“Watermark” by Patricia Heim


I lie face down on the black leather couch. After three years of coming here, I am finally weeping.

I hear him rise from his black leather chair, feel the air swoop as the blanket falls over me. Gently, he smoothes it around my shoulder; I hadn’t expected such a gesture. He’s an analyst, after all. Yet, it feels right.

Back in his seat, I sense him leaning forward, head bowed, hands clasped between his knees. He is my witness.

My arm, sleeved in cashmere, covers my face. I am steeping in memory, forget how old I am, middle-aged I suppose, heart flash-frozen at thirteen.

The Sondheim song spins, round in my head. Last night, alone, I played it over and over. Ethereal and so sad, I never realized. The bid for clowns made me think of her, though I don’t know why. I cried inconsolably like the child I once was.


I see her in the kitchen. Springtime, she’s fixing supper, her gingham house dress hugging her form. I sit at the table, reading aloud my geography text. I’m content just to be in the room with her. The metal scent of screens mingles with the twilight air, marking the hour I educate her−tonight of watery places. Their names, all poetry to me: Isthmus of Panama, Straits of Gibraltar, Marianna Trench, Lake Meade; the pulsing cadence, soothing, incantatory.

Below us, in the basement, a turtle conch from the Philippines hums a chorus of the ocean. When I was small she held to my ear. I found it beautiful and then fascinating, how it cradled in its chamber the might of the sea.

The days lengthen. In the dining room, dust motes twirl in columns of sunlight. On my knees, I’m waxing the mahogany. She sits at the window sill, chatting on the phone with her sister. They are laughing like schoolgirls. She doodles in blue ink; cups and saucers in the curled margins of the yellow telephone directory. On the backs of torn envelopes she scribbles grocery lists, saves the loose-leaf for notes, sometimes to my teacher.

Seventh grade finally ends. I’ve wiggled my way into the popular group. My best friend and I make prank calls to strangers. We think this is funny. She invites me for dinner, so I dial my mom.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come home?” she asks, as if I’m the one who’s wavering.” I’ve made roast beef, one of your favorites.”

“That sounds good, Mom,” I say, hoping my warmth will tide her over. “Save me some leftovers? I won’t be too long.”


Midsummer, I’m off swimming at the pool, mastering the back dive. She sleeps in her bedroom, tangled up in the sheets, pale and incoherent. A week before, she was quarantined at the hospital, thrashing about, tied to the bedrails. We stood in the corridor, faces poked through the doorway, our words (“We’re here, Mom … getting better… home soon…miss you”) sailing across the room, straining to reach her.

“Meningitis,” they said, though they hadn’t a clue. Finally, they released her.

“Exhaustion,” they concluded.

The morning she returns, I race to the front porch at the sound of wheels, the engine cut to an eerie silence. Eternity passes. I can barely move or breathe. From the driver’s side, my father appears, then, circles to her door before craning to lift her. I don’t understand why she slumps into his frame, why he practically carries her.

I steady the door as they shuffle through, a rhyming couplet, a living pieta. He sets her down on the sofa, head flopping beneath the weight of the mass lurking in her brain, growing like a grapefruit. Only an autopsy will eventually reveal it.

Either she doesn’t know me or can’t say my name. “It’s Patsy” my dad exclaims.

“Patsy,” she repeats, as if learning to speak.

Stunned, I stumble through the downstairs before lurching onto the back porch where I’ve been known to dance and sing. I clutch my chest, because I can’t inhale, then crumple to the ground, choking and sobbing.

Days later, my friends and I are planning a funfair, my debut as gypsy fortune-teller. She’s not supposed to wake up, while I hold my breath and tiptoe toward her bureau.

“What are you doing?” I hear her say.

“Borrowing some jewelry for a fair we’re having,” I answer, not daring to face her. “I’m supposed to be the gypsy; I read palms and predict the future. I’ll bring them back as soon as it’s over.”

“You never help me,” she scolds, before drifting back off. I gaze out the window, fists  dripping with rhinestones, the green world calling.

“Help you?” I want to scream. “How am I supposed to help you? You’re always asleep. Most of the time, you don’t even make sense.”

Days later, she disappears.

“A seizure,” my father explains, hours after I’ve come home from the pool, darting up and down the stairs, yelping for her. He’d rushed her to the hospital. There wasn’t time to leave a note.

I wonder if she’ll ever come back, as I think about lilacs, how she gathered them in vases. At the hospital, she dreams of her dead mother. “I’m tired,” and, “Take care of Patsy,” she moans to anyone in sight, especially my father, seizing his arm, her gray eyes glaring.

The nurse phones at dawn on a Sunday morning, “Mr. Finn, your wife’s condition is very grave.”

A flock of dresses eyes me from the closet. What to wear poses the biggest question.

Am I a girl or a woman?

The minute hand won’t move. The wardrobe doesn’t answer.

We weren’t late. She died moments after we got the call. It wasn’t my fault, but still, I blamed myself all my life as if I had been selfish, as if I were a criminal. How could I have known, at thirteen, that my world had overturned and nothing could be done, that my need for control was perfectly normal?

Eighth grade, acorns thud into puddles of leaves. My mind fingers a stone, ponders it ceaselessly. Never, it reads. Never, I repeat, over and over. Once, the word had meaning, but in the reciting, it gets whittled down to nonsense. The unconscious fails in its attempt to represent absence.

Before long, I recite all manner of things, facts and formulas, stirring lines of literature, skeins of poetry, and litanies of prayer. I held onto my mind, but the girl that was me, I can’t seem to locate. Even beyond the closet, choosing is still difficult. Things often aren’t quite right. Almost always, something is missing.

In my mind, I open the door, while alone in the living room, she sits very still. Her face looks vacant, disapproving, I think.

Hot tears graze my cheeks, while a voice inside whispers, “You have to say, ‘good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” I say, sounding like I mean it.

It is necessary, sometimes, to be firm.



Patricia Heim is a psychotherapist in private practice in Philadelphia. She received both her B. A. and M.A. from Immaculata University and post-graduate training from the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. Pat lives with her husband on a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania and writes with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop studio.

Read an interview with Pat Heim here.