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Fred McGavran

Aversion Therapy

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Second marriages are supposed to be fun, but I don't think Joyce and Dr. Patel will have much fun. Joyce and I stopped having fun around the time I went out to buy beer for the playoffs and returned to find her hovering over the dead dog.

"If only you had been here," she sobbed. "You might have done something."

Of course she had been away, too, shopping for essentials at Saks, but guilt was always funneled to me.

"Ralph was just like a member of the family," she said.

So was I, I thought but dared not speak.

Or perhaps we stopped having fun before we even got the dog, and the girls were starting grade school. We took Allecia and Rebecca to see an orthodontist Joyce had selected from weeks of poolside gossip. Smelling of cinnamon lozenges and starch, he discovered that they did not have perfect bites. It was self-evident from the X-rays that he held before us like indictments. I was wondering why our intertwined genes had chosen the bite to mark our children with imperfection, when Joyce demanded that the doctor examine her, too.

Dr. Kincaid was about my age, but his hair was thicker, and he darted around his office on a runner's high. He was the first man to look into her mouth. She had never opened it wide, not even to eat corn on the cob. Because her lips barely parted, she always seemed to be communicating something precious just for me.

"I've never been able to smile," she said. "I don't dare show my teeth."

So just as I was starting to pay two tuitions at the most exclusive private school in the city, I had to pay three orthodontist's bills. Every month they visited Dr. Kincaid to have their braces tightened and shined, and returned smelling of cinnamon lozenges and weeping from the pain. Along with perfect smiles, orthodontia taught them that beauty is unavoidably associated with agony.

We bought Ralph, a purebred chocolate Lab, so they would have something to caress in their misery. It got to the point where Joyce had to undergo special treatments by herself. When the braces were finally removed, she had a beautifully even smile that embraced the whole world, but that wonderful sense of intimacy with me was gone.

But it could have been even before that, when we met Jennifer at the club. Jennifer was my assistant and had helped me sign my first big account before I was promoted to sales manager. Straight out of college with a perfect figure and long brown hair breaking over her bare shoulders, she had that appearance of interested innocence women adore in their daughters but detest in their husbands' associates. We had asked Jennifer and her date, an MBA student who had borrowed a suit for the occasion, to dinner to celebrate.

"This is my friend Larry," Jennifer announced.

"This is my friend Joyce," I introduced my wife in the same ironic tone I used to banter with Jennifer at the office.

Their two outstretched hands never touched. Joyce didn't speak the rest of the evening.

Or perhaps it was when she insisted on taking tennis lessons with the girls from the pro at the club. Invigorated by the exercise, she looked ten years younger when she returned, layered blond hair damp and her tan set off by the white sweatbands on her wrists. There was more than that, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Half the summer was gone before I realized that she no longer smelled of cinnamon lozenges and starch.

"Mr. Tyler is so good with the girls," she said, skipping past me up the stairs to the shower.

The dog poked her familiarly under her white tennis skirt with his nose as she passed.

"Ralph, be good," she warned.

"Mr. Tyler spends more time with Mommy than with us," Allecia pouted, just before her little sister spilled Gatorade® all over the kitchen floor.

Or maybe we lost it the Friday afternoon I returned early from my trip and stopped by the club to watch them play. Allecia and Rebecca were in the pool while Joyce had a private lesson with Mr. Tyler. Standing behind her, twenty-six, black curly hair, perfectly tanned, he was holding her right forearm in one hand and her left in the other, "working on her serve." I could see my reflection in his aviator sunglasses before he realized I was there.

"A strong serve is the basis of the game," she explained to me.

Jamie Tyler wiped his forehead with his left sweatband as we shook hands; I didn't ask if placing his cheek against her neck was accepted coaching technique. Joyce asked me to switch cars so she could finish her lesson while I took the girls home in the SUV.

"You can order pizza for dinner," she called after me.

