Seven Types of Ambiguity
By ELLIOT PERLMAN
RIVERHEAD BOOKS Copyright © 2003 Elliot Perlman
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-57322-281-X
He nearly called you again last night. Can you imagine that, after all this time? He
can. He imagines calling you or running into you by chance. Depending on the weather, he imagines you in one of those cotton dresses of yours with flowers on it or in faded blue jeans and a thick woollen button-up cardigan over a checked shirt, drinking coffee from a mug, looking through your tortoiseshell glasses at a book of poetry while it rains. He thinks of you with your hair tied back and that characteristic sweet scent on your neck. He imagines you this way when he is on the train, in the supermarket, at his parents' house, at night, alone, and when he is with a woman.
He is wrong, though. You didn't read poetry at all. He had wanted you to read poetry, but you didn't. If pressed, he confesses to an imprecise recollection of what it was you read and, anyway, it wasn't your reading that started this. It was the laughter, the carefree laughter, the three-dimensional Coca-Cola advertisement that you were, the try-anything-once friends, the imperviousness to all that came before you, the chain telephone calls, the in-jokes, the instant music, the sunlight you carried with you, the way he felt when you spoke to his parents, the introductory undergraduate courses, theinevitability of your success, the beach houses, the white lace underwear, the private dancing, the good-graced acceptance of part-time shift work, the apparent absence of expectations, the ever-changing disposable cults of the rural, the family, the eastern, the classical, the modern, the postmodern, the impoverished, the sleekly deregulated, the orgasm, the feminine, the feminist, and then the way you canceled with the air of one making a salad.
You would love the way he sees you. He uses you as a weapon against himself and not merely because you did. He sits in his car at traffic lights on his way out sometimes and tries to estimate how many times he has sat here, waiting at these traffic lights on his way somewhere without you, hoping to meet someone with the capacity to consign you to an anecdote, to be eventually confused with others. He thinks of you when the woman lying next to him thinks he's asleep. It would not surprise you that there are many women. Do you remember you thought him beautiful? You never told him. He had to assume it. He was beautiful and is now, some nine years later, even more so. The years have refined him so that once-boyish good looks have evolved into a clean, smooth charm. Not always though. First thing in the morning or after he's been drinking the charm disappears. The drinking is not really the problem at the moment though, not right now. Of late it has been no more of a problem with him than it is with your husband, which is to say, of late the quantity itself is no cause for alarm. But there is a secret need in both men to have their inhibitors inhibited. In Simon's case this is merely the tip of an older and more fundamental iceberg.
It is often almost too much for Simon to undertake even basic daily tasks: to shower and shave, to dress, to wash his clothes, to feed himself and Empson. He runs out of all but the most essential of foods and doesn't do anything about it until there's nothing for the dog to eat. You couldn't know Empson. Simon got him as a puppy. He would be about three and a half now. He used to take him to school with him. This was the sort of thing he would do. The children loved Empson almost as much as they loved Simon. You loved him, too. I can imagine he was a wonderful teacher. You might remember that Simon's father, William (or did you call him Mr. Heywood?), was disappointed that Simon was going to be a teacher, particularly a primary-school teacher. He felt that this was not a sufficiently manly occupation for his son and that Simon would be wasted. Ironically though, had Simon still been teaching, William may not have felt the need to contact me.
It was very late one night. I could tell by his voice that William was embarrassed. He was at home and I was, of course, in my office getting the last little bit of my dinner from the bottom of a cup. I don't know why he thought I'd still be there. He almost whispered into the telephone that he was calling on his son's behalf but without his knowledge. For all his embarrassment, and I have since learned that this is characteristic of him, he very soon got to the point. He told me he had a thirty-two-year-old son who lived alone with a dog in an apartment by the sea, in Elwood. He told me that his son, always obsessed with poetry, seldom went out since losing his job in the first wave of the downsizing epidemic. In getting directly to the point, William missed so many others. Simon has said that the reason his father has no time for poetry is that he is afraid of the messiness of life. Poetry feeds on all that spills over the boundaries of the usual things, the everyday things with which most people are obsessed, so William has no time for it. He cannot think of anything more unnecessary. What about you? What's your excuse?
