. “You’ve always talked about writing. You certainly demonstrated that you can be creative with your storytelling about yourself. Put the stories down on paper instead of acting them out.” Pause. “I’m sorry. I’m preaching. I know I can’t decide your life for you.”
“I’m 55 years old. Don’t you think it’s too late for me? How do I change now?”
“You went to Italy.”
“And my most fun was spinning a death fantasy about myself.”
“What was your fantasy about what the trip would be like before you left?”
Charlotte drops her head. “I thought I’d meet the love of my life. I know, that’s stupid, ridiculous. I feel like an idiot even saying it.”
“It’s not stupid, Charlotte, it’s a wish. But maybe it would have been good if we had talked more about your imaginings about the trip before you went so that you could have anticipated several scenarios, thought of the good things that might have happened, as well as the disappointing things. And I know that although many people like it, traveling alone can be very hard.”
Charlotte starts to cry. “It was very hard.”