As the late afternoon shadows stretched over them on the dark green court, they made a striking couple, her tennis skirt just touching his thigh. I didn't think anything about the two empty cappuccino cups in the wayback when I stowed the girls' towels and rackets. Joyce always stopped at Starbucks before a morning lesson.

"How are the lessons?" I asked the girls.

"Boring," Rebecca said. "The worst part is having to listen to Mommy and Mr. Tyler talk at Starbucks for an hour before we even get started."

The pizza was cold when Joyce returned.

"I ran into Gloria Maenard after my lesson," she explained. "We had a salad together on the veranda."

I went to the garage to retrieve my briefcase from my car. Beside the briefcase on the back seat lay something like a white scrunchie. It was a sweatband, still damp to the touch. When I went back inside, she was wolfing down cold pizza with one hand and holding the dog back with the other.

"Mommy," Rebecca asked. "Why doesn't Daddy have to take tennis lessons from Mr. Tyler?"

"Because he doesn't have the time," she replied, exuding motherly condescension.

Leaving her to soak the afternoon away in the Jacuzzi, guarded by Ralph, I took the girls to the video store. The curious animal seemed to prefer her smell before her baths. I dropped the sweatband into the washing machine. Joyce was running a load of whites.

"Why does it say 'J.T.' on the sweatband?" Rebecca said the next morning, as I was rummaging in the dryer for clean underwear.

"Give me that," her mother snapped, slamming the child's bedroom door behind them.

Or maybe it all started when she twisted her knee in the women's doubles semifinals. It never really got better, not even when Jamie Tyler massaged it at the beginning and the end of her lessons. I found out about that when his bill suddenly shot up.

"He's studying to be a registered massage therapist," Joyce explained.

Once, driving up from the eighteenth hole with the chief information officer of my biggest client, I saw their white tennis clothes folded in upon each other through the green wire around the courts. She stretched out her leg like a goddess before a supplicant as he knelt before her, stroking her knee with both hands.

Or maybe it never started; it was always there, like a gene triggered by age to sprout a tiny cancer in the midst of perfect health. But after the semifinals, it was always the knee. I was relieved when she selected Christine Page, M.D., for the surgery.

Dr. Page was the orthopedic surgeon for City University's football team plus a major league baseball team. We were very fortunate, Joyce assured me, that she was able to fit us into her busy schedule. Joyce spent so much time in the shower the day of the surgery that I was afraid we'd be late.

I met Dr. Page when she drew aside the light green curtain around Joyce's cubicle just before the operation.

"Hi!" she cried, as bouncy and happy as a real estate agent with a new listing.

Mid-forties, all her hair except a few platinum strands pushed up under her blue hair net, she was the image of the modern American professional woman on the make. She squeezed my palm as we shook hands, as if there would soon be something special between us.

"Sorry we made you wait," she said. "You're our fourth this morning."

The curtain swished again, and she introduced Dr. Brad Martin, a resident, who would assist her with the surgery. Reaching behind her back to hold her gown closed, Joyce blushed. In his early thirties, Dr. Martin had deeply tanned arms and blue eyes, accented by the hair net that circled his face like a puffy blue nimbus.

"I'll call you in a few minutes," Dr. Page said, touching my arm and swishing out of the cubicle followed by her acolyte, leaving me to watch an orderly roll Joyce away on her gurney.

I went to the cafeteria for coffee. Fifteen minutes later, I was paged.

My God, I thought, they've killed her. I hurried to the nurses' station, mentally calculating the insurance, wondering how I would tell the girls.

"Are you looking for Dr. Page?" a barrel-chested woman in a white smock demanded.


"There," she pointed.

I entered a small room with a wire glass window, a small desk and two chairs. Dr. Page entered a moment later, spinning around to close the door like a cheerleader before the bleachers. She dropped a brown folder on the desk.

"It was a total success," she exclaimed, spreading what looked like blurry Polaroid photographs across the desk. "Here are the pictures."

While I stared at images of the inside of my wife's knee, Dr. Page scribbled a prescription on a piece of paper.

"Here. Get this on the way home. Three times a day. And tell her to stay off that knee for a couple of days."

Then she bounced out, leaving me to bring the car around to the entrance and wait so long that the policeman made me move three times. So I parked in the garage again and found Joyce still in recovery, talking with Dr. Martin about how soon she could be back on the tennis court. She was much more relaxed, allowing the gown to pull away from her shoulders when she stretched.

"Brad's applying for membership at the club," she said happily. "I told him you'd sponsor him."

As I was helping the orderly lift Joyce from the wheelchair into the car, I saw a silver Mercedes convertible glide out of the doctors' parking lot.

"Look," Joyce said in a hurt tone. "It's Brad and Dr. Page."

"Probably off for a salad and mineral water before their afternoon game," I said.

"He really doesn't like playing with her," Joyce replied in one of her last confidences. "It's just that she has the membership."

So I sponsored Brad at the club, but Joyce never returned to the tennis court. Instead she lay in bed, twisting in agony, taking three Vicodin® a day until they built up in her system and I had to rush her to the emergency room. I hadn't been able to reach Dr. Page, but I did have a return call from Dr. Martin. Women were laughing in the background, but he seemed genuinely concerned.

"Good thing you took her to the hospital," he congratulated me. "The symptoms for an overdose are the same as for a pulmonary embolism."

Although Joyce was less groggy after discontinuing the painkillers, she felt the pain much more acutely. She experimented with larger and larger doses of Ibuprofen, until Dr. Page warned her about possible liver damage.

"But what can I do?" Joyce pleaded with her.

"It's just a little arthritis," Christine explained confidently. "We didn't know it was there until we opened it up."

"Will it ever get better?" Joyce asked.

"Everyone your age has arthritis," Christine smiled back.

Dr. Page and Brad had stopped playing together shortly after his membership was approved.

I was spending a lot of time out of town then and didn't know the dog had been to behavior school until I returned from a ten-day trip.

"He just wouldn't leave me alone," Joyce explained. "I sent him to camp to learn discipline."

"He comes when you call," Allecia said happily.

"He sits," Rebecca added.

The girls seemed a lot happier after their tennis lessons stopped.

For several weeks after his return, Ralph would lie chastened, muzzle between his paws, awaiting the command to "heel" or "come." He started to backslide after Joyce wrecked the SUV near the medical arts building one night around ten o'clock.

"It's the only time you can see these orthopedists," she said when Dr. Martin drove her home.

Her breath smelled lightly of wine and chewing gum.

"We're lucky she didn't reinjure it," Brad said.

Without being asked, Ralph stood up and followed them to the door.

"Maybe we should take you off all that medication," he said through the screen. "I'll give you a prescription for physical therapy."

Her fingers curled "goodbye."

That's how Don Bracken, Licensed Physical Therapist, entered our lives. Much later I learned that Brad sent all his women patients to Don to wean them off painkillers and himself. Armed with a master's degree in physical therapy and a license to sell Pilates® exercise equipment, Don specialized in middle-aged women. I discovered Pilates® when I returned one Friday to find a spring loaded black platform mounted on chrome plated tracks at the foot of our bed and a bill for $3500. I discovered Don made house calls Saturday morning, when he appeared just as Joyce and the girls were finishing their showers. The dog went berserk.

Although it was November, Don was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. So was Joyce. He had the largest biceps I had ever seen. Rebecca's eye peered out from a slit in her door as we walked down the hall to our bedroom. We had to close the door to keep Ralph away.

"We got to keep manipulating it," Don said, without specifying what. "Otherwise it just freezes up."

He helped Joyce position herself on the Pilates® machine. For half an hour, she moved her arms and legs, while the black platform slid back and forth, and the springs expanded and contracted.

"Want to try?" Don asked me at the end of her lesson.

"Him?" Joyce laughed.

"Yes, I would," I said. "I don't get much exercise, flying around trying to earn enough to support all this."

He showed me how to press the small of my back against the platform and position my feet on the bars.

"Now move your feet like you're swimming with flippers," he said.

I moved my feet, and through the platform the springs pinged like sonar in a submarine movie. It was oddly stimulating.

"I'll write down some exercises for you," Don said. "Some couples enjoy working out together."

From the way Joyce was looking at him, I didn't think we would be working out much together. Nevertheless, I always asked if she wanted to join me before I started.

"It's not a good time," she would say and go to another room.

Several months later I realized she had stopped using the Pilates® machine altogether. I enjoyed it so much that I even called Don for another lesson, but he never returned my voice mail. Maybe he was afraid that I would have trouble getting our health insurance to pay. So I just kept repeating the exercises until Ralph got tired of growling at me. Joyce sent him back to obedience school for a refresher course; he had scratched the bedroom door so deeply we had to have it replaced.

This was about the time Joyce discovered holistic medicine. I learned about this involuntarily the Sunday morning after our regional sales conference, when I awoke to the voice of Clarence Ogden, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, at the top of the "Holistic Health Hour" on the clock radio beside our bed. Dr. Ogden specialized in hyperbaric treatments, where he locked a patient in a steel chamber that he slowly filled with pressurized oxygen, while his patient stared bug eyed out the porthole.

I didn't realize Joyce knew Dr. Ogden until I heard her voice on the radio, smoozing familiarly with the good doctor about the dangers of mercury poisoning. She had slipped out of bed without me knowing it and gone to the guest bedroom to make the call. Although Ogden had a thin, whining voice and made little chipping sounds while he listened to questions, I was oddly moved by his presentation.

"Remove all intoxicants," he intoned to a Sunday morning audience clearly in need of his advice.

Joyce introduced me to Dr. Ogden's vitamin regimen at breakfast. The basic dose was six dark green pills that smelled like shellac plus two gel caps. The gel caps reminded me of the cod liver oil I had taken as a child and had much the same effect. By midmorning my hangover was gone, and I experienced my first vitamin buzz.

"Maybe I should see this guy," I told Joyce, visualizing a parking lot filled with pickup trucks and patients lined up on the sidewalk. "These things are unbelievable."

Joyce didn't reply; empathy estranged her. A few weeks later she left Dr. Ogden after suffering a mild case of the bends in the hyperbaric chamber. She could not give a coherent account of her adventure. Apparently another patient had developed claustrophobia, and the technician decompressed them too fast. Fortunately Dr. Ogden gave her a case of vitamins in exchange for a release, saving me the embarrassment of making myself a patient to renew my supply.

The vitamins didn't last long. Soon the early morning buzz was replaced by a need to take more vitamins or risk plateauing at 10 a.m. If I didn't take another package with lunch, I would fall into a deep sleep until mid afternoon. In a way I was glad when they ran out. Still I might have asked him to renew the prescription, but a familiar name on the second page of the local news section of the paper caught my eye. Dr. Ogden had been indicted for prescribing Oxycontin® to ineligible patients. I dumped the last of the green pills into the toilet where they quickly dissolved, leaving an algae like scum that took our cleaning lady hours to scrub clean.

I knew she had found a new doctor before she told me. Hidden in drawers, pushed between couch cushions in the TV room, the girls and I found self-published books on the importance of clean blood and the dangers of fluoride.

"I got them from my dentist," Joyce said with the intensity of an alcoholic insisting that she bought the vermouth for her mother.

She had just undergone three weeks of maddeningly painful drilling to remove her mercury fillings, so I didn't argue.

"Is there something we should talk about" I asked her.

"You just begin with the teeth," she said.

"There's more?"

She snapped a pamphlet on the breakfast table like a blackjack dealer.

"Chelation therapy," she said, leaving me to figure out what it was and whether our health plan covered it.

