Not-So-Precious Relationships: Inside, by Alix Ohlin
There is no easing into Alix Ohlin’s latest novel, Inside. In one chilling, breathless moment, Grace comes upon an unconscious man off the side of the trail down which she’s skiing on a mountain in Montreal. A fallen skier? An unplanned detour? Unexpected injury? No, it’s none of these. It becomes apparent quite quickly that John “Tug” Tugwell has just attempted suicide, and Grace is the first to come across the scene. Saving a man’s life, however, is not enough when you’re a therapist. Grace is compelled to follow up with Tug. She accompanies the ambulance to the hospital, is there when he wakes, and before long, she’s helping him home. From here on out, we the readers are swept along for the ride.
Next, we meet Annie, one of Grace’s troubled patients, a young woman who is anything but patient with the theory of psychology. Annie is everything you don’t wish for in a teenager: petulant, rebellious, caustic with her words and manipulative with her manner. Oddly, however, she is not likely who you will dislike the most. Enter Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband, also an essential player in the story. Mitch is also a therapist, and comes back into Grace’s life in the most unexpected way.
Ohlin strings together the lives of these four richly developed characters with such clarity and sharpness of writing. As the readers, we begin to sympathize, but the characters themselves never become precious; they are too human for that. All over the globe from Canada to New York, Rwanda to Hollywood, the subjects of Ohlin’s novel orbit around one another, making disastrous decisions – yet evoking no sense of hopelessness or pity in us. Instead, Ohlin keeps such a strong hold on her language, remaining meticulously generous in a way that allows her characters to grow from the foundation she has set for them. We can easily imagine that Ohlin simply penned the outline of the story and then set the characters free upon the page to play out the story as humanly possible as they could.
Ultimately, Inside is a story of relationships: those we cherish, those we cling to desperately, those we push away and those we let slip away. Ohlin’s Grace, Tug, Annie and Mitch are the perfect foursome to tell this story.
AT FIRST GLANCE, she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross- country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she’d come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days. In spite of these distractions, the mountain was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her— its clusters of green- spired churches and gray skyscrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence. This winter had been mild, and what snow did fall first melted, then turned to ice overnight. Now, at the end of January, it had finally snowed all night and all day, at last enough to ski on. Luckily her final appointment that afternoon had canceled, leaving her free to drive up before the light was gone. She slipped around the Chalet and headed into the woods, losing the vista of Montreal below, gaining muffled silence and solitude, the trees turning the light even fainter. One skier had been here before her, leaving a path of parallel stripes. On a slight downhill slope she crouched down and picked up speed as she moved around a bend.
Turning, she saw the branch or whatever it was too late. Though she tried to slow down, she wasn’t quick enough and ran right into it and was knocked out of her skis, falling sideways into the snow, realizing only when she sat up that what had tripped her was the body of a man. Her legs were on top of his, her right knee throbbing from the impact.
The air torn from her returned slowly, painfully, to her burning lungs. When she could breathe she said, “Are you all right?”
There was no answer. He was fl ung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow. Beyond his body the ski marks stopped. She thought he must have had an accident, but then she saw his skis propped neatly against a tree.
She got to her feet and gingerly stepped around until she could see his face. He wasn’t wearing a hat. “Excuse me,” she said, louder. “Are you okay?” She thought maybe he’d collapsed after a heart attack or stroke. He lay sprawled on his side, knees bent, eyes closed, one arm up above his head. “Monsieur?” she said. “Ça va?”
Kneeling down to check his pulse, she saw the rope around his neck. Thick and braided, it trailed beneath him, almost nestled under his arm, and the other end rested on a snowbank— no, was buried underneath it— and on the other side she could see that the branch it had been tied to had broken off.
She hurriedly loosened the rope and found the beating rhythm in his neck, then opened the first few snaps of his coat in the hope that this might help him to breathe. His face wasn’t blue. He was around her age, thirties, his short, wavy, brown hair riddled with gray. Still his eyes wouldn’t open. Should she slap him? Administer CPR? She pushed him gently onto his back. “Monsieur?” she said again. He didn’t move.
She skied quickly back to the Chalet and called 911. In her halting French, all the more fractured because she was out of breath, she tried to describe where in the woods they were. When she returned, he was lying where she’d found him. “Sir,” she said, “my name is Grace. Je m’appelle Grace. I called for help. Everything will be all right. Vous êtes sauvé.”
She put her ear next to his mouth to hear his breath. His eyes were still closed, but he heavily, unmistakably, sighed.
Later, at the Montreal General, she realized that both pairs of skis had been left behind. The emergency workers had loaded the man into the ambulance and she had followed it, weaving through the traffic along Côte- des- Neiges. She wasn’t even sure why. Because the Urgences- santé men had looked at her expectantly, assuming she and the man had been skiing together? Because one of them had said, in commingled English and French, “The police— ils vont vous poser des questions at the ’ospital,” and she had nodded obediently, like a schoolgirl?
