I was hired fresh out of school by Omaha’s top polling organization because I had worked on the last national census and I had a lot of experience going door-to-door. It was an entry-level job. Once I was trained, I found myself out on the street, iPad in hand.
On the afternoon that I met Myrtle and Patrick, I was canvassing the Millard East neighborhood, working the blocks off N Street, collecting opinions on several local propositions due for a vote in the next special election. It was a warm summer afternoon but the streets were lined with trees that provided shade.
A lot of folks were at work. I rang a couple of bells with no luck and then tried one more house before my break. I rang and waited, and an elderly woman answered the door. I explained who I was, displayed my credentials, and asked her if I could record her opinion on a number of subjects. I had to reassure her more than once that I wasn’t selling anything. This was Myrtle.
Myrtle invited me to take off my work shoes and come in. We sat down in the living room. I asked my first question and she told me that I’d better talk to her son. She struggled to her feet and limped off to find him.
“Can you ask him your questions in his bedroom?” she said when she returned.
“No,” I said.
“I mean, he’ll be in his bedroom and you can talk to him from the hall, through the door.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I wasn’t getting paid enough to do something stupid. “Perhaps it would be best if I leave.”
“Please don’t. Let me speak to him. It will be good for him to get out of his room.”
She left me sitting on the sofa and disappeared into the back of the house. Presently she returned with a handsome young man about my age, twenty-three, dressed in white. Clean white shirt, pressed white trousers, white socks, and white shoes. His hair was trimmed, his face a bit pale but clean-shaven.
“This is my son Patrick,” the woman said. “Patrick, this is Frieda. She has some poll questions to ask. Perhaps you can help her with them.”
Patrick and I shook hands and said hello. I sat down on the edge of the sofa, doing my perky-little-bird thing. Patrick sat facing me in an antique Morris chair that was polished and clean but well-worn.
I don’t know what I expected from Patrick, but we had a pleasant chat. I asked my questions. He saw me to the door. Apart from a couple of glances back toward his bedroom during the interview, he seemed normal. As I left, he handed me a card with his name and several blog addresses on it.
That night before bed, I remembered the card. I found it in my pants pocket and checked out the blogs. They were all Patrick’s.
The first focused on philosophy. I read a well-written, well-thought-out entry on quantum uncertainty and free will, which he had written. Perhaps it was profound or perhaps it was utter nonsense, but either way I was impressed. A discussion followed on the page, in the comments section, between Patrick and a variety of readers from around the world. Evidently he had been a philosophy student at Creighton University and was now part of a community of thinkers of deep thoughts.
The second URL led to his sports blog. Mostly about Nebraska football. Patrick seemed to have hundreds of online friends in that one.
His third blog dealt with video and role-playing games. I read his rave review of the novel “Ready Player One.” I’m not much for video or arcade games, but I made a mental note to check out the book. It sounded like a fun read.
Then I surprised myself by leaving a comment. Nice to meet you today. Something like that. Patrick responded immediately and we began an easy online conversation. We switched to IM and in the end he invited me back to his home for dinner the following night. I accepted.
Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Me? I hadn’t been out on a date in more than a year. Maybe two. He must have spotted my inner beauty. Ha. Dinner in Millard East with Myrtle and Patrick. Dinner with a young man who didn’t like to leave his room. A smart, handsome young man.
The next day when my shift ended, I was back on their porch, ringing the bell. Patrick answered. Again he was dressed in white, neat and clean.
We sat in the living room drinking Wimbledon coolers while Myrtle made dinner. I thought about offering to help her but that seemed weird for a first visit.
“Just to state the obvious,” Patrick said, “I’m severely agoraphobic.”
“For how long?”
“A year and a half. I was with my father when he died. I think that triggered my condition somehow. I had already been having panic attacks.”
“Are you anxious now, being out of your room like this?”
“Yes, but not so much that it shows. I mean, do I seem anxious?”
“But if I stepped out through the front door and stood on the porch, you’d be able to see it,” he said.
“Therapy?” I said.
“Online and by phone.”
“Antidepressants and antianxiety drugs, but I haven’t found a sustainable combination. I’ll keep working with my shrink on it. I also need desensitization. Cognitive therapy and exposure. I can’t do that alone, though.”
He obviously had plenty of friends, at least online. Omaha friends as well as those worldwide. Perhaps some of the locals had already tried to help him. Perhaps the time commitment was too great, or the interpersonal chemistry wasn’t right, or his companions’ reactions weren’t what he needed when the panic hit. Whatever, Patrick was extending an invitation.
“I would be delighted,” I said. I guess he was desperate for help from somebody, even me.