According to the pamphlet, chelation therapy purged the body of aluminum, cadmium and lead by a process of injecting and excreting still other foreign substances. The language was ecstatic: the believer was promised purification beyond anything a mystic must undergo, with visions to match.

And that is how I became aware of Srikat Patel, M.D. and muscle testing. Joyce got a referral to Dr. Patel from a clerk at a health food store beyond the circle freeway, where she had gone in search of a new variety of wheatgrass.

She showed me how to muscle test after I questioned Dr. Patel's bills for $300 a session. While Ralph watched from between crossed paws, I held a glass of my favorite bourbon in my right hand. She placed her left hand on my right shoulder and made me extend my left arm. Then she stared straight at me like a jade-eyed goddess, exuding the aroma of oils and spices from a dark and far away land. It was the closest I'd felt to her in years. With her right hand, she pressed down on my left forearm. It dropped to my side.

"You're allergic to that stuff," she said triumphantly.

"Of course not," I argued. "It's just because your muscles pushing down are stronger than my muscles holding my arm up."

When we did it without the bourbon, she couldn't move my arm.

"How does it work?" I wondered.

"Allergens disrupt your energy fields," she explained.

"How do you know that I'm not allergic to you?" I demanded. "We're a closed circuit when you do that."

"That's not the way it works."

Whenever I sneezed, she muscle tested me. I was allergic to wine (sulfates), milk (lactose), white bread (processed flour), my antipersperant (aluminum), seemingly everything that ameliorated my everyday life. When I stopped using them, however, I acquired a sense of strength and mental clarity that I had not experienced since I flushed the green vitamins. So I didn't protest the bills, even though she returned home exhausted from hours on intravenous drips to purge her system of a lifetime's poisons.

"You look like a junkie," Allecia said, staring at the track marks on her arm.

"Won't you overload your liver with the toxins?" I wondered.

"That's not the way it works," she snapped.

I was beginning to think that was a quote from Dr. Patel.

Only Ralph remained skeptical. Instead of rubbing against her when she returned from the doctor, he would slink into the mudroom and pant anxiously into his green rug.

"There's just one thing more," she explained the spring her treatment was scheduled to terminate. "I need some of your hair and nail clippings."

I looked up from "The Great Fluoride Conspiracy" by Clarence Woodford, Doctor of Naturalistic Medicine, envisioning Dr. Patel in a white coat and totem mask dancing about a supine patient with a rattle filled with nail clippings.

"Dr. Patel has a sonic blender that breaks them down into their genetic essence," Joyce explained. "Then he injects just enough to stimulate an immune response."

Despite the pain from her IV, she wrapped her arms around my shoulder.

"It's called aversion therapy," she said. "I'm sorry, dear, but I'm allergic to your nails and hair. It's the only way to heal."

So while Ralph scratched his side raw in the mudroom, she clipped my nails and cut a lock of hair from the back of my head. A week later, when she returned from her appointment, we had the best sex in years. She was even able to get on top again. Despite all the needles and extractions, she was warmer and softer in an oiled sort of way than I had ever experienced.

"I'm finally free," she exulted.

The scraping on the door started again.

"Damn that dog," she snapped. "He never leaves me alone."

"I'm going to see Dr. Patel," I said.

She tensed beside me.

"He's my doctor," she said, turning away.

"He's done so much for you. I want to be detoxified, too."

"Just take care of the dog."

As soon as I had Ralph back in the mudroom, I called for an appointment.

Dr. Patel wore a tailored white lab coat with a lotus flower embossed over the pocket. He greeted me with a soft handshake and an intimate smile, as if we had shared secrets for generations. Instead of the usual diplomas, he had a huge batik on the wall, its colors subdued by smoke from the aromatic candles on his credenza.

Immediately I felt comfortable sharing my tremors and fears of old age, while he nodded sympathetically and made notes on his laptop for my chart. I was totally at peace as I lay on the table undergoing my first chelation therapy. With warm, soft fingers, he placed the IV himself. It was only when he left that I realized why he seemed so familiar: he and Joyce used the same rose water cologne.

