Fiction: Playing Hearts

August 4, 2016 Fiction , POETRY / FICTION


Abigail Rathbone



Lissa Koren, a successful NYC psychotherapist with a flourishing practice of mostly other youngish professional women, began experiencing a troubling emotional difficulty that was becoming almost an obsession. She was so enchanted with her little five year old niece Amy that she started dreaming that Amy was her own child. Most people thought Amy was hers anyway when they saw the strong family resemblance–the same dark eyes and little chin dimple. She could see that Amy was suffering without a mother since her sister in law had taken off two years previously to revive the hippie dream on a beach in Thailand. Nevertheless her brother Jack has continued to proclaim proudly that he can be both mother and father “no problem”.

Lissa confided in nobody about this, not even her own therapist with whom she frequently has discussed what she calls her particular “constellation” of difficulties–the very ones she hears from her own patients!–the continuing frustration of trying to achieve a balanced life as a female professional, the unwillingness of men to really understand women’s needs no matter how much lip service they pay to egalitarianism, whether to have a child on her own if she finds no suitable mate by the time she’s forty (just 5 years away!), the feeling (still!) that her parents prefer her brother even with all his screw ups and financial drains on them…Jack was an adjunct teacher of history at one of the community colleges in Queens that is attended by mostly foreign students in NY but he was struggling. He had been more than generous in allowing Lissa to take Amy any time she wanted for weekends–welcoming the free time and all the money Lissa spent on clothes, toys and entertainment for the child.

Nevertheless a crisis–at least from Lissa’s point of view– was looming. An old college friend of Jack’s offered him an opportunity to come in with him as a partner in a restaurant franchise business he’d bought into in Nevada 3,000 miles away. How can Amy benefit from her love under those circumstances? How irresponsible can Jack be to disrupt the child’s life particularly given the defection of the mother? She has appealed to her parents to try to dissuade Jack from making this move but they see only his improved economic prospects. They’re stuck waiting in their house outside Chicago which they’re eager to sell when the market improves. They’d much rather move someplace warm like Nevada and help out with Amy there until such time as Jack finds a new wife to be a mother to the little girl. They are like a closed circle against Lissa and they act as though Amy has no feelings.

Certainly Lissa’s preferences and opinions are not in the picture at all. You would think that Jack would at least have some respect for her as a professional yet he never thinks to ask how she thinks Amy is doing. When he comes to pick her up he always tells Amy to thank her Aunt Lissa.

“Aunt Lissa is great isn’t she? What would we do without her?”

He’s such a phony! Obviously he thinks they’ll do fine without her or he wouldn’t be dragging Amy off to Las Vegas or Reno or some other vacuum.

Lissa had another bad dream one night that woke her with its vividness. Her heart pounded. She realized that what was causing her anxiety was a feeling of suffocating rage the dream had triggered. The dream took her back to a familiar scene when her parents would force the children to play hearts with them instead of watching television.

“This will make you kids think instead of sitting there like dummies,” their father would repeat.

Their mother was not as enthused but she went along with the program. “You kids don’t know how lucky you are to have a father like him,” she would say when they tried to get her to intervene. “Some fathers don’t care a fig for their children or what happens to them.”

Mrs. Koren’s father had been such a man and she was obscenely grateful to her husband, Lissa thought, simply because he didn’t beat or abandon her and their children. As far as Lissa could tell, the senior Korens couldn’t understand why they all didn’t just pick up and move to Nevada with Jack and Amy. As if Lissa’s practice so painstakingly built up in NY meant nothing. As if, because she wasn’t married, she was still part of the original foursome at hearts. She envisioned Amy being forced to play hearts with her father and grandparents, feeling like an idiot if she got stuck with the queen of spades as Lissa had so many times. Perhaps an intervention was called for, but what and how?

As soon as his semester was over, Jack asked Lissa to keep Amy for a couple of weeks while he went out to Nevada to find an apartment and start working with his partner. She had never seen him so determined to make a go of anything. He’d gotten Amy all jagged up over how wonderful their new life was going to be.

“Daddy said we’ll prob’ly find a new Mommy in Las Vegas,” Amy confided. “He said our life is gonna be better and that Grandma and Grandpa will be coming soon too; are you moving with us?”

Lissa wanted to scream. Jack called from Vegas full of excitement. He told Amy about the beautiful apartment he’d found–so much nicer than Queens. Then he asked Lissa to keep Amy for another two weeks so that he could put in the 17 hour days he and his partner were working to get everything ready for the opening of their franchise.

“I’ll really owe you Lis”, he said–yeah right–like he was going to reimburse her for the childcare she needed to hire to keep her own work schedule going.

She was finding it difficult to concentrate on her job and found herself thinking about Amy when she should have been focusing on her patients. Her patients. Sometimes she viewed them as an army of petty malcontents dragging her down into a pit of self pity she knew was counterproductive. She was tired of hearing about the infantile narcissists that had used them like handkerchiefs, about the bosses that took credit for their ideas, about the men who went home to trophy wives while piling extra work on them. If life were a game of hearts all her patients would perpetually have been stuck with the black queen. Well dammit, she wasn’t going to view herself as a patsy. She was sick of Jack taking advantage of her good heart. Lissa impulsively contacted a former patient of hers who worked with Social Services for children. She described Amy as a neglected child whose limited security would be terribly at risk if her father dragged her off to Nevada to be cared for by an army of incompetents while he worked 17 hrs a day at his Noshery franchise.

“Do you think I should try to get custody” she asked her friend tremulously. “He’s the father,” her friend said, “and with the mother out of the picture, his rights are paramount. If you say the child is neglected or abused, then the state would take her and put her in foster care. There would be a zillion evaluations. You could probably qualify as a foster parent but frankly, they would look askance at you too…you might be able to get her but would you really want to put her through that?”

Lissa could imagine Amy being questioned about her circumstances. “Do you know where your Mommy is and why she left?” No-no–she didn’t want Amy to have any more insecurity than she’d had already, to have her self consciousness raised –what had she been thinking.

Jack called and said he’d made a plane reservation. He’d be coming at the end of the week to pick up Amy and did she know that their parents had had an offer on their house? It was way less than they’d hoped but they’d be able to move out to Nevada in about two months.

“Isn’t that great?” Jack said, ” we’ll all be together, –I don’t know Liss–maybe you ought to come out to Vegas and take a look. Hell there’s just as many crazy people here as in NY!”

Lissa mustered some fake enthusiasm and then got off the phone. Amy was sitting on her bed watching a dumb cartoon show on TV.

“Amy,” Lissa said sharply, “turn off that junk. I want to teach you a game.”

Amy turned off the television with a sulky look. Lissa took a deck of cards out from her nightstand. She’d found them on the subway and never opened them before. Amy looked at her questioningly.

“You might as well learn this game now. It’s called ‘Hearts’ and you’re going to need it in Vegas.”








Abigail Rathbone

Abigail Rathbone has been writing both short fiction and poetry “on and off” for 50+ years. A retired copywriter she now spends much of her time buying and selling old books, some of which she reads.

1 Comment

  1. western writers August 23, at 11:14

    I relish, cause I found just what I used to be taking a look for. You've ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.