journal | team | miscellany | home

A Brief Interruption

Ryan Pollard

Dr. Robert Spencer was waiting for something to happen. At thirty-eight, his life had reached that stage of mindless inertia that can spell trouble for some men. But his particular bind didn’t feel like discontentment or resignation, or even an impending midlife crisis, at least as he understood the term. Rather, he found himself simply observing the successful, self-sustaining life he had achieved as a distrait factory worker might observe the efficient automation of an assembly line, glancing coolly at the conveyor belts and brisk robotics from time to time, bored with the sufficiency of it all, vaguely wondering what would happen if you stuck something in right here. He didn’t have a good reason to do anything like that, though, nor the inclination, for that matter, so instead he just watched idly as a comfortable little rut coalesced around him. He understood how covetable it was. He’d recently been tenured and promoted after working to make a modest name for himself in the field of clinical psychology. His family and home life were humming along nicely. He had roughly the same trim body and head of dark hair he’d had in high school, sufficient free time to do what he liked now that his two daughters were beyond the neediest years, and a wife who, as far as he could tell, happily held up her end of the bargain. What else could he want, really? The question had begun to enter and reenter his consciousness now and then, like a neglected chore he needed to do in the yard but only thought of when he happened to glance out the window.

Sometimes the thought arose while he was sitting at his desk in the psychology building of the state university where he’d worked since graduating with a PsyD in his early thirties. He taught several classes in the department, supervised clinical placements, ran a support group for adults with mental illness, and generally enjoyed what he did. The students seemed to like him as well, leaving comments on his course evaluations like “knowledgeable,” “fair,” “approachable,” “funny,” “passionate,” and, his favorite, “captivating.” The thing was, he doubted if any of those descriptions, besides perhaps the first, could be applied to him outside of work. He had always been the kind of boy, and later man, who found it at best a moderate effort of the will to talk to anyone he didn’t know well. This shyness had made it difficult to fit in and left him with fewer friends and acquaintances than he would have liked, while dating, when it finally came in his late teens, was even more problematic.

He had waded into the early days of online dating, hoping the algorithms would resolve the trickiest hurdle, the ask, but the few dates he’d gone on became the tortuous encounters he knew they would be. A poor girl who showed the slightest interest in, say, the French New Wave or transcendentalism would be flattened with excitable ramblings as she moved her fries blankly around her plate, while the rest were treated to an equally ponderous evening pulling conversation from a companion as talkative as a sullen middle schooler called into the principal’s office.

Early in his master’s program Robert met a girl named Maria with tender eyes and a mordant wit that seemed to pounce on and bat around the world’s follies with a housecat’s playful intensity. He passed her on campus as she read under a large tree in the serenely absorbed manner he had always wanted to possess when reading outside but could never quite pull off. Slowing down to see if he could make out the book’s title or author, by the time he determined both, he hadn’t noticed that he was no longer walking.

She looked up at him, paused a beat, and offered lightly, “Hello?”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to seem creepy,” he scrambled. “I was just seeing what you were reading.” He winced inwardly and shook his head at the words that had come out. “Although I guess that doesn’t really help my not-creepy-at-all case, huh?”

She grinned at his sweet discomfiture and saw his face redden but didn’t let on. Instead, she simply smiled, turning the cover over so he could see it clearly. “Are you a fan?”

“Very much so.”

“Well I just started it yesterday, so no spoilers, ‘k?”

He laughed to himself, for possibly the first time with a light heart, and marveled how effortlessly the conversation followed from there. Soon afterward, as they began to date, he was aware of feeling an utter calm in her presence he could no more explain than imagine ever having lived without.

 “It’s called ataraxia,” Maria had told him once while lying on his couch with her feet nestled underneath him, sipping rooibos tea and studying for an ancient philosophy class.

“Well, whatever it is, I’d like to keep it for a while.” He ran his fingernails across the hough of her knee, making her giggle. “And you, too.”

In the end, he was convinced that finding Maria was a stroke of such enormous luck that it added to his love for her an abiding adjunct—a secret he never shared with her but knew she couldn’t have failed to notice—that at first was pure gratitude, but later became something like indebtedness. Unfortunately, she couldn’t erase or lessen his unease around every other girl with even the least beauty or charm. It remained as before, and, worse yet, he was never sure if they found it endearing or pitiful. So it was no help that when he finally got his first real academic job, his students were mostly female, as were his colleagues.

His doctoral advisor had suggested early on, in a not quite offhand way that seemed too arch to lack a backstory, that he should always leave his door open at least a crack when meeting one-on-one with any female student. “For your own protection,” he had said as he raised his brow solemnly. Robert squirrelled that advice away—prudently, he thought—but never appreciated its utility until several years later when a failing sophomore broke down in his office while pleading her case. In her desperation, she threatened to tell the chair that he had made a pass at her. He called her bluff confidently, surprising himself, and told her to leave the door open on her way out. As she retreated into the hallway, he acknowledged to himself his sedate voice and the reflexiveness with which he’d held his ground. He also recognized, for the first time, it seemed, exactly where he stood.    

The beginning of an idea is rarely acute, but if he thought about it hard enough, Dr. Spencer might have traced its formation back to that encounter. He began noticing details about his students beyond general personality features or the quality of their intellects. Soon it became clear, almost predictable (had it always been there?), that a portion of students each year either openly or at least conspicuously had one of the conditions that their chosen vocation was equipped to treat. Most likely they had been drawn to the field, as he had himself long ago, for reasons more internally geared than humanitarian. He’d seen it often in the helping professions: reading specialists who had struggled with dyslexia, social workers from violent or loveless homes, a pastor who had never fully found his faith. This semester he had a handful of students who fit the bill: two girls with bipolar disorder in his Abnormal Psychology class, a few with anxiety disorders in Systems of Psychotherapy, and the usual mélange of learning disabilities, ADHD, epilepsy, physical ailments, and autism in his Intro to Disability Studies class. 

It was one of the girls with bipolar disorder who emerged from the crowd in a more piquant way than her predecessors. She had a memorable name, for one thing—Susan Hobbernicht—and for another she was remarkably open about her illness during class discussions, freely describing her attempts at self-medication, her efforts to be taken seriously by the adults in her life, the stigma she’d swallowed and now struggled to extirpate. She appeared quite at ease revealing things about herself that most people would rather not. 

But it wasn’t until the topic of mania came up one day that something tipped for Dr. Spencer. Susan was talking with a candor he had seen in others who would disclose the details of one disability or another in his class, but with her there wasn’t the usual confessional tone or inculpation—the justifiable ax to grind—common to late adolescence. She spoke about how her particular mania could bring on a welcomed sensuality and appreciation for her body, as well as sexualized delusions of grandeur. All this with a matter-of-factness that suggested it was the most reasonable thing in the world to fuck an ex-boyfriend several times one day and then seduce some stranger at a coffee shop the next. She described it all without shame, even a little bashfully, he thought, and it was probably her modesty that cinched it.

“Pleasure-seeking behavior’s pretty common when you’re in a manic state,” she explained. “At least it is for me. But I’m really more of a hypomanic bipolar, type two, since I’ve never had a psychotic episode.”

Another student, a tall lacrosse player named Sydney who also spoke openly about her own condition, though not as often, took up the topic. “I’m usually in a mixed state, so I’m too anxious and antsy to do many pleasurable things. Except shopping. I’ll buy ten outfits and maybe a new puppy unless someone’s there to stop me.” Some of her classmates chuckled encouragingly.

As Dr. Spencer packed up after class, Susan approached him while the room emptied. “Hi,” she said, again with that charming diffidence he had never known was there. “I just wanted to apologize if I got a little too personal today.”

“No need, don’t worry about it,” he said. “Personal experiences always add a relatable element to the discussion. And, like I said the first week of class, any time people are talking honestly about mental health, I count that as productive. It’s a win.” He cocked his head a tad and grinned. “Even if it involves some, um, I don’t know, maybe unflattering situations.”

