Dreams (12)

What the shrink said

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Biplab Biswas, True Love

If I were writing my autobiography (which I’m not), I’d begin with the very first thing I remember: a long dark corridor ending at an open door and a white light that hurt your eyes when you looked at it.

It was the corridor outside my bedroom, and the light came from the upstairs john — the scariest room in the house, with its almost-animal fixtures, jungle wallpaper, and an ancient medicine-cabinet mirror that my best friend Miranda Finch told me, if you looked into it late at night, could reveal when you were all alone, and your parents were as good as dead in their sleep, the face of the Devil.

When I asked my mother about this, she agreed that, yes, it sometimes happened — the Fiend himself appear­ing in a mirror — in fact, it had once happened to her, and, as we all knew, she was never the same afterward.

I didn’t believe that dreams conveyed secret or extraordinary knowledge. I didn’t believe they predicted anything or said anything about your unconscious. I experienced my dreams as one experiences a film — in my own case, a kind of Luis Buñuel movie of my life. I felt like that Douglas Adams character, who said that it seemed “his whole life was some kind of dream, and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

On the Tambora

I’m alone and naked. I can hear the river but I can’t see it. As I walk, I become aware of something slimy underfoot. I look and find that the ground is covered with dead and dying fish. Some are still flapping, gasping, groaning, squeaking or wheezing whenever I step on them. I keep walking because I’m following the sound of someone singing. Soon I come to a woman in a long white gown. She is holding a wicker basket and gathering up the fish. She looks up, sees me, and smiles. It’s Emma. As with all the people in my dreams, I don’t actually see them. I just know who they are. I feel them. “It’s a miracle,” she says, recognizing me.

“Something about you,” I say. “You’ve changed.”

“Yes, I have,” she says and then reaches into her chest and takes out her heart. “See, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

But it’s not beautiful. It’s bloody and grotesque and, beating slowly, reminds me of a clock. I have to turn away.

“Look at all the fish! Can you help me?” Emma says.

“Yes, of course,” I say and begin picking up fish and throwing them into her basket. We work and work, but no matter how many fish we gather, we never manage to fill the basket.

“Let’s stop now,” she says and tells me to follow her. The fog gives way, and we find ourselves in a white room with Father D., who is also wearing a white gown.

We nod at each other in greeting. Emma and Father D. begin speaking, but in a language I cannot understand. At one point, Emma asks my opinion, and I give it without any trouble, but I have no idea what I am saying. When I’m done, the two nod and seem to agree with me.

Suddenly Emma says, “Look!” and points to me. I look down. There is a pile of fish on the floor. For a second I’m baffled. I have no idea where the fish have come from. “Look, look!” she keeps saying. I hear a low sucking sound: the head of a fish appears between my legs, then the entire fish in mid-air, flailing and falling to the floor, where it flaps and gasps and slowly dies.

“It’s a miracle!” Emma says.

“Blessed are the doubters,” Father D. says, “for they shall know God.”

The dream, it clearly seemed to me, was one of many signs that whatever drugs Father D. had given me had seriously scrambled my brain. Even awake it felt like I was dreaming, out of sync with the world, slightly askew from everyone else, my consciousness aching, swollen, tender to the touch, my head abuzz with voices, full of restless presences watching me, discussing me behind my back. Sometimes I seemed to float out of myself, looking at Zoe from a short distance away, critical, ashamed, disapproving. The worst thing was that Emma and Father D. often left the confines of my dreams and made frequent excursions to my waking reality, expressing opinions on almost everything I did. They were driving me crazy.

I made an appointment to see Dr. Paternoster as soon as possible.

Look out, Emma says. It’s a slippery slope. First they talk to you, then they put you on pills. When the pills don’t work, they run a stiff current through your head. And, finally, when that doesn’t do the trick, they go and scoop out some of your brain.

Leave her alone, Father D. says.

I tried not to pay any attention to them.

Once again I found myself at Wilshire and La Cienega, in Dr. Paternoster’s paneled waiting room, with the bored receptionist doing a crossword puzzle, the harpsichord music tinkling away, and the scary abstract expressionist paintings hanging on the walls. After a few minutes, the door opened and a patient came out. As soon as he looked at me, I knew he knew me. We stared at each other.

“Zoe,” he said, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Hello, Billy,” I said. He had changed, and not for the better. His hair was shorter and thinner, his eyeglasses were gone, his thin frame had filled out, especially around the waist. He hadn’t entirely lost his looks, but it seemed that was only a matter of time.

“It’s been ages,” he said. Sixteen years, but it seemed closer to fifty. It was clear Billy was excited to see me.

Not a bad specimen, Emma says. Too bad he’s a little cuckoo, just like her.

At least they have something in common, Father D. says.

“You look wonderful,” Billy said.

“Looks can be deceiving.”

“You’ll get through it. You’re a survivor.”

“I don’t want just to survive, Billy.”

