“And I think, maybe, but I don’t know
But I’m starting to feel like I got a
Brain Problem Situation on my hands.”
Excerpt from “Brain Problem Situation” by TMBG
I have always been what Rosalie calls a “creature of habit.” Personally, I would prefer if she called me a “human of habit” or to be more precise “homo sapiens sapiens of habit.” The very term “creature” seems a bit unsanitary to me; wild animals carry numerous diseases and bacteria. She has always been quick to point out that in the first place, it’s a “saying” and in the second place, the point is that I require things to happen on a schedule and with consistency.
While the nurses in the hospital kept meds, meals, and visiting hours quite consistent, other activities were always conditional. That had been a challenge for me, especially in my first few days. A week before I would join the rest of the world, I had come to enjoy the quiet suspense of each day. Most days nothing particularly interesting would happen. But there was a group therapy session two weeks before, when one of the trained volunteers came out as a practitioner of the art of clowning to a patient with coulrophobia, by breaking out in what we all agreed was a frightening peel of maniacal laughter. Another time, I discovered why we weren’t allowed to watch any show with Anderson Cooper. Even after the TV was turned off, it took several nurses and orderlies over an hour to get Edna to stop moaning about how his voice made her feel so sexy, and to get her back into her clothes.
With the exception of staring incredulously at Edna’s pendulous breasts as she rocked her hips to the sound of Mr. Cooper’s voice as he interviewed a forgettable A-list starlet, I managed to stay composed no matter what was happening. Even so, I looked forward to getting out of the unpredictability of the hospital and into the comparatively safe and recently washed arms of Bella.
I stood in front of the mirror, and for the first time in weeks, I shaved. There was an audience, despite my protestations. Dr. Cullen said it had little to do with what I might do to myself than patients using razors as weapons or for trade. In the end, I decided that feeling Bella’s lips on my bare cheeks was worth someone being in my personal space for a few minutes.
I observed the smooth face, still wet from shaving, in the mirror. This was the face of someone who had slept soundly. No tight expression, body relaxed. I was certainly thinner but I didn’t look weak. I smiled at myself to see what Bella would see when we met.
I grinned wider when I saw the evidence of joy.
One freshly washed and starched button-up shirt and a pair of gray slacks later and I was ready. I felt compelled to whistle a tune I’d been playing on the piano as I made my way to the section of the ward where the psychologists and psychiatrists had their offices.
As I rounded a corner, I saw her walking down the hallway. Her face was hidden by unruly strands of chestnut, but I would recognize that unbalanced gait and hand swiping at hair anywhere. She had a card she referred to after checking each of the doors. My lips stretched across my teeth and my eyes watered as they widened.
I was enjoying just standing there and observing her without her knowledge, but an unbridled, “Hello!” escaped my lips before I could think to stop it. I must have subconsciously feared she would be unable to hear me over the din of filtered air blowing into the passage and chattering visitors in the nearby waiting area, because even for me it was strident.
Her hair caught in her eyelashes as she jerked her head up. She waved her hand in front of her face, jabbing herself with the card.
“Ow!” She covered one eye with her hand.
With total disregard to personal safety, I ran to aid her. I was concerned she might get an infection if the card sliced through the delicate skin around her eye. “Did you cut yourself?” The lack of urgency in my tone surprised me.
It must have surprised her, too. Her uncovered eye bulged a little, reminding me of some images of proptosis I found after looking up possible results of head trauma when I fell back against the headboard of my bed.
“I don’t think so!” She carefully pulled her cupped hand from her face, sweeping the hair back, and leaned forward a bit. “What do you think?”
The area above her right eye was a bit red. I wasn’t worried, though. I had occasion to see her eye before she poked it; the redness wasn’t due to disease. I expanded the examination area, taking in her whole face before homing in on the clear deep brown of her iris. Her pupil widened, making her eye twinkle.
Then the eye rolled up and to the left. Her face flushed red.
Static electricity jolted between our hands as she reached for me. She squeezed. Her lips bunched together then moved to the side of her face.
I squeezed back. “I missed you. May I kiss you? It’s been 15 days since I’ve kissed you.”
