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What May Be Highly Relevant

In this excerpt from Rivka Galchen’s first novel, a psychiatrist uses unconventional means to save a patient

Rivka Galchen
May 07, 2008
(State Library and Archives of Florida)
(State Library and Archives of Florida)

I have mentioned my patient Harvey, but I have failed to properly discuss him and the odd coincidence, or almost co-incidence, of his having vanished just two days before Rema did. So, actually, most likely not a “coincidence.” In retrospect I feel confident that the seeds of tragedy were sown in what I had originally misperceived as a (kind of) light comedy of errors.

a. A secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology

When I first met Harvey just over two years ago, he was twenty-six years old, and for nine years had carried a diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder. He lived at home with his mother, had been treated successively, though never (according to his mother) successfully, by eleven different psychiatrists, two Reichian psychotherapists, three acupuncturists, a witch, and a lifestyle coach. Additionally Harvey had a history of heavy alcohol use, with a penchant for absinthe, which lent him a certain air of declining, almost cartoonish, aristocracy.

Harvey’s mother had called me after reading an article of mine peripherally about R. D. Laing. In my unintentionally lengthy conversation with her, with me practically pinned against the wall of some insufferably track-lit Upper East Side coffee shop whose coffee, she kept insisting, was “superior,” I quickly came to understand that she had grossly misread my paper. (For example, she interpreted my quoting Laing on “ontological insecurity” and “the shamanic journey” as endorsement rather than derision.) But I didn’t try to set right her misreading—that would have been rude—and I found the case of her son interesting. I could imagine entertaining Rema with its details. Also: It pleased me, the thought of telling Rema that a woman had sought me out after reading an article of mine.


Functionally speaking, Harvey’s main problem—or some might say his “conflict with the consensus view of reality”—stemmed from a fixed magical belief that he had special skills for controlling weather phenomena, and that he was, consequently, employed as a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology, an institute whose existence a consensus view of reality actually would (and this surprised me at the time) affirm. According to Harvey, the Royal Academy dedicated itself to maintaining weather’s elements of unpredictability and randomness.

“I would have thought the opposite,” I said in our initial conversation.

“Everything we say here is secret?” Harvey asked.

I assured him.

He explained: Opposed to the Royal Academy of Meteorology was an underground group known as the 49 Quantum Fathers (not confirmable as existent by a consensus view of reality). The 49 ran self-interested meteorological experiments, in uncountable parallelly processing worlds, and it financed itself through investments in crop futures, crops whose futures, naturally, depended upon the 49’s machinations of the weather.

I asked Harvey to clarify, about the parallelly processing worlds.

“Yes, well, the Fathers can move between the possible worlds,” he said. “Like they can go to the world that is like this one but Pompeii erupts ten years later. Variables are altered. Like maybe in one of those other worlds you were hit by a produce truck when you were a kid and we aren’t talking here now.”

Perhaps my pressing irritated him.

He continued, “In one world it’s a rainy spring in Oklahoma, in another world it’s a drought,” though I don’t know if he was aware of himself trying to mitigate an aggression. “Normally the worlds remain isolated from one another, but there are tangencies that the 49 exploit, for muling data and energy from one world to another. I do wonder how they map them—that I don’t know. You understand, of course, that knowing the weather means winning a war, that all weather research is really just war research by other means.”

I didn’t really know that, but I later read up on the topic on my own, and although one might argue that he was exaggerating, he was—even by a consensus view—off only in a matter of degree, not of kind.

“But,” Harvey said, “I don’t mean to aggrandize my personal work. I’m just the littlest butterfly. I handle mostly mesoscale events; I specialize mostly in local wind patterns.”


The Royal Academy sent Harvey orders through Page Six of the New York Post; it wasn’t that he saw text or images that weren’t actually there; rather, he understood what was there as encrypted messages expressly for him. Early rumors of J.Lo’s divorce had, for example, sent Harvey nearby to the Bronx, but often these orders—coded in a Hasselhoff binge or a Gisele Bündchen real estate acquisition—entailed Harvey setting off unannounced on missions across the country. Harvey’s mom would learn of his whereabouts only days later when she’d receive a call from a distant ER or police station. Harvey’s homecomings were often notable for cuts and bruises he could not explain, occasionally even signs of severe nutritional deficits, once including cerebellar dysfunction.

When asked about his absences, Harvey’s elucidation tended to go no further than to say that he was “laboring atmospherically.”

Arguably these disappearances actually endangered his life.