His eyes met mine, then quickly looked away. We had a quick catch-up conversation. He was married to a woman named Aimee, had one daughter, and was working in his father’s bank as a vice president. He had been coming to Dr. Paternoster for the last six years. “I’ve been following your career,” he said. “I’m very happy for your success. We should get together sometime. I’d like to hear more about what you’ve been up to.”

He’s married, Emma says. That’ll never happen.

I gave him my card. He looked at it and put it into his wallet. As we parted, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“Come in, come in!” Dr. Paternoster said through the open door of his office. I’d forgotten how almost scary he looked: the mass of kinky blond hair, the thick glasses, the lizard-like eyelids, the cleft chin with its triangle of dark hair.

Get a load of this guy, Emma says.

Dr. Paternoster rose to present his hand. “Have a seat.” Taking a note pad, he moved to a chair in front of his desk, settled himself and crossed his legs. I had never seen anything quite like his shoes. Made out of tan patent leather, they ended in a sharp point and had white mesh inserts along the sides.

You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes, Emma says.

My diagnosis would be foot fetish, Father D. says.

Dr. Paternoster put the tips of his fingers together to form a globe, his ears twitching like a cat’s. “How was your trip? Gone longer than you expected?”

“It didn’t go well and was much longer than I’d planned. Actually, I’m lucky to be back at all.”

I don’t think that’s entirely true, Father D. says.

It appears she didn’t enjoy our company, Emma says. Should our feelings be hurt?

“Really?”

“Much more dangerous than I’d thought,” I said. “People like me should not be wandering around the Amazon rain forest in the company of a deranged companion.”

“How are you feeling?”

“That’s why I’m here,” I said and told him about the dream I’d had, and how the persons in my dream have appeared in my waking consciousness. “I was reading Freud to see if he might give me some insights.”

“Interesting. This is a new development. Freud and his followers had a lot to say about dreams,” Dr. Paternoster said. “They tried to show how dream content was related to waking behavior. Today, we’ve determined that this is very rarely the case. Waking, sleeping, and dreaming are distinct neurodynamic states that lie along a continuum and are separated by imperfect, sometimes porous boundaries.” He made boundaries with his hands. “The content of the dream is less significant than the fact that figures from the dream have appeared in your waking consciousness. Sometimes mental states can get ‘dissociated’ or mixed together,” he said. “The brain is constantly changing states. It can exist in more than one state at a time. And there are all sorts of design and program errors that can happen to further throw things off. These voices from your dream, do you hear them right now?”

“They’re making comments on everything we say.”

“Did you take the Halcion I prescribed for you?”

“No, I lost it — or thought I did. Turns out my friend Emma stole the pills and took them herself. I didn’t care. I didn’t bring it up. I thought she needed them more than I did.”

I resent that reckless and unfounded accusation, Emma says.

You did steal them, though, Father D. says.

That’s not the point, Jack. Not the point. The point is she accused me. A friend just doesn’t do that.

“Is Emma one of the voices?”

“Yes.” My eyes watered. I struggled to control myself.

“The deranged companion you referred to?”

“Yes.”

Dr. Paternoster pursed his lips as if he were about to plant a kiss on an invisible forehead. He saw how upset I was and said, “no need to jump to the worst conclusions. Under severe stress, the normally coherent personality can become fragmented and compartmentalized, giving the appearance of two or more distinct personalities living in the same body. The so-called self is a myth, an illusion. In fact, the self is actually a loose federation of personalities. One day, one may be dominant, the next, another.”

In other words she’s crazy, Emma says.

I hate shrinks, Father D. says. They never give it to you straight.

“I don’t think that’s it,” I said. “I don’t feel in control of things. I feel manipulated. Everything is determined for me. It’s like I’m forced to be someone I’m not, do things I don’t want to do.”

Seems we got a bit of a self-esteem problem here, don’t you think, Jack? Emma says. What’s your diagnosis? Seems to me this gal doesn’t like herself.

“Who do you think is responsible?” the doctor asked.

Excellent question, Emma says. Let’s see who we can blame. Any guesses, Jack? How about some repressed memories? Childhood trauma? Bungled toilet training? Those always work.

Time to lay off, Emma, Father D. says.

“I know you’re looking to see if I can take some responsibility here,” I told the doctor. “Well, I’d be happy to do that if I were the one responsible. But I’m not. I’m trying to be the responsible person, but I’m not the one who really decides. I know this. And whoever is doing this knows that, knows if I can find a way out, I will, and so is doing everything possible to throw me off — making me think I’m losing my mind. That’s what those voices are all about.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s time to pick out a pretty little straightjacket, Emma says.

Which makes you just an ordinary hallucination, Father D. says.

I can live with that, Emma says.

Fingers pressed together, the doctor brought his wrists under his nose, where he began to appraise first one then the other with little sniffs.

“I need help,” I said. “I need someone who understands what I’m dealing with.”

“These things take time,” Dr. Paternoster said.

“I don’t have time! I have to get control of my life! I want to think my own thoughts. I want these voices out of my head.”