The scarlet on her cheeks spread down her neck and chest, which was visible due to the low neckline of her tank top. I knew this was not the time or place, but I wanted to see how far that flush had gone.
She looked down the hallway and back up to me, reached up and tweaked my hairless chin. “Is this for me?”
I nodded. “Do you like it?”
Bella bit her lip, as her fingers slid into the hair at the nape of my neck and pulled my head down. She pressed her lips firmly and directly to mine. Emmett said Rosalie did it like this every day. It used to make me ill, but for a while now it made perfect sense.
Not satisfied with the simple kiss, I wrapped my arms around her and picked her up off the floor, mashing our lips together, my teeth making an indention on the inside of my mouth.
She moaned and squeezed me tighter.
My hands slid down her back, as I pressed my abdomen and pelvic area to the front of her body. The contact and slight friction caused my penis stiffen. As my tongue found hers, I whispered against our mouths, “Bella…I want to have sex with you. Right now.”
She interrupted the kiss, eyes widening with verbal rejection. “No! Not now!”
Her practicality was to be commended, even if it was not what I wanted to hear.
“You’re right. This is a bad time. But if we didn’t have an appointment in,” I grudgingly released her back with my left hand and checked my watch, “two minutes, I would love to sneak away, go to my room, get undressed….”
My other hand slid teasingly over her backside, as though her waist continued. It was a small deception, but I’d been thinking more and more about the enticing fat deposits and the sexy blue skirt she wore the night we met. The temptation was too great not to take advantage while I had the chance.
With a subtle maneuver to her right, Bella’s body pressed to my leg, her knee sliding up and then back down the outside of my thigh.
We stared at each other as our bodies responded to the friction we generated.
Dr. Cullen cleared his throat.
We released each other with lingering hands. I noticed that Bella had the same expression nurse Jane had when I caught her sneaking a piece of bacon off my breakfast tray.
Perhaps I did, too.
He had us sit in chairs in front of his desk.
This office was significantly smaller than his private practice office. Although I had not measured it precisely, my experience allowed me to make what I considered to be a highly accurate educated guess: eight feet by twelve feet.
Occasionally, I still itched to measure. But I’d become quite good at being satisfied with educated guesses. I had confirmed some of them in the ward, such as the size of my room, with a yardstick borrowed from the craft room. I had snuck it out during recreation by holding it to my side and trying to appear like any other patient heading to their room.
The first time I did it, the nurse stopped me as I passed by her station and asked why I was leaving in the middle of rec. I told her I wanted to go to my room to masturbate. She looked away and went back to typing at her computer. I didn’t like lying, so after I finished measuring, I masturbated thinking of Bella’s shiny hairless vulva.
The sensation of my cock stirring in my pants reminded me where I was. I struggled to look at Dr. Cullen and not at Bella.
“So. Welcome, Bella. How are you doing today?”
She took a deep breath before responding. “I’m good.”
He turned to me. “And you, Edward? How have the exposure exercises I gave you last week been working out?”
Cock deflating, I turned my attention to reflecting on activities that I did not enjoy. Dr. Cullen and the other counselors said I needed to meet all of the goals I’d set before I left. One of them was being able to tolerate normal public exposure to germs.
“I am able to go all day without washing my hands, except before meals, and I do not avoid touching things with my hands, even if it makes me uncomfortable.”
“Are you uncomfortable right now, since we’re talking about it?”
I shifted in my seat and tried to be positive. “Yes, but it’s not too bad. I just have to tell myself that I can wash up later.”
“Before you were in the hospital, you talked about feeling ‘phantom germs’ on your hands even after you washed them. Is that still happening?”
“At first, I could feel them all over, as you know. But after being on medication a while, I stopped being scared and now it happens less. When we talk about it, I remember what it used to feel like. Or sometimes when I touch something dirty, it feels like there’s a film of germs for a while, but it’s not intrusive like it used to be. It goes away.”
“Tell me about the last time you touched something dirty and the feeling returned,” Dr. Cullen said.
I turned to look at Bella; she would know I was still broken.
“It wasn’t a setback.”
Dr. Cullen tilted his head; brows furrowed. This was his questioning face.
