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The Taboo Scarf
I didn't know what I wanted of Susan, and the best defense against saying anything stupid was staying with the obvious.
Her face was still beautiful, an arched nose and high cheekbones. She was tall and leggy, and in her flowered silk summer dress she was, if anything, thinner than when I knew her. Maybe I was still in love with her. But she was in my office for a consultation, and that was that.
"How have you been?" I asked insipidly.
"Fine. Doing a lot of things. I'm worried about Lisa. Really worried."
We were both fumbling and vague--I because it mattered and she because she knew it had mattered to me.
"I understand. I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"She lives alone, in an apartment so shabby that you wouldn't believe it. She has no friends, only cats. I don't know how many by now, four last count, I think."
"No friends," I said.
"No. George, I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job. Marianne expected more of me, Lisa did too. I guess I don'teven know what it is to be a mother, but I certainly want to do what I can."
"She was very little when your sister went to California and left her with you, wasn't she?"
"She was six. Oh, I forget it's been such a long time since we've talked."
"Marianne took her two sons when she went off with that doctor. He didn't want any daughters, I guess. My sister's still out there, remarried again. But Lisa won't have anything to do with her, won't even talk to her."
"And Lisa's father?"
"Dead. Oh, dead for many years. I guess I haven't done a very good job."
"Look," I insisted, "you took her when her own mother didn't want her. You did your best. You stuck with her. You were the only one who did."
"I know. I had a good apartment, enough money. But I obviously didn't give her what she needed."
And Susan still had money, it would seem. She wore a black opal ring, surrounded by diamonds, a bit garish, like her gold bracelets. I could recognize the expensive shoes, though when I used to see her every day, I didn't know one pair of shoes from another.
I had tuned out for a moment, but returned to hear her still berating herself. "My values were, maybe still are, shallow. You knew that, you always knew it, you tried to help me. I can look great on the outside, but there's very little inside. Lisa's the proof. I think she hates me."
"There's got to be more to it than that," I said.
"You've always been so supportive, George. That's why I came here. It's gotten worse since she was in college. She was nearly an A student at Brandeis. But she didn't talk to anybody. Can you imagine it, an A student at Brandeis, and now she's working as an usherette, walking up and down inside the Beacon Theater with a flashlight, showing people to their seats. An usherette. Living alone. A college graduateliving in the dark, and rushing home. That's what I produced."
"I'm really sorry to hear about that. But maybe she isn't so miserable. It's not what you want for her, I know."
"Not what I want for her! Not what I want for her!"
Perhaps my comment was a bit fatuous, but I was stunned at the celerity of her anger. It didn't go with that porcelain facial expression. I elected to say nothing.
"What I want for her is a full life. Friends, a husband, interests. A vacation now and then, to go somewhere else. I'm not saying she has to be a jet-setter. But I would like her to have a life, that's all, just a life."
I looked at her directly for the first time. She was still ash blonde, with a deep, sexy voice. She still had fantastic hands with long fingers. "You understand what I mean, a life!" she was saying.
But something was hollow about her, the years had done something to her. Her self-evaluation had not been totally wrong, perhaps even the implication that she had failed to convey some elixir of life, of hope, to Lisa.
" ... the way she dresses, the way she lives, the way she moves. I must have done something wrong. Terribly wrong."
"You're still on good terms?"
"We talk. She knows I'm coming here to talk to you. If you could cut down on the number of stray cats she has in that apartment, I'd appreciate it."
I said, "I don't know that she even wants therapy."
"Doesn't want it. What are you talking about?"
Now that I dared look at her more closely, I saw that it wasn't age itself that had changed her. Age can adorn if it brings complexity, if it replaces innocent love with another kind. Her face was pretty, but there was something vapid about it, as if a light had dimmed. Her eyes, which to me had connoted the ever-widening future, now gave a continual message of impatience, of joyless haste. I could imagine Lisa feeling discouraged by them.
After a pause, Susan said, "I'm sorry, maybe I haven't been clear, but there's a lot you don't know about her." She tried to say that warmly.
But I felt her apology was more manipulative than sincere.
"George, I've talked about you a lot, how bright and caring you are. I show her your articles sometimes, in Glamour. I've shown her your books. I have two of them, I don't remember the names."
"But we don't even know if she'll go to a therapist. You think there's a lot wrong with her. But does she?"
"She agreed to go."
"She's been in therapy before?"
"Never. You're the only person she'll see. If you agree. I promised her not to tell you anything about her. Maybe I said too much already."
It crossed my mind that other people must have loved Susan over the years, and fallen by the wayside. I wondered if any of them still felt the way I did.
"Look, Susan, maybe you're right and she does need therapy. But I don't think I'm the person to see her."
"Why not? I'll pay you whatever you want. Don't worry about that. I have money."
"No. It isn't that," I protested.
"Well, why not then? You're the one she trusts."
"Well, I know, but--" I started to say it was because of our relationship, but caught myself. What? A relationship twenty-five years ago stopping me from working with someone else! And I'd only seen Susan once between then and now. She would never understand. I wasn't even sure I did. How could I say, "Susan, I'd think about you too much, it wouldn't be fair."
I said nothing.
"Please, you're very well known now," she said.
"Well known? Hardly."
"Well, you're certainly doing well. And I don't trust anybody else. If I ever asked you anything, I'm asking you this. I've already spoken to her. I wouldn't know what to say if you said no."
She saw me hesitating. She said, "I told her all about you. Really."
"Susan, you know if I did work with Lisa, you and I couldn't talk anymore. It wouldn't be fair to her."
"Of course," she said, as if it didn't matter. It obviously meant a lot more to me than to her.
"Okay," I said. "Have her call me."
"I don't know if she will."
"She'd have to. I can't chase her. It wouldn't do."
"Of course. I understand."
She would understand the value of being solicited, being a high-level call girl. At the idea, I stopped myself forcibly from thinking of her that way.
"I'll have her call you. I'm so glad you're willing to see her. We consider it a compliment."
"Well, it's hardly that, Susan." I felt brokenhearted, and instantly regretted having consented.
As if on cue, she softened. "Are you still reading poetry, George?"
"Yes, I do. Not as often as I'd like, but I watch a lot of Shakespeare videotapes. I have a whole library."
"Oh, that's wonderful. How should I pay you?"
Something told me to resist the impulse not to charge Susan for that session. I said, "I'll add it on to Lisa's bill if she calls. I have your address."
"Well, I guess I'd better not take any more of your time."
We rose simultaneously.
At the door, I told her, "It was great to see you. I'll do my best."
It was a stupid final statement, I thought to myself.
The way Renoir must have touched his nearly finished paintings with hints of vermilion that gave them supernal life, the next day tinged my consciousness with memories of Susan when we were both seventeen. I could see her again, cool and fresh, her thick hair falling softly over the sides of her face, her white blouse contrasting with her deeply tanned neck.
Both of us were poor, going to City College and working in the library after hours, but we found time for long walks down Riverside Drive. Feeling completely unworthy of her, I'd never dared make a sexual approach, which I felt might ruin everything. We shared the dream of becoming great writers, and I pictured our names etched in gold on adjacent black leather volumes of the Harvard Classics. Our two books would speak to lonely people as yet unborn, signaling them to awareness of the earth's magnificence.
One summer day, Susan and I had paused to lean on the low railing and gaze at the Hudson River, not far from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I recited Tennyson's line to her, "We dipped into the future, far as human eye could see." Her eyes sparkled as she looked unforgettably at me, and I will always think that she loved me in that moment.
She said to me, "George, I really want to give something beautiful to the world."
How could I have guessed that her willowy body and perfect oval face were to be her gift?
Already she was being pursued by much older men. I pictured them as coarse, wrinkled people in fedora hats, the kind who gauge everything by money and what it can buy. They brought her to shows and restaurants, but none of them ever recited poetry to her or believed in her the way I did.
One in particular offered to buy her a whole wardrobe if she would sleep with him. "I hardly know the man," she said to me, and seemed as repulsed by the offer as I was. I guess I imagined, What did she need money for? She could take out any book in the library, and that was what counted.
Naturally, she didn't inform me when she started accepting payment for sex. Her earrings, her new dress, she explained by saying that she had found a wonderful discount store downtown. But the lines I discovered and memorized and recited to her began to mean less. And one day she surprised me by saying, "You really could be a very attractive man if you learned something about clothes." I felt confused and angry, not at what she said but at the distance from which she saw me.
Then she broke an appointment to meet me after an English class, and I didn't see her for months. When I met her by accident on Broadway, she told me she'd quit college, and I saw her no more.
I thought about her when I got into Columbia graduate school, when I got my doctor's degree, and in spot moments later on. It even crossed my mind that maybe I was betraying her by staying away and that if I had any integrity I would have shouted at her to come back, not to me but to life. However, I sensed I would be rebuffed, and so I didn't.
Lisa arrived ten minutes late, looking somewhat as Susan had led me to picture her. In a worn cotton dress, she seemed roundish. She wasn't unattractive, but she had inherited none of the beauty of Susan or her sister, and she obviously wanted none of the life-style that Susan had paid so dearly for.
She pointed at me as she said, "You're George Weinberg."
"And you're Lisa."
After sitting down, she asked, "So how do we start?"
I told her I'd spoken to Susan briefly about her. "But you tell me why you came here."
"My mother wants me to see you."
I asked her what she thought her mother was concerned about.
"She wants me to dress beautifully, exercise, and be gorgeous. She doesn't like the way I live. She doesn't like anything about me. She doesn't like the way Henry, Olivia, Honey, or Marshall live either."
I surmised that she meant her cats. "Why not?"
"They sleep too much, I guess. They don't go out and meet anybody, and they're satisfied with me."
"You have four of them?"
"She's never seen Miss Prim."
"Oh, I see. Why not?"
"When I found her, she was in an alley with her two deadkittens. Miss Prim is dying too. I don't want my mother to see her, do you understand?"
"You don't think your mother might help her? What exactly is wrong with her?"
"Her eyes look cloudy, and she has a big tumor near her tail. She can hardly move. She doesn't eat, except when I make her. That's enough about Miss Prim."
Lisa wasn't looking at me, but at the wall.
"Meanwhile," she said, "my mother wants me to lose twenty pounds so she can give me some of her dresses. And she wants me to find a fancy place to go in them. She'd like me to marry a doctor, maybe an ugly doctor because I'm ugly, and give him plenty of sex."
"She said that?"
"Not the sex part, but I know that's what's on her mind. But she knows I hate doctors, they're all ugly, really."
"What do mean?"
"Well, they all experiment on animals in medical school, don't they? They kill dogs and cats and mice, at least a few, don't they? They'd kill Miss Prim if they found her.
"I guess you'd like me to get a better job and to get married and to give up my cats, wouldn't you? And not to work as an usher, wouldn't you? To do everything different."
"Lisa, why do you say that?"
"I don't know."