“From the moment I shook your hand,” Harvey’s mother said to me in her wet-eyed, well-wardrobed way, “I could just tell that you were different from the rest, that you were superior, that you would be the one to solve everything.” She said this after my first meeting with her son.

Well, looking through Harvey’s files, I saw that in the past medications had been thrown at him but, not surprisingly, to no avail. As far as I could ascertain, apart from his ideas of reference, he had no auditory or visual hallucinations and no compelling mood symptoms, so it was rather unclear what the medications would have been targeting.

In my next several meetings with Harvey, I tried to engage him in some reality testing. I asked him if he’d ever met anyone else who worked as a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology. I asked him how he had acquired his special powers for manipulating the weather.

He told me that his father had been a top agent for the Academy. He told me that his father had single-handedly prevented a major hurricane off the Gulf of Mexico meant to knock out an entire mango crop. That, Harvey explained to me, was why the 49 Quantum Fathers had abducted his father many years ago, stashed him away in a parallel world.

I chose not to pursue the father issue further.

I did make a few other efforts to gently instill in Harvey some creative doubt in the internal perceptions of his world—such doubt being the usual cornerstone of delusional treatment and the path back to the consensus view of reality. But I failed. My failure did not hugely surprise me. Reality testing is notoriously unsuccessful for schizotypals, and if taken too far—and too far is not that far—it will serve only to isolate the patient further and deepen his conviction that he alone understands reality. Then a downward spiral begins.

The day immediately following my fifth session with Harvey, he again went missing. Nine days later he turned up in a hospital in Omaha. There had been hailstorms.

b. An initial deception

I should explain about the lying.

It was Rema who suggested that I lie to Harvey. I did not come up with that idea by myself. “That you lie como una terapia,” she emphasized. “You lie, but it is to benefit another. So it is a lie that is ethical. Isn’t that fine? Didn’t you tell me they used to hold the heads of disturbed patients underwater for the time it took to recite the Miserere? This treatment would be much nicer than that, this small lie carrying good intentions.”

Rema began then, completely impromptu (and this is a perfect example of the kind of Rema-ness absent in her impostress), to propose and elaborate upon a scheme wherein I was to pretend that I—like Harvey—was a secret agent of the actually existent Royal Academy of Meteorology. But that I—unlike Harvey—was an agent of superior rank. Who was in touch with an agent of even more superior rank. “Psychotics very much respect ranking,” she announced authoritatively.

“Yes, so does Harvey’s mother,” I added, not meaning to sound encouraging.

Rema paused and then added: “I’ll call. I’ll call to your office and you respond the phone and you listen very seriously and pass on the instructions that you will supposedly be receiving from a senior-ranking meteorologist. From me.” Rema particularly liked that detail, of her being the senior-ranking meteorologist.

The instructions, primarily, would be that Harvey “labor atmospherically” at locations very close to his home. On street corners. In the park. Handling very important mesoscale phenomena in the greater New York City environs.

I remember, strangely, that Rema was eating kumquats as she explained this plan to me. The kumquats still had leaves on them, which made the orange especially vibrant. And within me, as I listened to Rema inventing, as I watched her thinking through an elaborate lie, an alarm was sounding. But all my life, so many alarms seem always to be sounding, and so it becomes near impossible ever to say what any particular alarm might be signaling, or what might have set it off, or if it in any way ought to be heeded. The alarm then could as likely have signaled simply the color of the kumquat—some perhaps atavistic and now obsolete warning of poison—as something more grave.

“Not only is it unethical,” I said to Rema, “but your idea won’t even work. Why should it? And if Harvey discovers the lie—well, then it’s all over. The therapeutic relationship: over.” And possibly my career as well, I didn’t say.

We went back and forth on this for a good while, my doubts about the plan serving only to energize Rema more.

“Let’s imagine for a moment that it is ethical,” I said to her, as if in reconciliation. “And let’s even imagine for a moment that this ‘therapy’ does work. There’d still always loom the possibility of being discovered, of being revealed as a liar. I wouldn’t be able to go a day without worrying. I can’t live like that.”

“Oh,” Rema answered with a small unimpressed shrug, “but that’s what life is like all the time, no?”