“Well, why don’t you tell us what happened Edward? It might not be what you think.”
Hesitation would not keep her from finding out.
“For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing piano during arts and crafts and during recreation. But yesterday, a guest painting teacher came in and the group counselor told him that I liked to draw. The guest teacher asked me to give painting a try, even though I’ve never had an interest. He said it would allow me to vary my creative expression. He said I could paint whatever I wanted.”
Anything I wanted. That was easy. My recent artistic fixation had been Bella. My art had been her nude form. Playing piano was how expressed my feelings for her.
I was positive Bella would not like the drawings of her I had posted all over my room.
“I painted Bella. Nude.”
She inhaled a sharp breath.
“Did anyone see it?” she asked.
Dr. Cullen put up his hands up, palms out.
“Wait a minute, Edward.
“Bella, here is an opportunity to talk to Edward about boundaries, but let’s remember how we do that, OK? Edward is going to have a chance to tell what happened and then you can respond with how that makes you feel. Remember?”
Bella nodded, frowning, her arms crossed tightly over her breasts. They bulged up, the soft curve sloping down creating cleavage. I could bury my face there.
“Please continue, Edward.”
I forced my eyes to look at Dr. Cullen.
“I wasn’t trying to betray her,” I clarified, gesturing to Bella rather than looking at her.
“Edward, let’s take it one step at a time. Just tell us what happened, OK?”
I placed my hands on my knees and continued.
“I used several small canvasses, each one focusing on a different part of her body. I made it so I could put them together as one set piece. At one point, I was painting her vulva, making it look like her, but also like a flower, trying to make it tasteful, you see. I was using my fingers to smear the wet pigment. But then I noticed it drying on my skin—it felt a bit gritty when I rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger; I could feel the germs. There was this old rag on the easel but I knew that would make it worse. I just kept staring at my hand. I reminded myself that the paint was just paint and not germs.”
Blinking, my hand came into focus in my lap. Clean. My breath hitched.
“When the art teacher came up to appraise my work, I told him I wished I hadn’t gotten paint on my fingers. He told me to not to worry about it. ‘Just go with it!’ he said, and then he moved his hands together in a cosine wave.
“So I got up and went to the bathroom and washed my hands.” I breathed easier as I recalled washing. I decided not to share that I had to do it three times to remove all the color from under my fingernails.
“Later, I wondered if I should be taking psychiatric advice from an artist. Does he have training in cognitive behavior therapy?”
There was a vocalized cough to my right as Bella covered her mouth, followed by a snort. I knew what that was. She was laughing. I had no idea what was so funny, but I’d do it again a million times to get her to do it again.
Dr. Cullen cleared his throat, lips twiching, and said, “He would have had basic training in how to work with patients, but I don’t think he has any clinical certifications.”
He sat up and grabbed the pen off of my file, jotting something down. “Bella, is there anything you’d like to say?”
I noticed she’d stopped laughing and had started biting her thumb. Normally this would make me nauseated, but today I merely felt distaste. I furrowed my brow.
Our eyes met. There was a look of…disappointment on her face. She sighed and looked at Dr. Cullen, then got up and stepped over to the tray of bottled water in the corner of the room and helped herself. I would never touch it. Bottled water was notorious for having all kinds of potentially dangerous microbial life.
After taking several gulps, she recapped the bottle and set it on the floor next to the chair. She faced me.
“I don’t like the thought of other people seeing images of me naked, even if it is ‘tasteful’.” She even used air quotes.
“I didn’t think you would, Bella, but only the art teacher saw them. And he’s a professional, so it’s OK.”
Bella blew out a lungful of air through puckered lips. She cut her eyes to Dr. Cullen, then gripped her knees and squared her shoulders. She turned in her seat to face me.
“I am not comfortable with anyone seeing nude images of me without my permission, Edward. I understand how you feel, but this is my body, and I would like for you to respect this boundary.”
Leaning back, I looked at Dr. Cullen. “Should I try to reason with her?”