It was partly curiosity, to know what had driven him to such an act; and partly pity, because anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly. And it was partly that she of all people had been the one to throw herself across his path.
Maybe it was just because she wanted to know what had happened. Regardless, she was sitting in the waiting room hours later, shivering each time the glass doors slid open with an icy draft. The linoleum was streaked with gray- brown slush people had tracked in, and she could smell car exhaust and cigarette smoke from the sidewalk outside. There was no sign of any police officer wanting to ask her questions. The man had been wheeled off, with a canopy of nurses over his still- silent body. Grace waited, though she wasn’t sure for what or whom. When she remembered the skis— probably long gone by now— she smacked herself on the forehead. Hers were practically brand-new. She looked at her watch; it was seven o’clock, completely dark on the mountain. She was tired and hungry and ready to go home. Before she did, though, she wanted to know that he was being taken care of. She walked over to a nurse at the reception area.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Can I see him?”
The nurse didn’t look up from her paperwork. “Qui, madame?”
“The man who was brought in earlier. The skier.”
“I don’t know his name. He was found on the mountain.”
“You don’t know his name?”
“I found him up there.”
“So you aren’t family.” Her tone was hostile, weary.
“I’m a therapist,” Grace said suddenly. “Une psychologue?” The nurse nodded, her manner softening at the French. Now she seemed to grant her a professional capacity, and Grace didn’t disabuse her. “I must see him as soon as possible,” she said, trying to sound authoritative.
The nurse hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and pointed to the elevator. “Three sixteen,” she said.
Grace knocked before entering. The man was lying on his back, wearing a hospital gown, an IV drip attached to his arm. He was staring at the ceiling with a blank expression that didn’t change when she came in. Whatever pain he’d been feeling on the mountain was absent from his face now; he might have been waiting for a train. Visible around his neck was the thick red abrasion from the rope. Clearing her throat, she sat down in a chair next to the bed.
“Do you speak English?” she said. No answer. “Vous parlez français?” Again, nothing. “I took a little Spanish in high school, but that’s all gone, so these are pretty much your only options,” she said. His clothes were folded and stacked on a bedside table. “I’m going to look through your things for your name, unless you specifically tell me not to.” She went through the clothes, feeling for a wallet, and he made no move to stop her, even when she found it and pulled out his license. John Tugwell. English after all. She put everything back as it had been and sat down again. “John, my name is Grace,” she said, “and I’m a therapist, though that’s not why I’m here. I was just skiing when I found you lying on the ground. The branch you tied yourself to broke off. I called the ambulance.” But for a blink, he made no sign of being conscious. She couldn’t even tell if he was listening. His hands, palms down above the blanket, lay fl at, unclenched.
“There usually aren’t many people in that part of the park,” she said, “which I guess must be why you chose it. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come along. Would you have tried again, after a while?”
He said nothing.
There were deep lines around his eyes, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors. His lips were unnaturally pale. Beneath the thin hospital blanket his body looked sturdy and solidly muscled. It was impossible to tell, as he lay there, whether he was handsome or not. The spirit that would have animated his face, giving it character and attitude, had receded from view. She stepped closer. Even at this little distance his body seemed to give off no heat whatsoever, as if he’d been permanently chilled.
“You’re back from the dead,” she said. “Maybe you don’t want to be, but you are.”
For the first time his eyes met hers. They were green. Then he blinked again and closed them.
“If you want to talk,” Grace said, “I can listen.”
They wheeled him out and then returned him to the room with his leg encased in a black boot, and the doctor came and spoke to Grace as if she had a right to be there. His ankle was sprained. There were scrapes and bruises all over his face, but they weren’t serious. A nurse dropped off some crutches. The doctor, who looked exhausted and no more than twenty- five, gave him a prescription for painkillers and told him to come back in two weeks. Grace said she’d drive him home.
“Sir, we need to evaluate your situation before you go,” the doctor said obliquely. When the patient said nothing, he turned to Grace. “An appointment will be made with the psychiatric department,” he said, his manner very formal.
“Our staff will make you the appointment?” the doctor said, turning back toward him.
From the bed, the man’s eyes met hers in a plea. She shrugged; he had already refused her help.
He coughed and said, “I didn’t really mean to do it.” His voice was hoarse and clouded with phlegm, as if the words were caught deep inside, trapped in some cave or web.
“What do you mean?” the doctor asked.