But here I felt it was important to push. If she truly assumed I was against her, our work, whatever it was to be, would be over before it began.
"Lisa," I repeated, "why do you think I want you to change your whole life?"
At first she didn't answer. "Well, it would be the smart thing to do, wouldn't it?"
"Lisa, that's not my aim. Believe me, if you're happy, I'm happy. If you're not, if you're unhappy about something, if things aren't working for you, that's where I want to help, if I can. I don't tell people how to live."
"Well, I have no desire to get married or to find the rightman or to leave my apartment. It would be more than enough for me if Miss Prim didn't die. Much more than enough, whether you believe that or not, it's true. Whether you believe that or not, it's true."
With that, she tucked her feet under her, resting the soles of her badly cracked shoes squarely on my couch. She was making a statement, whose import I already knew was more sweeping than I could read at the time.
I chose the route of expressing my own annoyance as a way of reassuring her. "Listen, Lisa, you can believe this or not, but it's true. I don't give a damn if you stay in your job and in your apartment forever. Or if you never get married. Or if you never lose weight or go out on a date. I'm not here to tell people how to live. There's a lot of ways to live. Millions, maybe billions. Some work for the person and some don't. Do you believe me?"
Without bothering to look at me, she said simply, "No."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Mother said Doctor Dubman would help me. I talked to him for three months, he didn't say much of anything, except that he was helping me. Then I found out he told mother everything I said. They used to talk on the phone once a week."
"How did you find that out?"
"How did I find that out? How did I? She knew that I had found another cat. She asked me about the Sufi group that I visited, if they used drugs. She didn't even pretend. He told her everything. She said it was for my own good."
"You told him how angry you were?"
"No. I just never went back. Why should I educate him about how he fucked up, and help his practice, help him ruin some other lives. Doctor Dubman. Dummery after dummery."
I felt hurt that Susan had lied about my being the first therapist. Maybe she'd felt that by the time I found out, it wouldn't matter--a curious form of mother love.
"So I'm condemned as an enemy, and there's nothing I can do, even before I start."
Lisa didn't answer.
Then I suggested, "Maybe a vet could help Miss Prim."
"Yeah. Four hundred dollars and then maybe. I talked to Phil's vet. He's supposed to be very good."
"A waiter in the diner next to the Beacon. Where am I going to get four hundred dollars? Susan won't give it to me. She won't lend it to me, not for a cat. I can't ask her for that. And Miss Prim doesn't eat. I bring her with me to the job, and leave her in the projection room, and I feed her sometimes and I talk to her, but she's on the way out. That's enough about Miss Prim."
She was twisting her hair.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She seemed reluctant to talk about her background when I asked and gave me only sparse facts. She mentioned the private school she had gone to and just one friend, an autistic girl whose family had liked Lisa. But the family had moved across the country and she never heard from the girl again. In school, Lisa had done especially well in history; she volunteered that she loved animals. "Anything that lives and doesn't bother you."
I thought of Miss Prim, but this time Lisa's mind went elsewhere. "Did you know that termites, when they're under attack, create more soldiers than usual? In one week, they give birth to ten percent warrior termites instead of two."
"Yes, they have many different kinds of specialists in the colony, the warriors, the queen, the drones, the ones whose job it is to move the queen out of danger, that's me." She enumerated the rest.
"What do you call those who move the queen, your job?" I asked.
"The 'royal chariot.' They push her into some safe place when the ants attack."
Now she was twisting her hair violently, and I could virtually see her experiencing the onslaught.
"How many ants at a time?" I asked.
"Maybe three million. But the termites hide. They build walls, they have specialists at making paste so tough the ants can't get inside. But the warriors, they're outside fighting, and the walls get sealed up behind them. And they know they can't get back. They'll never get back. They know it, but they keep fighting. In the Middle Ages we used to do that when the thane was dead. We'd fight, and we'd fight until we collapsed. We knew we had to die."
She went on about the termites and about history, and I let her, knowing that people never just talk randomly, and glad that she was willing to talk about anything. It was her role to talk, and mine to translate, to accept that she was describing herself in whatever language she chose to speak.
Apparently, she'd first gotten interested in termites after seeing the movie The Hellstrom Chronicle. She'd seen it many times and then gotten books out on the insects.
"What do you call those termites who keep the queen out of danger, the ones like you? I don't understand that, by the way. What do you call them?"
"The royal chariot," she said, in a very definite voice.
"And you're like them?"
"Of course. My mother's the queen. I protect her. That's my job."
"What do you mean?" In retrospect, I'm sure I would have asked, even if I'd had no residue of curiosity about Susan and the way she lived.
"I lie. When men call up, I say she isn't there. If they're the wrong ones, I make up stories. I protect her. Once I actually called the police to protect her. That's enough of that."
I showed my deference to her wishes by returning to the termites. "How many are there in a what-do-you-call-it?"
"A colony. Could be twenty million. Even a billion, I think. But this isn't helping Miss Prim, and it isn't helping me."
I thought she felt uncomfortable about having been so talkative.
Suddenly she pointed to one of the two big plants in thecorner of my office. "Look at that bromeliad. Why don't you let it dry out so it can think?"
She got up and rushed over to it and touched the thick, veined leaves. "You're killing it with kindness, just like my mother. The poor plant, it can't even think."
"I didn't mean to hurt it," I said feebly.
"'Didn't mean!' That's what my mother says. They get more light on the forest floor than they do here." With that she scanned the room. "This is a grim place. Grimmmmm." She shuddered, insultingly.
Toward the end of the hour, I realized that she would expect me to go right back to Susan with everything she'd said. How could she possibly think otherwise or trust me after what had happened with Doctor--I couldn't remember the name, only the word "Dummery"! I realized that nothing short of beseeching her for confidentiality could show her the force of my own commitment to it, and even doing this would be only a start in allaying her fears.
I announced, "Look, Lisa. Please don't talk about anything we say here. It's very important that you don't discuss with Susan or with anyone else what either of us says, and I won't either. Okay?"
She just listened.
"And I won't be talking to Susan about you or anything you said. That would destroy everything. We need strict confidentiality. If she calls, I'll tell her to call back when you're here, so you can know for sure that I'm not talking about you. Is it a deal?"
On the way out, she said, "I'll be back Tuesday. What time have you got open?"
I suspected that she didn't fully believe me about the confidentiality, but the hour hadn't been all bad for her.
My session right after Lisa was lively; it was with a couple, Maria and Arthur, married for nine years. Arthur had justbeen caught in yet another extramarital affair by his wife. As Maria vented her rage in sobs and in curses, I could see that she still wanted things to work out. Her love cried out through the depths of her injury. I remembered Shakespeare's confession to the lover who cuckolded him, that he too could not fall out of love so easily, that "Love bends not with the remover to remove" but stays even when the other person takes his love away.
Was I thinking of my own feeling for Susan, and possibly delighting in Maria's letting off steam because it was my steam too? Not guilty, I thought; she needed to deliver her rage, and she obviously wanted to do so with me in the room. Whatever else her diatribe meant to me, it was therapeutic to let her go on. They would have their only chance to reconstruct, if indeed there was one, if they first cleared the air.
When they were gone, I waited a good five minutes so that I wouldn't run into them. Then I switched off the lights and left.
It was a July evening. The city was cleaner and cooler than during the day. I walked along Columbus Avenue, lined with stores and restaurants with new awnings and splashy signs; the streets were thronged with people, confident, sophisticated, the men in jeans and brightly colored shirts, the women fresh and young. Through the dark interiors of the restaurants, I could see lovers leaning toward one another or opening their menus and reading them in candlelight. None of this was for Lisa, I thought, nor did she want it. As I reflected about her, I liked her enormously. So what if she lacked the luster so often incident to her period of life; she had a candor and a clarity that sparkled in their own way. She had lived her own life, with inhibition, perhaps with irrational fear, but so far as I could tell, with far less self-deception than most indulge in.
And there was something else about her that moved me, that I sympathized with profoundly, and could not yet grasp. I strained for it, the wraith of a truth that might help her and me--me mostly, I realized when I touched it. Lisa had opposedSusan and her way of life, opposed it on every front, fought it in the streets and on the rooftops, in a way that I had never dared to, or I would have been far more outspoken with her than I was. In a curious sense, Lisa and I were allies and she was the bolder one.
My last thought before meeting my friends for dinner was to remind myself to keep Susan out of the therapy--not merely excluding her from information, that would be easy, but in spirit. Though I applauded Lisa's refusal to buckle under to Susan's values, I had better remember that she hadn't fought them to vindicate me and that her triumph had doubtless been costly, as all rebellions are.
Over the next few weeks, I began to see how sweeping that rebellion had been. Susan's involvement with appearances, with wearing the right outfit, the right dress, shoes, jewelry, had resulted in Lisa's rejecting anything that suggested concern with appearance. She said frankly, "I was always ugly," and it crossed my mind that this belief had led her to feel that any effort to look pretty would be a travesty. And so she had renounced the outsides of things, their shape and form, to an extraordinary degree. She was utterly indifferent to the surfaces of things. However, she had substituted an almost bizarre emphasis on what went on deep inside of them.
Those comments she'd made in the first session, about what the termites knew and about my plant being "unable to think" because I'd overwatered it were not metaphors. She really believed that she could read the thoughts not just of people but of plants, termites, and inanimate objects. In contrast with Susan, who cared little, Lisa seemed desperately involved with what went on in the very depths of beings, and of nonbeings too.
This disparity between her mother's emphasis on the outer and hers on the inner life had resulted in many clashes, but none more notable than the one three years earlier which had provoked Lisa into moving out.
Susan, after repeatedly berating her for wearing a torn coat that didn't fit, had, while Lisa was at the museum, bought her a brand-new one and thrown the old one out. Not believing her at first, Lisa had scoured the apartment for it, and when finally convinced that it was gone, had almost fainted.
After lying down for ten minutes motionless, she sprang up and savagely demanded to know what Susan had done with the old coat, where she had put it. Shouting "It's lonely, it's lost, it needs me, it was always so good to me, I promised I'd keep it forever," she had ransacked closets and strewn their contents all over the floor, still hoping that Susan had stowed it somewhere.
She had begged its forgiveness, and then had gone rushing through the streets, searching garbage cans, but the garbage truck had passed through the neighborhood, and it was gone. Her frantic call to the disposal dump that night had reached deaf ears. Apparently, it had been shredded and burned.
She had moved out the next day.
I questioned her at length about her feelings, about what the coat had meant to her.
"What did it mean to me? I betrayed it. They left it in my care and I betrayed it."
"Loyalty is one of your most important values, isn't it?" I said.
"Loyalty?" She seemed shocked. "Loyalty is everything." It crossed my mind how much she must have suffered at the thought that her own mother had abandoned her. But in our first month, she had never brought up the subject of her natural mother, and I sensed that I shouldn't either. Susan was her mother now, she used the word "mother" readily about her, and despite her fury, it was obvious Susan meant a great deal to her.