Susan’s youthful cheeks blushed infinitesimally, just as he’d hoped they would, and she dropped her eyes for a moment. “Yeah, not something I’m super proud of, but it’s the truth. And I’m sorta in a self-advocacy stage right now, so it’s good to own it, you know? At least that’s what we say in my DBT group.” 

He nodded in sympathy. “I understand. I’m sure it helps. Glad to hear you’ve sought treatment.”

“I’ll try anything at this point, to be honest. It’s not easy having this.”

They walked out the door as the next class filed in and continued talking about topics that were plainly important to her, some relevant to the class and others more peripheral. They ended up outside his office door when Dr. Spencer tried something he hadn’t done before, just to see—he pushed his hand onto the conveyor, jolting the coherent orchestration of things in motion. “My office door’s open,” he began in the best father confessor tone he could manage, “if you ever need to talk with someone who, you know, gets it. I know mental illness can be isolating.”

“Thanks, I will,” she said guilelessly.

Feeling encouraged, he continued. “Or, you know, even if you want to just pick my brain about anything. I’d be glad to help.”  

THAT AFTERNOON on the drive home, Robert rehashed the disruptive step he’d taken and countenanced, with a tinge of pride, that he had in fact taken it. His terrible fear of rejection had somehow disappeared for a moment and he wondered with horror and an unfamiliar guilt whether it had only been that old fear, lingering there since he could remember, that had kept him in line all this time. Surely that couldn’t be it. He loved his wife, after all, and wouldn’t give up his children for the world. He knew that as well as he knew anything.      

But once the tiny gambit had been taken and he saw how easy it could be—the simplest thing in the world, really—he found it difficult to find reasons why he shouldn’t try it again.

He did so the following week when he passed Susan in the hallway. They exchanged friendly, mobile greetings, and after walking a couple steps he turned back decisively to ask if she’d like to borrow a book on self-injurious behaviors, a topic he’d overheard she was researching for her senior thesis. Her surprised smile told him she was flattered that he knew and cared about her project.

She began coming to his office often to discuss articles she had read or to ask about his thoughts on specific medications or therapies. He often suggested literature she might want to read next, pleased that she valued his knowledge. He noticed he was becoming incrementally bolder each time she came, telling her stories of his early years in and progression through the field, asking about her plans after graduation and offering advice, and venturing further and further afield toward her personal and family life. She confided that her father had doubted her illness since it first began early in high school, telling her just what she could do with all her “self-pity” and “excuses.” She spoke the words not with contempt, but with the half-shrugged resignation of an unaffirmed child. Robert told her that he believed her, that her pain and troubles were as real as those caused by anything physical. 

After a while their conversations hardly concerned academic matters at all. They discovered that they had a number of interests in common, including some that mattered to him. Susan had read as much Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joyce and the like as he had at that age, a fact on which he complimented her. Last summer while traveling around Italy with friends, she’d taken a quick side trip by herself to Malta to see two Caravaggios—his favorite painter—in a famous Baroque church. To top it off, she played keyboards in a band that would get into arguments onstage over whether to cover a Cure or a Smiths song whenever they happened to get through their set list with some time to spare. They both acknowledged and joked about their striking consonance, shaking their heads gladly.

One day during finals week as they were talking about therapeutic approaches for repressed trauma, Susan mentioned a film she had just watched on the topic. Robert found himself excited to hear that she’d seen it, much like in his youth when someone unexpectedly liked something he thought of as being somehow secretly his. He cut in with the title before she could get to it. 

“Yes!” she said excitedly. “That’s it! I felt like it dealt with such an awful subject in a very, I don’t know, strangely beautiful way. The ending just killed me, when they’re curled up on the couch together.”

“And such a perfect soundtrack,” he added. “That’s how I discovered Sigur Rós.” 

Susan beamed and spoke faster, “Oh my God, I know! Me too! That’s so crazy, I can’t believe how much we have in common. It’s like you’re my long lost uncle or something. Or brother,” she amended after noticing what may have been a slight twitch in his brow. “I don’t want to sound weird or anything but you seem maybe young enough to be. My brother, I mean, not my uncle. I don’t even have an uncle, I have three aunts. They’re all nuttier than squirrel poo like me. Oh, shit, what am I saying? I can’t believe I said that brother thing, sorry.”