Jack, is this something we should take offense at? Emma says.

I think we should see it from her point of view, Father D. says.

But don’t we already see everything from her point of view? Emma replies. Why is she picking on us?

The woman is hearing voices, Father D. says. People who hear voices are judged to be insane. Try to have a little Christian charity, will you.

That’s great advice, coming from a voodoo witch doctor, Emma says.

Emma, I dislike you intensely when you get like this.

Well, thanks a lot! Maybe I dislike you intensely all the fucking time!

Sometimes, Emma, you’re a real bitch!

Thanks, asshole!

I felt my eyes blur. Muscles in my neck tensed. I gave up trying to hold it back and broke down in a fit of sobbing.

“I know you’re very upset,” Dr. Paternoster said. “You have good reason to feel bad. You’re hurting. You feel helpless, lost. Things are happening to you that scare you to death. But you have begun to take charge. That’s what I’m here for: to help you get your life back.”

“I don’t know if I ever had a life,” I said. “It’s like I’ve passed into another dimension of reality where I’m now aware of my real condition. I see and experience the world as it really is.”

“Well,” Dr. Paternoster said, “I can assure you that you have not passed through into another dimension, and I have no doubt that you are just as real as I am. We are here in the real world, although that reality is largely conditioned by your own thoughts and mental state. The world where we all interact and agree to play by the same rules is actually a fiction, what’s often called ‘consensus reality.’”

We have that, Jack, Emma says. Does that mean we’re real?

Frankly, I’ve always thought I was the real one and you were my invention, Father D. says.

Fuck you!

“In your case,” the doctor said, “you have estranged from this consensus reality to the point where you doubt that it is in fact no more real than a play, movie, or book. Everything around you feels contrived, artificial, predetermined, as if you have no will of your own, as if you’re merely a ‘character’ going through the motions of reciting lines and acting out a plot.”

“Exactly.”

He held up his hand. “Now, there’s a well-known condition called ‘perceptive dislocation,’ which is classically an issue of misidentity. And I would say that, in your case, this is at the heart of your problem: you feel you are trapped in a puppet identity and cannot escape. In terms of therapy, drugs can help with the anxiety aspects and the depression, but you will have to reassert control over your own will. Even a character in a novel has a certain amount of freedom, even autonomy. Think about it: an author has no choice but to let his characters determine their own fate if he wants them to appear real to the reader. It’s a question of perspective, point of view. From the author’s point of view, everything is preconditioned and predetermined. From the character’s point of view, the world is an endless array of choices. Paradoxically, both realities are true.”

This guy’s good, Father D. says.

Convinced me, Emma says.

“We are talking of two different dimensions,” the doctor said, “one real, one fictional — each with its own laws of narrative, so to speak. No freedom is absolute. But you do have the power, the imaginative power, just like a god-like author, to determine your own reality. Reality is up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “It’s whatever you want it to be — a puppet’s existence, or a god’s. Your choice.”

“If I could only believe that.”

Well, I for one believe it, Emma says.

You believe everything, Father D. says.

What’s wrong with that? Your problem, Jack, is you believe in nothing. No wonder you ended up in the jungle shaking rattles over sick people.

“Not a question of belief,” Dr. Paternoster said. “Belief is tenuous, transitory. It’s as easy to believe as to disbelieve. No, it’s a question of understanding.” Dr. Paternoster raised his eyes to the ceiling and made a fish mouth. “Understanding is the key. It opens the door.”

“But what’s on the other side?”

That’s an easy one, Jack, Emma says. We’re on the other side.

“That’s what you have to find out,” Dr. Paternoster said.

“How do I do that?”

“In other cases similar to yours,” he said, “I’ve found that writing therapy is particularly effective. What you do is keep a journal of your activities, record your thoughts, and, most importantly create a short, first-person story. Do this every day. Take a few minutes to record your thoughts, describe the day’s events, analyze your feelings, whatever. The blank page is there for your benefit. The important part of this is the story. The reason I want you to compose a story is to help you achieve under­standing. Use the act of writing to assert your authority over yourself and your environment. As a narrator, you can take charge, manipulate your world and all those in it. Writing forces you to take an authorial point of view — to play god, as it were. And as an omniscient narrator you have the power to create, order, and control that world and all the people in it. This has been shown to be a very powerful therapy. I think it can work for you.”

He smiled, pleased with himself.

Made sense to me. What other choice did I have?

The White Room

Gradually the voices in my head went away. Things got better. Keeping a journal as Dr. Paternoster had prescribed turned out to be just what I needed. I wrote faithfully in it once a day. Amazingly, I began to feel better. No more voices. Emma and Father D. vanished from my thoughts without even saying goodbye. No more out-of-body experi­ences. I felt in command. I felt, at times, almost autonomous.

In time, I accumulated quite a few notebooks. In the beginning, it was nothing more than the raw output of my neurosis, but after a while I began to see how I might shape this material into coherent narratives. One of the results of that effort is this very book, still in progress, still in search of an underlying meaning, still, for that matter, groping for an ending.

This is not to say that I didn’t wonder what I was I being set up for. The demons of doubt danced just beyond my peripheral vision. I would have lapses. Sometimes, when I had trouble writing, I would feel like a bit of a fraud. Like someone with an embarrassing secret. I was never entirely sure I could pull it off. I would feel as though I were struggling to stay in character, struggling to remember my lines. All this apparent sanity, keeping me afloat with drugs, writing, and weekly therapy — what was it but a desperate attempt to hold a piece of terrible knowledge at bay: that at any moment, the author of my fate would step in and decree the climactic scene, comic or tragic (but bad news for me) that would seal my fate once and for all.

One can go mad thinking this way.

So I stopped thinking that way. I decided to observe the strictest rules of mental hygiene and went on with my life.

My career was mostly on automatic pilot. I gave lectures and interviews. I taught a course at UCLA. I took a few journalistic assignments — a spread for National Geographic, a series of illustrative photos for The Atlantic. I was always available for commissioned portraits, and I did a number of these, all of sensitive, gifted women who thought deeply about what they did and why — a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, a famous actress, a renowned black opera singer. I loved their confidence and how it rubbed off on me.

I even tried my hand at a couple of essays on the art of photography and got them published in obscure academic journals. In between all this, I labored over assembling a show based on the pictures I’d shot in Brazil. I had done this many times before but never had I encountered this much difficulty. I found many of my own pictures disturbing. They seemed to have a transparent surface that allowed you to see inside them, exposing the excruciating vulnerabilities of my subjects — myself included, since I had taken a large number of “self-portrait” shots using a mirror, tripod, and timer or shutter cable. There was a queasy, demented, surreal quality to these photos — blurred images, topsy-turvy images, mysterious acts that may or may not have been depraved, grotesque facial expressions of gap-toothed people in the midst of a drug-induced trance, nude bodies uglified by mistaken concepts of beauty and the hard labor of living a hunter-gatherer existence. I remembered what a shock it was when these images emerged from the chemical baths of the darkroom. Emma’s paradise of a carefree life unfettered from the hypocrisies and artificiality of the modern world was revealed as nothing more than a hand-to-mouth struggle made tolerable by superstitious beliefs and mind-altering drugs. Amazingly, the pictures captured this radical juxtaposi­tion — idealistic fantasy held in eternal opposition to bleak reality — as if it were some poor woman’s malarial hallucination.

I called the show “Jungle Fever.”

My personal and social life dwindled to near zero. I liked being alone. I had occasional dates, but none ever evolved to a deeper relationship. I had all but concluded that such a relationship, at least for me, was unlikely, if not impossible. I kept in long-distance touch with Miranda, but as time passed, we seemed to have less and less in common. Our last conversation was strictly pro forma. I got the bare facts but she seemed uninterested in getting together. She’d had another child, a girl named Jocelyn, and was advancing up the corporate ladder — she was now a director and had her sights on a vice president’s position. Hap was still Hap. He seemed stalled in his job and didn’t care, she said. And the bagpipes? He had given them up long ago. Now his main interest was building a tower made out of beer cans in their backyard. He spent all his spare time on it, seeing it at his one shot at immortality. Already the newspaper and several magazines had done stories on him; none had been flattering. The neighbors were upset. The zoning board was threat­ening court action. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do with him,” she said.

I kept up my friendship with Billy Strange, who despite a difficult marriage to a woman whose jealousy was aroused even when his eyes lingered too long on a pretty girl in a TV advertisement, remained doggedly faithful to his wife. Every once in a while I got an invigorating call from Monsignor O’Dwyer who wanted to know how his “favorite world-class photographer” was doing. I lied and said things had never been better. And how about him? “We plod on here, doing the Lord’s work,” he said. “I do have one piece of news at this end. They bumped me up to bishop.”

“Congratulations, Zavy!”

“You know me, I never cared much for titles.”

“I’m sure you earned it.”

“Just doing my job, part of which is looking out for you.”

I loved Zavy. He was like a health spa for my brain. He had no agendas aside from wanting me to be as happy as possible. For Zavy, I was one of God’s miracles on earth and deserved to be treated as such. Everyone should have a person like that in their lives.

Nate was turning out to be a handsome, athletic, and smart twelve-year-old. When I asked him, he seemed to know exactly what he wanted: go to law school, get into a big corporation, make a ton of money, marry someone beautiful with a great personality, have a bunch of beautiful kids with great personalities, play golf on the weekends, and die in advanced old age, wealthy, well thought of, and still madly in love with his wife. I detected irony in his voice and put it down to the first foray into teen rebellion.

“Jungle Fever” was a success. The crowds were good, and so were the reviews. It was a busy time.. There’s great satisfaction in completing a monumen­tal project, but there’s also a great sense of dread of what is to come next. And when it’s over, and there’s no more to do, and ahead of you, as far as you can see, there’s nothing — a void that has the potential to swallow you completely.

