The Empathy Chart

Photo by Alexey Demidov

by Wendy J. Fox

issue 74

You and I were at a party somewhere when we first met, and we had to talk about the weather, as people do. We were living in Denver, Colorado, where the mountains let out their breath and bled into the plains, and we’d long since come to accept, if not fully gotten used to, the ways the days could turn from blazing sunshine to hail as thick and big and hard as a nickel in a matter of hours. It will get up to 81 on Sunday, and Monday it’s meant to snow! we’d say, repeating the forecast with a false incredulity. (It seemed impossible with the blue Sabbath skies, but we dug out our boots and puffy ski coats anyway, and by the evening, the wind had picked up and the cloud line was advancing from the northwest.) You, like everyone I know who has lived here or who currently does, are an armchair meteorologist. I am, too. When I am at home alone and hear the wind picking up, I think of your gentle “don’t worry” look.

“Stormy from the east,” my husband, Matt, says, coming in from the balcony where he was taking a phone call. I don’t know why he needed privacy for it, but I don’t ask.

Since you and I met at a friend of a friend’s springtime party, I am almost always thinking of you. You are not my husband. Matt is my husband. When I am at work, when I am walking to work, when I am walking home from work, when I am watering my plants on my balcony, when I am talking to Matt, I am thinking of you. When I am at work looking at numbers and partitioning them into their individual spreadsheet cells—in the cells the numbers are boxed, but the box makes them more pliable; they can be tabulated and sorted and formulas can be applied—I am also thinking of you. The numbers react differently from humans who are boxed. I am in my box, you are in yours, and Matt is in his, but we keep spilling over. It’s not clear if you and I think we are two halves meant to be joined or some other decimal. I can’t be a true half because I’m already joined to someone else: Matt. Maybe there’s some theory of halves that would allow both, but I don’t know it. I’m an analyst, so I don’t really speculate. I’m more about firm results.

* * *

It’s a clear day in Denver when I am walking home from my office in downtown to the townhouse I share with Matt in a nearby neighborhood. It’s one of those pretty, yellow-gray June afternoons lit hot gold where the sun shines uninterrupted by trees or buildings. Light, also, is not good at being boxed, always shifting and licking at the edges.

At work, my boss, Kate, is a wreck. We’ve just been through layoffs, and we lost so many (Michael, Sabine, Christian, others), and Kate either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that she is bound to be next. She hired me, and we’re not friends, exactly, but we have that particular kind of familiarity that comes with seeing one another five days a week for a number of years.

I take a walk, and I wonder how I can see you again. So far, we’ve only met in public. The first time was at that party, and we both drank too much and you kept asking me about my work, about what I do with numbers and data, and I kept asking you what you wanted to know. If you had asked me the same question at the party or at the coffee-shop dates that came after, I would have said, Courage. I need to know how to find courage.

Remember, at that party, all those market people? Oil and gas. Financial services. Remember how you were trying to relate, but they didn’t care about your stories? Remember how you didn’t notice their indifference toward you, even though when you spoke there was a sheen? You drew me in, if no one else. I pushed for your number, and then I called, which you didn’t expect. What you didn’t know about me then was that I would never ask for numbers if I didn’t intend to use them.

You know now that in the work I am paid for, I put points on graphs and draw correlations. This is also the work that calls me. I am lucky in this way, though I don’t like particularly to discuss luck. Generally, I am very careful, and my numbers are better than a crystal ball.

Walking, I’m almost home, and I’m distracted by Kate, by you. I take a wrong step. My ankle rolls on the concrete. Of all the times I have passed this corner, four years’ worth of trips, it just takes this one time to turn a steady trendline into a falling star.

I don’t fall, at least not completely. Half in and half out of the light. Okay, okay, I think. It hurts, but it’s okay. I limp the rest of the way home. I pretend it’s a sprain. I don’t have a bad ankle necessarily, but there is an old injury on the right side, the hurt side, and I pretend it is this, at first. A once-torn ligament could be quick to unravel, I think.

The walking does not go well, and I stop every other step to balance on the opposite foot and take a rest. The other alternative is to fold onto the sidewalk and cry. I’m maybe forty steps from home in my urban neighborhood. I think about calling Matt to bring the car, but getting to a place where he could safely park the car is almost as many steps.

I take a step, breathe, take a step, rest.

After I get to the door, swearing at my key, which has never fit without some jiggling, I collapse. I’m still trying to pretend it’s okay because I’m not ready for the alternative.

Matt half carries and half drags me up the stairs to our bedroom. Our townhouse is a very vertical space.

“Water the plants?” I ask him and nod my head toward the balcony.

“Of course,” he says. He props a pillow under my foot to elevate it.

It throbs, feels heavy and light at the same time, which I identify as the feeling of uselessness. If it is broken, for one, it will be harder to see you, even though I am not actually seeing you all that often.

Matt returns with ice and aspirin. He props me up on pillows. He buys into the idea of a sprain and does his best to reassure me.

“Elevate,” he says.

“I am elevating,” I say.

He waters the outdoor plants like I have asked and makes some phone calls while I read a magazine. He brings me dinner in bed. I read some more, and he makes more phone calls. We watch a movie together, and I fall asleep.

* * *

By the next day, when my foot has not bruised but is incredibly sensitive to touch, we visit the clinic. I am X-rayed, and the X-ray reveals a fissure in the bone on the pinky-toe side of my foot, though it doesn’t look like much—a streak of watery gray where there should be solid white.

Still, I am given, or I receive, a hard cast from toe to knee. The fiberglass wrapper is powder pink. I pick the color from a limited palette. Matt is angry now, disbelieving. He is angry because he thinks I should have been paying more attention. He is disbelieving that I could be so careless to destroy—this is the word he uses, destroy—a part of my body. I think he is also angry that I’ve put this burden of care on him. He doesn’t say this, but we both know it’s going to be more than watering the plants.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m a statistical outlier. Annually, only 1.8% of Americans will break a bone. In comparison, an annual 5% will visit Disneyland. I have never been to Disneyland. When I tell Matt these statistics, he says “What?” and I know he is thinking this comparison doesn’t track, but I think it does track.

In her office, my doctor says I have a 45% chance of not having to have surgery, and I ask her if she is being specific or just putting it at some point under 50% that seems acceptable to patients.

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” she says.

She sounds just like Matt, and for a moment, I lose all hope.

* * *

It was a Friday when I was wrapped in the pink fiberglass, so I have the weekend to think about it. Matt is catching up on the work he missed shuttling me between X-ray and ortho (my new language, medical shorthand), and he is quietly tapping on his laptop.

On Sunday, I say to him as gently as I can, “It’s laundry day,” and he looks at me in a way I can’t parse.
It’s not that Matt is cruel or lazy or incapable. He lived for a long time without me and presumably ate from clean dishes and wore clean underwear. I think there is a certain kind of man who easily forgets his life before being coupled, but that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is how indignant he is. It feels like he wants an apology, and I have already decided I will not give one.

With the laundry, I knock the hamper over with a crutch, and I sit on the floor and sort the colors. I wrap each pile up in a sweatshirt or stuff it into a pillowcase to make it easier for him. He’s downstairs, so I text him instead of hollering down the stairwell. If you can just run these all in cold, and then dry on low. I have separated out the delicates, thinking I’ll find a way to do these on my own because it feels inexplicably hard to explain how to wash my bras in a text, and I don’t want to ask him to come up to me, and I don’t want to go down to him. It’s only laundry, but suddenly the balance of our marriage seems to be hanging with the hang-dries.

* * *

Monday comes, and I decide to take the days off of work that my doctor has said I should. I am good at following directions. The ortho’s assistant has written me a note, and I feel ashamed at first, like a teenager looking for an excuse, but then I scan it and send it to HR anyway so they can document my request.

I am thinking of you, but I don’t contact you because I don’t want your pity. I have enough of my own.

Kate makes it very, very clear, in an e-mail, that she is annoyed. I e-mail back. I promise I am more annoyed than you are. I’m working remote, so call if you need anything. Frustrating all around. I make an entry in one of my sheets. I’m starting to conceive of a different way to map personality. Instead of a Myers-Briggs or a Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, I think of graphing empathy for self and for others. Then I close this file and start working on something for work, for Kate.

* * *

At home, I elevate my leg, think of my empathy chart, and on the second day I call you on your mobile.

“Hey, so kind of out of the blue, but want to come over to my house?” I say. “I have a surprise.”

You say your morning is clear, and you’ll be at my place in twenty.

When you ring my bell, I realize I’ll have to get all the way down the stairs, and while I grab my crutches, it’s mostly painful sliding. I realize I haven’t had a shower. I realize I’ve invited you into my home. Of course, I realized this when I called, but it still jolts me: this is the home I share with my husband. Matt is at work. I realize I have done this because I know you will say yes, and I am using my broken bone as a way to see you.

This is not like me, and on the last bumps of steps toward the front door, I am unmoored. I remind myself I have weighed the risks. I remind myself that I am unhappy with an unhappiness much bigger and much harder to parse than a broken ankle. The ankle will heal, eventually. Even if it does require surgery after the twenty-nine more days until the cast comes off, there is a plan in place.