And Lisa's loyalty extended everywhere.
She told me, "I saw a big brown captain's chair in the street. I started to bring it home, it was in good condition, and then I realized I couldn't."
"Oh, no? Why not?"
"My little yellow one would be jealous."
"How can you be sure?"
Not that I had any impulse to debate the matter, but I wondered, If I had been the delegate for the more sensible, more scientific point of view, how could I have argued such an issue anyhow? "Chairs have no feelings, they have no memory, make no comparisons."
And if she'd asserted, point-blank, "They do; how do you know they don't?", I would have been left merely mouthing my assumption, as unprovable in the end as hers. Even if I had said, "But feelings require a brain, nerve endings," she could have rebutted me in the same way. After all, had not the great René Descartes maintained that animals feel no pain, being without a soul! And surely, I'd rather have been on Lisa's side than with the modern-day empiricists who hold that we can't believe that a thing exists until we can measure it. And so I found it not unpleasant to enter her world, suspending disbelief as it were.
After a while, though I never truly adopted her view, I found it effortless, and even curiously defensible. Suppose, indeed, that she was nearly always wrong in her attributions of inner life. But suppose that on rare occasions she was right and saved those objects of her love from disaster. Could not an argument be made that her intervention on behalf of the one or two was worth the pointlessness of the rest, that her two truths per hundred more than compensated for the ninety-eight fallacies?
I didn't know how she felt about me, but I suspected that she might be testing me by dressing in her most tattered T-shirts and never combing her hair. Her appearance on that first meeting had been by far her most elegant.
She had dinner with Susan one night a week; Susan insisted on it, but I think that Lisa took sustenance from it, though she would never say so. "I meet my mother tonight," she formallyannounced several times. Then once she added, "She wants to call you."
"Fine, so long as it's when you're in my office, so you can hear everything--unless you don't want me speaking to her at all."
"No. That's okay. She just wants to know things are okay."
"What should I tell her?"
"Whatever you want."
Later that session, something happened proving that Lisa, far from being blind to the surfaces of things, was indeed an incredibly keen observer. I realized that she was sensitive to minute visual detail, and that she differed from others essentially in how she construed what she saw. Lisa regarded all exteriors as mere manifestations of what lay below, as epiphenomena, unimportant except in so far as they represented a great play of "human" forces, which others missed entirely but which often led her to laugh or weep.
Toward the end of the session, I must have wanted emphasis, and I gestured, pointing not at Lisa but in her direction.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"Now I see why you point with your left hand."
She was giggling, as if unaware that she might be hurting my feelings. "Can I see your right hand, please?" she asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"Show me your right hand," she insisted.
I extended it, and she looked at the fingers.
"I never knew that," she said.
"What!" I was feeling exasperated.
She said, "I wondered, why do you point with your left hand? You're right-handed. You write with your right hand, you picked up that plant with your right. The only thing you do is point."
She was excited over something, and I was becoming terribly uneasy, though I didn't know why.
"Let me see that finger," she said.
When I showed her the ring finger on my right hand, she said, "No. Not the middle one. The pointer."
Even before I extended it toward her, I knew.
"Oh my God, look how crooked it is," she said. "That's funny. Oh, you poor thing. Hiding that crooked finger all those years, pointing with your left hand. How did that happen?" She giggled.
"I broke it playing baseball, when I was, maybe, twenty."
"Yeah, a guy was running home, and I reached for the ball before it got there, and crunch."
"You poor thing. So you pointed with the other hand all those years because you're ashamed of it."
I felt flashes of fury at her as she repeated, "And you're embarrassed about that finger."
But, of course, she was right. I could even recall the decision back then to hide that finger, a decision I'd long ago forgotten.
"You're right, Lisa." I felt it was my duty to confess, but I was still furious. I could imagine how many times a day she must have punctured Susan's facade and tormented her like a picador. One could easily yearn for such a keen observer and intrepid action-reporter to disappear.
So her dauntless truthfulness, too, was part of her counter-reaction to Susan, who often made up things expediently as she went along.
After that, I felt strangely transparent, wondering what other frauds of mine she would bring to light. However, I actually felt better about myself and traced it to her reliving that lifetime of dishonesty about my right index finger and sympathizing with me.
But after she was gone, when I remembered that Susan was to call with Lisa sitting in front of me, I felt afraid that Lisa would note something in my reaction to Susan, see it or imagine it, and regard me as superficial, or even worse, as a traitor.
Two days later, when with Lisa present, Susan did call and ask if there was anything I should know, I was icy.
"No. Nothing. Lisa's here now, and we're working together. She's a wonderful human being."
That last came easy. I really thought so.
I was glad when we hung up.
"You know," Lisa said, "I mentioned that Doctor Dubman told mother everything. That wasn't exactly right."
"No. When I didn't show up, and he charged her for the hour, he never mentioned that I wasn't there."
"Well, I'd miss you and our conversations if you didn't show up here," I said quickly.
"Thanks," she said, and I was surprised.
I felt that I had survived the test of her fluoroscopic eye and that we were closer.
Later, when I thought about Susan, there was no sense of flight. It was as if the wheels had touched ground.
My next patient that day was a college girl, used to instant service. She kept her finger on the doorbell, as if she knew that I was indulging in inappropriate reveries. "Yes, master" were the words that went through my mind as I walked with deliberate slowness to let her in. My shambling gait was as much in defiance of the passage of time as of her. Though toughness from me was called for if she was ever to build real relationships, maybe she got a little extra toughness that day.
Over the following few months, there was one subject that Lisa steadfastly refused to talk to me about--her cats. I got the sense that she had promised them confidentiality, and that was that. But I also wondered if I had said anything relating to them that she had considered offensive. Apparently not, or at least she didn't tell me. When on occasion I asked her about the condition of Miss Prim, she would always reply, "No change," using those same two words, saying no more and no less. Still I kept asking every so often, since though she was obviously responding in accordance with some policy, arrived at in her private chambers, I felt she expected me to ask. Andbesides, I was truly concerned. But all that was soon to change.
Because Lisa had never called me before and because her voice was muffled in sobs, I had no idea who was saying, "Hello, is this George?"
"Yes, who is this?"
"Miss Prim's not eating. She's not eating at all. She was starting to eat, and now she won't eat at all. She's just lying there and her tail is thrashing. She's in pain. She's getting ready to die."
"Lisa, we've got to get her to a vet."
"I can't. I don't have any money."
"Lisa, don't worry about money. We have to do our best. Just bring her there. I'll give you the money. Or lend you the money, or whatever you want."
I had an idea, and told her, "I'm lending it to Miss Prim, all right? Put her in the carrying case with some water and bring her over there."
Still she hesitated.
"Just bring her there. Then you can come here and get the money. Call me as soon as you can."
It was late Monday afternoon, and I prayed they'd be open. Later she called. "They're keeping Miss Prim. He says he doesn't know what it is. They gave her a shot of fluid. They're giving her fluids overnight. He wants to study the swelling. He's a good man, I think. Doctor Clinger. A very soft man, a caring man."
"But Miss Prim's all alone. Do you think she's scared? She was crying."
"I doubt it, Lisa. She's probably just goofy right now." The next day Lisa seemed softer. She didn't actually thank me for the money when I handed her the envelope--"a loan toyou or a gift to Miss Prim, whatever you want"--but she looked at me admiringly.
Then she said, "I'm afraid to call. I was hoping that ... maybe ..."
"That maybe I would call?" I asked.
"Yes, that maybe, I just couldn't--"
"I'll tell you what. You call. We'll turn up the loudspeaker on my phone, and I'll listen. Okay?"
Tremulously, she took the phone. I could help her, but I couldn't live her life.
A secretary told her to wait. "The doctor will be right with you."
We waited together.
Finally, the doctor came to the phone. "I can't tell yet. She's got plenty of fluids. She's moving around a little bit. She's a feisty little character. We gave her an anti-inflammatory. We'll send the blood out tonight, they pick it up at four. There's really not much to say right now about what's wrong with her. Could be any of a number of things. Call back at about six before we close, if you want to see how she's doing." He spoke in a singsong voice, which gave even his most factual assertions the effect of a lullaby.
"Did you say six?"
"Six o'clock. Maybe a little after. We'll be cleaning up then. Okay?"
"Okay," Lisa said, and for the first time I saw her crying.
I felt a great kinship with her, and then I remembered that Lisa had almost fainted over the "death" of her old, torn coat, and I was suddenly reminded of how different we were.
To this day, it has never crossed my mind that my offer of money would have any countertherapeutic element. How despicable are the precisionists in psychology who care more about the operation than the patient! Lisa could only gain by my pitching in. She would know that my heart was in the right place, and when later I took the liberty of admonishing her, she would know that I was not being merely sadistic.
As for Miss Prim, admittedly, I might not have done the same for her under every conceivable condition. But had anyone I knew thrust forth a cat in a near-death state and proved that I was its only hope, I would like to think I would have done the same.
Anyhow, Lisa insisted on paying me back, ten dollars a week, and I was glad.
To our joy and astonishment, Miss P, who had been indeed dying, was quickly recoverable. The vet removed a huge cyst, gave her antibiotics, and sent her home in four days. Seeing that Lisa was one of those who truly care, he charged her a mere two hundred dollars.
After that, everything changed between us. She began confiding in me more and more examples in which she read life into objects like the yellow chair and torn coat. It was as if there were no such thing as an impersonal event. I thought about those primitives who assigned purpose and human frailty to trees and mountains and even the sky above them. The detachment of life from the object to the spirit supposedly residing in it had taken millennia, and the notion of the inanimate had required millennia more. Doubtless, we all indulge in such primitive thought on occasion, but Lisa engaged in such animation as a way of life.
Only slowly did I come to see that in addition to this tendency, she also possessed a keenness of observation, and even of interpretation, that was a whole order of magnitude better than most people's. Lisa had what the Celts used to call "the sight." And because it was coupled with a very flawed sense of what it hurt people to hear, she often got herself into predicaments that were either comical or tragical, depending upon the observer's state of mind at the moment.
For instance, in her job as usherette, a couple in their forties had berated her for not finding them two seats together. For a while, Lisa had said nothing, then when the man persisted, she snapped, "Look, you didn't know each other before tonight. Why don't you sit separately and meet two hours later?"
The two of them were astonished, and the man asked how she could possibly have known.
Lisa had told him, "Well, if she knew you were that short, she wouldn't have worn those high-heeled shoes."
In my office, Lisa didn't laugh but kept looking at me through those same timid brown eyes, as she told me that story and the next, which actually frightened me.
For some time, she'd been lamenting the "decision" by a plant in her building to give up and die, because after a year, a bigger one had been placed in front of it by the window.