That was when the dreams returned — like a dog to a buried bone.

In one, I find myself in a vacant apartment, with all its walls freshly painted white. One room has holes punched in its walls. I look through one of the holes, into another apartment on the other side of the wall into a room filled with a group of men, all of whom are wearing baggy pants and the kind of ribbed tank-top undershirt that shows off their armpits and chest hair. I watch as one man puts on a mask of a blackbird or crow and goes into a small adjacent room with an open casement window and white curtains blowing in a breeze. In front of the window there is a brass bed with a young blond-haired boy sleeping on top. The boy, thin as a Modigliani nude, is wearing a white cotton bathrobe, which the wind had partially blown off, revealing his pale nakedness beneath. The man stands in the doorway of the room, watching the sleeping boy. The man walks slowly over to the bed. I quickly turn away and leave.

The next room is the kitchen, where someone has left an electric clock floating in the air like a balloon on a string. When I inspect the clock more closely, I discover the reason it has been left behind — its hands are missing. I become very frightened and turn to leave. I run through one white room after another, looking for the front door. A maze of rooms, a labyrinth of rooms. An apartment shouldn’t have such a hard-to-find front door. I stop in a large room with a fireplace. I hear the sound of breathing. I follow the sound to a large hole, low in one of the walls. The hole looks down into a room below the one I’m in. Through the hole, I can see two naked people lying on the floor. One is a boy and next to him is a man whose legs resemble those of a goat. I jump back away from the hole, tumble back as if into a well, and abruptly wake up.

A few days later, after Nate had left for school, I went into his room — a typical boy’s room in every way except for its neatness. Nate abhorred clutter. Music posters on the walls: wild, bare-chested young men, long hair flying, faces grimacing as if their electric guitars had malfunctioned and sent all their volts into them. Stereo with mandatory headphones. Computer. Bookcase with the complete Hardy Boys. Sports trophies. Nate would not approve of my being here.

I sat down on Nate’s bed. On the floor a few pages of a magazine were visible. I reached under the bed and pulled out a department-store advertising brochure, which was open to a men’s wear section with this or that perfectly built Adonis splashed across the pages dressed only in Jockey briefs. In an instant, I saw the world with a terrible new clarity.

I waited for Nate to come home from school. He saw my face and asked me what was wrong. I told him what I had found. He came up with an explanation, which I refused to accept. Suddenly tears came to his eyes and he sobbed until his whole body was shaking. “I hate myself! I hate what I am! I wish there was a shot they could give me! I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

I took him in my arms and held him as tightly as I could. I kissed the top of his head and tried to hold back my own tears so I could reassure him and comfort him and tell him I would always be there for him. I could not let him know what I was feeling — the sense of terrible loss you feel at the death of someone you love, the death of all your dreams and hopes for the future.

Later, I called Dr. Paternoster and asked for an appointment to see him as soon as possible. He said he was all booked up. It was a crisis situation, I said. I needed to see him right away. What, I told him, was the point of having a doctor if he will only see you when it’s convenient for him?

“I can squeeze you in after my last session,” he finally said, his tone brittle and curt.

“Squeeze me in between your last session and what? Your drive home?”

“I know you’re upset,” he said. “So I’m not going to take offense at that remark. But I do have personal obligations that are of no concern to you.”

“Clearly.”

When I arrived at his office, the receptionist was gone and the harpsichord music had been turned off. “Come in, come in,” he said, not very pleased to see me.

“I’m a wreck,” I said, stating the obvious.

“You’ve looked better,” he admitted.

“And worse I may be yet. The worst is not, so long as we can say this is the worst.”

“I’m sorry?” he said.

“Nothing. Just a little Shakespeare.”

Hamlet, right?”

Lear, actually.”

“All right. Tell me what’s been happening.”

I told him about my dream and its aftermath. “Everything’s changed. Suddenly I have a gay son. The rest of his life he will have to deal with the enmity of the world. Why should he have to suffer on my account? What’s the point of that?”

“It’s not your fault,” Dr. Paternoster said.

“I’m his mother. It’s not his fault that I’m his mother. But I have to suffer — that’s the plot twist. And what’s the best way to make me suffer than to make me have to watch my son suffer? Isn’t that what professional torturers do? Bring in your family and tear them apart before your eyes? It’s clear to me who’s running this show. Isn’t it to you?”

“The first step in treatment is acknowledging the need for treat­ment,” he said.

“I know that!” I said, my voice rising. “Treat me! Get me out of this! Disconnect me from whatever crazy imagination has cooked up this miserable story I’m in!”

“It’s no use looking for a solution outside yourself,” he said, trying to be patient. “The solution in within you.”

I could feel myself going over the top.

“Well, I can’t do that!” I told him. “I told you what’s wrong with me. Back when I first came to you. I’m in a place I don’t belong. Someone’s trying to make me into a person I don’t want to be. Why is that so hard to accept? It makes more sense than your gobbledygook psychobabble. Can’t you tell a red herring when you see one? But maybe I’m asking too much. Look at you: a caricature of a psychiatrist. Why should I take you seriously?”

