They’ll be here soon. I’m not denying that fact. But knowing and accepting are not one and the same. I accept myself, sometimes. I’ll never be more than a fan, but that’s okay, because I’m a good fan. For example, I own every one of Neil Young’s studio albums. I’m not one of those people who overlook the minor stuff.
My name’s Neil, too, and I’ve gone through plenty of minor Neil phases of my own. I know when my moment is happening, and I know when it’s over. I know when to order another beer and when to close the tab, when to speak and when to shut up. But as you’ll see, knowledge doesn’t always help when it comes time to make your move.
The scene I’m trying to set for you, the one I’m currently stuck in, is practically intolerable. It’s near the end of the off-season. For me, lots of things are off—or nearly at an end—but I’d rather not let that bring me down.
The crew has been here for days, yanking out the rot on the south wall. My yard is covered in scrap lumber, slabs of siding, and sheets of quarter ply pocked with twisted nails and jagged edges. I haven’t been able to walk out there all week. Right now a shirtless man named Jerry is perched above my kitchen window, banging on the house with a big hammer while an Eagles song squawks from a radio down in the yard. What a way to start the day. Maybe this is obvious, but I’m having trouble finishing a thought, let alone an important task, and like the Dude said I hate the fucking Eagles.
I know Jerry. We’ve done some jobs together, been on the same softball team. We almost came to blows last season after a pathetic final game, but the summer cops rolled through and scattered us.
The island is a summer place. The rest of the year, you can pretty much do whatever you want, but in the summer you need to stay in line, or else they’ll put you in handcuffs and arraign you before a court of snobs, descendants of the island’s original white settlers who want you deported to the mainland for good.
Work gets done in the off season, and it’s getting warmer, which will soon mean traffic, summer renters, presidential motorcades, and lines at the stores. Picture that early scene in Jaws, with the pasty mob invading the white-picket town, except with Land Rovers and five-thousand-dollar bicycles. Jerry is here because now is the time to get the work done, and because Eileen, the landlord, is about to give me the boot.
While this was my house, meaning while I was the legal tenant, no one ever had to make repairs. I made them myself. Before, there was only a house. Now, as I’ve said many times, it’s a home. It took five years of my life, and now it’s all over. The lattice I put up for Cheryl around the upstairs deck is hacked and mangled in the pile down below. Jerry said it was in the way of the ladders, and Eileen didn’t want it up there anyway. Way back, she asked me why I enclosed the deck. I said Cheryl likes to lie out and tan, and she doesn’t like lines. That was when Cheryl was still around.
She liked flowers, too, and I planted them all over the property. All of this, everything, was for her.
I suppose they’ll want to repair the fist holes after I go. No one has seen them yet. Things got bad toward the end. Cheryl called me a stupid five-year-old, and a stubborn sonofabitch, and all kinds of other names I don’t want to repeat or think about, but at least I only punched the house. On the island, you have guys hitting women, and they brag about it. That’s the part that amazes me the most. I’m not afraid to tell you that Jerry is one of these guys, and it didn’t surprise me to hear it.
You can’t do that, I said, we’ve progressed. As though we’d been talking about the need to accept gay marriage. The guys just laughed. By making light of the issue, I eliminated the risk of being called a pussy. Classic minor Neil. A well-intentioned project with poor follow-through, like This Note’s for You or Old Ways.
Anyway, sometimes you still have to punch something, and so I punched the house. Wood hurts, which is ultimately the point. I’ve punched through the panels on most of the hollow-core doors. That was easy, sometimes too easy. When I just couldn’t take it anymore, I went for the cedar. The posts are raw and old, and in my mind the whole house shook a little when I hit them. It’s not entirely my fault that the house is rotting. Even Jerry said it had probably been tacked up by a crew of underpaid illegals (his words) with no regard for durability (again, his words). I was going to say it shouldn’t make a difference whether the workers were documented or not, because it wasn’t their own house they were building and so why should they care, especially if they’re getting shit pay, but Jerry’s called me a communist enough times already. Of course, I could have brought in some help before attempting the leak repair above the south wall last year, which Eileen let me do in exchange for half a month’s rent. That half-skilled effort of mine is very likely the cause of the rot being repaired right now. But what’s done is done.