"I started Ralph on an antidepressant," Joyce announced that evening. "The vet says he's nervous and depressed."

"You put Ralph on pills?" exclaimed Allecia.

"They're different from us," Joyce said. "Nobody really knows what upsets them."

Drip by drip I continued my treatments, straining the metallic buildup of a lifetime from my sagging body. Although I felt brighter and better after each treatment, Dr. Patel was not satisfied.

"I must tell you, Walter, there is one allergen that we cannot reach with chelation therapy."

"What could that be?" I wondered.

"You are allergic to Joyce," he replied.

"What can we do?" I asked, already knowing the answer.

"For this we must use aversion therapy."

"That's easy," I said. "What do you need? Nail clippings? Some hair?"

"Oh, no, Walter," he said. "You are not just allergic to her hair and nails. You are allergic to her."

"So what do you want?"

He looked at me like a slide under a microscope

"For this we will need the tip of her left little finger."

He was ready for my surprise.

"It is practically painless," he explained softly. "I can do it right here in the office."

I still couldn't speak.

"You really must trust me in this, Walter. It is the only way you will ever be free."

Joyce and the girls were watching Cheers reruns that night. It was after eleven that I finally had her alone.

"Dr. Patel says I'm allergic to you," I began.

"I'm not surprised," she replied, walking past me into our bathroom. "I'll get the scissors. What do you need?"

"The last joint of your left little finger."

I heard the scissors hit the floor. Then she was on top of me, screaming and clawing until she broke an acrylic nail and collapsed sobbing on the bed. I could hear Ralph howling in the mudroom beneath us, and the girls knocking softly on our door.

"Are you all right?" Allecia called through the door.

"Just go away," her mother cried, but she wasn't saying that to Allecia. "Just leave."

She threw open the door and shoved past her terrified daughters.

"Damn him," she said. "Damn that dog."

We followed her to the mudroom, where she was trying to stuff pills between Ralph's clenched teeth. He had peed on the rug, and several of the tranquilizers shined white against the dark nap.

I slept in the guest bedroom until the afternoon Ralph died. Then she made me find an apartment. She married Dr. Patel several weeks after the divorce was final.

I still see the girls at holidays and during the summer, when they're home from college. They don't like staying with Dr. Patel.

"It's really lame," Allecia said. "Like there's some sketchy incense all the time."

"How's Mom?" I asked to change the subject.

"She's always meditating," Rebecca said. "If we turn down the TV, we can hear her chanting."

Meals were piles of uncooked vegetables.

"I suppose that's Srikat's idea," I suggested.

"He's never there," Rebecca said. "He's always at his office or the hospital."

"Like they aren't even married," Allecia added.

Joyce was used to that kind of life. The only visitors were Hindu clerics, who appeared at odd times wearing bright orange robes or Hawaiian shirts.

So I still don't know why Dr. Patel did it. Despite his interest in alternative medicine, he was a real doctor, and a real doctor knows how to hurt a patient as well as how to heal. But which of us was he trying to hurt? Did Joyce tell him about my doubts about his therapies, provoking him to seek revenge? Or did her naked body on a dark bed ensnare him, while he worked the ancient oils into her taut back? How did he know that she would turn against me and not him?

Or maybe he had some deep-seated urge to destroy himself. He must have known that he, too, would never be able to satisfy her. Was he hoping that she would reject him instead of me and let him return to stripping his patients' blood of impurities? I may make an appointment with him sometime just to catch up.

As for Joyce, she has many good years of treatment ahead, gushing about botox therapy with handsome young cosmetic surgeons, seeking the perfect spa, the ultimate diet, and the massage that will finally set her free. When that happens, I am afraid she will die. That thought does not make me sad. It is what she has been looking for all along, the one thing I could not buy her.

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