His face got very red, the muscles in his neck tightened. “What are you saying? You don’t trust my judgment? My expertise? That’s fine. That’s your prerogative. But I can’t do anything for you if I don’t have your cooperation and trust. It’s your decision if you want to find someone else. There are many fine psychiatrists out there. But maybe you don’t think you need a psychiatrist. Maybe you’d be happier with a literary critic. That’s fine, too.”

I got up and left. I noticed he didn’t try to call me back.

The Assassin

But I couldn’t do it. There was Nate, who was much too young, much too vulnerable, to be without a mother, crazy as I was.

When I got home, I immediately picked up the phone and called Harold Bloom. I had spoken with him several times at UCLA where he was a visiting professor and I was teaching a course on photography. I tried his office at the university but only got his voice mail. After several calls to various friends and colleagues, I was able to get his home number. He answered immediately. Something Mozart was playing in the background. He turned it down.

I told him who I was and he boomed, “Zoe, what a wonderful surprise!”

“I need to talk to you, Professor Bloom. Don’t ask me to explain because I’m not sure I can. I just think you might be able to help me.”

With the equanimity of someone who gets these kinds of calls all the time, he told me he was on the way to his office at the university and invited me to meet him there in half an hour.

“Thank you so much!”

When I arrived at the university, I sat for a few minutes in my car, rearview mirror pulled down, repairing my ruined makeup. God, I looked old. Used up. Defeated. Who was this woman? I didn’t recognize myself. Even worse, I wasn’t even sure who “myself” was. Doubts, the ultimate doubts. They were gaining on me. Long ago I had let them out of their cage, and now they would hound me all the way to the grave.

Calm down, get a grip on yourself. Stop thinking. Just do what you’ve come to do. But what had I come to do? What could Bloom do that Paternoster couldn’t? It was crazy. I was crazy. Worst of all, I was about to inflict this craziness on an innocent bystander.

Too late now.

I got out of the car and headed toward Rolfe Hall, taking the elevator to the second floor. The door to his office was open. A heavyish, sad-looking man with graying hair sitting at his desk welcomed me into his office, which was jammed with books, journals, and stacks of papers. I entered, feeling like a student again, butterflies in my stomach. We shook hands, and he told me I looked scarcely older than any of his undergraduates. Surely, I must be favored by the gods.

“These days, we thank our genes,” I told him.

“Alas,” he said. Putting on a floppy hat, he suggested we go to a nearby Starbucks to talk. It was a five minute walk away, a small room with an espresso bar at one end, and filled with mostly students, along with a few professors hunched over books or newspapers. We chatted about the sad devolution of literary criticism into a jargon-filled pseudo-science, the catastrophic unraveling of public education, and the accelerating decline of Western civilization. We sat by ourselves in a corner and each ordered a cup of coffee. “At least the coffee has gotten better,” he said. When we had the major issues settled, he asked me why I had come to see him.

It was vital, I knew, to put things in such a way that he would not immediately conclude he was talking to a lunatic. And so, putting it in terms I though he could understand, I told him I was having a kind of “identity crisis.” I mentioned being “estranged from normative reality,” contending with an “antagonistic self-image,” and struggling to maintain my own “ability to choose.” All perfectly reasonable literary tropes.

He thought a moment and said, “In other words, my dear Zoe, you feel as though you are trapped in the wrong book and stuck with a characterization that doesn’t reflect who you really are.”

I was amazed. “That’s pretty much it. In point of fact, that’s exactly it.”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“Because when I told that to my shrink, all he said was that I had come up with a pretty good metaphor.”

“Shrinks — what do they know? Shakespeare was an incomparably better psychologist than any of these board-certified boobs we have today, or even yesterday. Freud, that old plagiarist, couldn’t tell the difference between a myth and a mackerel if his life depended on it. I must tell you that from the very first time we met, I felt that something was wrong — that you seemed to be, as it were, miscast.”

Yes! I briefly explained what I’d gone through since I returned from Brazil and told him about my dreams. I had printed out some pages from my journals and showed them to him. He read them slowly and with increasing interest. He became totally engrossed. I had three cups of coffee while I waited for him to finish.

“Remarkable!” he said, looking up. “You probably should talk to my good friend, Oliver Sacks. He wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat among other fascinating books. Dr. Sacks is very good with people who, like yourself, present a highly unusual psychological condition.”

“So he’s a shrink? I haven’t had very good luck with shrinks.”

“Not a shrink. You might say a philosopher of the mind.”

“So, there’s nothing you can tell me?”

He could see my disappointment. “On the contrary, there’s a great deal I can tell you,” he said. “And I can’t begin to express to you how much I appreciate the opportunity to do so. Young lady, how often does a literary critic get a chance to analyze an actual living character? A character who can respond directly to one’s questions? Explain her motivations? Express her views? Elucidate her intentions, insofar as she can understand them? It’s the difference between having, of necessity, to study a text from the outside, from a distance, and being able to get inside the text, and experience the fiction first hand!”