The door to the townhouse I share with Matt opens onto a foyer that leads to the living room.
Matt and I do not have a plan, other than the usual of going forward, of trying to stay married.
You are in my home in your only slightly crumpled suit.

We’ve never been alone like this. Mostly we’ve flirted on the margins or gripped hands as we look away from the public. Seeing you in my doorway makes my stomach flip, but I try my best to hide it.

You, like me, might be a little queasy with nervousness, but you are not letting it show, either. Your face, like my face, is a zero. And what is a zero? A hen’s egg before its shape is made un-uniformly oval by a chicken’s cloaca. Or an invention of the Babylonians. The O of your slightly open mouth. The halo made as rocket fuel burns.

I say, “Hello, come in, come in,” and turn and start crutching away from you. I’m trying to look expert on the crutches, though I have been mostly reclining or crawling because the crutches make my hands and armpits hurt. With my back to you, the rubber tip at the bottom of the left crutch catches a throw rug, and I topple near my coffee table.

For a moment, it is very quiet.

A zero is a hurricane’s eye.

And then you are on the floor with me and then you are kissing me and then you are taking off my clothes and then you are angling and then you are pushing the coffee table to make more room and to be careful of the cast and then you are inside of me.

It seems like it lasts for a very, very long time.

Afterward, I don’t fall all the way asleep, because I have better control than that. I do almost doze for a few minutes, and then I’m alert again.

You are the one who is snoring, whose snores have snapped me into full consciousness.

On my empathy chart, I am not sure where you would fall.

I wake you, and you help me up from the floor. You help me into the shower after you have helped me into the latex barrier that is supposed to keep my cast dry. So far, it is working. You come into the stall with me and wash my hair. You hold my arm so I can balance. You soap me and rinse me. Then you towel me off. You change the bedsheets even though you and I were not in them together; it’s just you seem to know how good the fresh cotton will feel against my scrubbed skin.

“Water the plants?” I ask. It’s summer. It’s hot.

“Of course,” you say.

* * *

By the next week, I’m back at work, but only every other day. I could do every day, from an energy perspective, but the shower is an obstacle, especially without you. The shower feels dangerous, both hard and slippery. Matt is not indifferent, but he doesn’t do what you did and come inside. He has his own work, his own stress. He’s not an unkind person as a rule, but he is rigid. He likes routines as much as I like my formulas. Sometimes, when I make a graph, I’ll choose the setting in Excel for a smooth trendline. I would never choose that for Matt. He’s all edge. That’s not a criticism. I have loved that about him.
When my mother was still alive, the shower was one of the first things Matt and I insisted on when she moved into her new apartment. We replaced the old tub and overhead nozzle with a setup that could be accessed with a wheelchair, though she was not in a wheelchair then and never would be. But I wanted her to be able to glide right in, and I deeply feared her falling.

“People over sixty-five are the most likely to have an accident in the home,” I had reminded my mom.

“And why do you think that is?” she had asked.

“That’s why we are replacing the tub,” I had said. “It’s dangerous.”

“It’s not the damn tub,” my mother had said. “It’s because we are always here. If seniors were at the bar all the time, it would be the same rate. Probably more.”

“She has a point,” Matt had said, but my mother sent him a look that said shut up.

Defiance was something I loved about my mother. She always took my side if someone else intervened in our arguments, even when I didn’t need her to and even when I was wrong. My dad had left when I was very small, and I had no memory of him. I wasn’t sure if he was alive, but it felt like he was not. It felt like it didn’t matter one way or the other.

One thing I’ve noticed about being on crutches is how many automatic doors are broken. Depress the button, and nothing. Another thing I notice when I’m on crutches is how invisible I am, how people pass right by because I am slow-moving, because I have a foot wrapped in pink fiberglass. And I also notice how I am a target for the other invisibles—the men who would catcall me on my walks to and from work now see an obvious weakness. I wonder if they remember how I’ve told them that no, I don’t have change, no, I don’t want to talk for a while, and no, I won’t smile—don’t tell people what to do with their own fucking face, I said to one once—and now they are persistent in a new way.

In the short distance crutching between an Uber and my building elevator, I honor every request for change that is asked, I grant every smile. I’m a slow, sloping graph. I’m the exploded piece of the pie chart that gets dismissed as anomaly. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my life.

Maybe the thing my mother was saying was that older folks are not just home all the time, but so often they are home alone. I start to get why my mother was so angry at our offers of help. It wastes so much time, waiting for someone. Of course she pulled out the stepladder to reach her gravy tureen when we were there for the last Thanksgiving, when she insisted on cooking. Of course she insisted on cooking. Sometimes you want something done and want it done your way, even if that means taking twenty minutes to hang up your bras in the laundry room.

That last Thanksgiving, after she had drug out the ladder while I was in the bathroom, I gasped when I saw her on it. “Just let me help you,” I had said, and she gave me that same defiant look she usually reserved for Matt.

I should have spent less time chastising her and talking things over and more time spotting her as she made her slow climbs. I am so, so sorry that I was short with her about the gravy tureen. A few months later she was dead, water pooling in her lungs. More steps on the ladder might have saved her from that.

* * *

In the office, our COO, Dave, and also my boss, Kate, remain irritated with me and my every-other-day schedule, with what they perceive as me not sucking it up hard enough. With me not being tough. I’m not surprised about this from Dave—he’s never liked it when people work from home—but I am surprised about Kate. Kate is scattered with pain. We all know that Jimmy, her soon-to-be ex-husband, served her with papers, but we all pretend like we don’t know, and I start to wonder what was really going on in their house. I start to wonder why she is being cruel. She has never been like that.

Every other day, when I am working from home, you are meeting me at the door. You are peeling off my clothes. You are holding my tongue in your mouth. You are washing my hair and drying my body.
I have a new data project. My new project is calculating how many times I can sleep with you before Matt finds out. The algorithm I have begun to chart out is lovely but inconclusive.

After we have sex, you water my balcony plants. The dahlias are exploding, orange and yellow. I’m not sure whether Matt doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. I could put our sex on a chart, desire of you against indifference toward my husband, but I don’t.

* * *

In the office, on a day I am there, Kate is let go. There is a feeling like the feeling when tabulated data shows an unwanted but unavoidable result. There is nothing that can change it, besides starting over.
Kate does not want to start over; Kate is already starting over in the wake of her divorce. Kate goes to the supply closet to find a box to pack her stuff, and Dave follows her. I want to follow her, too, but I am so slow and so conspicuous on the crutches.

I’m not sure what Dave says to her, but Kate reappears without a box, grabs her purse, and heads for the elevator.

* * *

I have another new project. My new project is calculating how many times I can sleep with you before I fall in love with you.

It’s not that I dislike Matt, but when I think of you, it seems impossible that I would have chosen Matt. Of course, I didn’t know you existed, and Matt was so predictable. Matt felt so safe. Now that I know you better, it’s the messy, unchartable, ungraphable, unmatrixable that draws me to you. The way you work the shampoo in, even though my hands work just fine. The way you bring me lunches made with broccoli and kale and figs, high calcium, bone-building foods, you say. The way you clean the toes on my broken foot with a washcloth and then you pinch each toe as you are drying with another washcloth.

* * *

It’s you who takes me to get the cast removed, not Matt. I tell him Kate is picking me up, and then Matt is slow getting out of the house in the morning, and my heart is thundering with worry that you’ll pull up and our three little boxes will break, but this doesn’t happen.

After the technician cuts through the layers of wrapping and my skin is in the air for the first time, I expect to be elated, but I am not. My foot is lumpy, swollen. I go back to the exam room, fiberglass gone, but still on crutches. I am fitted for a walking boot, but I can’t walk in it. The pressure is excruciating.
You take me home, and you stay the day with me. We practice walking, while I lean against your shoulder. By the time you leave, a full hour before the earliest that Matt would ever be home, I am hobbling on my own. I am faster than I have been in over a month. On the empathy chart, you’ve scored so high I wonder if I need to reevaluate the input methodology.

When you leave, I decide to take a trip to the mailbox to post my growing stack of outbound mail. It’s slow going, and I am leaning on a cane, but I make it there and back. My whole leg tingles with the waking up of muscles and nerves and gentle pressure on the knitting of the bone, and it is a true feeling of freedom.

When Matt gets to the townhouse, I am watering the plants on my own, but he snatches the watering can out of my hands, saying that I don’t need to push too hard on my first day.

I think of my mother and the stepladder and the gravy tureen and how at her funeral I checked my work e-mail and answered a text from Kate.

“Give it back,” I say to Matt, even though I am leaning on the cane. “Give it back to me.”

He hands the can over, goes downstairs, and I tip it until it is empty, and then I keep up the motion of watering the plants, long after the watering can is dry. I think of my charts, my flowers, my foot, and I think of you. I think of how it’s maybe not about halves or zeros at all, and it looks suddenly like the sky will crack with hail, the wind picking up, and I’m outside, exposed, with my cane and my can.

Let it come, I think, just let it come.