Rema often made these broad, melodramatic declarations that seemed oddly heartfelt and sincere considering that they didn’t mean anything. She was always nervous, though, that was true. She’d accordion-fold any scrap of paper that happened to be in her hand for more than a minute; at movie theaters she had often already decoratively torn her ticket before reaching the front of the line. Occasionally, though, her anxiety bordered on psychosis. For example, once in response to an essay of mine on pathological mourning, I received a threatening letter. It suggested that I didn’t know what real loss was and that he, the letter writer, could teach me. Okay, it was worded more strongly than that, I admit, but it also evidenced such disorganized thought that it was foolish to believe such a person could actually set in motion a plan to cause harm. So there was nothing to fear. I brought the letter home to our apartment to show Rema mostly because of the inexplicable—and oddly beautiful—illustrations. There was no return address, but I thought it might be a kind of romantic mission to try to track down my correspondent. I imagined I might find a Henry Darger character on the other end. But Rema said that if the letter didn’t worry me I should be locked up in an asylum. She began looking into our moving apartments. This even though (1) the letter had been mailed to the journal and not to me directly, (2) our address was unlisted, and (3) only a handful of people knew where we lived. Still, Rema was on the phone with brokers. I decided not to recite what I considered comforting statistics on how often, and which kind of, written threats are actually executed. But I did tell Rema that her response was ludicrously out of proportion. She must actually be worried about something else, I said. She had an endogenous mésalliance, I concluded. She said she didn’t know what a mésalliance was, or what endogenous was, and that I was arrogant, awful, a few other things as well. I liked those accusations and found them flattering and thought she was right. Rema cried and hardly spoke to me for a few days. In bed at night she trembled.

But: it’s curious that she could so easily imagine a catastrophe separating us. That did, after all, happen.

And yet she was completely comfortable with the risks, professional and personal, of lying to a patient.

“Nope. No. Definitely not. No on the lying,” I said.

“Your choice of failures,” she said. “In my neighborhood we had a name for people like you: parsley.”

In the end—obviously—I decided to lie. Rema brightened considerably after that decision, and we had a sweet space of time, like the Medieval Warm Period, when wine grapes could grow three hundred miles farther north than they do today. Did I think then of the schemes that we would thus be swept into? No. I thought only of Rema.

c. An initial appearance

After I agreed to the plan, Rema suggested that I find the name of an actual scientist at the Academy, just in case Harvey looked up my superior’s name or was already familiar with the members. I, she said, would have to emphasize that I was, like Harvey, a secret, and therefore unlisted, agent.

“Right,” I said. “So no need to involve someone’s real name, if we’re talking about secret agents.”

“The real is good for deception,” she insisted.

And so.

Following Rema’s advice I obtained a list of the fellows of the Royal Academy. I chose the name Tzvi Gal-Chen capriciously, or so I thought. It just seemed like an anomalous and gentle sort of name, somehow authoritative and innocent at once. I almost chose the name Kelvin Droegemeier. That name also had charm and a kind of diffident beauty. But in the end I settled on Tzvi, because I remembered that degrees Kelvin was a temperature scale, which made Kelvin Droegemeier’s name, even though it was a real name, seem fancifully invented.

d. Initial anxiety (my mésalliance)

The night before I tried Rema’s ruse on Harvey I had several straightforward dreams. In one I was unable to make a teakettle stop whistling, in another Harvey was a homing pigeon in a dovecote (though I’m not actually sure what a dovecote is, in the dream I did know), in a third I was wearing yellow pants that looked terrible on me, and in the last I was simply walking down a street—I was seeing myself from above, as if from a building’s fire escape—and I knew that everyone hated me.

I woke inhaling the grassy scent of Rema’s hair. I put a lock of it in my mouth. I tried to comfort myself: Rema and I had prepared a script of sorts together, rehearsed some canned answers, scheduled a phone call. Also I had on my side the awkward flightless-bird beauty of that name, Tzvi Gal-Chen. Just, I reassured myself, because I was capable of imagining Harvey standing on his chair and calling out J’accuse, this did not in any way actually increase the likelihood of such an event occurring. Pressing that salivaed lock against my cheek I told myself that if I failed with Harvey, then so I failed. He couldn’t really get me into any trouble. If he accused me of posing as a secret agent for the Royal Academy, well, that would just sound like more of the same from him and I’d just deny the allegation. I decided that although I fancied myself afraid of failing with Harvey, my real fear of failure likely had to do with my cornsilk Rema. The whole Tzvi Gal-Chen therapy: It was Rema’s, not my own, strangely translated dream, and yet I’d somehow taken it upon myself to realize it.

I got out of bed (while Rema slept on) specifically because I felt within me an overwhelming desire to stay in bed.


