Lily and the Octopus(3)

Written By: Steven Rowley



I entered therapy after I ended my last relationship eighteen months ago, six years in and maybe two years after I should have. It started out strong. We met at the New Beverly Cinema after a screening of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and we argued about its merits. Jeffrey was smart—scary smart—and passionate. When I blanched at The Apartment’s themes of infidelity and adultery, Jeffrey pressed me on my professed love for another of Wilder’s films, The Seven Year Itch.

At first, his charisma made it addictive to be around him. But over time, I recognized it was also a fa?ade; there was a wounded boy inside of him. He had grown up without a dad, so it made sense to me that he sought constant validation. I found it endearing. Humanizing. Until he started to indulge that little boy. There were tantrums. There was acting out. There was his need to control things that he had no business controlling. But he was still that boy, and I loved him, so I stayed, thinking it would get better. And then one morning I woke up to one of life’s clarion calls: I deserved better than this. That night I said I was leaving.

After more than a year off from dating, I’m finally putting myself out there again. Dipping my toes in old waters from which I thought I had long since sailed downstream. Jenny asks me about this.

“How is that going?”

“That?”

“Yes.”

“Dating?”

“Uh-huh.”

It’s the last thing I want to talk about. The octopus has almost as tight a grip on my head as it does on Lily’s. And yet I can’t bring myself to tell Jenny about our unwanted visitor. At least not yet. I can’t show my hand, expose the fear that the octopus brings and have her say all the wrong things, as she’s all but guaranteed to do. Jenny. I can’t do her work for her—not on this. I would rather do her work without her, which means, for now, holding this one close to my chest.

I shouldn’t even have come, shouldn’t have left Lily alone with the octopus, but the sunlight was streaming through the kitchen windows in the exact way that she likes, and the long beams of late afternoon would provide her ample warmth for a long nap. I couldn’t get an appointment with the veterinarian until Monday, and something in me thinks the sun could be healing. That it might irradiate our visitor, desiccate our fish out of water.

“Are octopuses fish?” I ask it out loud without meaning to.

“Are octopuses what?”

“Fish. Are they considered fish.”

“No. I think they’re cephalopods.”

Figures Jenny would know that. She was probably one of those girls who wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist before she went off to college and fell for a psych major with big, masculine hands and a name like Chad. I wish I was curled up on the floor in the sun beside Lily. I wish I could lay my hand on her like I did when she was a pup, to let her know that all that worried her would be okay so long as I was there. It’s where I belong instead of here.

“What about dating, though?” Jenny snaps me back to attention.

“Dating. I don’t know. It’s fine. Uneventful. Soporific.”

“Juvenile?” she asks.

“Not sophomoric.” God, I want cookies. “Soporific. You know, tedious. Tiresome.”

“Why is it tiresome?”

“Because it is.” Cookies.

“It’s always interesting to meet new people, isn’t it? Couldn’t you look at it that way?”

“I could.” I say it in a stubborn way to make it clear that I don’t and I won’t. I don’t know if it’s me—maybe I’m not ready to date. I don’t know if it’s them—maybe the good ones are already taken. I don’t know if it’s my age. Los Angeles is a Neverland of Lost Boys who preen and crow far too often and demonstrate substance far too seldom. I started dating with enthusiasm and put my best foot forward in the task. But soon I found myself on a string of first dates where I couldn’t remember if the story I was telling was one I had already told, or if it was a story I had told a previous date a night or two earlier. In an effort not to be boring, I had concocted a string of my best anecdotes, a highlight reel of witticisms, and in employing them over and over again, I ended up boring myself.

All of this I should be saying out loud, if only because my insurance company is paying for this time and I am paying for my insurance (as a freelance writer it’s no small expense), but instead I offer an anemic “I just . . . I don’t know.”

“Tell me,” Jenny implores.

“No.”

“Come on. Tumor me.”

The octopus swooshes its powerful arms in front of me, and in a chaotic flash exposes its hungry beak as it leaps for my face.

I flinch, swatting my hands in front of my nose. “What did you just say?” It comes across as accusatory.

Jenny looks at me, concerned. She has to see the sweat forming just along my brow line. I look frantically around the room for the octopus, but as quickly as it appeared, it is gone.

“I said, ‘Humor me.’ ” Her concern melts into a smile.

Did she?

My butter prison is closing in; the walls seem closer than they did five minutes ago. This is usually a sign of an oncoming panic attack. They used to be rare, but lately I’ve had several. The best way to stave off a full-blown meltdown is to do the one thing I don’t want to do—talk about dating. To remember life continuing. To not give in to that which causes the panic. So I relent. “There’s this one guy. Handsome. Smart. Funny. Handsome. I said that twice, didn’t I? Well, his looks merit it. I just can’t tell if he’s that interested.”

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