Dr. Cullen’s eyes darted to Bella, then back to me, “Edward, other people’s boundaries aren’t about what you personally find reasonable. They are about the other person feeling comfortable. Remember when Emmett and Rosalie set a boundary with you about when it was and wasn’t appropriate for you to use your key to come into their apartment?”
Rosalie didn’t like me trying to explain to her that she was being irrational.
“I don’t mind you drawing me, painting me, or even photographing me naked, Edward.”
“It was a nude.” She made it sound…illicit. It was art.
Stating the obvious didn’t deter her. She sighed and continued, “Naked, nude, unclothed, however you want to say it.” Her fists clenched and released. “It’s just…not OK for you to do that. Period! Just…ask my permission. You know, if you’d just…called me first. I didn’t even have a chance to consider it.”
Dr. Cullen leaned forward and spoke softly to me, eyes drifting to Bella, “Edward, what I hear Bella saying is that she wants you to respect her boundary to keep intimate things between the two of you, and you must always ask her if it’s OK before showing other people your paintings of her. And if she says no, then you don’t do it. And if she doesn’t say ‘yes’ you still don’t do it.”
“It feels…kind of rapey, other people seeing me naked without my permission,” Bella added.
Dr. Cullen nodded.
“Ah,” I said, remembering the talk that Esme had with Emmett and me in high school. I think it was more for Emmett’s benefit than mine, but I had always remembered what she said, “You get a ‘yes’ before you cross that line, son. If she can’t say ‘yes,’ then it’s a ‘no.’ End of discussion. You leave her be. You got it?”
“I understand.” Although she hesitated when she saw my hands reach for her, Bella put her hands in mine. I stared directly at her pupils so she would know I was very serious. “I’m sorry I betrayed you like that, Bella. I won’t do it again. I promise.”
“I want those pictures. I don’t want them in the hospital where someone else might see them,” Bella said to me. Then, she turned to Dr. Cullen, “I want to go to his room and get them myself. Can I do that?”
Dr. Cullen scratched his chin. “I think we can manage that. Visiting hours start soon. Would you like to take them before it starts?”
“Thank you,” she said to Dr. Cullen, then turned to me, “But I’m still mad at you. Give me some time, OK?”
She released my hands and faced forward, fingers sliding between her thighs.
Dr. Cullen had talked to me about Bella needing time to deal with betrayal after I’d sent that first letter to her months ago. I thought I had come a long way from that time, but clearly there were always new things to learn.
I was willing to give her as much as she needed, but I’d hoped it wouldn’t be so long that she’d decide she didn’t want to have sex with me when I got out of the hospital next week.
It doesn’t matter. You made the choice; you have to live with the consequences. I had heard some incarnation of that bit of wisdom from several people.
The phantom germs were back. I looked down at my hands and laced them together. It was almost dinnertime, and I would get to wash soon. I could manage that.
“Bella, before you go, Edward would like to talk about his goals for when he leaves the hospital. Would you stay and hear what he has to say?”
She nodded and relaxed her arms.
“Edward, you said you had some specific goals that would require Bella’s help. Now is probably not the best time to discuss anything are private and intimate, but I think it would be helpful for you to tell her about some of the goals you have for work and daily life.”
Dr. Cullen stepped back and to the side to give me plenty of room as I exited his office. He was always looking out for me. And even if I didn’t need for him to do it anymore, I appreciated it anyway.
We walked to the lobby in silence, my suitcase in hand between us. I was quite fit, but it made me off-balance, so I had to keep stepping carefully to avoid walking into him. Finally I switched to my non-dominant hand.
When we reached the doorway to the lobby, a nurse and incoming patient pushed past us. The patient didn’t make eye contact, but I could see her eyes. For once, I wasn’t jumping to the conclusion that she had the flu. I knew what caused her face to be flushed, what caused the skin around her eyes to puff up with fluid. She had been crying, probably for a while.
As they passed, I turned back to Dr. Cullen. He had stopped and was looking at me with his brows raised and pulled together. Concern.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“It’s very brave, Edward.”
I looked down at the hand I held out to shake his. Was this the brave thing? Or the other thing?
Mouth in a straight line, he looked…determined. Like Emmett when he decided that he was going to open the store even though Rosalie said it would suck up all of their savings and then they would have to move to New Jersey.