The conversation must have lasted about half an hour-most of it taken up with William's examples of his son's lack of interest in things other than poetry and perhaps "the damn dog." He seems to have had no idea of Simon's continuing interest in you and everything about you. He told me that Simon was severely depressed, from which I concluded nothing much except that William wanted me to think that he thought his son was severely depressed. He told me that I had been highly recommended to him by someone or other and that he was willing to pay for Simon to see me. I found that an interesting way of putting it. He was willing to pay for Simon to see me-as opposed to him being willing to pay me
to treat Simon. His wife knew nothing about all this, and he asked me in advance to forgive him if she came into the room unexpectedly and he was forced to hang up, suddenly, without saying good-bye. William has spent much of his time planning to cope with people doing things unexpectedly
. He would probably not recognize that he has ever done this, let alone the futility of doing it. He certainly would not recognize the utility of preparing for the expected
just that little bit more-and planning for the unexpected just that little bit less. His wife didn't surprise him at all, not then.
At first there was nothing to be done because, as I explained to William, Simon had to want to see me. I couldn't call him up and say, "Your father thinks you're disturbed in some way. How's Wednesday at four?" Since he had never broached the subject with Simon, I really didn't know what he thought I could do. We said good-bye and that, I thought, would be the end of it. Clearly, it wasn't.
About a month later William and Simon's mother, May, were out for dinner with Henry and Diane Osborne. You may remember the Osbornes; they are Simon's parents' closest friends. Simon assures me that Henry's contempt for poetry is probably second only to his father's. It was a Friday night and the Osbornes had taken Simon's parents to a French restaurant to celebrate William's retirement from the bank that very day. As they were leaving, having been feted by the owner, a drunk Simon literally walked into his parents, apparently by chance, with his arm around the waist of a very attractive young woman. The two older couples, seeing the short-skirted advertisement for herself that she was, guessed her occupation fairly quickly and were clearly embarrassed. William started to apologize to everyone as though he were responsible. Henry tried to make light of it, asking the young woman if she had ever eaten at the restaurant before. Simon was trying to hail a taxi and the young woman, who said her name was Angelique, told him she had eaten there many times and that the owner was a client.
On the Monday Simon called me. He told me the whole story and explained that it was a condition of the rapprochement with his parents that he arrange to see me. It was a brief conversation. He said that he would rather we didn't meet in my office and gave an address at which I was to meet him one evening. It was summer then, and he said to come around the back into the garden where he would be waiting. I wouldn't normally ever agree to an arrangement like this, but something in his voice, an intelligence, and the honesty with which he told the story about his parents, the Osbornes, and Angelique-a disarming honesty-made me agree. And, if I am to share the honesty I admired in Simon, I needed another full-paying private client. I still do. My wife and I have recently separated.
It is quite well understood that a clinically depressed person will show little, if any, interest in constructive activity concerning future events or outcomes. In this respect, Simon has only flirted with depression in its definitive or clinical form. But if that is all that depression required, then I could say without much hesitation that Simon has always been, other than for short periods, too involved in things to be clinically depressed. William really knows very little about what's on his son's mind. What he and many people don't understand is that there is more to depression than a sometimes overwhelming feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness and profound sadness. When people are depressed they are sometimes very, very angry. They are not just quietly miserable. They can be filled with great passion.
Simon was sitting on a chair under a sun umbrella in a large well-cared-for garden with an in-ground swimming pool in the center and birches and firs along the perimeter. He got up, and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I was struck by his clean handsomeness and by his calm. One rarely meets anyone who makes a better first impression than Simon. Do you remember? He thanked me for coming, saying he realized such a meeting was probably unusual. I said something banal about having to expect the unexpected in my line of business and then he quoted someone, some verse about surprises or chance, in that soothing voice of his. I don't know why, but I was a bit nervous. He asked me questions as though he was interviewing me and making mental notes: middle-aged, separated, lives in inner city, et cetera. I must have passed because he seemed to take a bit of a liking to me, albeit with some reserve. Perhaps I didn't fit his stereotype of a psychiatrist. I don't know. He told me not to completely ignore whatever it was his father had told me about him, saying his father's description of him no doubt contained what Simon called "that dangerous element of truth," just enough to make me suspect that everything else his father had said, and would ever say, was true.