She'd left the neighbor a note, but nothing was done. Finally, she had rung his bell and tried to explain, but he threw her out. "Get out of here, you witch!" he'd said.
He was a fat man in a yellowing white shirt and a rumpled brown suit--he looked like a baked potato, she told me.
Shortly after that, the plant had disappeared from the window. In Lisa's words, it had been "driven to suicide."
A month or so later, at about eleven-thirty at night, she'd found herself in the elevator with the "baked potato." He was beside himself because he'd forgotten to press his floor and had to ride up to the twelfth with her. He was peering into the mirror at his collar, distressed and seemingly unaware of Lisa, when she said, "It's all right. She won't know."
He stiffened as if he'd heard a ghastly shriek. "Won't know what?" he asked.
"Your wife won't know you've been with another woman tonight," Lisa said. "I won't tell her."
With that he lost all poise. "Who are you? A detective. Coming to my apartment. I knew there was more to it than you said. Are you a detective? What do you want? No, you can't be. What do you want?"
She just looked at him.
He'd run out of the elevator as if he'd seen a ghost.
I asked Lisa how she knew, and it was simple enough.
"Why would a man look so nervously at his collar, coming home late at night?"
After that, the man tried to avoid her, and when he couldn't, he always tipped his hat and said hello to her politely.
It amused me that if he'd thought she was a witch when she rang his bell, he must be convinced of it now. Then I had the terrible realization that in past times, Lisa was precisely the individual--an unmarried woman who knew too much, a lover of cats, someone who lived an idiosyncratic life without ties--who would have been called a witch. Had she not given the man a near-seizure?
I could see the townsfolk, in a place like Salem, banging on her door, and pulling her from her bed, half-dressed. Some would kill her cats while others tugged her through the streets. The trial would be quick--she laughed inappropriately and had the habit of pointing like a mariner; she might refer to a plant's preference or the inner life of a chair. The "baked potato" would be the chief witness against her and would surely prevail. They would bludgeon her with stones before setting her on fire while the people stood by, fascinated. I pictured her not saying a word. When I wrested myself away from the imagery, I felt closer to her, more protective, and gave thanks that we were here and now, and not there, back then.
A year passed quickly. Lisa was coming regularly, twice a week, and my picture of what had to be done was clarifying. I'd long realized that she'd built much of her personality and value-structure in opposition to Susan. Even before that, there had been the profound injury of her abandonment by her real parents. Her father had turned away in disgust after being denied access to her when he'd been caught in an affair. Her mother, Susan's sister, had bad-mouthed him, and Lisa and her two older brothers had no choice but to stake everything on their mother.
Her two brothers had been escorted across the country to "beautiful California," and Lisa was told she would be collected shortly, that the family would be reunited within the year.
At seven, she had gone to the mailbox daily for good news, picturing the knot of them living in ceaseless harmony, with no one growing up or changing, ever. When no summons came, she could only explain it one way--she was ugly and therefore inappropriate. Susan, her new mother, was beautiful, and by living with Susan, she would make up her deficiency and become beautiful too.
She had loved Susan and always would, but soon had to de-emphasize pulchritude. She was too round, too fat, and the fancier the dress, the worse she looked in it. Especially when at ten she wore braces on her teeth, she crystallized the notion that her benevolent foster-mother was doomed to fail in her effort to redeem and glorify one so hopelessly and irretrievably ugly. From there, a few fiats of the will became the axioms for a new kind of identity, in which beauty, grace, finery, smoothness were anathema. Her comrades were the injured, the bypassed, those not called upon, the voiceless. She had invented for herself Walt Whitman's rule that "Whoever offends another offends me."
She watched Susan date elegant men, successful ones, mostly older, but not the dingy characters in fedora hats that I used to picture pursuing her for sex. One of them gave her a Cadillac "for being beautiful." Their very suavity and politeness to Lisa--some brought her small gifts--made her feel more undeserving; she soon learned to say bumptious things to them: "Are you married?" "Do you love my mother?"
Not surprisingly, Susan slowly elected to keep her out of their company, a decision that seemingly expressed her conclusion that Lisa's path would not follow her own. And, indeed, that was obvious. In trying to be as different from Susan as she could, Lisa had renounced, to a great degree, her concern with anything to do with appearances in the external world.
However, I had come full circle from my original belief that Lisa did not see that world. I gave up my original hackneyed assumption that she had psychically blinded herself to externals, like those ascetics who concentrate utterly on what liesbelow. Far from being blind to them, Lisa was a more accurate perceiver of externals than anyone I had ever known. Possibly because of her idiosyncratic values, she was able to draw remarkable conclusions from what she saw--about people, and in the other sense of "remarkable," about animals and even objects. More accurately, Lisa's outside world, the doings of others as she perceived them, amounted to a giant and continuous cryptogram. Her accustomed mode of perception was to decode it, always reasoning from what she saw to its "psychic" meaning. It was beyond doubt that she possessed a singular kind of power. She was right stunningly often about people, and, to my mind, was wrong only when her interpretations edged too deeply into the realm of the unknowable, especially the inanimate.
Because adults had so often broken promises and tampered with her faith, it took a long time for our relationship to solidify. Again and again, she would accuse me, groundlessly I felt, of secretly wanting her to dress up, to lose weight, to have sex, to change jobs. And each time she did, I sought to reassure her that, though I wanted her to go on voicing these charges, I was not guilty.
"If you want any of these things, fine. Maybe I can help. But you have no grounds for accusing me of trying to trick you into another life."
I took pains to convey to her that no self-respecting therapist, indeed no one who respects others, should have a single outcome in mind for another person, whether that other person is our child, or sibling, or spouse, or friend, or a stranger. We may decide that for us marriage is ideal or getting wealthy or keeping up with the neighbors or becoming professionals or whatever. But to respect someone else requires helping that person strive to sculpt his own life in accordance with his deepest wishes.
"Lisa, I'll make a deal with you. If you catch me forcing any such goal, please tell me. Show me that I'm doing that, and how, and I'll apologize and be careful not to."
Slowly she became convinced. And because she was so acutely sensitive to even the slightest effort to convert her to conventionality or to any end of one's own, I felt complimented by her acceptance of me.
I liked her enormously. I enjoyed her originality, her burning intensity, though I worried about her welfare, perhaps akin to the way she worried about that of her five cats.
Meanwhile, I kept asking myself, How could I be useful to Lisa beyond the relationship itself? There could be no template for an ideal Lisa. All I could do would be to search for anything that she might secretly want and as yet be unable to attain. To the extent that I could do this, I would be offering more than a mere model of friendship.
However, I felt a curious inability to do this. As I kept asking myself what else I could give her, no answer came.
Slowly I realized that the blanks I drew were themselves meaningful. I had found no answer because Lisa hadn't conveyed any sense that she wanted anything beyond what she already had: her daily routine of caring for the cats, going to the movie house, seeing certain films over and over, and leading people up and down the aisle through the dark with her flashlight. If I were to take this completeness at face value, the most I could do would be to understand her, to bolster her feelings of worth and sufficiency in the life she'd chosen, and to stop there.
This would have to be my plan. It would be presumptuous and unethical to try to sell her on what I considered a better way of life. The therapist's role must never be to undermine life-styles that people choose.
However, one thing troubled me. Suppose that this "failure of personal acquisitiveness" was itself a reaction to Susan's goading, to Susan's own strivings and shallowness. Suppose it was Lisa's way of saying, "I refuse to risk being as disappointed and as unhappy as my mother." If, indeed, she was settling for less but wanted more, then it was my job to uncover that truth, along with others, and to present it to her. Possibly, I could help her pursue that "more," whatever it turned out to be.
I kept this hypothesis in mind, as I continued to study her life, using my own flashlight as I looked into its nooks and crannies.
Apart from Susan, there were few regulars in Lisa's everyday affairs. There was Phil, the waiter at a nearby diner where Lisa would sit, sipping coffee during her breaks. And the others were mostly neighbors who walked their dogs regularly, people with whom Lisa chatted whenever she chanced to meet them.
"Is that the way you want it?" I asked her.
"You mean is it by design or by disease?" she said, and we both laughed.
But she knew what I was driving at. "I think so," she added. "People are so meddlesome. If they don't want sex, they want to criticize you."
"Why? Who does that?"
She had recently been stung by someone's comment that she always wore the same outfit.
"Who said that?"
"Janet. A woman who works in the theater with me."
Lisa's response had been the covert resolution never to talk to Janet again.
"I guess you like the way you dress, and it's nobody's business," I said.
"I don't like it, especially. But what should I do? Get all dolled up, get a permanent, and have people call me a tramp?"
I didn't respond, but of course I thought of her childhood model, Susan. Susan's adorning herself meant prostitution to Lisa, if not of her body then at least of her values. Surely, Lisa was engaging in a heavy projection about what people would think, what they would read into any attempt of hers to beautify herself.
"Sex isn't worth it," she said, apropos of nothing that I could discover.
"That's up to you."
"People would know right away if I put makeup on that I wanted a man. Maybe I do sometimes, but I don't see making an announcement."
It was the first time she'd ever suggested as much.
"What do you mean?"
"They'd see that I was lonely and that things weren't perfect for me, and that's all I'd need. No, thank you. I don't want them to see anything."
I didn't comment, but I was interested in her being so concerned with what people saw, and in her giant overestimation of what they could read about her. She imagined that people could virtually see her motives, infer them from her smallest acts.
That session was a breakthrough. She had trusted me a great deal by divulging to me even a modicum of discontent. She had risked my disdain and my meddling in her private life.
Above all, I wanted her to see that I had no intention of tampering with this treasure, though I would help her if she let me. So as not to appear like someone itching for her to have problems, I didn't refer to anything she'd said that session when I saw her next. Nor did she.
However, a few weeks later, when she again commented that things weren't perfect, I asked her what she meant.
"Nothing." She stopped me cold.
But the following week she told me a sad story. Her one friend Phil wasn't talking to her anymore.
"He said I insulted him."
"You did? How?"
"He dropped a tray, and I guess I laughed. He always puts too much on one side. It was inevitable."
"And he's not talking to you for that?"
"The first time?"
"No. He says I always make fun of him. But he ought to know I'm not really laughing at him. Phil is a nice guy. But he's very oversensitive, and he's really not a very good waiter."
It occurred to me that if I simply joined her in this indictment of a friend, I might be doing her a serious disservice. She was given to confronting people with their painful inner realities, as if she had no idea she was hurting them. I'd enjoyed it when she'd done this to a few who, in my opinion, had deserved it, but I'd been personally stung by her more than once.
As for Phil, I could appreciate her loss while not siding with her.
"Do you still go there?" I asked her.
"Well, not really."
"But you were friends. You saw him every day. I wonder if anything can be done."
"Do you think it was bad, what I did?"
If there was ever a loaded question, this was it.
I hedged. "I think he was very hurt. I mean, being a waiter is what he does for a living. I guess nobody likes to be laughed at. And he likes you, that makes it worse. But if he never talks to you again, that's really going some."