“So you don’t think this is a question of sanity versus insanity?”

“Well, I am not trained, fortunately, to make that specific determina­tion. However, I can say that without question the operative theme at work here is ‘fiction versus reality.’ And as far as I am concerned, the terms are relative; and I mean that in the scientific, Einsteinian sense — that is, totally dependent upon the position of the observer.”

“I don’t think I quite . . .”

“Sorry, I tend to speak in a rather dense fashion. All those hard books one reads. Please feel free to let me know when I cease to be intelligible. What I was trying to say was: what may look like reality to you may look like fiction to someone else.”

“And that someone else might be . . . ?”

“The reader. The author. Perhaps even a character like yourself.”

“Or even you.”

“Yes. Absolutely. In fact,” he said, “I’m fairly sure that the reality I presently inhabit is indeed fictional, certainly in comparison to a handful of very great books I’m familiar with, each one a universe unto itself and in possession of a reality that puts all this — ” he swept both his hands before him — “to shame.”

I was getting impatient. I needed practical advice, not critical theories. I told Bloom I’d become desperate. What did any of this have to do with my situation? And, more importantly, what could I do about it?

“Very simply, your quarrel,” he said, “is with your maker. Consider, if you will, the Book of Genesis, the creation story. I’m sure you’re familiar with the details. Yahweh creates Adam and Eve in his own image, expecting a certain kind of behavior, a certain ROI, as the entrepreneurs like to say these days. As far as he is concerned, his two new creations have it made. They live, after all, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh gives them anything they want. He’s the ultimate doting parent. But as we know, Eve is not happy with her lot, particularly after the serpent tells her about the Tree of Knowledge. All she has to do is eat the fruit of this tree and she’ll become like a god, just like Papa Yahweh. And who doesn’t want to grow up to be like our parents one day? Of course, there’s a slight problem: Yahweh has told her not to eat this particular fruit. Well, so what? Eve figures it was a stupid rule anyway, so she eats the fruit and gives some to Adam. The result: Yahweh gets supremely angry and throws them out of Eden. Out into the cruel world they go. Fend for yourselves, ingrates!”

I’d never seen him so worked up. He took a sip of what must have been cold coffee. “Wonderful text. None like it in the Western canon. So, what is really going on here? Let me explicate. What is going on, quite obviously, is a daughter, on one level, rebelling against the wishes of her parent, and on another, deeper level, a character rebelling against the wishes of her author, and in the end, of course, paying the price for it.”

“I don’t see how that story relates to mine,” I said.

He held up an index finger. “In a sense, you are a kind of Eve. An author’s creation who has a sense of herself different from the one he had of her. In fact, in one of your dreams. The author’s thematic intent is clear. Sexuality, ultimate knowledge, the relationship between a divine author and his female creation. It’s all there.”

“I never saw that,” I said, astounded by his perception and insight.

“I’ve been in the business many years, my dear. One does acquire a certain professional facility after a time. The problem here, as you no doubt can see, is a socio-cultural one. The domineering, all-powerful will of a male author as inflicted on his powerless — one might even say oppressed — female character. Things might have been quite different with a female author. Women tend to look at the world as a fabulous collection of colored yarns from which they can weave their tapestries. They have no need to prove a point; their stories don’t have to mean anything. It’s enough that they give pleasure, that they yank us out of ourselves, put us in another place, a more forgiving reality. Charlotte Bronte comes to mind. The perfect matriarchal deity. Men, on the other hand, are like the scout bees, doing their little dance-stories to tell the other scout bees where the flowers are, the nectar. Now think of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.”

I didn’t have to think about ancestors, I had the Momoyangos.

“The men sitting around the fire, telling stories about who killed what and how, who mated with whom and why. A few thousand years later, we get history, organized religion, science, and romance. Am I lecturing here?”

“I believe you are.”

“Sorry. I have probably been doing this far too long. I fear I haven’t been much help to you.”

“No, you’ve helped a lot. I see things much more clearly now. But I need to know where to go from here. What can I do?”

“What can you do? Well, very little, I’m afraid. Not much has changed in three thousand years, my dear, at least as far as narrative literature is concerned. No matter what, the author always has the last word. Perhaps the ancients were right: obey blindly and have unswerving faith.”

“And if I can’t do that?”

He shrugged. “Write your own story.”

Same advice as Dr. Paternoster’s. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. In any case, I was already doing it. Here it is, right here — the words spewing out into the notebook from my nimble fingers. Creating a world, filled with people all doing and saying whatever I command. And here I am — one of those people. Like looking at myself looking at myself in a mirror. My mind reels from kaleidoscopic dizziness. An infinite chain of creators and creations. Many out of one, one out of zero.

I went home to ponder my options, my next move. Once again, I got out Billy Strange’s odd little book, Taxonomical Schemata of Zero, and once again it failed to make sense. This time instead of putting it away and forgetting about it, I called its author at home, although I knew this could cause problems for Billy from his pathologically jealous wife.