“You’re going to break some legs,” Rema said to me later that morning, sitting across from me at the kitchen table with her hair, I remember, up in a tidy high ponytail; it struck me anew that I’d once thought that after enough time with me she would have put on a precious little potbelly and let her hair remain messy at home. I didn’t think she’d be like my own mother, always so consciously assembled, as if still petitioning for the attention of other, unseen, imaginarily present men.

“You know you’re saying it wrong, right? I don’t like it when you try to be cute on purpose.”

“I don’t try to be cute.”

“Rema, I have a very bad feeling.”

Bad feeling about this I should have said. Or at least I think that would have been more properly idiomatic than just saying “bad feeling.” But the little idiosyncrasies of Rema’s language had already thoroughly sunk into me, and I couldn’t hear so clearly anymore the space between what was Rema and what was normal.

Rema looked away from me and stared into the tea mug she held. “You ate meat too late. Lamb after eleven. That is the bad feeling. That is all. You should respect my ideas. You should respect your wife.”

That is all it is. I remember wanting to correct her, to tell her to add it is. Wouldn’t that have been closer to what she meant? I watched her touch her finger to the surface of her tea and then put her finger to her mouth and then suck on it, as if she had a cut there. She did this again, this very slow way of drinking that she had. (The simulacrum, she drinks like she’s parched, like someone might take her drink away. Some mornings she’s through her first mug of tea in three minutes, though I’ll often find a second one left half drunk, grown cold.)

I did respect Rema, obviously I do. Though I know that she didn’t believe or understand that, which I thought had more to do with her own self-doubt about who she was, or what she was doing, or not doing. She didn’t have what one would call a “profession,” but I didn’t know why she particularly wanted one; it seemed like she’d been infected by a very American idea of identity, to think that who you were mostly consisted of what you did to get paid—that seemed silly to me. If I looked like Rema, if I had her ways, and if I weren’t a man, I’d consider it profession enough to have streaky bleached hair, to wear a green scarf, to spill spicy teas, to walk (slightly) unevenly on high heels. What more is there to give to the world than that? I realize this sentiment of mine is currently considered appalling, but these days I find the popularity of ideas even more meaningless than ever before. I had told Rema once, when she complained of feeling aimless and amiss, that she was born in the wrong era and that she should consider just waking up every morning and being her profession enough. I told her she could be my duchess. She may have contemplated taking what I had said as sweet, but in the end chose instead—and I think “chose” is the right word—to be offended, because then she came out saying that maybe her problem was that she had been too happy to marry me, and that that had been good enough for too long, and maybe if she’d stayed lonely she might have made something of herself, even if something really dumb and superfluous, like a tax attorney, or a poet, and that would have been nice, to be able to say what one was. I said she was a Rema. I said, furthermore, that I didn’t really understand what obstacle I posed to either of her mentioned goals, but she just said yes, I didn’t understand, and I said that that was what I was saying precisely, that I didn’t understand. But she was saying that it was that I didn’t understand her.

So it was like that sometimes.

But about Rema’s lamb after eleven comment. Although I didn’t think she was right in that particular instance of my “bad feeling” before meeting with Harvey, I thought that her general idea—how we can misinterpret our own pain—I thought that was very right.

e. An initial (Pyrrhic) victory

You really look closely at a person before lying, or confessing love, or doing anything momentous. It is above all Harvey’s outfit from that day that I remember well: navy blue suspenders hooked onto gray trousers (lightly pilling), a thin-striped button-up shirt (cuffs unbuttoned) with a dark ink stain like Argentina at the left floating rib and with sleeves too short and a collar strangely starched and flipped and seeming poised for flight. I don’t know if Harvey actually had one arm notably longer than the other, but he gave off that impression.

Rema and I had planned on having her call near the end of Harvey’s session. I was to have already introduced the fact of myself as a secret agent of the Royal Academy. I had failed to do so. I felt too conspicuous, as if I was as exhaustively vivid for Harvey as he was for me that day (his eyes are so improbably blue) and this even though I knew that in truth it was highly doubtful that there was anything remarkable about my appearance at all; that day, like all the previous days, I must have seemed to Harvey simply an unremarkable gray haze of overly gentle inquiry.