Since Cheryl left, everything has been quiet. My world has been upside down, but in a peaceful way. Like when you’re swimming in the ocean at night and lie back to float, ready for the sun to burn your eyes out like it usually does, but instead there’s just the cool moon and stars, soft as cucumber slices.
I found peace in Cheryl’s absence, however devastating her departure. Days will pass without the sound of my voice escaping from my chest. I’ve had plenty of time to think, to write down the thoughts when they’re clear enough, and to perfect my routines.
Right now it’s time to cook the bacon, and I know Jerry’s not gonna like it. Yesterday he said I wasn’t allowed to cook anymore, not while he’s around. The smell goes right out to the guys and suddenly they don’t want to work, they only want bacon. But what am I supposed to do? I’m definitely not going to offer them any, but I shouldn’t deprive myself, either.
I know what you’re thinking. I should be packed by now, and settled on a new place to live. I’ve got some boxes started. Books, records, the easy stuff. Not all of them, because I still need something to read, and records to play while working in the kitchen. I cooked all the time for Cheryl. Sometimes I cooked during the silence after a fight. Then we would sit together and remember our happiness.
When it’s time to leave a house, do you start to remember the place differently? What I do is look back and let myself feel sunnier about all the time that’s passed, and then I’ll start feeling sunny about the other bad situations I left and wonder why I ever left those to begin with. For example, before I moved in here I was staying with Jerry, of all people. We were working on a job together, so I saw him all day, then I saw him at the bar, and if that wasn’t enough we lived together for months. Things went okay for a while, believe it or not, until the septic blew and he blamed me and Cheryl. He said it was like Three Mile Island out there, that we’d caused a nuclear disaster, and he kicked us out. Cheryl went home to her apartment above the pizza shop in town and I wasn’t invited. Suddenly I had nowhere to sleep. There was no way I was going back to Jerry’s, not after the way he talked to us, although when I think back on it now, I wonder if I was too stubborn, too proud, like when Neil released Everybody’s Rockin’ to the objections of everyone around him, because nobody was rocking at all. Then again, he released the record, and he’s still proud of it. He did what he wanted to do. I was right to stay away from Jerry’s place, even though I now have fond memories of that room in his house, the way the light played off the trees and came into the window, the old wood smell of the place in general, and the secret space Cheryl and I carved out under the covers, trying not to make too much noise.
And now I’m in another house with an unavoidable reason to leave, yet tied by memories of Cheryl. Not much else happened here that was good, if I’m being honest. I wasn’t even that crazy about the place when I first moved in. Eileen, the landlord, bought it as an investment and hired me to clean it up and get it ready for summer people. I’d done some work for her in the past, and we knew each other like everyone knows each other on the island. Even though she let me stay during the job, I never imagined that she’d let me stay for five years. But she had another summer rental already going and didn’t have time for the hassle of renting mine seasonally, so she let me pay her enough rent to cover the bills. Now she wants her mother to take my house, and I get that, she wants to be able to come and check on her more easily. But they could have given me a little more time. A month is nothing in the scheme of things.
The house is a short drive or a long walk from the ferry terminal, tucked away in the woods at the end of a dead-end street. There are two houses directly across. One is empty for most of the year, while the other is occupied by shut-ins rumored to be hoarders. One day a HAZMAT team showed up and brought a bunch of junk out to a dumpster that had been set at the end of their driveway. Eileen griped about the unsightliness it brought to the neighborhood, but I welcomed the excitement. It’s pretty sleepy around here, save for the turkeys who congregate loudly up in the trees or wander around the yards.
We also have a beach, but it’s not for tourists. First you have to find the road, an unmarked break in the side of a sandy trail that runs under the power lines on the other side of the woods behind the last houses. The road to the beach is a two-mile course of deeply rutted twists. It forks with unmarked driveways that invite dead-end detours, and it’s not passable for most cars. On foot or a bike you could be run over by a teenager and their 4×4, or you may simply exhaust yourself on all the fruitless side trips from the road toward what you think will be a beach, but is only someone’s backyard with signs saying beware of the dog.