"Should I go back in there?"
"Do you want to?"
"I guess so. People can dish it out, but they really can't take it."
"I don't know if that was Phil's problem," I said drily.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he was a waiter, but he couldn't dish it out very well."
She smiled. It was as if she knew I was trying to comfort her by seeing the thing lightly, and she appreciated my impulse, but I couldn't truly solace her.
Still, the door was open enough to admit some light, and I decided to make the most of it.
"Lisa," I said, "I agree with you that a lot of people do get hurt by a lot of things. But it's important to know what's going to hurt people."
"I know," she confessed. "I guess I do hurt people's feelings. I'm aware of that. I say things that hurt them."
She told me that recently several of Susan's women friends had objected to her "mind reading," and would break dates with Susan if she was going to be there. It put Susan on the spot. Usually she favored Lisa, but not always.
And back in college, she had lost her closest woman friend, Ellen, the same way. Apparently, Ellen took Dexedrine and was embarrassed about it. Lisa would know when she'd had some and would comment, "Is it your boyfriend who's so terrific, or is it the Dexedrine?" Or "I see you're on that stuff again, you always make so many telephone calls."
Ellen had demanded that Lisa apologize, but Lisa had refused to, and as a result they never spoke again.
"I can live without people like that," Lisa said.
I thrust the door open a little wider.
"Lisa, I'm sure you can. You are. But you're not the world champion at knowing when you're going to hurt someone by something you're about to say. I mean, if you don't want someone in your life, that's one thing. We all drop people, you know what I mean, do housecleaning now and then. But I don't want you to lose a single person you like because you didn't know what you were doing. I mean because you didn't realize that you were hurting someone's feelings."
She didn't say anything, and I couldn't tell how she was reacting.
That weekend I ranged between thinking that my timing had been great and she'd heard me, and worrying that I'd chosen too sensitive a moment to criticize her and that I'd offended her unforgivably.
When ten minutes had gone by and she still hadn't appeared for our next session, I inclined toward the latter view. Or even if I hadn't offended her at the time, it seemed to me, possibly she'd done a slow roast as she thought about what I'd said afterward.
However, she breezed in and told me that she'd apologized to Phil and that they were friends again. She was very happyabout it. Apparently, she had weighed my words carefully. She asked me point-blank, "Do I hurt your feelings?"
I wondered how much to say. Then I ventured, "Sometimes, Lisa."
"When? Tell me when?"
"Well, you laugh at me sometimes. Like at my crooked finger. Or the time I dropped my Rolodex when I went to pick up the phone. Or the time I was all dressed up in that dark suit because I was going somewhere formal, and you said I looked uncomfortable."
"Well, you did. You know you did."
"All right, maybe I did look uncomfortable. But, Lisa, you see an awful lot. You have a gift. I want you to tell me everything, that's our deal. I'm just saying that if you tell everybody everything, you're going to hurt a lot of people's feelings."
She didn't reply but looked grim.
Toward the end of the session, she asked me accusingly, "Why did you say all that to me about my hurting people's feelings?" Her lips were pursed and there was a tremor in her voice.
I realized that she was terribly shaken, and I was annoyed with myself for not seeing it coming. But I also felt there could be no turning back. If I deferred to her, she would spot in an instant what I was doing, and would see me as condescending; it would kill her if she thought I was being charitable to her. It was far better to treat her as robust.
So I told her the truth.
"Lisa, I want you to know how you affect people, so you can consider whether to say things or not."
"You weren't trying to hurt me?"
"Not at all, Lisa. Not at all."
That night I kept replaying the hour. The very idea that I would deliberately stoke up anguish in someone so vulnerable caused a terrible sorrow in me. I wondered how she could think so. Had not my loyalty spoken for itself? Apparently not.
I knew she was suffering, thinking about herself and me. I wondered if I'd been too rough. I did my best to console myself with the idea that these things had to be said and that if she thought I had acted sadistically toward her, it was her own import into the relationship; it was, technically speaking, her "transference." But, somehow, even if all that was true, it didn't console me.
I could hardly wait for her to come in, so that I could reassure her.
But if she had been shaken, she'd rallied fast. "You know, I've been thinking over what you said."
"Yeah. Something happened last night that told me you were right."
She'd been sitting near the window of the coffee shop where Phil worked, during her break. Diane, another usherette, was walking by outside with a young man. They had nodded to each other as she went by. Then, after a few more steps, Diane had wheeled around and rushed into the diner.
"Hello. How are you?" she'd said to Lisa warmly. "I was just walking down the street with John. He's my next-door neighbor."
Lisa had said, "So your boyfriend is very jealous, huh?"
Diane had almost keeled over. "How did you know?"
"Well, you never talk to me. You don't even like me. You think I'm a nut! So why would you rush in like that? Don't worry, I won't say anything. I didn't even know you had a boyfriend."
"Well, Jim doesn't always understand," Diane had said, before realizing that she owed no explanation. "Okay. Good-bye," she said and ran out.
I was stunned and resisted the words, "Lisa, you're out of this world." Instead, I told her, "Lisa, you've got to recognize that you see a hell of a lot more than other people do. I would never have spotted what you did about--what's her name--Diane. But you scared her half to death."
"I know," she admitted. "But I didn't realize."
I thought I saw a glint of humor light her brown eyes, but she didn't speak.
I went on. "This is a great example of your telling someone a lot more than the person wants to hear."
"I know," she repeated. "But it's all new to me."
For a while, she seemed to be thinking, and I was quiet. Then she said, "Look, I'm going to try. If I say anything that hurts you, please tell me."
I promised her that I would.
Then, as if the idea were hard for her to absorb, she asked, "You really don't see things like that?"
"Lisa, I'm very observant. I see a lot. I'm not stupid. But you're an X-ray machine."
"But you understand things," she said.
I could tell that she wanted me to remain superior to her, to remain her guide. My fall from such a position shook her. If, indeed, there was no one, it would force her to face the terrible truth that excellence must so often confront, the truth of one's aloneness on earth. But despite her gift, I was with her and could still help, and I wanted her to know that.
I assured her, "One thing I can do, Lisa, is to help you see when a comment you might make will hurt somebody."
"Thank you," she said at the end of the hour. I surmised that she was thanking me not for the insight but for my continued allegiance to her. She was more scared than ever, now that she saw herself as someone whose natural style would offend people, maybe even drive them out of her life.
At long last, our therapy had become sharply focused. She was starting to assimilate two truths: that she had a singular and spectacular gift and that it was accompanied by a curious blindness concerning the effect that she herself had on people. I wondered how such sight could accompany such blindness.
And then, as if the data had suddenly assembled themselves, I arrived at a whole new understanding of Lisa.
In marveling at her powers of observation, I had oftenthought of Sherlock Holmes's famous line, chiding his friend, "You see, Watson, but you do not observe."
But for some reason, the line suddenly told me something startlingly new, as it sank in. Holmes recognized that Watson, that humankind, saw but did not observe. He was well aware of his own genius. Lisa, on the other hand, had possessed no inkling of hers. She was typically surprised that her comments appeared like miracles to people. Lisa had imagined that others, the majority, everybody, saw as penetratingly as she did. And therein lay her downfall!
I recalled her comment that if anyone saw her putting makeup on, they would know that she had made the great decision to meet men. And her telling me she had worn the same clothing so that others could not infer her moods of the day or her thoughts.
Suddenly it all made sense: those and other comments, why she had chosen to work in the darkness, the only one with the flashlight, who could see but not be seen. In assuming that her own fluoroscopic vision was nothing special, that it was universal, she had taken for granted that other people could read her the way she could read them--in short, she had assumed that she was transparent.
Couple this assumption of hers with some degree of self-hatred, easily enough arrived at by any child abandoned by a real mother, and I had a simple formula. Lisa had believed, unconsciously, that for others to look at her was to see what she saw, and to hate her. She had often referred to herself as "ugly."
Ironically, that sense of personal unworthiness was perhaps the strongest element that she shared with Susan, though they had diverged utterly in how they had chosen to deal with it. Susan had adopted the camouflage of style, while Lisa had spent her life trying to avoid the imagined X-ray vision of others. By identifying with others too much, and in that sense attributing to them her own powers, she had constricted her whole life.
It followed that if she could only comprehend, if she couldonly grasp the real freedom she had to move among others and not be pinpointed, not be plumbed to her depths by them, she might make very different choices--and perhaps much happier ones for her. People were not nearly as formidable as she imagined them.
Though such a discovery could come only gradually, it promised to be of profound significance in her life.
My immediate goal, then, was to help her appreciate that she herself was not transparent, to recognize that, though she personally could infer deep truths from minutiae, others could not. Those she encountered in her daily life were, alongside her, in a trance. She had infinitely more freedom than she imagined to "reveal" her motives, to commit blunders, to make friends and lose them, to pursue her goals, without penalty. She was in a world more merciful, if not in its design, then in its ignorance, indifference, and even blindness than she'd ever thought.
As I set myself to helping her appreciate how little most people saw, she found it hard to believe. But evidence began to come in. A world in which people saw so much less was an easier one to inhabit. Lisa began taking more chances with other people, and one relationship that started about then had great repercussions in her life.
There was a woman, about thirty, who came to the Beacon regularly to see old films. Lisa would often take her to her seat, and had observed in the glare of her flashlight hairs on the woman's various jackets, some coarse, some fine, and of gray, white, and black.
One day while seating the woman, she could not help asking, "Your dog gets along with your four cats?"
"Yes," the woman had said. "Perfectly fine. They grew up together."
She didn't seem surprised that Lisa knew, and Lisa in turn hadn't expected her to be.
They struck up a conversation when the film was over. After that, Lisa brought a clothes brush to the theater and would brush off the woman's coat. She refused a tip, and soon theywere talking regularly. The woman, who gave the name Natalie, told Lisa that she helped out at the ASPCA.
They became friends, and Lisa took her to Phil's diner, where they would sit around, talking mostly about animals. After that, they met about once a week in the theater or for coffee.
The relationship with Natalie became important to Lisa, and I was glad for it. Natalie had said to her, "You're the only person who doesn't ask me a thousand questions about my life." And from that Lisa had concluded, "She's telling me she doesn't want to be asked any questions."
"And thanking you at the same time," I hastened to add. "People really appreciate not being interrogated and not being read."
"I know, I know," Lisa said, as if I had laid on that last piece of advice with the delicacy of an avalanche.
She made several other friends too, still acquaintances from their side but friends from hers. That tendency of hers to penetrate the depths, which at worst expressed itself as startling invasiveness, always left her far more involved with people than they were with her. The disparity was, of course, especially evident in her relationships with inanimate objects, which, to my mind anyhow, gave absolutely nothing back.
Most of her new friends were women who came to see old movies. In general, people were talking to her more often, and I felt sure that this reflected an upturn in her own accessibility.