Finally, he took my offered hand in his. His hands were cool and dry. Sanitary.
My lips turned up at the corners in response, and I watched as he mirrored my expression.
I squeezed his hand and let him lead on how much pressure to use when pumping the handshake. It felt uncomfortable to move like this, but I knew it was customary.
“No big deal,” Emmett would say.
When Dr. Cullen released my hand, I resisted the urge to run to the restroom and wash. After all, this would probably be the most sanitary thing I would do all afternoon. Instead, I flexed my fingers and stepped away from him, heading for the door.
I turned back to see him lightly slapping my file against his thigh.
He tucked it under his right arm and slid his hand into his front pocket. “I almost forgot. Bella wanted me to give this to you.” In his open hand was my cell phone.
I smiled down at it as if it were Bella herself. Reaching for it, my stomach rumbled at the unplanned contact, my fingers brushing his palm. It lasted only a moment, then it was in my hand.
“She put her cell and her home phone number in there.”
“Thank you, Dr. Cullen.”
The automatic doors opened and the air from the street blew toward my face. The smell was sharp, hot, nauseating. Stale, sun-warmed garbage, street food, and car exhaust filled my nose. But I could handle it. I didn’t need time to adjust. It was just…
I was okay. I glanced back and nodded to Dr. Cullen.
He waved, then disappeared behind the inner doors.
Time to face my choices.
The first choice was whether to take a taxi or walk five blocks from the hospital to my building. Walking seemed like the best idea. It would give me time to think about the practical issues in meeting my goal for today. Consumed by these thoughts, I almost ran into Rosalie and Emmett.
“Edward!” Rosalie shouted her shoe sale voice, her mouth wide and showing all of her teeth. Her eyes were huge, but the sides were crinkled. This was a genuine smile.
I was so glad not to be on her dirty list anymore. One of my goals was to never be on that list again. It was the least I could do for her, for all she’d done for me.
“You thought you were going to get to walk home alone? No way! Ro couldn’t wait to see you. She’s been cooking all morning.”
“You didn’t tell Bella, did you?” My body tingled with sexual tension.
Rosalie crossed her arms, and stared at me levelly. “I’m not okay with this plan, just so we’re clear. But I’ve agreed to support you, so, no. I didn’t tell her.”
“Me, either. You know I got your back, Ed.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your discretion.”
“Good. Now, can we get out of here? I’m starving!” Rosalie said.
“I have the car. Will you ride with us, Ed?”
“Wait. No frantic demand that we have it detailed? No full-body Tyvek suit? No latex gloves?”
I considered. Rosalie and Emmett rode in their car all the time. They rarely got sick.
“No. I’m okay.” I smiled at Rosalie to prove it.
I’d discovered what smiling could do in the hospital. It turned things around for me almost as effectively as the medication. Suddenly I was allowed to play the piano, shower alone, and even the nurse at the medication counter treated me like a person. Dr. Cullen said that when you treat people like people, they treat you like people, too.
That made a lot of sense to me.
I climbed into the backseat of their Range Rover.
Emmett was fiddling with the radio while Rosalie drove.
“No. I will not listen to the game in the car today. I want to hear about Edward’s last few days. You can catch up online at home.”
“But Ro! It will be in the past!”
Putting the car into park, she and turned in her seat to face him.
“I said, ‘when we get home.’ I need you to wait. Do you want me to be distracted or what?”
She continued to stare at him, one hand on the wheel, the other on the gearshift.
Emmett looked down her body, then back to her face.
“No. I don’t,” he said quietly. He turned to face the front and put his seatbelt on.
Emmett never wore a seatbelt. It was one of the things we disagreed about. He said there was very little to worry about in city traffic. Supposedly he wore one on longer car trips.
“Edward. Please tell me about your last few days. Have you gotten to play the piano again? Did they let you listen to that Michael Bublé CD I sent?”
“I got to play every day! At first, everyone begged me to play song after song. I didn’t know all of them, but I played whatever I could. Last week, the head nurse said I could only play during rec, and if it upset anyone, I’d not get to play at all. But no one complained. Even the guy with the bandage. He kept trying to sing along.”