If you happen to be with me, then you’ll be on the right track through the woods and eventually will emerge into a clearing with a wide marsh on your left and small cedar cottages tucked behind the dunes. Keep walking and the houses fall away, then the marsh drains out into a pond. Walk a little more and see the pond open itself out to the sound, with little waves rolling into each other and flipping up onto a jagged jetty, and there’s your beach. The horizon is broken up by views of the mainland, and the surf is mild compared to the raw open sea on the south side of the island, but hardly anyone goes there.
The moving truck is here already. Not my moving truck, I don’t have one. I don’t have enough stuff to justify the expense. It could all fit in my pickup, maybe a couple two three trips. The truck outside is from Vermont, full of stuff that belongs to Eileen’s mother. The truck is standing in the middle of the road, and the two-man crew sits high in the cab, waiting for the guy inside the house (me) to come out and move his pickup so they can pull in. I wouldn’t call it a standoff, though they have honked twice.
I knew all this wouldn’t last forever, that eventually Eileen would either cash out or make new plans for the place, but I hadn’t figured on family. There’s her brother Pat, busy with early retirement activities, and their mother, Lane, who I’ve met on several occasions while she was visiting from Vermont. It was nice to meet her because she asked me thoughtful questions about what it was like to grow up on the island and see it change. When she heard about Cheryl leaving, she was sympathetic and tried to cheer me up by telling me how much better it is to live alone.
In Eileen’s mind, Vermont is too cold and remote for their mother, and her life outside Montpelier was getting lonely. After a big storm came and wrecked the foundation, Eileen said it was better to move now rather than later. It was the right thing to do, and I can’t blame her, even though there’s no place for me in the plans.
It seems like whenever I retreat to the kitchen for snacks, the phone rings. I haven’t picked up because it could be Eileen looking for an update. The fridge is just a couple of paces further, but this time Jerry is at the window again, watching me with a frown that seems on the verge of twitching into scornful laughter. I can’t stand here and not answer the phone with someone else watching, so I pick it up.
It’s Eileen. She says they’ve been delayed. My spirits rise. More time! Then she says could I show the movers where to get started? They’ve been waiting and are ready to go, and could I please help?
“Sure,” I say, and I’d like to. Really. But it would be too much of a jumble, with all of my own non-packed stuff still around. Jerry gives me a hard look through the window while Eileen thanks me for agreeing to help, and then she asks me to hold on because another call is coming through. I stand there contemplating the contents of the fridge while Jerry stares at me with interest. Of course he knows what’s going on here. Eileen’s mom is moving in today and I didn’t move out. I’m surprised he hasn’t already told Eileen, since he’s the type of guy who would do that.
Before I begin to pack, I need to find a place to live, and that takes time and luck. I’ve already looked at the classifieds, but there’s just nothing out there, nothing I could remotely afford. Lots of the people who work on this island, the people who essentially run the place, can’t afford to live here year-round, so they shuttle between temporary winter rentals and crowded summer housing, where, for example, you might see twelve or thirteen Brazilians living in a four-or-five bedroom house, pickups staggered around the lawn. I have nothing against Brazilian day laborers and service workers, but I’m not about to live like them. The housing situation on this island is definitely a problem. It should be addressed. I don’t know if there’s a solution. I’m just saying it should be looked at.
Eileen comes back on the line with new questions for me, like, Did you notice the moving truck? and, What have you been up to today? I tell her I’ve gotten a slow start, and am just finishing up with breakfast, then look at the clock and see that it’s almost two. What have I been doing today? It’s not an easy question to answer. Weeks have passed like this. I’ve known this day was coming, that Eileen’s mother would have to get her stuff into the house today and I would have to move out. I knew it had to happen, it’s not like I didn’t understand. I’m not crazy. I just don’t know what to do, or how to do it. This has been my life, essentially: 1) A thing will loom on the horizon; 2) I’ll drift toward it; 3) There will be an impact. I can see it all coming but I can’t seem to influence the course or the outcome in ways that work in my favor. All I can do is hold on until it’s too late, then reflect on what already happened as I wait for the next thing to drift into.
Eileen and her mother are almost at the ferry, which means they will be here in less than two hours, and meanwhile Pat will be stopping by to check on things. Eileen seems to be operating under the assumption that I am doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, an impression I do not wish to undermine. The Pat factor, however, adds another unexpected wrinkle to the near future of my life, and I’m doing what I can to not react audibly.
What I do is get my mind rolling at the slow, steady speed of one of those motorized carts they have at Stop & Shop for the elderly and disabled customers, and tour the alleys of my discarded days. Curdled dreams come back and make me shudder, then I hold my breath and feel the sweat tickle my armpits as my mind glides me through the horror show. Images of Cheryl on the pressure-treated pine, Cheryl suspended in empty space, then the deck empty without Cheryl flash like frames on a short loop. My chest fills with warmth then empties, fills and empties. No matter where I go in my mind, I end up back at the same place.
What I’d been thinking, what the plan was, if you could call it that, was that I’d ask Eileen if Lane could stay somewhere else for a little while, until I figure out a place to go. The words rush through my head and make my heart pound in that way when you suddenly have something to say but are afraid to say it. But it’s already way too late. Lane is on the road.
The non-bald parts of my head burn with shame at the thought of sharing this fragment of an idea, this short-term, one-sided solution that would have only benefited me, directly with Lane. I could have done it. She’s easy to talk to, and would have been sympathetic the way she was when she heard about Cheryl leaving. She seemed happy enough to live in Vermont for as long as she did.
But I’m not talking to Lane, I’m talking to Eileen, and to to be honest I’ve always been a little afraid of her, so I just said have a good rest of your trip and hung up. Typical Damon. Anyone who knows me—and a lot of people know me on this island—would expect this. It hasn’t all been minor Neil. I couldn’t call this phase minor without something notable to compare it to. I’ve had my own After the Gold Rush. I’ve even had my triumphant Freedom and cathartic Harvest along the way, along with my share of spectacular On the Beach-style comedowns. I’ve lived.
A Decade ago, when the Sox were about to reverse the curse, I was hitting my own stride. One of the team’s best players happened to share his surname with me, and it was then that people took to calling me Damon instead of Neil. They smiled when I walked into a bar. At softball games, when it was my turn at bat, they chanted DA-MON! DA-MON! as though they were about to see Johnny Damon swing the bat instead of me. It was a good era. Classic Neil. This was when I started hanging out with Cheryl.
At first, we were just friends. She was working at a bar on the marina, one of those tourist places that pretended to be a legit seaside tavern, then unintentionally became one once the charter captains and their local-boy crew crowded the bar to claim free drinks, which in turn made it unaccommodating to tourists, and I would go and keep her company. Her boss said I was scaring away the customers because I was drunk and half-shirtless, my shredded tank top falling off my shoulders, but she just said, What customers? At that point I pretty much fell in love. We would go to other bars to watch the games, and when Damon was up, it felt like they were all cheering for me! It was a natural consequence. You walk into a place and everybody greets you—Hey, Damon, good to see you man! Nice job landing Cheryl, buddy—then the game heats up and those same voices cheer your very name and shout it happily at the screen. This is when Johnny Damon’s hair was especially long for a baseball player, and mine was getting longer too, though I kept it in a ponytail to cover my bald spot. We were in the playoffs again, and even though things weren’t looking good, I had a feeling we would come through and win the pennant. Damon’s pennant-winning grand slam in game six against the Yankees was the kind of thing that only happens in movies, and suddenly the bar felt like it had been turned upside down. I was lifted high over the crowd and everyone was screaming their heads off, and the bartenders were spraying everyone with champagne. I actually believed, for one moment, that I had hit that grand slam myself and was now in the Fenway clubhouse celebrating with my team.
Then he got traded, and people continued to call me Damon, except now with a hint of scorn. Whenever we played the Yankees, the new pinstriped Damon got jeered without mercy. They weren’t jeering me, but still I couldn’t help taking it personally. I started to feel like a bad penny, someone who no one wants to see, and so I stopped hanging around and eventually spent most of my time alone or with Cheryl. I should have known this was the beginning of a big slide, but at the time I was buoyed by sensations of happiness. Her beauty stunned me each time we got together. My body shook whenever her hair fell over the front of her shoulder as she leaned in to kiss me. When she touched the back of my head and held me close, I felt safe from the worst dangers, but the dangers also became realer than ever. Between the promise of her eyes and my overwhelming desire boomed a dark gulf. It all seemed so impossible.
Years fell away with me working as little as I could in order to spend time with Cheryl in between shifts, and she was all I thought about on the nights we were apart. It doesn’t sound so great now, but these were my Harvest years, full of so many clear pictures from the pleasure and pain, and no way to go but down.
While I thought about Cheryl, Cheryl thought about Cheryl, too. She was bursting with energy, talking about her ideas for businesses to start on the island and new artwork to make. After she moved in with me and learned what a head case I am, she started to put some of that energy into me. I was grateful at the time, but now I can’t help but feel a little guilty, especially because she never managed to get any of her ideas off the ground, and she’s still tending bar at the same tourist trap. But maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe Cheryl was destined to break out of her small town in the Berkshires, take out tens of thousands in student loans in Boston, then come here and gradually find herself while paying off the debt. In small ways, she fit right in with the locals, the farming and fishing families who have been here for generations. When she drove a pickup, she meant it. She wasn’t one of those fake island Bohemians who spend hundreds of dollars a month on yoga. She’ll find her true path here, I just wish it could be with me. But no one wants to settle. I know that. If the tables were turned, I might think twice about settling down with a woman who’s a little overweight and balding, immature yet past her prime. Still, I hope for our future together. We already have history, and she still looks great. She could help me improve, reverse my curse.
The look Jerry gives me through the window does a good job snuffing all that out, as I realize I’ve been staring into nothing. He could taunt me verbally, but he doesn’t need to. He knows not to sink too low. He wouldn’t want to look like a schoolyard bully in front of his guys. He’s an adult, unlike me.
I scratch my head and then make a quick pivot in the opposite direction, as though I’ve just remembered what I’d meant to do, and leave the kitchen for the stairs. They creak as I walk up the first landing, where the wall is bare except for the twisted nails where Cheryl’s pictures used to hang. I reach up and pat the cedar beam that runs parallel to the stairs, from the bottom of the loft to the front exterior wall, and squint up into the glare of the skylight.
Then the bedroom, with the closet full of Cheryl’s clothes. I haven’t opened it all year, and I don’t plan to now. I also haven’t been on the terrace. The sliding door is covered by a heavy curtain that keeps out all the light except for a shallow band of warmth that covers the border between carpet and doorframe, where the curtain doesn’t reach the edge of the glass. There were rough nights here, mainly when both of us were drinking, but we also had our good days, days when a storm would blow over and the most wondrous light would fill the rooms, orange and green, and we would go outside and fuck on the terrace, barely hidden by the trellis, with steam coming off the trees as the sun dried the rain and warmed our backs. I want to say it felt like being reborn, but it was more like we were reawakened to our true lives. We were in the world that we’d always wanted, rather than the one that played host to our regular devastation. That’s how I remember it anyway, and I guess that’s really where I went wrong, letting my life remain unknown to me. After a certain point the reins are out of reach, you let go of the future and it chugs away from sight, and there’s nothing you can do but walk around in your past.
I’ve been asleep. Not only for the last however many years, but just now. Apparently I fell asleep on the bed, thinking about Cheryl. I don’t like the feeling of waking up in the middle of the day. You don’t know what time it is or where you are, and you have to take a deep breath to remind yourself you’re still alive.
I might as well open up the door and walk outside, face the devastation and its perpetrators. What’s the worst that could happen?
Plenty! My dreamy mind was still filled with old pictures, and when I pulled the curtain, everything I loved from those pictures was stripped away. No green grass and flowers, no Cheryl, naked on the pressure-treated pine, smiling at me from behind a paperback. Just more destruction.
The guys are really getting into it, yanking off more siding and blazing right through the plywood with a Sawzall, shaking the whole house. It’s unbearable to be here, with the power tools screaming and the hammers flying and Jerry with his silent judgment and the phone ringing off the hook and the movers seated tensely in the cab of the big rig, ready to hop down and ram through the front door. But I have nowhere to go, and there’s so much work to do, with packing and calling around to find a place to stay. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do with all this stuff and the stuff that was Cheryl’s. Does she still want it? Would she come back? Why can’t this be my house? I’ve lived here long enough. Everything fits here perfectly.
I could take a walk to the beach. That would really clear my head. I wouldn’t stay too long, just out and back through the woods, gone long enough for Eileen and her mother to arrive and sort things out. I can’t stand the thought of them finding me here like this.