And there was one man, Tommie, in his early thirties, "frail looking" she said, who was very shy. "I know exactly when Tommie's going to go to the back of the theater to buy candy from the machine. He always goes in Waterloo Bridge and in A Star Is Born when someone is about to commit suicide. He can't watch. We talk a few minutes. Then he rushes back to his seat."
"You see right through him."
"In a way. I feel sorry for him. He reminds me of Marshall when there's a storm outside. Marshall hides on a top shelf behind some of my books that need the best protection because they're so old. They like their new covers, though. He told me I was lucky to have this job."
"If you tell him that you know exactly when and why he's going to the back of the theater, you'll terrify him worse than the film. He's liable to stop talking to you."
As I said this, the image of the witch being torn to pieces came back to me.
"I know ... I know. I won't." She put up her hand, like a traffic cop. Then she added, "I started to say, 'You remind me of Marsh--,' but I thought about what you'd been telling me, so I stopped. And when he asked me, 'Who?' I just said, 'A very handsome friend.'"
Over the succeeding months, my task remained to help her appreciate her own impact on people, without ever telling her what to do--to give her civilization without betraying her to civilization.
Hardly a week went by when she didn't astound me with her sight. She was able to read people's past experiences and even their intentions from signs that I would never have observed or properly construed, even if I had. She told me that a neighbor's eleven-year-old daughter was planning to run away from home. The girl did take off two weeks later but was returned by the police. She also mentioned that two men who went to Phil's diner were plotting a crooked business deal, and though I never saw this corroborated, I had reached the point where I did not doubt it.
Sometimes she astonished me by inferences about me, as when she noted that in the past I used to go out with a lot of different women, but could never find happiness. And now--well, now she wasn't sure.
"What makes you think so?"
"Well, you have a little boy's expectations, and you also have a very cynical side."
For an instant, I reverted to being part of that crowd who would have burned her as a witch.
When she asked me, "Am I right?" I was glad for the therapist's asylum of anonymity. I told her for the tenth time that I wouldn't answer questions about myself, and she grudgingly accepted that.
Sometimes I felt that it didn't matter. I was like someone with a submachine gun trying to go through an electric eye. Always I took my own discomfort as a sign that others would be put off by her if she exposed to them her insights about them.
Immediately useful for my work were very dramatic examples of how her powers of perception fed her own feeling of transparency and the terrible dread that accompanied it.
One evening she was talking with Tommie between films and told him about her cats. She mentioned Marshall, his timidity, and added that he needed "special care."
Afterward, she felt sure that Tommie would recall her likening him to Marshall. Hers had been a quick comment made four months previously, and she had not even completed the name "Marshall." Moreover, she had claimed to be thinking about a man friend; the subject had been dropped and never reopened. However, now she felt sure that Tommie would not only recall her comment, but figure out that she had no such friend and had been lying. He would feel mortally insulted and probably would never talk to her again.
I recalled her many references to people as so much trouble, and it was obvious why. If they saw this much and were so ready to recoil in horror, then what prospect had she of keeping any relationship alive?
I asked her how Tommie could possibly be so sure that it was the same Marshall, even if he did recall that comment made a long time ago.
But she was certain.
I had the impulse to say, "Well, you don't have to admit it. Maybe you named your cat after the guy." But her fear went beyond that. To her, it was only a matter of time until he would put the pieces together and disown her.
The best I could do was to get her to articulate that fear, which she did, session after session.
Only slowly did she become convinced that Tommie had seen nothing, or at least that he had made no sense out of her comparison, experienced no slur on his shyness. And once she did absorb this, I made capital of her dire expectation, using it repeatedly in new contexts to help her grasp how radically she overestimated other people's "power of sight."
I told Lisa, "Besides, if they can really see things, they know you have a beautiful soul. They know you're not trying to do them in. They recognize all your acts of caring. No real friend would judge you by a single act, by one moment of your life, and certainly not without talking it out at length."
She listened with a likable and curious openness, and I felt sure I had made an impression.
Feeling ugly and undesirable, Lisa was constantly surprised when Natalie would call and say she was coming to the theater that night. Then one day, Natalie asked her to have lunch. She suggested a sophisticated midtown restaurant, and Lisa went into an immediate panic. Natalie had sensed it. "Don't worry. I'll pay. It will be my pleasure. No problem."
Lisa had consented, but in terror. She felt unworthy of such a friend and such a place, no matter who paid. But she perceived that to turn down the offer point-blank might be interpreted by Natalie as a rejection of her. She told me that she didn't have the clothes or the know-how, and could see the relationship ending with that lunch.
My reassurances fell flat, and Lisa finally decided to talk to Susan, who promised to get her ready that morning. They had their best time together in years, with Susan enjoying the role of expert, and Lisa allowing her to use her savoir faire in a helping way.
Susan had bought her a pair of designer glasses and did her makeup. She sent Lisa off with a list of instructions--"Don't rush your food." "Tell her it's your turn next." "If you getthere early, ask the maitre d' if she's arrived. By the way, what's her last name, anyhow?"
Lisa didn't know.
The lunch went fine, and afterward Natalie invited her back home to see her animals. It was a gigantic co-op apartment, where she lived with her cook. Lisa helped prune some of her plants. Probably, it was a pleasant day for Natalie, but Lisa almost collapsed under the strain. Susan had suggested that she call afterward, but she couldn't.
Once again, Lisa was sure she had blown the relationship by some faux pas; she considered Natalie her dearest friend, though the two saw each other only occasionally and briefly.
She was overjoyed when Natalie telephoned her to say she'd be coming in the following Wednesday.
Actually, all of Lisa's relationships were highly romantic and fragile, which made it hard for her to pursue them actively. Yet they were evolving, and it seemed to me that these relationships, collectively, were becoming the true therapeutic force for her now. My own role was becoming secondary. If she could maintain these friendships, I could help her use them to see that people were not nearly so judgmental as she'd thought and that she was in no way transparent.
Then she got a phone call from Natalie, which, though well intended, came like the jagged edge of a hurled knife.
"I'd like to invite you for the July fourth weekend. To my house in Southampton. We're having a small dinner party. I thought you might come for the weekend."
Lisa had said she would let her know.
In my office, she was quivering, and she kept covering her face with her hands. Her words suggested fury at Natalie for not understanding her better. "She knows I can't stand people and fancy dresses and dinner parties." But, obviously, she was terrified.
"If you feel that way, you won't go," I said, as reassuringly as I could.
"I don't even have a bathing suit. But if I refuse, she'll hate me. Why did she do this to me!"
I suggested that Natalie meant it as a real option. "Obviously, she likes you, but she can live with your not going, with your seeing her only in the city. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel strongly that you're underestimating her."
By the time she left my office, she seemed resolved to turn down the offer and take her chances. I knew that the matter of her dealing with invitations was far from closed, that there were some, like this one, that she wanted to accept but was afraid to. Her age-old sense of being awkward and unworthy would sorely crimp her efforts to move toward people until we dealt with it. But committing herself to a weekend with people she considered out of her league sprang up as too high a hurdle; it was not the place to start.
With this in mind, I made a very deliberate decision to let this one pass, not even to use it to investigate her longstanding fear. There would be other challenges, which she could study and deal with, and we would tackle them in the not-too-distant future.
I was satisfied that Lisa's turning down this invitation would do her no real harm. On the good side, she would see, after refusing, that Natalie was still her friend, and this would broaden her sense of the value of friendship. With such an understanding, if later she came up against a truly narrow-minded person who berated her for an innocent act, she could see him for what he was, by comparing him with her real friends. And above all, she would go through life with a sense of what decent people expected of her. We would make the most of her turning down the invitation with thanks.
Then Susan got into the act.
Lisa had been telling her about Natalie on and off since that lunch, and Susan had listened without saying much. But now, all at once, something clicked in Susan's mind: Natalie's living alone with a cook in that huge apartment, her comment that she had grown up going back and forth to Italy, her outspoken love of animals, and finally Lisa's description of her as havingauburn hair. She was Natalia K., heiress of a world-renowned wine importer, and fabulously wealthy. Those were real Man-ets on her wall. "Do you have any idea what that apartment of hers on East Sixty-second Street is worth?"
"Maybe three million dollars, that's all. At least that. And she has homes in Florence and Paris. My friend Margo knows the family. I think it's wonderful that you're her friend."
"I know. She gives a lot of money to animal welfare."
"You really should go for that weekend. I'll buy you some outfits. You really have to go."
Then, after Lisa had insisted that she didn't care, and wouldn't go, Susan trespassed beyond the point of no return: She accused Lisa of settling for a lifetime in her dingy apartment "with all those stray cats of yours."
After that, the breach took only seconds.
"Don't call my cats stray," replied Lisa, sizzling with indignation. "They're not stray anymore. And they're a lot better than your stray men. And don't talk about Natalie either. Just keep your hands off her. I'm sorry I ever mentioned her."
Moments later, she had thrown her keys to Susan's apartment on the kitchen floor, announced that she would never talk to Susan again, and was gone.
She called Natalie and told her politely that she had "too much happening" and couldn't go. "But thank you very much." They arranged to meet in the city the following week.
In my office, Lisa sobbed as she told me that she'd had it with her mother. Indeed, Susan had insulted her far more profoundly than she herself could have fathomed. Susan had conceived of Natalie, Lisa's treasured friend, less as a person than as an acquisition. Unable to comprehend genuine friendship, she had virtually congratulated Lisa for what she saw as connivance in doing so well. And worst of all, she had expressed surprise that Lisa could have endeared herself to someone so select and so lofty.
Lisa had, without putting it in so many words, responded to her mother's tainted view of her and of friendship. It was aview which, I could not help thinking, amounted to the real argument against prostitution in any form--that it reduces other people to the status of objects and relationships to deals. It daubs the universe with gray, muting and destroying the primary colors of whatever it regards.
As Lisa told me about the argument, I got an even better understanding of what she'd been rebelling against over the years.
Even so, as the months came and went, with Susan calling and trying to apologize and Lisa hanging up on her, I felt that the punishment was starting to exceed the crime. Granted, Susan's viewpoint was flawed, but even her misguided efforts to help Lisa over a lifetime had an authenticity and self-sacrifice, and, to my mind, were her purest note. Lisa was the one person to whom Susan gave unstintingly, and with no ulterior purpose. Obviously, this "daughter," disdainful of outward appearances, of social mobility, and of almost everything Susan cherished, had never rewarded her, except by merely being--and by being someone she loved.
In fact, if Susan could have evolved a real understanding of her own, unqualified caring for Lisa, she might have used it as a basis to understand a whole lot else. She could have used this part of herself to grasp Lisa's feeling for Natalie, and for all her friends, including her cats and plants. With such an understanding, she would have gotten on infinitely better with Lisa. And, I could not help thinking, had Susan taken the time to appreciate herself in the one relationship where she was at her best, she might have sung this pure note toward others as well.
Maybe toward me? I really didn't care anymore.
In any event, I felt certain that, despite her tainted view, she loved Lisa and would never stop trying to contact her, and to help her. From what Lisa had told me, Susan had botched many relationships by her shallowness and insincerity. It seemed an irony that here, where she was at her best, she should be suffering the most.
Ideally, Lisa would, with all her power of sight, see Susan'stragedy and avert it herself. But she could avoid Susan's tentacles without murdering her symbolically. Lisa herself would do well by showing mercy in accepting Susan's plea for friendship, even though she did not condone Susan's faults. This would be the final stage of winning her rebellion--her very realizing that it was won.
But she wanted revenge.
About a month later, Lisa announced to me haughtily that she could tell from Susan's slurred hello that her mother was "drinking again," and it was hard for me not to plead Susan's case.
When she said this a second time, I asked her, "Do you think your mother needs A.A. or therapy?"
"She does, but she'd never consider it."
Still, Lisa wanted no part of her.
All the while, Lisa was making better contact with people. Her newly acquired friends now included Natalie and Phil and Tommie--and also Diane, the usherette she had terrified by her mind-reading act. Diane she had won over after a long, emphatic talk about Diane's jealous boyfriend, who finally dumped her because he couldn't tolerate her having men friends. "I remembered your prediction," Diane had said, "and it helped me."
Glad for the contact with this woman, who appreciated her sympathy, Lisa had replied, "I didn't predict anything."
Afterward, in my office, she realized that accurate readings of intentions are often predictions. I told her about the psychoanalyst Carl Jung's prediction that a man would die in a skiing accident, based on Jung's discovery that the man had an obsession to surpass himself and a fanatic desire to ski. Lisa was fascinated.
But even after six months, Lisa's refusal to allow Susan back was as strong as ever. When I asked Lisa if she wanted Susan to stop calling, she was always noncommittal, saying something like, "Well, she can call if she wants to. I don't care. But two minutes is all she gets."
However, I felt sure that if Susan had decided to strike backby not calling, even a month of her silence would have been a sledgehammer blow to Lisa. Both were suffering: Lisa, who was inflicting the punishment, as well as Susan.
She was showing Susan far less mercy than she granted to anyone else, including her cats and even her chairs. She needed Susan. And more than ever, she needed the experience of granting forgiveness, so that she herself would feel the right to it and could move in the world more freely. Besides, granting forgiveness where we can makes us feel like kings and queens.
I resolved, for both their sakes, to keep the subject open, so that Lisa could reconsider it whenever she wanted to.
In surveying her life, I could see that she had cut people off many times in the past, since college days and probably before. As I contrasted Susan's contribution to Lisa with her real mother's indifference, it seemed almost sure that at least some of Lisa's rage was felt toward her actual mother. Because Susan was in her life and her mother was not, Lisa was leveling at Susan the fury she felt toward her mother, and not just the anger she felt toward Susan herself.
Of course, she had the right to banish anyone she wanted, I agreed with her when she made that point.
"So then I have that right, too?" I asked her.
The idea troubled her.
"I won't," I said. "I'm just saying that by your reasoning, it works both ways. I mean that even though I wouldn't do it, I have the right to banish you."
She winced. "Well, if I did something terrible, you could--I don't mean one thing, I mean a hundred," she hastened to add.
"Wait a minute, Lisa. Using your logic, which of course I don't share, one evil could be worse than a hundred and deserve more punishment."
She asked me what I meant, and I reminded her of a number of times when she had dropped people abruptly and never spoken to them again. There was her college friend, Ellen, now married, whom Lisa had "seen through" and thendropped on the spot when Ellen had objected to her remarks. And there were a handful of others.
"Isn't forgiveness a part of loyalty?" I asked. "Lisa, there's nothing you could do that would goad me into never talking to you again."
"So I should call my mother up in California and beg her forgiveness too, huh?" Lisa said sardonically.
"I didn't say that. You don't really have a relationship with her. Not since you were a little child. What she did was unthinkable. But she wasn't Susan. Susan stuck with you and always will, even if she does foul things up sometimes."
"All right, so she's different!"
Though I knew I could go no further at the time, I resolved whenever possible to stress the distinction between her real mother, who had dumped her when Lisa was in her helpless, formative years, and virtually all other people, men and women.
There are psychologists who argue that ultimate evolution always requires coming to peace with one's natural parent. But to my mind, each case is different, and here my selling forgiveness toward Marianne could do Lisa irreparable harm. For Lisa, it was either cling to her sense of outrage or, to the degree that she condoned what her mother had done to her, go on living with the idea that she had deserved that treatment.
By then, I was convinced that her perception of herself as ugly and undesirable had emanated largely out of an attempt to justify the abandonment she had suffered, to make sense out of the chaos. That impulse to see design in our lives, and reason in what is done to us, is for many the worst of our reactions to the mistreatment we suffer as children.
No, I would not defend her real mother--to do so would be lying, anyhow. The plain truth was that Lisa had drawn horribly in the lottery of parenthood. The clearer she could become concerning the whimsical and unusual nature of what her biological mother had done, the freer she would be to trust otherpeople and to forgive them their faults if their intentions were right.
Accordingly, I began to talk to Lisa more often about what Marianne's discarding her had meant to her. Without singling out Susan, or any of those whom Lisa had rebuffed for insufficient reason, I invited her to ask herself, Did she not sometimes treat people as she had been treated? And if so, could not a case be made that she was condoning in her own mind other people's abuses of her, and in particular, the primal villainy of Marianne herself?
I had a sense, as I kept reopening this hard topic with her, touching it gently from as many sides as I could, that progress would have still another benefit for her. Her own refusal to forgive--not just Susan but virtually anyone who crossed her--was restoring Lisa's dread that people would disown her for even an unintentional mistake.
Then the teeming city of New York yielded an experience to Lisa that became pivotal in her life.
A man, perhaps in his late forties, had been coming to the theater regularly, always alone. Lisa could see that he was gentle, and she liked his cultured way of talking; he was one of the few who always thanked her when she brought him to his seat. She approved of the films he came to see, and especially of those he would watch repeatedly.
One evening, during a showing of Casablanca, she was astonished to see him heading to the back of the theater, right toward her.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said, "but I can't seem to find my keys. I heard them fall, but I can't seem to locate them. Possibly--"
"I'll look for them," she'd replied.
"Oh, would you? Thank you."
He was delightfully quaint, the way he apologized to those seated near him for disrupting them, as Lisa beamed her light on the keys and he scooped them off the floor.
He thanked her graciously. She said something back, she couldn't remember what. On the way out of the theater, he stopped to chat with her about the film. She thought his observations were brilliant.
The next few times he came in, they exchanged a few lines, those of film characters, as if both of them were too shy to venture forth using their own words. The seedlings of Lisa's infatuation with him were unmistakable.
Then, one especially humid night, the air conditioning was down. Many patrons commented to Lisa about how stuffy it was, as if she were accountable. She would look at them and not respond, even facially.
To her horror, she suddenly realized that this man had just addressed her, and she had been as unresponsive as a stone.
He'd left with the crowd, and Lisa was aghast.
She assured me that he'd never talk to her again. "He probably won't ever come back to the Beacon, ever, even though he wants to see about six films in the festival. He told me which ones they are."
She seemed inconsolable. I knew that I couldn't convince her that she was reading too much into his reaction, though I thought so. No mere assertion by me would help. And besides, suppose I was wrong. Conceivably, he possessed a fragility on a par with hers, and did feel her nonreaction as a hammer blow. But a fatal one? That seemed very doubtful.
In retrospect, I think I was also held back by a lingering fear that Lisa might be right. Not that I thought so: her "sight" was least trustworthy when it came to trust. But it seemed best to let events unfold, and, in any event, the therapist's role is never to make predictions.
The best thing to do, I felt, was to draw her out, to have her spell out in no uncertain terms what she did expect. If she proved right, and he never came back, we would have lost nothing. At best, she would feel less thrown, having anticipated the disappointment. On the other hand, if he didreturn and spoke to her, I would have provided Lisa with a graphic instance of her pessimism, which we could examine together.
"Do you really think he's that punitive?" I asked her. "That he'd cut you dead for one default, one failure of yours to respond to him, to smile and say something?"
"You mean he can't consider that you might have been preoccupied?"
"No. He won't be back and if he does come back, he'll never talk to me again."
We knew that, either way, we wouldn't have to wait long. The first of his film favorites was to be shown the following weekend.
He came in briskly just as it started and afterward went over to Lisa, and they talked. "I'm sorry that I was cranky with you last time," she said.
"Not at all. Not at all. I said something dumb and obvious, and you were busy. You're here all day. It's worse for you than anyone when the air conditioner breaks down."
I was, of course, glad to see her enjoying his return.
Still, I thought, I had to remind her of how sure she'd been that he was never going to come back. This instance of her feeling that a slip would be fatal was indispensible to us. She had spelled out her expectation clearly, only three days previously, and I could still hear her dogmatism. She would have bet a million dollars that she'd destroyed everything, as surely as if she'd dropped a bomb on the city.
Though it might mean interfering with her pleasure just then, I felt I could best use the experience to help her see her tendency to distrust her impact on people, always to think the worst of herself. In the long run, this moment of joy would prove far less valuable to her than to discover this tendency. She could hardly secure relationships in life if she went on expecting the worst from people and punishing them herself when they missed a beat.
I was considering how to break in, when Lisa gave me the perfect opening.
She muttered, "I knew damn well I should have worn that nice, light blue blouse that evening. I was stupid."
"Well, I knew that was the showing he was coming to. He always comes for the first showing after dinner."
Could she possibly be that inconsistent?
"Wait a second, Lisa. You swore to me that he'd never talk to you again. You couldn't have been more positive, after what you did to him. There seemed nothing to think about."
"You figured, why wear your best when he's not coming anyhow?"
"Okay." She saw the inconsistency too, but I felt it was too pivotal to let pass.
I pushed on. "And you see how wrong you were? You better think that through again. People make mistakes, and they forgive, and very often they don't even notice. You can forgive people's mistakes a little and make a few yourself."
"All right. I understand." I knew she was trying to shut me up, but I wouldn't.
"Lisa," I insisted, "this has got to be a lesson to you. Beware your assumption that people are going to cut you dead. If you don't, you won't give Kenneth a chance. You won't give anyone a chance."
Never had she listened so intently, for which I felt thankful to Kenneth. So I went on. "Lisa, you've got to ask, who are the people you care about? Probably they won't write you off for a single mistake, or even two. And you can forgive them too. Otherwise, what have you got? Why don't you give everybody a break!"
I paused, when I realized I had in mind the most poetic last statement on the subject I could find. "You know, Lisa," I told her, "there's something in a poem I love, the Rubaiyat: 'Man's forgiveness give--and take.'"