He looked at her kindly. “I’m still clinging on to my thirties. But I appreciate the complement.”

She hardly registered his admission and continued quickly, “I’ve been having pressured speech lately, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. You probably have. Well at least since last week. And I totally knew it when it started because I was walking across campus and looking up at the trees and just the patterns and intricacies of the branches like almost like they were breathing they were almost too beautiful, you know? I probably looked like some loopy drugged out girl staring up at the sky or something. That wasn’t on my way to your class, though, I promise.”

“Oh, that’s ok, I know that occasionally you—” 

“The first time that happened,” she interrupted, “I Googled ‘MDMA flashbacks’ but figured out pretty fast that that wasn’t it. My ex-boyfriend used to tell me that was his favorite time, when I’d come over to his place with that dreamy look and he’d know he’d be getting happy Susan for at least a little while. He loved that. He got all he could handle, too. But then I’d just like that hit a depressive phase and who knows how long those’ll last, the last one was over two months and that’s when he finally bailed and told me my moods were hard on him. Shit, sorry,” she held her hand to her mouth in embarrassment. “I can’t stop myself today.”        

“Susan, I’ve told you before, I get it. You’re having some flight of ideas, too, I notice. It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” He decided at that instant to take the next step, so he privately girded himself and reached out again, in one determined motion, at the whirring belt. “All he could handle, huh? I imagine he was a very lucky man.” 

Susan stared back with a self-possession that startled him and he understood there was nothing he could do now but wait. Had he gone too far? Did his words sound as untried as they felt? A memory from his first year of college surfaced. A girl he’d watched longingly in class had stopped by his table at the library entrance where he worked as a monitor. She made small talk, asked about his major, then mentioned her plans for the weekend, at last coming out with it boldly and asking for his number as she smiled beautifully right at him. He was so thrilled and upended that he gave her the wrong number. She never approached him again. As the girl’s blurry face lingered in his mind, Susan’s response came: “Humph, lucky man? More like lucky boy,” she scoffed. “He wasn’t much to speak of, to be honest. And he never understood me, not like you do.” Her assent was as sure and clear as if she had taken his hand and led him away down her darkened hallway.  

“Well, I’m glad to hear that, Susan.” He sat back in his chair a bit and regarded her exultingly as he went all in. “And I’m fairly sure I could handle it.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” she followed on cue, smiling and subtly averting her eyes. “Maybe we’ll see sometime, huh?” 

“Maybe we will.” He tried to pull from rehearsals of this moment that he had run through lately in his reveries. Suddenly an uncharacteristic and trite line presented itself and he grabbed it. “Perhaps we could meet for a drink sometime.”

“I think I’d like that.”

He glanced at the clock. “I’d even say right now; it’s happy hour. But I’ve got to get to a meeting and then I have the last support group practicum after that.”

“I know,” she said looking at him head-on, for all the world like a young woman experienced in such matters. “It’s done at 7:30, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well then,” she said, “maybe I’ll see you then.”

There was a sort of exalted quiet in the room after that, now that it had been decided. Neither of them spoke when they got up to leave. 

They didn’t speak again when he turned the hallway corner later that night and found her standing outside his office. She made a playful pantomime of looking down both ends of the hallway, one at a time, then nodded ahead of her and whispered something as she walked past him and turned the corner. He tried frantically to piece her half-heard words together while watching her slink into the men’s room without looking back. He couldn’t recall if he’d seen anyone else in the building when coming to his office a minute ago, but before he could put his mind at ease he was already inside the bathroom and walking to the open stall at the back. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” Susan said as he closed the stall door. He was unsure of the sequence of things, but took her face gently in his hands anyway, awestruck by how young she was. Even her breath was young and eager as she pressed against him, kissing him deeply. She then turned around slowly and leaned forward, gazing back at him with a look that was as inviting as anything he’d ever seen. She knew what she wanted and got every breathless second of it, and what had begun as a dim fantasy many weeks ago—but truly well before that, if he was being honest—was finally accomplished. 