“I’m so glad to hear that.” Rosalie’s eyes met mine in the mirror. “I hope you’ll keep playing.”
“Well, I have the piano at Debussy’s. So, perhaps not every day, but I hope to play once a week at least.”
The mirror reflected her grin.
“Oh!” I remembered her other question. “I learned one of the songs on the CD you sent me. I’d like to play it for you sometime soon.”
Rosalie hit the brakes and turned to face me.
“Look who’s being reckless, now.”
She pointed at Emmett. “Shush-you.”
Then she turned to me, “Edward, I want to kiss your cheek and hug you!”
Was I OK with that? My eyes widened.
Someone honked at us.
Rosalie stuck her fist out the window. I think she did the bird one.
She turned a bit in her seat. “I know better than to try to do either one, unless you say it’s OK, Edward.”
I breathed easier. “I am okay. Just surprised.”
“So am I,” Emmett said, arms crossed, lower lip sticking out a little.
“Get over it. You need to learn to share my attention better.”
We were moving again. As the buildings slid by, I heard sniffling. It was not clear whether it was Emmett or Rosalie. They both leaned toward the windows, so I couldn’t tell by looking in the rearview mirror. Although I was curious, I had too many other things on my mind: logistics, anxiety, and timing among them. I had thirty minutes of googling to tackle, at least.
Rosalie stopped at the entrance to let Emmett and me out, then we waited in the lobby while she parked in the basement.
Shifting from side to side and rubbing his nose, Emmett waited quietly for Rosalie.
“Why are you nervous?”
“You’re doing that disgusting thing with your nose.”
“Oh.” He wiped his finger on his pants, as if that made it any better. “It’s just. Stuff. Relationship stuff. Not bad. Just. Oh, good. Here she is.”
Emmett grabbed her hand and tugged her back to the stairs. I followed close behind. I considered touching the handrail, but decided against it when I saw the old bits of chewing gum on the underside. Safety was important, but I had excellent balance and reflexes; it was not necessary to touch the rail.
We reached the top together. I turned and nodded to Rosalie and Emmett as they left me for their apartment, Emmett rushing her to unlock the door so he could catch up on what he’d missed of the game.
Perhaps that’s what the nerves were about. He was probably gambling on the outcome.
After opening my door, I stopped and stared before stepping in. There, facing the large living room window, shiny, wet-looking, black, gold stamped below the music rack in fraktur: Bösendorfer.
Would it vanish before I could lay my fingers on the keys? I held my breath and stepped softly through the room. I blinked. Then I breathed in through my nose; there was a strong lacquer, spruce and iron smell. No. I was not hallucinating. Or, if I was, it was affecting my sense of smell, too.
I raised the fall and grazed my fingertips over the glossy keys. The action was so sensitive, my digits danced up and down the keyboard as I played a few scales. The bass notes were so resonant, my chest vibrated a little.
My lips pulled back into a smile, and I looked up at the reflection of my face, which was obscured by a small envelope propped up on the music stand. I picked it up and turned it over. It was sealed.
Carefully closing the lid, I slid off of the bench, then walked over to my desk and pulled out my letter opener, sliding the knife into the corner and slicing it at the fold.
On a piece of white cardstock was a familiar and uneven scrawl:
It’s no latex glove, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.
I laughed loudly.
“She called last week and asked if we could open the door for delivery.”
Rosalie was standing in the doorway.
“It was hard to lie and tell her you were getting out tomorrow.”
“Also,” said Emmett, appearing behind her, “she’s going to be wicked pissed that she didn’t get to see your face when you saw her gift.”
I looked at my watch, noting that it would be at least an hour before she would be finished at work.
“She took the day off to unpack so she could spend the weekend with you. So, she should be home.”
Stepping back to the piano, I explored it with hands and eyes, being as gentle as I was with her the first time I touched her skin.
“You gonna call her?” Emmett asked.
“No.” I shook my head slowly, lips twitching to smile, noticing the faint smell of her perfume that told me she’d sat where I was sitting not very long ago.
“I am going to surprise her.”