But it was Billy himself who answered the phone.

“I was reading your book on zero,” I said.

He laughed.

“Really, I was, and I got stuck where I always get stuck — on the part about the zero called ‘Null.’ The zero that’s the placeholder for some-thing else. So my question is: what is that something else?”

“God, that was so long ago,” he said.

“Well, you’re a big help.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Every once in a while I take out your book and try to understand it. For some reason it has a very soothing effect on me. Knowing there is a powerful secret there, even if I can’t figure it out. Maybe I really don’t want to know.” I was having a hard time explaining myself and feeling stupid for having called him. “All those incomprehensible things in it — I don’t know — the idea that they weren’t incomprehensible to you.”

“So, I’ve disappointed you?”

“I had disappointment for breakfast.”

There was a long pause. I heard Billy sigh. “Zoe, listen, I have something to tell you. Aimee and I are splitting up. It’s over.”

“What happened?”

“What happened was what should have happened a long time ago. We were both kidding ourselves. Our marriage was a Punch and Judy show. Time to close it down. It was long overdue.”

“What does Aimee think?” I asked, thinking that this unreasonably jealous woman was just about ready to run him over with her car.

“She agreed.”

“She did?”

“In fact, she was the one who decided, not me. She walked out on me and took Gretchen. Classic situation — another guy in the picture.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be. I’m free to see if I can finally find a measure of happiness. Be glad for me.”

“I am glad for you.”

“I’d like to see you. I’d like to hear more about what you’re doing these days.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Absolutely. It’s the wisest thing I can think of!”

I hated to put a damper on his enthusiasm, but in the state I was in I had no other choice. I told him I needed to absorb all that he had said to me. I needed to think things through. It was late. There would be plenty of time to discuss these things in the days or weeks ahead.

Agreeable as ever, Billy agreed. I went to bed, more exhausted than I’d ever been, my head a raging riot of thoughts. I lay for an hour in the dark, craving sleep but dreading what it would bring.

Sleep eventually came, and with it one of the most vivid dreams I’d ever had.

Once again I find myself in an empty apartment in which the walls of every room are painted white. I’m in the bathroom, staring into the medicine-cabinet mirror at a disembodied face, featureless but for a mouth that is speaking in an unintelligible language. I tire of this face. I soon grow impatient and leave.

Standing in a corridor, I hear music and the sound of people talking, and I go from empty room to empty room until I finally reach a large living room, which is filled with guests. Someone is throwing a party. People are holding drinks, talking in small groups, nibbling hors d’oeuvres that resemble barbed wire. I recognize Emma, who has gotten breast implants, and, blissfully happy in her low-cut gown, is talking to Sylvester Stallone. Mother Teresa is sipping a martini with Gordon Gekko, the main character in Oliver Stone’s film, Wall Street. Billy Strange has pulled a blue zero from his pocket and is showing it to Albert Einstein. A woman, whose back is turned to me, is playing a shiny grand piano, its open cover like a giant bat wing, its keys blazingly white. The piece is familiar to me, but I can’t remember the title, although I can actually see the music in the air — shadow shapes shifting like smoke. Everyone is dressed in white except for one man in a black tuxedo in a far corner of the room. The man is wearing a partial mask — like the one worn by the man in the Phantom of the Opera.

I come into the room, but everyone ignores me. It’s not because they’re trying to be rude, I realize, but because everyone is watching the man in the tuxedo. Everyone knows what he’s going to do. And suddenly so do I. In a few minutes, he will take out a gun and shoot the woman playing the piano. I push through the crowd to get closer. Everyone waits. The piano player turns, so that I can now see her face — it’s Emma, her eyes closed as if she were asleep or entranced. She remains consumed by the music, oblivious to the what is going to happen to her.

The assassin opens his jacket, revealing the black handle of a pistol, then slowly takes out the gun and points it at Emma’s head. The guests are very quiet. Emma is totally absorbed in her playing, furious, desperate, her hands flying over the keys, her eyes closed. The music is so beautiful, so tragic I can’t imagine anyone wanting to kill her. This murder — so senseless. Not a crime but a sacrilege. I become very angry. Why doesn’t anyone do something?

I feel I know who the assassin is. I feel I know that he’s doing what he’s doing for me, for my benefit! Why doesn’t he understand that I don’t want him to do this? There’s no need to kill Emma. It’s insane! But there’s nothing I can do. It’s too late. This is the way it was meant to be: the outcome is as certain as though it had been written down.

As if in a close-up, I see the assassin’s finger on the trigger, hear the hammer being cocked — and then the gun swings around, its black muzzle pointing directly at me! There’s an explosion, total whiteness, then nothing — total darkness.

Annihilated, I wake to life.

Written by

Katheryn Clegg lives and writes in San Francisco. Her new novel is “RiverRun.” She loves clear prose and foggy weather. Folllow her on www.katherynclegg.com

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