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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Acquainted with the Night

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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Acquainted with the Night
Stories
Lynne Sharon Schwartz

For Tobi Tobias, for all those years when she asked for more

Contents

The Age of Analysis

The Middle Classes

Sound Is Second Sight

Mrs. Saunders Writes to the World

The Wrath-bearing Tree

Plaisir d’amour

Over the Hill

The Accounting

Life Is an Adventure, with Risks

The Death of Harriet Gross

Grand Staircases

The Sunfish and the Mermaid

The Opiate of the People

Epistemology, Sex, and the Shedding of Light

The Man at the Gate

Acquainted with the Night

THE AGE OF ANALYSIS

P
AUL HAD ALWAYS HAD
an analyst, ever since he could remember. It began long ago, when, after several days of kicking, screaming, and gobbling handfuls of soil from his mother’s potted plants, he was carried by his parents, working in tandem, into the car and on to Dr. Trowbridge’s office in a tall building on North Michigan. How old he was then—eight, ten, six—Paul couldn’t recall precisely. But he did remember quite clearly that first sight of the analyst.

Dr. Trowbridge struck him as a comfortable, grandmotherly woman. She sat calmly in a leather chair behind a formidable wooden desk, smiling a friendly greeting as his parents dragged him in. She had short wavy gray hair, plump cheeks, and very thick glasses with pale-pink frames; she wore a cotton print dress with short sleeves. It must have been summer. He remembered they had no coats. Later on, in their private sessions, when she used to come out from behind her desk to stroll around the green-carpeted office, he noticed that she wore black oxford shoes with laces, old-lady shoes. Her ankles were thick.

Once he was in the office that seminal afternoon, he ceased his kicking and screaming. No one knew exactly why. He was distracted, perhaps, by the new surroundings, by the abstract mobile of colorful shapes hanging from the low ceiling, by the soft artificial light and the numerous framed documents on the paneled walls. He caught his breath and shut up, impressed that he had driven them to do something about him at last, to stop him, as if he were a runaway windup toy on which they had placed an overdue restraining hand. And what they had done was this relaxed elderly woman who smoked with a slender black cigarette holder, something he had never seen before.

He grew very fond of her and she allowed this fondness. Now, at fifteen, Paul didn’t remember much of what they had done or said together except for the mazes. Dr. Trowbridge was very keen on maze games. She produced a new one almost every time Paul came. They bored him, but he felt it would sound impolite or ungrateful to tell her that, particularly as she appeared to enjoy them so. As time passed, he graduated from large, wooden block mazes to small cardboard or plastic structures, to dittoed sheets, the most abstract. (Yes, she said, when he remarked on the dittos, she had other young patients. This bothered him, the idea of other children bending their heads with her over the same dittoed sheets, basking in her endless, soothing calm, especially since he never saw them in the small waiting room that hummed with white noise. But as they talked it over he came to accept a nonexclusive relationship.) He hadn’t understood the purpose of mazes at first, and performed aimlessly, until Dr. Trowbridge explained that the purpose was to find the most direct way out. Even then they didn’t make much sense—why not linger, he thought, on the intricate paths—but he tried to be cooperative. She taught him to work backwards from the goal. Dr. Trowbridge didn’t take things as seriously as his parents, nor was she appalled by his lapses into violence. And as she listened and nodded in her quiet way, it began to seem that there was space in him to absorb still another shaming incident with a bit of compassion. This lack of seriousness in her puzzled him, though, for he knew what her purpose was. She was hired specifically to take him seriously, to find out what made him so difficult. She was a superior being who lived above the fray. At least that was what he inferred. Her office was hushed like a holy place. With her he was not difficult.

Then, one nasty day, she announced that he was getting too old for her. She was a child psychiatrist, she explained, and he at thirteen was no longer a child. He was ready to move on to a specialist in adolescence. Paul made a scene, of course; it was the least he could do to preserve his self-respect. He ripped the mobile from the ceiling, tangling and cutting his fingers in the wires, and shouted bitter accusations, which she sat through quietly as if she had expected them.

“I know how you feel,” she said. “Separation anxiety.” That phrase from the occult language was a further betrayal, and sent him further into rage. He was heading for the curtains, the blood pounding in his head, lunging to fling them down, when she said, “Please, Paul. It’s so hard to get curtains. They have to come and measure, and bring samples of fabric. It takes weeks. Please.” She smiled mildly, and he stopped.

By now he had forgiven her and thought about her with gentle nostalgia, since he was fairly well settled in with Dr. Crewes, whose office was just off Lake Shore Drive. Dr. Crewes was not like Dr. Trowbridge, either in spirit or in appearance. She was much younger, for one thing, maybe thirty or thirty-five, he guessed. Sometimes he thought she was smarter, too; she sounded smarter, in any case. She chain-smoked and fiddled with things on her desk and had a sharp, knifelike voice that sometimes echoed gratingly in his ears hours after he left her. She wasn’t easygoing, but to compensate, there was a simmering excitement in talking to her. Lately a pleasant sexual buzz hovered around him when he sat opposite Dr. Crewes. They talked about it, naturally, and she said evenly that it was quite all right. It was to be expected. She smiled and showed two perfect rows of small sharp teeth. Dr. Crewes had a broad face, wide green eyes, and shoulder-length straight brown hair that she dashed nervously off her forehead. She never removed her very large round tinted glasses. Usually she wore pants suits with soft sweaters and odd loops of beads. Once, on a rainy day, she had worn blue jeans. Paul encountered her sometimes in his dreams wearing a succession of bizarre costumes, but he never touched her. Either he was afraid, or she drifted away when he reached out.

With the professional help of Drs. Trowbridge and Crewes, Paul had inched his way through youth as through a mined field. He had reached his second year of high school, a better than average student, though there had been months now and then of neglecting his studies and becoming obsessed by games—first backgammon, then chess, most recently horse racing. He won $150 at the track last summer, which he never told his parents about, but he told Dr. Crewes. She seemed proud of his skill in calculating odds, and made clever, provocative analogies between games of chance and real-life situations. Paul told her everything. Even the things he deliberately planned not to tell—in bouts of resistance—she somehow got out of him, or else once they passed by undiscussed, they came to seem insignificant.

Now, Monday, he had made a special appointment with her, apart from his scheduled Thursdays and Saturdays, to discuss the calamity. His parents, after nearly two decades of marriage, were, incredibly, intolerably, separating. Immediately. His father had told him only last night. There had been a vicious scene, during which his mother retreated to the bedroom while he and his father shouted at each other. She was the one being left. His father was going to live with a woman about ten years older than Paul. The very thought of her was intolerable.

His father was a psychoanalyst, his mother was a psychotherapist, and his father’s girlfriend was a psychiatric social worker in training, who had first appeared as his student in a seminar. Paul did not have the naive illusion that the membership of all three parties in what his parents called “the helping professions” was any guarantee against emotional upheaval. No. He had matured that much since Dr. Trowbridge. The wretched triangle of experts did not strike him as bizarre, any more than the fact that each of them continued daily to counsel others in torment. He had more than once overheard his parents remark on how the prolonged work of clearing the treacherous paths of the self disposes one to instability. Just like coal miners get black lung, thought Paul.

Indeed, among their friends, largely pairs of analysts, therapists, and social workers, Paul had already witnessed suicide, alcoholism, recurrent infidelity, breakdowns, and violence. So the source of his feeling of utter shock was merely that he had always believed Richard and Nan perfectly matched.

This was what he sullenly told Dr. Crewes now, after which she asked in cool tones, “How does it make you feel?”

He replied by resting his head on her desk and weeping. The sounds of his sobs were ugly to him, great gasping noises like the screeching of gears in an immense and overloaded machine.

Dr. Crewes played with the button of a ballpoint pen lying on her desk while she waited. “It’s terrible for you, I can see, especially after all the progress we’ve made.”

“I can’t understand it,” Paul wept. He blew his nose and tried to control the trembling of his shoulders. “The worst thing is that I can’t believe it. How could he go and do this to us, after all those years? How could he? I’d like to ...” His bony boy’s fingers locked and tugged and twisted like an interpreter’s making signs for a deaf-mute. “I could tear him to pieces.”

“You seem to be identifying strongly with your mother.”

“Well, for Christ’s sake,” said Paul, “it’s not a question of identifying. I mean, look what he’s doing to me! Shit, I didn’t do anything to him except get born, and now ... I don’t know, maybe it
is
me. Maybe he can’t put up with me anymore.”

“Ah,” said Dr. Crewes. “You see, your guilt is coming out. What did I do to deserve this, and so forth. You did nothing. You have to separate that out. What exactly did he say to you?”

“After dinner last night he said he had to have a talk with me. So we sat down. He said he was leaving right away, and he couldn’t really explain but it was no longer possible—that’s what he said, no longer possible, get that—for him to go on living with my mother. Then he said he was in love. In love! At his age!”

“And what did you say?”

“Nothing. Not until he started on the piano. See, I was being very quiet. I couldn’t say anything, I was so shocked. And at that point my mother was puttering around the dining room table, clearing the dishes away like she just worked there or something. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of answering. But then he got started on the piano. Which was right there, too, staring us in the face. Well, you know about the piano.”

The baby grand piano had been a joint acquisition. Paul and his father both played extremely well. They had shopped for it together two years ago to replace an old upright, when it became obvious that Paul’s was no ordinary talent. Paul still remembered what a good time they had had in the showrooms, trying out all the models with snatches of sonatas and popular tunes. Finally they settled on a large black Steinway. Paul cared for it like an attentive parent, cleaning its keys and polishing its glossy surface. He was as fussy about his piano, his father used to joke, as Nan was about her expensive carpeting.

“So he says”—and here Paul mimicked his father’s thin raspy voice and ponderous delivery—“‘Paul, I know this will seem unfair to you, but I have to have the piano.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ I said. Then he started yelling and running around the room, about how he’s tired of giving and has to start taking for himself. And then ...”

“Well?”

“Well, I sort of got hysterical and tore the place up.” Paul grinned, a tentative flicker of light, then his mouth set sullenly again. He stared at the harsh Van Gogh print of sunflowers above Dr. Crewes’ head, which often had a semihypnotic effect on him.

“You look proud of yourself.”

“Well, then to calm me down, I guess, he said okay, he’d leave the piano. Then a minute later, no, he’d take it. Meanwhile my mother went off to their room. She said she was tired and going to sleep, and he could handle this scene since the whole thing was his idea anyway, and he should have given me more time to adjust to the change. Honestly, by the time it was all over I swear I didn’t know if he was taking it or leaving it.”

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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