My feeling of conspicuousness—I’m certain—stemmed from an awareness that a ridiculous lie lay in wait within me; I’m not a natural liar, so I had very little faith in my competence as one. I don’t mean to be smug by proclaiming my inherent honesty; I don’t think of my honesty as moral value, since I think of morality as involving choices, and I’ve never particularly chosen to be honest, have simply never been able to be otherwise, feel rather predetermined to fail at lying. Even as a child, in order to avoid saying thank you, upon prompting, for things I wasn’t truly thankful for, I would bury my face in my mother’s skirt. A smell of certain wools, the sound of a slip brushing up against hosiery, still recalls that emotion back to me. On the rare occasions when I have said I am busy when I am not, or that I like some item of clothing or person that I am indifferent to or hate, I am filled with unreasonable guilt over my “white” lie, and want to cry, confess, unburden. It’s all a bit overblown, really, as if I’ve actually wounded someone, as if my small insincerity might actually matter. I even kind of like it when other people lie, when Rema lies, for example; it’s a way of finding out, if the lie is uncovered, what she thinks is worth lying about.

So Harvey was saying something about El Niño, and dead fish.

Then the telephone rang, startling me far more than it startled Harvey.


It was Rema, who, sounding inappropriately giddy, called me Dr. Liebenstein and asked me what I was wearing.

“Oh yes hello,” I said, staring at the lines at Harvey’s cuff, watching them blur.

Rema chatted comfortably about what she wanted me to pick up for dinner, urging me not to be cheap about the fish—everyone with the fish—asking me also could I pick up the thin almond cookies that she liked, the ones she liked to dip in her tea, did I know which ones she meant? Through all this I nodded sagely.

“And these El Niño winds?” I asked.

She talked on, saying I’m not sure what in her beautiful mint-pitched voice; eventually she suggested that she get off the phone. I said that of course I would pass everything on faithfully.

“Well,” I throat-cleared to Harvey, “I apologize for that interruption, but I can now say something rather important to you. Are you familiar with the work, the public work that is, of Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen?”

Preplanned words exited my mouth hastily, stumblingly, and I heard them as if they were not my own. Blushingly confessing myself a secret agent, I passed on to Harvey Dr. Gal-Chen’s assignment—a cold front approaching Manhattan. And as I spoke—my gaze fixed on the stain on Harvey’s shirt—I further estranged myself from myself, so that while one part of me talked to Harvey, another part thought about a certain shade of pale green that happened to be the exact shade of pale green that the newspaper once published as having been calculated by astronomers to be the color of the universe, after which a correction appeared in the following week’s paper stating that a math error had been made, and that the astronomers now realized the universe, if you could stand outside of it and see it, was actually a shade of beige. (Willed depersonalization is entirely normal, a valid, even laudable, coping technique. Only unwilled depersonalizations would be a cause for concern.)

After I stopped talking there was a brief or long—I’m not sure which—moment of silence.

“How long have you been working for the Academy?” Harvey asked.

I told him that there were very few details of my work that I was allowed to disclose.

He asked me if I could tell him if I’d received any awards, in particular the Symons Gold Medal or the Carl-Gustav Rossby Medal.

I said it was lonely having secrets and that Harvey probably understood that loneliness.

Then Harvey smiled shyly, and talked a few minutes, in a comradely way, of the difficulty and delicacy of meteorological work. It’s never ceased to amaze me how, if you’re calm and quiet, others fill in any gaps in your story. Harvey pulled out his compact mirror and smoothed down his eyebrows, and then began to explain something about this instrument of his, which he used, he said, to alter vectors of light and sound.

I noticed spidering burst capillaries across his cheeks. I remember well the dejected feeling of having, apparently, succeeded. I wanted to reach across to Harvey and just touch one of his sleeves. I don’t know why, not precisely. Even a well-intentioned deception leaves a metallic taste in the mouth.

Did I think I’d ever partner with Harvey in order to find Rema, rather than partner with Rema in order to control and deceive Harvey? I did not.

f. An unusual initiation of a kind of friendship with Tzvi Gal-Chen

Relaying Dr. Gal-Chen’s instructions to Harvey became easy, ordinary, domestic. The phone would ring, Rema would often recite a grocery list, and I would tell Harvey that Dr. Gal-Chen says high-pressure systems are coming in from the north and Harvey’s assistance is needed locally.

And following the initiation of the Gal-Chen therapy, for the next nineteen months, Harvey didn’t go missing even once. He followed strictly Tzvi Gal-Chen’s orders to stay for work in the city. He deregulated tidal winds off the Hudson River estuary; he finely negotiated the chaos of an incoming tropical storm system from the corner of his own street. As for me, Harvey’s mother regularly sent me grids of artisanal chocolates, each chocolate with its own transfer textile type pattern atop—and, well, this made me feel good about myself.

