I settle back on a red leather chaise and self-consciously adjust my glasses. The shrink sits across from me, hunched over the clip board that rests on his knees. His loafers press together, like the dot to his question mark. After a little hemming and hawing, he finally looks up and asks:
“How do you feel about this old friend you’ve told me about? This Oxford Comma?”
I knew the question was coming, but I panic a little anyway. To control my nerves, I pull my glasses off and clutch them, pressing my hands against my stomach. I consider how much he looks like a question mark, now that his form has blobbed into an indistinct curve.
“I’ve been conflicted about him; we’ve got a lot of baggage, you know—”
“Will you start at the beginning?” the shrink asks.
“We met in high school. English class. We dated a little,” I say. Latching onto visual grammatical associations, I relax. “When we got to college, we were labeled as ‘high school sweethearts,’ so–you know, the peer pressure thing–our relationship got pretty serious, especially since I was an English major and he’s big in academia. Oxie made me feel so rested, complete, and articulate. I got really punctual, by his suggestion, and got everywhere ten minutes early. I couldn’t imagine ever being without him.”
I take a deep breath. Here’s where things get tricky, but I decide that by definition my soft-spoken interrogator can’t judge, only ask.
“But when we graduated, I started working for a magazine and realized that my editors didn’t really like Oxie. Once in a while he’d show up in my manuscripts unasked, and I’d kick him out when the article was due. It wasn’t the most dramatic breakup ever or anything, I just told him that I needed space. I’m not an academic anymore. As my mom always says, a mouse may love its cheese, but how can they avoid the mousetrap?”
I pause. The shrink looks up from his clipboard.
“I’m the mouse. Oxie is the cheese,” I say.
“And academia is the mousetrap.”
“I understand,” the shrink states.
As a small jolt of electricity fizzles my chest. A statement? I ask myself. As he scribbles on the page, I wonder what diagnosis he’s considering. Probably something completely off point, like disrespects literature or mommy issues. Bogus. I stop trying to guess and I hold tightly onto our Q&A roles.
“I’ve been seeing Em Dash on and off, but he can be a little wild. A bit too–experimental.” I blush. After Oxie, I flung myself into the grammatical version of Woodstock. “I try to break up with him, but he keeps interrupting when I pause to add more drama to the moment. And then I relapse and see Oxie. I can’t help it–it’s habit!”
At the word habit, the shrink lifts a hand and circles it slowly, as though churning his thoughts with a dough hook. I wait for the question that will mark a new chapter in my life, fixing all my problems. My grip on my glasses tightens, threatening to bend the bridge’s delicate curve.
“What’s wrong with me?” I ask.
But I ask too soon. His hand drops. Setting the clipboard aside, he stretches his back and settles an ankle across his knee, looking–I fumblingly shove my glasses back on my face–human.
“You take punctuation really seriously,” he answers.
I blink at him for a moment. My mind blurts, well that’s obvious, isn’t it? along with the rude, incorrectly capitalized interjection, duH! As I push my glasses further up on my nose, I struggle to keep my questions to myself. But it’s no use. I can’t help but ask: