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Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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“What about your mother’s going off to her room? How did you feel about that?”

“What? Hell, I don’t know. I guess I thought she could have stuck up for me more. But she’s got her problems too. Listen, I’d like to kill the both of them. What the fuck am I going to do?”

“You’re filled with rage and guilt, Paul. As is to be expected. You have to understand that, and that’s what we’ll have to work on, whatever happens. We’ll have to deal with your rage and guilt.”

“Deal with! Deal with!” Paul leaped up, his thick gray sweater hanging loosely from his shoulders as he waved his arms violently in the air. He was a tall, sandy-haired boy with gaunt cheeks and a wide mouth. He had ice-blue eyes that in moments of excitement became flecked with pale-green flamelike shapes. “Is all of life one long process of dealing with things? Is that all there is to it? Hell!”

Dr. Crewes flashed her teeth in one of her courteous, enigmatic smiles. With a familiar final gesture, she reached for her appointment book. The fifty-minute hour was over.

“Thanks,” said Paul. “I must say I expected more sympathy from you. I mean, simply as a human being. You’ve known me all these years.”

“Yes,” she said, “you’re disappointed. I can see that. But if I gave you the sympathy you want, it wouldn’t help the treatment. I understand how you feel—we’ll have to deal with that too.”

He set out to walk the mile home, though the cold winds off the lake were fierce. Night was falling. The sky was a dull gray. He had heavy schoolbooks to carry and his bus was right at the corner. But he felt like walking, masochistic or not. Thinking, out in the cold. He was disturbed at how he hadn’t been able to get across to Dr. Crewes that his reaction was not yet loss or sadness but only shock. It was inconceivable that they were not happy with each other. He had thought of them, sometimes with mild sarcasm, as practicing experts in marital happiness.

They left for work together in the morning—his father would drop his mother off at the Carl Rogers Institute, loosely connected with the university—leaving Paul alone to clear the breakfast dishes. Often, calling goodbye from the kitchen as he heard the door click open, he had felt like the parent, sending the youngsters off to school with a sense of release. Then his father picked her up at five-thirty. Sometimes they stopped to shop on the way home. They cooked dinner together—Nan was a meticulous and inventive cook—while talking over their cases. The last year or two, Paul had found the daily progress of these cases rather tedious, so he had taken to staying in his room until they called him to the table. But they seemed to enjoy it, that was the crucial point. Finally at dinner they would ask, “And how are things going with you, Paul? Everything under control at school?”

It was beginning to rain. Little pellets of ice hit his face and clung to his eyelashes. He trudged along Fifty-fifth Street, thinking. Once a week his father went out again in the evening to give a seminar to social work trainees. Paul turned a windy corner, winced with pain and cold as a fluttering twig blew at his cheek. As he blinked, he could see some faceless dark feline creature leering at his father, raising her hand often to impress him with pretentious answers, luring him away from home, where he belonged. He was not going to think about that part of it.

They had been happy—he had watched them for years at it, and if he couldn’t trust what he saw anymore, then what could he rely on? In school they were learning about a dead philosopher called Berkeley, who said that nothing we see is really there. Of course Paul had thought it was pure nonsense, but maybe Berkeley was right. Maybe everything in the world was deceptive, his parents included.

Richard and Nan generally did not go out on week nights since they got up so early every morning. They read side by side, or else his mother made phone calls to her friends while his father did paper work at the small desk in the living room. Occasionally people dropped over, therapists who talked about their cases. Paul would greet them—they liked to scrutinize him; he had something of a reputation for his violent tendencies, and he rather enjoyed their veiled curiosity. He might listen to them talk for a while, then go to his room. They did not stay late. But weekends were another matter entirely, devoted to pleasure. Nan and Richard would wake early as usual, and as soon as the few chores were done, take off in their shorts and running shoes along the Midway—weather permitting, as they said. In the winter it was swimming in the university pool. They seemed to have a passion for rhythmic movement which Paul did not share. When he was twelve he had rebelled, declaring that he no longer wished to accompany their leisure-time rounds like a pet—their five-mile runs, their serious movies on social themes, their bargain-hunting expeditions, their drawn-out dinners in foreign restaurants, their eternal Sunday afternoons at friends’ houses, drinking cocktails and eating through numberless bowls of salted nuts. His mother was hurt, but his father smoothed it over. “Typical of adolescence. He’s finding his own style. It’s natural that he should be bored with us. Let him alone.” “All right, Paul,” Nan said, in a voice straining not to sound resentful. “From now on you can make your own plans. You have your keys to come and go.”

Of course they were happy, thought Paul, wiping the wetness from his face with his glove. It was unmistakable. Sometimes they seemed such a closed, snug unit that he felt like an intruder. They had spent years alone together before he was born, and he suspected that they had never grown used to the fact of his presence, or sensed quite what to do about it. One evening last fall he was studying in his room and didn’t come out to greet them when they returned from work. When he finally emerged at seven o’clock they were busy in the kitchen, earnestly reconsidering one of his mother’s drug addicts. “Why, Paul, my goodness, I forgot all about you,” his mother said, and rushed over to kiss his cheek. “You must be starving. Here, have some crackers while we finish getting dinner ready.”

The only times he didn’t feel like an intruder, but like the very whirling axis of their lives, were the times he got into trouble and caused them trouble. When it was found in his freshman year at U High that he had been cutting classes for weeks, when it came out a year later that he was the mysterious decimator of the school library, with a cache of unstamped books on the floor of his closet, when it was discovered that he was the founder and guiding genius of the widespread and lucrative football pool the school principal had been trying in vain to stamp out, then their evenings turned into long tearful family confrontations. What Nan and Richard said during these sessions was confusing: at first they threatened to stop paying for his analysis if he didn’t give up his antisocial behavior. But at the end, at the reconciliation, they said he needed more intensive treatment, and that they would all go together to talk to Dr. Crewes. Those discussions caused him pain and anger and remorse, yet when they were over Paul felt a satisfactory sense of wholeness. He pulsed with energy and appetite; while his parents crept to bed weary and enervated, Paul would fix himself a triple-decker sandwich and a glass of milk, and eat voraciously. Then he rested, complacent in the knowledge that thoughts of him would keep them lying awake for hours.

Still, despite the trouble he used to cause them (he had been somewhat better lately—the result of good treatment, his father claimed as he puffed on his pipe), he knew they were happy. It was a quiet life, but they appeared to thrive on it. A quiet life indeed; a year ago he used to rage over it in his sessions with Dr. Crewes, caricaturing it with contempt as a suffocating, middle-class, middle-of-the-road, mediocre dead life. But Dr. Crewes had helped him deal with those feelings of rage and rebellion. When he was grown, Dr. Crewes said, he could lead whatever sort of life he chose. Meanwhile, in their home, he must have some respect for their preferences, which were in fact his parents’ ways of dealing with their own needs and hostilities and fears. Paul was stunned by that profound insight. He glimpsed a baffling world where every attitude was a way of dealing with the attitude beneath it; as time passed, attitudes heaped up in stratified layers like geological formations. Social criticism had no place in the analyst’s office. Gradually he gave up his scorn. To understand all is to forgive all, somebody once said. They seemed so happy and settled, it was uselessly cruel to keep battering at the walls of their comfort. They called each other dear and darling and did small favors for each other like making cups of tea or fetching newspapers, with glowing benign faces that seemed to portray an utter and wholesome rightness. They had found their center, he thought, borrowing Dr. Crewes’ phrase. They were all center, no movable electrons.

Then this mad dash to the periphery, this flying apart, must be some form of illness, like a virus, that could attack and disjoint the entire system. But like a virus it could go away just as mysteriously as it had come. As he walked and mulled it over, stepping carefully on the slippery sheet of ice underfoot, Paul became fervently convinced it would go away. It was some sort of emotional disruption in his father, certainly, and it would have to be dealt with, but it was not anything that came from the center.