Rema also was very pleased—probably more pleased than me—with the success of the Tzvi Gal-Chen therapy. At least in the beginning, at least for a little while. She took to calling herself Dr. Rema, and she often held my hand and pressed the back of it against her cheek. Once, when the weather report interrupted the news, she squeezed my arm and leaned over and kissed me and laughed. She was the kind of happy that made me feel that she would love me, and me alone, forever. But maybe it was just that successful deceptions made her euphoric. “Why,” I asked her one evening, “did you say the corner store was out of clementines when in fact it wasn’t?” In response, she eyed me suspiciously. “I found the receipt for that blue sweater you bought me,” I said, “and you understated its price by eighty dollars.” She ignored me, remained unaffected in her bout of cheer. It was nice, though; contrary to my nature as it was, happiness grew in me.


Gal-Chen therapy language made its way into our apartment, first teasingly, but after a while who could say? When Rema and I disagreed, I’d invoke our meteorologist: “Dr. Gal-Chen prefers the green wool,” “Dr. Gal-Chen says no to imitation Nilla wafers.” Or sometimes, more intimately: “Tzvi wouldn’t be pleased about your not wearing socks,” “Tzvi thinks you should return the movie,” or “Tzvi thinks you should plump a little.” Rema may have tired of this, but, after all, the specter of Tzvi had entered into our lives on account of her therapeutic invention, not mine. I thought of Tzvi as a stranger, certainly, but one whom I felt in some way shared our life, as if he returned to the apartment late, after Rema and I were asleep, and snacked on leftovers from the refrigerator, watched the television with the volume down low, left tea mugs in the sink.

One free afternoon, I came across a photo on the Internet of Dr. Gal-Chen with his family; I emailed it to Rema. She printed it on a color printer at the hospital, brought it home carefully tucked inside an empty patient folder, and then magneted it onto our refrigerator.

“That was nice of you,” I said.

“Oh, I just did it for myself,” she responded, maybe a tiny bit irritated.

I recall, at the time, having had certain interpretations of this action, this posting of a family photo on the refrigerator. But in retrospect, with all that has since happened, those interpretations now seem too simple. I admit that I had rather unsophisticatedly read the photo in our home as symptomatic of a longing for children, though I wasn’t certain if the longing was Rema’s or my own. Or if really the longing was just for a return to Rema’s own unremarked-upon childhood, or to an alternate of her own childhood. Or maybe the longing was for something else, for someone else. But whatever that photo was, I don’t care, it doesn’t really matter, it was also, and above all, just an amusing photo to look at when one went, from hunger, to let the yellow light and cold out of the refrigerator.

The butterfly collar and tinted glasses on Tzvi, the eyeleted cap sleeve with trim on his wife, that stolid Izod polo on the son—it was pleasing to travel back in time like that, falling through those mode details. And that little Bavarian mock-up on that tidy little chub of a child, well, that was just precious. “Why do you only notice clothing?” Rema asked, as if pointing to a moral flaw. But when I pushed her as to what she noticed, she could only point out the creamy crooks of the elbows on the mother and son. Sometimes I wondered at the necklace on the wife, other times at the inscrutable pale blue square on the shirt of Tzvi Gal-Chen. And once Rema and I had a long argument about whether Dr. Gal-Chen’s shirt showed a button or a snap. I argued snap quite heatedly, on the basis of context. She argued button on the basis of visual details that I apparently couldn’t see. But look at the way the light catches on that snap—it’s pearline.

It was strange, now that I think about it, how I never tired of that photo.

Even though I know better than to trust appearances, especially posed, studio-airbrushed, heathered-backdrop appearances, still: the Gal-Chens had the look of a happy family. Maybe not particularly sophisticated, or good-looking, or fashionable, but still, happy. Even now I do not know if that was, or is, true or not. If they were, indeed, happy. But who can ever really know about anyone’s happiness, even one’s own? And if another woman can have the appearance of Rema, then perhaps I should by now be giving up on appearances entirely. But with that photo it was more than just an appearance, it was also a feeling, a family feeling. A feeling that at least seemed to be responding to something beyond mere appearance, though at times such “feelings”—such limbic system instinctual responses—are the most superficial and anachronistic of all, like the feeling a baby duck must have when it responds more strongly to a stick painted red than to the beak of its own mother.

Excerpted from Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Copyright © 2008 by Rivka Galchen. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of Rivka Galchen.

Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances and, most recently, the story collection American Innovations.

Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances and, most recently, the story collection American Innovations.