OVER THE FOLLOWING DAYS of winter break, Robert had more than enough time to consider what had happened. He was most struck by the reality that such a jarring act had left no trace of disturbance in its wake. He spent his time off from work much as he had the previous year, and the year before that: swimming at the rec center, going sledding, and watching movies with his family; hosting his in-laws for Christmas Eve dinner; running errands that had been put off until the semester was done; drinking wine with Maria after the girls were asleep and making love more often than usual. He wondered at first how that could be, but then realized that of course that’s how it was. In fact, as long as they were the only ones who knew, how could it be otherwise? His most immediate concern was the question of Susan’s discretion. He tried to allay that by reminding himself how mature she was, or at least how mature she wanted to be. Still, it was a relief to know that she only had his email address, and he changed his privacy settings on Facebook just in case.

He didn’t see or hear from her again until after classes recommenced in January. On a bleakly gray morning, she walked up the wide staircase at the main entrance of the psychology building as he was walking down. Trying to muster some passable savior faire, it quickly became apparent that he didn’t need it; her grave eyes never met his and he passed by apparently unnoticed. He turned at the vestibule doors to watch her crest the last step and continue down the windowed corridor in the trudging but determined manner of a soldier well into an unknowably long hike.

After that, he didn’t see Susan on campus for the rest of the school year. She may have been there, but their paths never crossed and she didn’t come by his office anymore.

He attempted several emails, none of which got beyond the first few lines, and all of which underscored the embarrassing amatory shortcomings his happy marriage and life had managed to bury for many years. Some were solicitous: “I hope you’ve been well since we last spoke. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been thinking and maybe worrying a little about you.” Others attempted a kind of jaunty insouciance: “Hey there, stranger! Did you see any good movies over break?” One, written one night after his wife fell asleep on the couch and he’d drunk a couple glasses of scotch, went for a bald-faced passion he thought a young twenty-something might find appealing: “Where have you been and when can I see you again? You and your impossibly, intoxicatingly soft flesh. If what we did was a mistake, why do I feel you in my waking dreams, your perfect ass pressed hard against my loins?” It went on like that a while longer before he put his hands on his stomach, stared at the screen, exhaled a silent sigh, and finally hit delete.    

With each aborted try, he recognized that he was decidedly not the man of the world he’d always longed to be—the one Susan had made him feel for a moment he was. He felt ashamed to know it, more so than the remorse he felt for the infidelity itself. But the shame and truth of who he was and would never be wasn’t the worst of it. He knew he could not tell Maria, it was out of the question, so the act and its memory would be confined in him forever. He wished for a candlelit oubliette in his heart to put it in, but each time the image appeared, it was he himself, not the memory, that fell through the door.

The semester went by quickly as life sped back up to its natural, comfortable cadence. Then, on a Friday in late April, with the lilac hedge outside Dr. Spencer’s office just starting to send lavender wafts of springtime proper up through his open window, he looked up from his computer to see Susan standing in the doorway. At a loss for a moment, he managed to say “Hello there” as he observed her steadily. “Long time, no see.” 

She was dressed in a gray hooded pullover, modestly torn jeans, and old canvas shoes, and it occurred to him that she may have purposely dressed up a bit when she stopped by for their conversations in the fall. There was nothing of her former warmth or receptiveness as she walked into his office and closed the door behind her.

“I needed to come in today,” she said as much to herself as to him, “but now I’m not really sure why.” 

“Would you like to sit down?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Ok.”

She put her hands in the deep pockets of her sweatshirt and stood there looking down at him behind his desk.

“How have you been?” he began.

“Not very well, if you want to know. Do you want to know, though, or are you just asking ‘cause that’s the polite thing to do?”

“I can see you’re upset, Susan. I’m sorry I didn’t—”

“Just shut up, ok?” she said with an evenness that chilled him. “Do you know where I’ve been lately? Most of this semester, actually?” She gave him a second to respond and then continued when he didn’t. “In the worst fucking depression of my life. Like a goddam black hole I crawled out of every once in a while to drag myself to class when I could finally manage to put my shoes on. Thank God I got that Flex Plan so I could miss so many lectures this spring. Guess telling me about that was one good thing you did for me. But fucking me over a filthy toilet when you knew, you knew I was hypomanic and you knew my history?! Turns out that wasn’t such a good thing.” Her voice had momentarily risen to a higher, more fragile pitch, but she quickly swallowed hard and recovered. “I bet you were waiting for the chance, huh? Probably fantasized about it while you fed me your wise bullshit, that validating counselor routine you probably use with clients. So damn understanding, not like all the others,” she said with sharp irony. She took a deep breath, fighting her body’s labile tendencies, determined to hold it all in place. 

He felt small sitting in his chair looking at her across the room. He wanted to stand up, to make some effort to restore the order of things, the propriety of his office, but he didn’t have the courage. “I was never dishonest with you, Susan. I was quite fond of you, in fact. Still am, if you want to know the truth. I never expected what happened to … well …”

“Then why did you let it happen?” she asked sincerely, momentarily softening with the need for an answer. Then she caught herself and stiffened, narrowing her eyes. “What am I saying? You know why. You wanted it all along.” 

He could tell before he uttered his defense that it would come out sounding craven, and it did. “I didn’t mean to… take advantage,” he said weakly. “I want you to know that. And I hope we can keep this between us. I’m truly sorry for… for how this turned out.” He couldn’t help but notice that he was practically sniveling.  

“So that’s what you care about, huh? I guess I’m not surprised.” She had a look of pity he hadn’t seen from a girl in a long time. “Well don’t you worry, I’m not some psycho who’s gonna boil your kids’ pet rabbit in a pot. And I’m not some weak little bipolar girl who’s gonna do anything rash, kill myself or anything, because I did something stupid. I made it through the last few months and I’m finally coming out of it. I’ll be alright. Coming here today was good, I debated if I should even do it or not.” Her eyes flashed with an idea and she snickered darkly to herself. “Guess my asshole of a dad was right after all—I just have to toughen up. Be stronger.” 

And with that, it was clear that Susan was disburdened. She told him, in a final yet not altogether disdainful voice, as he and his concerns were irrelevant to her now, to have a nice life before she walked back out the door, leaving it open and Dr. Spencer as dazed as she was finished. 

THE FOLLOWING MONTH Robert Spencer turned thirty-nine. The occasion was celebrated at a local cidery with his family and two other families they were friends with mainly through their children. The parents absently watched their kids scramble through the large outdoor table and game areas and conversed about the same topics they usually did while milling around the pick-up area after school: child rearing challenges in this day and age, gossip about school staff and other parents, travel plans for the summer. He followed along marginally, contributing now and then and sipping his way through a long sampler board. When the server brought a plate of cider donuts and cream puffs drizzled in chocolate, a single candle stuck in one of them, his younger daughter sat on his lap and begged to have the first bite while they all sang. He blew out the candle and gave a cream puff to her just before his older daughter swooped in to kiss him on the cheek. She and her friends grabbed some sweets and dashed off to continue playing, the little one jumping from his lap to follow. He watched as they went away.

The group lingered talking and drinking for another hour or so, well into the clement Sunday afternoon. Robert lost interest in the conversation and moved to the side of the grass, insinuating himself, at least physically, with the children. Eventually he drifted further to the edge by walking up onto the wooden patio that stretched around the back of the building. Finishing his last drink while leaning on the railing, he listened to the hum of the people and the music playing. He squinted over at them and saw Maria laughing at something someone had said. She turned unexpectedly and met his eyes, the remnants of a smile still playing on her lovely face while she beckoned him to return to his party. He nodded to signal he was coming but remained at his vantage a while longer. Standing there, the wood beneath him creaked while others passed by and all he could think of was the floor swinging out from under his feet to deposit him into the flickering light below.  

▪ ▪ ▪

Ryan Pollard is a clinical professor and speech therapist at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut publication was recently nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize and his fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, South Shore Review, and Litro Magazine. His stories tend to center on the experiences of people with disabilities.

journal | team | miscellany | home