He entered his apartment building with relief, chilled to the bone. His lips were stiff and chapped. It must be below twenty degrees out there, and God knows what with the windchill factor. Perhaps he should have taken the bus. But at least he had thought things through a little. He had faith now that it would all work out eventually. Just a half hour ago he had imagined the session with Dr. Crewes was a waste of time, yet after going over the facts he felt much better. He recalled some of the things Dr. Crewes had said, and they seemed quite perceptive. Very often, in his long experience, the sessions did seem a waste of time, and then later he would realize how much had actually been accomplished. The sessions had a delayed effect, like some medications. It was all very intriguing. Maybe he would study medicine after all and go into psychiatry rather than music. With his background he had a head start.

He was almost smiling as he got off the elevator. He walked briskly, stuffing his damp gloves in his pockets and looking forward to a hot dinner. It might not work out right away, he mustn’t expect miracles, but he couldn’t be deceived by the happy tableau they had presented for so long. Berkeley was absurd, as he had thought at the beginning. What you see, you see because it is there. Meanwhile he ought to comfort his mother and explain things to her. Caution her about trying to rush things one way or the other. Nan was like that. Once a decision was made she immediately had to do tangible acts to certify it, as if it might slip through her fingers. He remembered how, when she and Richard decided last September to go to Barbados over Christmas, she had rushed out to buy new luggage. Paul unlocked the door and stepped into the hall. It was dark.

“Mom?”

“Yes. I’m in here, Paul.”

He flicked the hall switch—a warm glow of light filled the tidy narrow space. Nan was curled up on the living room couch doing nothing, not even reading the paper that lay spread out in her lap. She was tall and dark blond, rather like Dr. Crewes, but older and fairer in complexion. She had a pleasant, squarish face with thin lines of anxiety around the eyes and the small mouth. She could look quite attractive, Paul always imagined, if she wore clothes with some dash. But as though unaware of the passage of time, Nan wore the placid styles of her youth two decades ago, shirtwaist dresses, pleated skirts, and shoes with high thin heels. She wore pearls and clip-on earrings and used hair spray. Still, he thought uncomfortably, she was not the kind of woman to drive a man away. She was warm and capable and easy to be with. If he were his father, he would think he hadn’t done so badly after all those years.

“Hi,” he said. “Why are you sitting here in the dark?” He turned on another light, then followed her fixed stare across the large room.

Stunned, Paul saw why she wasn’t speaking. There was a huge nude space in the corner near the window where the piano should have been. Three hollows in the rug where the legs had rested.

“Shit!” he screamed. He tore off his coat, threw it onto the floor with his books, and rushed to the space as if the piano could spring back, conjured by the pressure of his lanky body. “Shit! He can’t do that!” And he let out a long howl. He could feel the blood rushing and pounding in his chest, his face growing unbearably hot. This was how it always happened, starting with the rush of blood. There were no words for this storming bloody torrent. He thrashed around looking for objects to attack and hurl.

“Paul,” his mother said quietly. She didn’t sound restraining, only tired. “Paul, don’t, please don’t go into that. I’m too worn out. I couldn’t stand it.”

He stood quivering like a besieged animal.

“Thank you. Come here and sit down by me.” She patted the cushion next to her. “Can you?”

He obeyed, sat down next to her on the couch, and sobbed loudly again.

“Paul, I am so sorry. Really I am. I am so sorry for what this is doing to you.”

“What about you? What are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know,” she said in a high voice. She ran both hands through her fine hair, pulling it all back from her face so that for an instant she looked austere. “I’ve been thinking that I’ll go back into treatment. I could go back to Dr. Steinberg. He was always very supportive.” She pressed the fingertips of both hands together, forming a little spired temple. “To find out what I’ve done, why this is happening. I’m totally in the dark. Oh, I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, that I have certain ways. ... I’m sure some things must have driven him crazy. But still—”

“I meant,” he cried, “what are you going to do about the piano?”

“Oh, the piano. I don’t know. What can I do? He did it while we were both out. I came home a little while ago and found it gone. He took all his clothes too.” She spoke calmly, as if from a vacant space inside.

“I have to get the piano back. Where is it?”

“In his apartment, I guess.”

BOOK: Acquainted with the Night
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