I told the doctor over the phone I needed an appointment fast—tomorrow, if possible. Are you going to hurt yourself, she asked, or someone else? No, I said. I was burning money. She said, Tomorrow at three, and I asked, Do you take check or credit card, because obviously I can’t carry around cash, ha ha, but she didn’t seem to get the joke.
I was at my best friend Yvonne’s house when I called. I had gone over there holding a yellow saucepan with the charred edges of three twenty-dollar bills. Yvonne was having dinner with her ex-girlfriend Juliette and another friend, Serena. When I asked what I should do, all three said, Therapy!, and began bickering over whose therapist was best, offering me their cell-phone numbers. I was surprised their therapists were so forthcoming with their private numbers, though perhaps they had cell phones especially for work. In the end, I chose the one who returned my call first: Juliette’s.
When I met with the therapist and, in the context of a memory, mentioned Yvonne, her eyes lit up and she said, Wait, you know Yvonne, too? I could see her mind working. I suspected that, as Juliette’s therapist for years, she was far more interested in the drama between Yvonne and Juliette than she would ever be in me.
She asked what my job was. I said I wrote brochure copy that tricked welfare recipients into forgoing their government subsidies for an inferior managed-care plan. So you don’t like your job? she asked. No, I said. My boss was impossible: she eschewed compound sentences, preferred sans-serif fonts, and had no respect for the semicolon.
It wasn’t until halfway through our session that she realized the burning of money was real, not figurative. Her face turned serious and she said, We need to address your ascetic concerns. Hearing aesthetic, I inspected my loafers and rubbed away the outline of a raindrop.
At the end of the hour, as I was leaving, she said that in college she used to be a socialist, some would even say a radical.
I paid her ninety dollars—the lowest level on a sliding scale. I felt cheated. The money would have been better burned.
The first time it happened, I had been with Yvonne and our friends Angel and Charlotte. We were walking along a deserted block in Astoria on our way to a Greek restaurant, talking about money and power and greed. It’s sad, I said. After all, money’s just paper, and Angel said, mockingly, Yeah, just paper, and I said, I’ll prove it, and pulled out a twenty and lit a match. There was a wind, so we had to huddle against a wall and I had to try several times before I could get it to burn. Yvonne called me a show-off and said my politics were a mess, but I think she was moved because, that night, she paid for my dinner.
Much later, she told me the fire in my eyes had scared her.
It had been the only time I’d done it in public. The other times had been alone in my apartment, burning bills over the kitchen sink or a pot or pan, sometimes one after another until my wallet was empty and I felt full.
Had it not been for Angel’s goading, I probably wouldn’t have started. Now, I couldn’t stop.
The therapist wanted to talk about my parents. I told her that they didn’t have anything to do with this. The therapist said, You’re wrong. It’s always about the parents.
I had a bouquet of balloons that day that said “We’ll Miss You” and “Good Luck.” The therapist asked about them, and I told her they were from people at work because I was quitting. She said, It’s obvious you are loved, and then she smiled.
She asked if I had a new job, and I said, Yes, writing bookjacket copy for self-help books.
She said she had written a book and gave me a copy, a manifesto of sorts, advocating drug-free psychiatric treatment. She said talking could actually change the chemical composition of your brain. I told her, no offense, but I wouldn’t read it, I just didn’t have time. She said, Take it anyway, I have extras.
Meanwhile, the practical side of my condition was getting complicated. I had given all my cash and my ATM card to Yvonne for safekeeping, and I had withdrawn from the bank eighty dollars’ worth of one-dollar Sacajawea coins that clinked around in my backpack and otherwise burdened me.
The therapist said I had a compulsion and needed something else to occupy my time. She suggested a jigsaw puzzle, or knitting if I knew how.
I went to Kidding Around and looked in the puzzle section, but nothing caught my eye. Nearby was a section for model cars and airplanes. The most complicated was a 1930s Mercedes-Benz Roadster, with almost six hundred pieces of precut cardboard and an engine that ran on rubber bands. I wanted something more plebeian, but the pickings were slim. Toy companies didn’t seem interested in manufacturing scale models of Geo Metros.
It reminded me of when I was a kid and my uncle, visiting from Bombay, took me and my sister to the hobby store without our mother and told us we could have anything we wanted and I picked out a five-dollar snap-together model Toyota pickup truck and my sister chose a ninety-dollar remote-control Ford Cobra exactly like the one Cheryl Ladd drove on Charlie’s Angels and my mom got mad and grounded my sister for choosing such an expensive gift.
I guess the therapist was right about the parents.
One morning, I told the therapist I thought I had discovered the trigger for my episodes. Here’s what I said.
A few months ago I was in a village in Rajasthan, and I had to get to the bus station three miles away. A rickshaw driver offered to take me, but the price seemed too high, so I set out on my own with my luggage. After a couple of minutes of following me and watching me struggle, a young boy, maybe eight, took my bags from me and pointed to himself and the bags and then toward the bus station. I said, okay, twenty rupees, and, not seeming to know to ask for more, he nodded okay.
He balanced the heavy bags on his head and walked barefoot along the hot road under the midday sun. I offered him water, which he accepted, and he said, in English, Tank you. He called me sahib, and I said, No, I am Indian, too. But the boy didn’t know English, and, armed with no Indian languages, I was helpless to make him understand.
When we reached the station, the boy was deflated. I worried that the weight of the luggage had stunted his growth. I thought, Shouldn’t he be in school? In the end, out of guilt, I paid him double—forty rupees—less than one dollar U.S.
On the bus, looking out the window, not wanting to remember what the boy had called me but not being able to help it, I thought, He’s wrong, I am no one’s master, though secretly, at that moment and even months later, I worried I was.
A few weeks later, back in New York, my friend’s mother treated me and her daughter and her daughter’s husband to dinner at Le Bernardin to celebrate her daughter’s birthday. The mother’s face was so heavily moisturized, when I kissed her hello her skin gave way like pudding. We ordered caviar with crème fraîche. We ordered two good bottles of wine—a red and a white—and, for dessert, a sixty-year-old port. The bill was over a thousand dollars.
It wasn’t long after that I burned my first twenty.
The therapist thought this was all very interesting, but my problems were more deep-seated than that. She said, In Gestalt therapy, we treat the whole person, not just the symptoms. There are no easy answers, she said. It’s going to take a while.
I persisted another month before telling her I had to end it. I’m moving on Friday, I said. Wisconsin. I thought you just started a new job, she said. Oh, I said, that isn’t working out.
By that point, I had stopped burning money, but only because Yvonne still had my cash and ATM card and I had learned to live on plastic. I’d finished building the Mercedes-Benz Roadster. I used all the parts, and it looked all right, but I couldn’t get the motor to work. I thought about displaying it, but it didn’t go with my furniture.
Not long after quitting therapy, I ran into the doctor at Barneys. I was returning a belt for a friend who couldn’t return it himself because when he bought it he had fucked the salesclerk in the dressing room.
The therapist knew I had lied about moving to Wisconsin. She didn’t care. She was fingering an oversize purse with a rhinoceros horn for a handle.
Yvonne asked me, instead of burning the money, why didn’t I send it to poor kids in India. I thought about it for a minute. I said, Money can’t cure the problems it creates, though, of course, I understood it was more complicated than that. Yes, she said, sighing, but whom are you helping by burning it? I didn’t respond. I knew the answer.
I thought about what the therapist had said about it always being about the parents. When my father came to America he was seventeen and had no money and few material possessions. For forty years he and my mother had worked hard and lived carefully. It’s an immigrant cliché but, in their case, true. Recently, he called me, stammering, not quite knowing how to say the family’s savings had swelled to seven digits.
We’re millionaires, he whispered excitedly.
I tried to think of this whenever I felt like burning money, how hurt my father would be if he knew.
Eventually, the urge left me altogether. I pasted all the corners of the twenty-dollar bills, which I had been saving all along, into a picture frame with letters I cut out of fashion magazines and arranged to spell: I am not what I own. After a while, I got bored of looking at it and felt embarrassed by the bumper-sticker sentiment and put something over it: a posed portrait of me and my parents and my sister at my sister’s wedding to a man she had quickly divorced. He’s not in the portrait. Someone had had the foresight to take one without him.
The wedding had cost forty thousand dollars. The marriage lasted less than a year.
When my sister comes to visit, she tells me she doesn’t like the photo, even with her ex-husband absent. It reminds her of worse times. Worse for her, though not necessarily for me. I like the photo. In it, we all look so happy and clean.
© by Rahul Mehta. From the collection Quarantine.
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