My cheeks seemed suffused with pain, as I remembered reciting that line to Susan, it seemed like yesterday. But of course, Lisa couldn't guess, nor did she say anything at the time.
She began seeing Kenneth regularly, but doubts of her own worth and her self-criticality surfaced--obviously because she cared for him so much. She cursed herself for having few friends whom she could introduce him to, and for her apartment, which suddenly loomed as embarrassingly small and sloppy.
And, probably, long hours of scouring herself for possible deficiencies and worry about them prompted a question she asked me one day, which took me by surprise.
"Do you go for beautiful women?"
"What do you mean, Lisa?"
"I mean, do you judge women by appearances?"
My first thought was that she was accusing me of loving her mother and not her. But then I realized that, of course, she was worrying about her appeal to Kenneth.
I told her the truth. "Just about everyone reacts to appearances, one way or another. You know that, Lisa. But beauty varies, at least somewhat. It doesn't have to be looks exactly. It could be voice, or a certain style, or even intelligence shining through. And people become beautiful to each other, or they start to look ugly. And what's beautiful to one person may not be to another. And, of course ..."
I could see that she wasn't listening, which seemed fine, because I wasn't really saying anything, just puttering around with words so that she wouldn't feel discouraged.
On occasion, when she got anxious, she blamed Susan. But such blame, it seemed to me, was just a variation on the theme of self-hate, and I combatted it.
For instance, once Lisa said, "She ruined my whole life."
"I don't agree that it's ruined. How could Susan have ruined it? Look what you have in front of you."
The stage had been set for her to reconsider all her relationships.
Then, one night, after an especially pathetic call from Susan, Lisa came in, and, in a quiet mood, asked if I thought she should talk to her again.
I said that it depended on how she felt.
"What if she tells me I'm ugly?"
"That would be awful," I agreed.
"And suppose she attacks Kenneth?" Lisa said.
"Would she do that? She doesn't even know him."
"Yes, she might. She might ask how much money he has or where he lives or how old he is. She doesn't have to know somebody to attack him."
"That sounds terrible. So maybe you're not ready to see her."
"But I think I should. Natalie says that's the way parents are. And I feel sorry for her."
Then it occurred to me that maybe she could renew the relationship on a basis that many of us come to, not just with our parents but with most people in our lives. We have friends of different closeness--tiers of friends, as if they were in a stadium watching our lives from different distances, and we are the ones who determine how close they get.
"Maybe you could see your mother and tell her almost nothing. I mean, don't even mention Kenneth."
The idea had never crossed her mind, it had always been all or nothing with Susan.
"Do you think I could do that?" she asked.
"It's completely your challenge. You'll tell her what you want, and if you tell her too much and she hurts you, then kick yourself."
She seemed doubtful that she could pull it off.
"Well, I don't know for sure," I said. "Maybe I'm wrong. But I think you're both suffering plenty, and I do think Susan loves you, and maybe even you love her."
She wasn't going to admit that, and I didn't need a signed confession. But she decided to have dinner with her mother the next time she called and see if she could stay in control.
She did, and the evening went passably.
When Susan asked her if there was anything new, Lisa told her about places she'd gone to with friends. She and Natalie would go to fondle the dogs and cats, who were waiting execution if they weren't adopted by the end of the week. Even Susan was moved by that.
"Any new friends?" Susan asked.
"No. Nobody. I've been too busy. Absolutely nobody," Lisa had said.
Over the succeeding weeks, I could virtually see her bracing herself against the impulse to brag to Susan about Kenneth. She told me several times in the exact, same words, "The last thing she'll ever get is the chance to mess with him."
Once or twice, I thought, she actually teased Susan by implying that she'd done something interesting, and then when Susan inquired, Lisa stifled her, as she'd often tried to stop me in my tracks, by a wafture of the hand and a blunt assertion, "Let's not talk about that."
Susan obeyed. Before long, it became obvious that she was on her guard not to say anything that Lisa might, in even her wildest imaginings, consider intrusive. She was being so careful that I actually felt sorry for her.
"She got the message," Lisa said with triumphant anger. "She thinks she knows everything but she really doesn't know anything."
Lisa would remain angry with Susan for a long time, and in some respects possibly forever, or until one of them died. True, she had reason. But though Susan's tampering with her over a lifetime was unquestionably a terrible abuse, I felt sure that there were deeper causes too.
It crossed my mind that no one comes tumbling down harder, from greater heights, than the parent who once dazzled us and seemed indispensable. I felt sure that Lisa's fury was in part rage at Susan for failing to live up to the role that Susan herself had pretended to. I realized that I was angry at Susan, too, for that very reason.
Then I wondered, Was Lisa's fury, and was mine, displaced from rage at life itself, which breaks so many promises? What an injustice it would be if, indeed, we all make our parents scapegoats for our disappointment over what life has failed to deliver! If so, was Susan no different from the tens of millions of parents, well meaning and devoted at least some of the time, but also meddlesome, inflicting their foibles and their own, private disappointment on their children?
Lisa and I had certainly thought Susan was different, but we were only two impressionable people when we met her, cutting open an early page of a book with a gorgeous cover and gold lettering. And how many people do live up to our youthful imaginings?
In any event, only by dealing with Susan, by fending her off and telling her what she wanted to, could Lisa evolve the recognition that her life was hers, if she wished it to be.
And so they went on. They fought plenty. More than once, Lisa got up and left the restaurant in fury over something Susan had said, often something she had baited Susan into saying. Susan was the one who called up and apologized.
I worked hard at getting Lisa to see that her perception of herself as an independent adult could proceed only as fast as she stopped badgering Susan. She could tell her nothing about her life if she chose. But with parents, as the Uncle Remus story of Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby tells us, the more you kick the person, the more you stick to him.
She continued to see Kenneth. She told me that he was a researcher, excellent at working with numbers, but too shy for the socializing that would have helped him upgrade his status in the marketing department he worked in. With her at his side, they went to the first office Christmas party he'd ever attended, though he'd been with the firm for eleven years. True, they spoke to only a few people and left fast, but it was an accomplishment for both of them.
Lisa never discussed their sex life with me. She saidshe considered what they did in bed too precious to talk about.
Aside from Kenneth, she has many friends now, most of whom have become privy to her incredible gifts of perception and surmise, what I have been calling her "sight." Among them, one woman, an enthusiast of the occult, calls her a "witch" as the highest compliment, and Lisa enjoys it.
It's been six years since I've seen Lisa, though she calls occasionally to say hello and always sends me a birthday card, which Susan signs too. We'd worked together for a little over four years when she decided to stop, with the proviso that she could come back if she needed to.
I thought her stopping was a good idea. Much always remains to be done in a life, and I miss her. But therapy must never define itself as coextensive with the patient's need to solve problems, or with the therapist's loneliness. We were both content that we had accomplished a great deal. She now works for a veterinarian, someone Natalie introduced her to.
By the way, I am sure that she still attributes rich, intense inner life to inanimate objects, though now she gauges people closely before letting them know. Before she stopped with me, we had an exchange concerning that subject, which I'll never forget.
Lisa had been talking about her books being "lonely," now that she was going out more often. In that same session, she commented that her closet "hates to close in the summer" because it's so hot inside. "It likes closing in the winter," she added.
I suggested to her that many people, including those ordinarily thought to be open-minded, might not agree, and would be taken aback by the way she referred to inanimate objects. I'd approached the subject as gingerly as I knew how, saying that I was just telling her how people thought, and that she could do what she wanted with my impression.
The next time I saw her, she came roaring at me, accusing me of laughing at her. "You're not right," she insisted.
When I held my ground, she seemed terribly hurt. "But you'll destroy all kinds of beings, like your plants. You'll go through life a destroyer."
I remembered her dismay over that broken promise to her worn coat.
I tried to clarify to her that I was merely talking about the way other people thought about inanimate objects. I wasn't talking about her. She could think what she wanted, but she should know that her point of view wasn't the prevalent one, that's all.
"Come on," she insisted. "You know everybody thinks that way!" She was shouting and pointing at me. "Come on. I hear them talk. I know what's going on."
And then she half-persuaded me that we, all of us, think the way she did, only she had the purity to stand behind that view, to express it in words, without embarrassment.
"You mean you wouldn't feel bad to see your favorite shirt torn to pieces?"
"I would, but that's different. I mean--"
"What's your favorite shirt?"
I thought for a moment, then told her, "It's a check shirt, red and blue. I wear it in the fall."
"And if I cut it up with a scissors, you wouldn't care?"
"Of course I would, but--"
"I mean, even if I gave you another one, a brand-new one just like it. Come on. Come on. You love it. It's your favorite shirt. It's your friend. You love it, or something is wrong with you, George."
There were tears in her eyes, and she was shouting--even here the voice of the voiceless, the champion of the oppressed.
I knew what she meant, even before she added ironically, "Or your pillow. Or your friendly computer. Come on, George. I'm sick of everybody telling me I'm crazy."
Over those years since I've seen Lisa, I often recall that heated discussion. I would miss that shirt, miss it personally, and no replacement would offset the loss. Lisa saw things inpeople that I didn't. Maybe she was right here, too, or at least not as wrong as I'd thought. Maybe we hadn't come as far from our primitive ancestors, who saw life, human life, in rocks and stones and trees--in everything.
When I think of Susan, of course it's still of the better version, though I realize that she is gone. Still, one can't help imagining. As with a sore tooth, one looks for it, hoping it is better now while knowing that when one finds it, the pain will be there too.
The best I can do is to regard Susan as two separate people. The first remains most vivid in a photo that Lisa once brought in. She was still beautiful in a crisp cotton dress with a plunging neckline, but her eyes, pale and blue as an opal, showed that all too familiar admixture of resignation about the big things and impatience about the small. Already she had called off her journey while imagining that she was enlarging its scope.
Did Susan really change so much, or had I read into her nearly all that I saw? Some might say that she was always as she became, that I was programmed to love, by the forces of desire--"In the spring ..."--and so forth.
But my whole professional life, and beyond that, my credo of existence, is that people do change. They can and do, but not always for the better.
In this account, I've mentioned only enough of Lisa's spectacular readings of people to convey the depth of her talent. I've never seen anything like it. At times, in social situations, when strangers were doing something inexplicable to me, I've thought about her and wondered what she would make of their behavior. She remains a quintessential expert in a very special domain.
One can only guess how many other people there are, gifted with a clarity and afflicted with the sensibility that attends it, isolated by their gift. Doubtless, some of these people havecompromised their gift away, in order to belong, to be one of a multitude, rather than remain apart. But others, like Lisa, loyal to their gift or unable to shuck it off, possessed by their special talent, their fate dictated by it, what about them? In this world, it is not enough to know; one must know one knows, or the gift can betray its possessor.
THE TABOO SCARF AND OTHER TALES. Copyright © 1990 by George Weinberg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.