A knock at the door and a man’s voice, calling my name. Eileen’s brother, Pat. I wait for a while at the table. Pat knocks again, says, “Damon, you in there?” He would have expected to see the movers already making progress, perhaps even finished by now. They must have spoken to each other, out on the lawn. Who knows what they might have said. If Pat gets in and the phone rings again, he’ll be the one to answer it. I don’t live here anymore.
I’m about to get up, really. I’ve rehearsed the motion so many times in my mind, and even rocked back and forth on the bed, gearing up for the big thrust where my legs will swing around and my feet will land on the floor. Then, before I have a chance to make a move, something happens. There’s a quick series of crashing sounds followed by a very loud bang, right out back, as though a tree just fell. The brother, still at the front door, calls out, “What the hell was that?” He probably thinks I did it, whatever it was. I start to walk downstairs and catch Pat outside through the window on a middle-aged hustle toward the noise. He glares briefly at me through the side window in mid-stride as he moves on briskly to the backyard. I follow in that direction through the kitchen and take a peek out the back window. Something doesn’t look right.
The backyard is on a hill that goes down to a creek bed, really just drainage, down at the edge of the property, and a wood post fence separates the yard from the neighbors on the right. One of the trucks from Jerry’s crew is nosed up against the fence, with two extension ladders tangled up underneath the wheels. The truck must have rolled down and gone over the ladders on its way. My rose bushes were in the path, and they are now completely destroyed. There were flowers all along the fence, too, and the truck crushed a bunch of them.
As I step out the back door and follow from behind, Pat is first to investigate the damage to the fence. One of the guys trots down to join him. They take a close look at the vehicle, Jerry’s ladders, and the busted picket, make thoughtful gestures at the trajectory of the runaway Ram, then exchange comments on the good fortune of the truck’s unwillingness to crash into a tree or drive off into the creek bed, where it could have been totaled.
Now they’re laughing. It looks like they’re laughing at my destroyed flowers, but they could just be laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. If I were friendly with either of them, I’d probably be laughing, too. But now they’re looking up at the house and laughing even harder, pointing in my direction. Our eyes make contact through the kitchen window, across the yard. Are they laughing at me? Then I see it. The boxes, the ones I’d started packing, are out there with the piles of discarded wood, all the damaged siding and the rot that was wrenched out of the house, rot that I have to admit I caused myself. There are more boxes too, boxes that aren’t mine, but in a flash I know that my stuff has been placed in them. They must have done it while I was asleep upstairs. Eileen’s mother’s stuff is coming in through the front door and mine is going out the back. I run out the back door shaking my finger at Pat and Jerry, and they just laugh harder.
“Damon, why are you always such a loser?” Jerry says.
“Yeah,” one of his guys says, picking up a hammer and palming the head in a way that’s unintentionally homoerotic. “Why is that?”
“I’m sorry, Damon,” Pat says. “But we have to get you out of here. It’s time. You understand, right?”
I keep walking toward them.
“Isn’t someone going to say something about this truck?” I exclaim. “Look at it! Look at the neighbor’s fence!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Pat says, stepping in between Jerry and me. “The fence is fine. Jerry’s truck just had a little something wrong with the parking brake.” They all laugh again. “We’re trying to keep an eye on the bigger picture here. For example, you. And the fact that my mother is trying to move in today. Can you do us a favor, Damon, and enlighten us as to why you are still here? Because we’ve been scratching our heads all day.”
All day? They’ve known? Of course. Jerry and his cronies were spying the whole time.
“Yeah,” Jerry says. “How about you enlighten us? Did you think Cheryl would come back? Because I can tell you first hand, that is totally over.”
“Stay out of this, Jerry. You’ve already been an asshole, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I could tell you plenty about your little sweetheart,” he says, in that horrible tone that guys like him use all the time, and here I go again, running across the yard, except the path is unclear, and now I’m falling face-first into a pile of splintery boards.
I’m down, for now. Down on the ground with the broken pieces of my former home. The yard is silent for a change. Then a car pulls up in the front yard and two ladies happily talk over each other as doors are slammed shut. The voices draw closer, and Eileen’s mother cries out, “Oh, dear! What is going on here?”
Finally, someone who might understand.
David Varno is the fiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and president of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Tin House, and elsewhere.
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