We sat there smiling at each other until we were saved by the dinner bell.
The first step was simply to hang out in the living room together, which we did that night. We cleaned up for Myrtle after dinner. She went to her room to watch television. When we had finished, Patrick and I sat on the sofa and shared a joint and chatted. There were silences but they weren’t uncomfortable. We each had a drink or two and two hours passed in a blink. By the time I left, I was buzzed sufficiently to leave my car at the curb and take a cab back to my apartment.
I came over every night that week. I helped Myrtle make dinner. Afterwards, Patrick and I played bezique or piquet or honeymoon bridge or Scrabble, or we just sat and talked. Patrick knew the card games because his mom was an old-fashioned Hoyle aficionado. Myrtle sometimes joined us for a three-handed game like gleek or red frog black frog, or invited the next-door neighbor over for an hour or two of four-handed whist. Myrtle was also not shy about taking a drink or a toke or two with her son and me.
Saturday, Patrick and I ate lunch on the front porch together. The air beneath the trees had a green jungle cast. We left the porch and sat on the front lawn. Patrick handled it well. The seventeen-year cicadas were appearing early in Nebraska that year and their buzzing had a hypnotic quality.
“I haven’t asked you about this,” Patrick said, “and stop me if I’m being nosy, but are you in a relationship? Seems like you must be.”
“Why would you say that?”
“You just seem sort of special.”
He floored me with that. This guy was way, way out of my league. In brains, in looks, you name it.
“I’ve been helping you,” I said, after an awkward pause. “I think you’re just feeling a little grateful. But thanks for the compliment.”
He was probably so glad to be outdoors that it was making him loopy.
He looked at me and I studied the tree next to us. He didn’t say anything, just sat there, quiet. Of course this had to be a bad skin day for me. My cheeks felt hot.
“No, I’m not in a relationship,” I said, finally.
After that, I gave him a quick course in Pranayama breathing as a relaxation technique. We practiced a bit and traded notes on meditation.
The point of desensitization, according to Patrick, was to stay within a situation until the anxiety passed. Otherwise, nothing was accomplished.
We did the breathing until he announced that he was feeling quite calm, and we went back inside.
A week later, I asked Patrick about the all-white clothing, and whether he’d be willing to try something different. He said that he would, but that he wasn’t ready to go out and buy anything for himself. He gave me a credit card and I drove over to the Oak View Mall and picked out some pants, shirts, and socks at The Gap and Eddie Bauer.
We invited an internet friend named Jack and his wife over for dinner. Myrtle and I made pot roast with vegetables and gravy. Patrick wore a new pair of khaki pants and a blue Oxford shirt and looked even more handsome and together than usual.
After that, he and I graduated to walks down to the corner. I cut back on my hours at work. When I wasn’t helping Patrick, I was taking Myrtle to the market or beauty shop.
Patrick and I ventured beyond the block together for the first time on a trip to Riverside Park. I drove. We got on I80 and crossed the Missouri and parked in a lot by a trail down to the river.
“You OK?” I said.
We put on red Cornhusker caps and dark glasses and got out and walked toward the water. Birds were singing and the river looked quite muscular flowing past. There were a few folks here and there but we were alone on our part of the path.
“Anxious?” I said.
“Excited,” he said.
I was too. It felt great. Scary, but great.
The success of that trip led to visits to Doorly Zoo and Durham Museum and the Lauritzen gardens. Patrick had some tricky moments in public but he’d look at me and we’d talk quietly until he felt better. I got used to being looked at. Sort of.
In time, we agreed to visit a spot where Patrick had experienced several of his worst panic attacks, on campus at Creighton. We drove into Omaha and parked in the visitor’s lot across from the Harper Center. We strolled down the Mall, across 24th to Dowling Hall. Halfway there, Patrick took my hand for the first time. The summer campus was quiet. I felt the sun on my shoulders and hair. For a moment I thought I was floating.
Dowling Hall was built in 1889. Patrick had had two major attacks inside it during philosophy lectures. There were black wrought-iron benches along the Mall. We sat down on one facing the building’s facade of gray sandstone. A student came out, swinging an old green Harvard Co-op book bag. Inherited from his mom or dad, no doubt.
“Let’s do some breathing,” I said.
We sat without speaking, slowing our breath, attending, calming ourselves. Or, in my case, trying to. Eventually, Patrick stirred.
“Frieda, if I make it… If I can stay out of the house and get my life back…”
He turned to me. The focus had changed, away from his illness and onto our future. I never felt so ugly. Or so vulnerable.
Then, sudden tears and a strong rush in my chest. At first I thought it was fear but then I realized it was love.