He was utterly charming, witty, and seemingly quite relaxed and intelligent. I was a little surprised he hadn't offered me at least a drink, but I didn't comment. We Europeans are instinctively better hosts, whether we have personality disorders or not. I didn't know him, and perhaps he would never again be so forthcoming. It's not that I expect patients to entertain me, but the circumstances here were quite unusually informal. And 1 didn't want to interrupt him. Perhaps he felt a little uncomfortable offering me his parents' alcohol. I figured a place of that size with the in-ground pool, the tennis court, and the satellite dish had to belong to his parents. They must have agreed to go out for the evening as part of the deal.
"I am a thirty-two-year-old out-of-work teacher living on my own in an apartment in Elwood," he laughed, "but just because I don't work doesn't mean I'm broken."
Then, after some small talk, he started telling me about you. At first I didn't realize how long it had been since you had been together. It wasn't clear, so I asked him.
"It was finished nine years ago," he said, "and you want to know why I'm still talking about it, right?"
"No, I didn't say that," I responded.
"No. You didn't, but only because my father is paying you not to tell me I'm mad, or at least to tell him first. I think it's admirable what you guys do but, shit, it's embarrassingly primitive, wouldn't you say? What do you really know? And in any particular case, in my case, what do you really want to know? I'm afraid it won't make sense to you. I really mean that. I am genuinely afraid it won't make sense. 1 am not trying to sound casual or smug.
"Listen-all that she was then, all that she is now, those gestures, everything I remember but won't or can't articulate anymore, the perfect words that are somehow made imperfect when used to describe her and all that should remain unsaid about her-it is all unsupported by reason. I know that. But that enigmatic calm that attaches itself to people in the presence of reason-it's something from which I haven't been able to take comfort, not reliably, nor since her.
"It's like the smell of burned toast. You made the toast. You looked forward to it. You even enjoyed making it, but it burned. What were you doing? Was it your fault? It doesn't matter anymore. You open the window, but only the very top layer of the smell goes away. The rest remains around you. It's on the walls. You leave the room, but it's on your clothes. You change your clothes, but it's in your hair. It's on the thin skin on the tops of your hands. And in the morning, it's still there."
Now can you imagine it? I am sitting in a large manicured garden at the back of someone's renovated turn-of-the-century symbol of success. The sun is getting ready to call it a day, but it is still quite warm. I think I can see mosquitoes hovering over the edge of the pool. The outdoor furniture is comfortable even if it is some of the ugliest I have seen. The air is still, so it's easy for me not to dwell too much on the prospect of the umbrella dislodging from the table and impaling someone.
This charming young man is eloquently expressing his quite legitimate doubts about the science or discipline that has brought me to him. He seems to have a fairly common and not necessarily unhealthy antagonism toward his petit-bourgeois father, who it appears has a somewhat authoritarian personality. They don't understand each other. They value different things but not different enough for the father's alarm bells to ring hollow with the unemployed aesthete in front of me. It gets to him. But not as much as you do. He's a romantic, focusing on some idealization of the past. He could have offered me at least an iced tea, but I was getting paid and he was, after all, the kind we dream of: one of the incurably worried-well. He was a little melancholic but not completely without some justification. There was no reason this could not go on for years. I thought he was normal, a bit unhappy-pretty much like everyone.
We heard someone walking along the side of the house toward us. Maybe it was more than one person.
Excerpted from Seven Types of Ambiguity by ELLIOT PERLMAN Copyright © 2003 by Elliot Perlman. Excerpted by permission.
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