“I just wanted to see what she’d say.” Tugwell jerked a thumb in
Grace’s direction. His voice was painfully rasped and he swallowed visibly after he spoke, but then he modulated it to a tone of playful wryness. “We were skiing together and I told her I was going to kill myself and went off in a different direction. I said I had the rope with me and was going to do it immediately. It took her nine minutes to decide to come after me. Nine minutes! Can you believe that? I timed her.”
“You told your wife you were going to kill yourself to see how she would react, and then you timed her?” the doctor said, frowning skeptically. A francophone, possibly he thought he hadn’t understood the story correctly.
“Almost ten minutes,” Tugwell said. His eyes sprang back to her, and her heart twisted strangely in her chest.
The doctor looked at Grace. For a moment she hesitated: to go along with his story was so absurd that no sane person would even consider it. This man needed help, starting with the psychiatric evaluation and professional intervention. Yet something in his expression, a sense of collusion, drew her in. The spark of life in his eyes was so sudden and bright that she wanted to keep it there, to fan it from a flicker to a flame.
Maybe it was because she thought the hospital would likely give him the briefest, most cursory treatment. Or because she felt responsible for having brought him in. Or because she was happy that he’d turned to her for help.
“He’s never there for me either,” she said, as petulantly as she could.
The doctor sighed heavily and checked his watch. “So this is a marital squabble.”
Tugwell said, “I guess things got out of hand.”
The doctor, shrugging as if this weren’t the strangest behavior he had ever seen, clicked the end of his pen and made a notation on the chart.
“I’ll take care of him,” Grace said.
Too busy to worry about it, the doctor left.
When they were alone in the room, Tugwell looked at her again. The flicker had gone from his eyes, as if the effort of that one lie had tired him beyond all reckoning. “Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”
“This isn’t about me,” she said.
“Sorry, I meant dodging the question. I’m groggy.”
“I’m not dodging the question,” Grace said, although she was. “I just don’t think it really matters. Nothing about me really matters right now, not to you. You’re hurt and I’m willing to drive you home and get you settled. Or I can call someone else. Do you want me to do that? Is there somebody you want me to call?”
He closed his eyes.
“Do you need help getting dressed, John?”
“Tug,” he said. “And no.”
“Is this another dodgeball thing?”
“I’m called Tug.”
“Okay, Tug,” she said. “I’ll be right outside. Call if you need me.”
When she came back five minutes later he was in his gray fleece jacket and black ski pants, with one unzipped pant leg rolled up over the ankle cast. She pushed him in a wheelchair to the parking lot and helped him into her car, stowing the crutches in the backseat. Inside she cranked up the heat, and he leaned his head back and said nothing. She wondered where his family was. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. If he didn’t want her to be taking care of him, he wasn’t putting up much of a fight— but the resistance could be internal. He might just be waiting for her to go away, and then he’d try again. Those were the ones who often went through with it, the cases who humored you until you finally left them alone.
“Do you live by yourself?”
“Me too,” he said. “Well, separated. Not offi cial.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Is that why you wanted to do this?”
There was a slight pause before he said, “You don’t beat around.”
“No point,” she said, adopting his bulleted way of speaking.
He looked out the window until she understood he wasn’t going to answer the question. Which was fair enough, but then he turned back. “You’re a therapist, you said.”
“Yes, that’s right. I have an office on Côte- des- Neiges. Grace Tomlinson. You could come by if you wanted to, or call, any time. I’m listed.”
“This is how you get business? Skiing around looking for depressed people?”
“That’s right, exactly,” Grace said cheerfully. One of her professional skills was to remain unruffled. “It was a slow day until you turned up. Can you direct me from here?”
He nodded. They drove north along St. Laurent, through Little Italy, into a neighborhood where most of the signs were in Vietnamese. He told her to turn onto a darker side street, mainly of triplexes, the external staircases dusted with snow. Finally, in front of a yellow brick building, he asked her to pull over. Lights showed on every floor. People don’t leave lights on unless they think they’re coming back, she thought. “Someone waiting for you in there, Tug?”
“You’re inquisitive,” he said.
“Yes. You said you lived alone, so why didn’t you turn off the lights?”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. After a moment he said, “The lights are on for the dog.”
“You have a dog?”
He shook his head. “It’s my ex- wife’s dog. My wife’s. Whatever she is to me now, it’s her dog. But she had to go out of town, so I’m taking care of it. This happens all the time. She’s picking him up later. He would’ve been fine, okay? He has water, food, a chew toy. I hate that dog.”
“Why do you suppose that is?” Grace said.
“Jesus, is this the therapy- mobile? Are you giving therapy to me in your car? I’ve been in therapy before.” The words spilled out of him, scratchy but hectic. “You know, the most helpful thing the therapist ever said to me was, There’s never going to be a perfect time to do anything in your life. Maybe today wasn’t the perfect time to do what I did, what with the dog being there and everything, but I remembered what the therapist told me and I was consoled.”