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The Verificationist (Donald Antrim)


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  Leave it to you to choose this place for dinner, Thomas."

The speaker was Manuel Escobar, the renowned Kleinian. He sat across from me in the booth by the window, and I explained to him, "Breakfast foods, except for cereals that contain inordinate amounts of sugar, have, in my experience, a comforting, antidepressant quality."

"I suppose that is true if you are an American," said Escobar, looking around the room, then waving impatiently to our beautiful waitress.

"Don't stare."

"I'm not staring, Thomas. I find adolescent girls enchanting, though not compelling. I am happy with Conchita." Then the waitress was beside our table, and Escobar, his eyelids lowered, said, "Hello, I am Escobar, and this is my friend Thomas."

"PIeased to meet you, welcome to the Pancake House & Bar, I'll be your waitress."

"It's nice to be here," I said. Why was I talking? My voice was all wrong, and I felt ridiculous.

Manuel, however--as always so absurdly comfortable with himself, so shamelessly direct in manner--asked, in his coarse, Mediterranean voice, "Tell me, what may we call you? "

"How about Rebecca?"

"Rebecca. May I call you Rebecca? A beautiful name. I would love a cup of your very hot, very strong coffee, Rebecca. "

"Cream and sugar with your coffee?"

"Black."

"One black coffee coming up. Anything for you, Thomas?" she asked. She was looking right at me. I fell momentarily in love.

"What? Not yet! Water is fine!"

She wrote in her pad. She handed us menus. She said, "One coffee and one water." She walked off.

"Incredible," I whispered to Manuel after our waitress had marched away on her long legs. Escobar nodded, and I realized he thought I was referring not to him, to his brazen style, but to the girl, her dark good looks. I let the matter drop, since he was, in a way, correct.

"How is your Jane?" he asked me.

Why was I unable to respond with a simple, perfunctory answer to this meaningless, polite question? It was because I was intuitively aware that Escobar wanted to make love to my wife, and I was therefore reluctant to allow him access to her, even through me--especially through me.

Actually, I don't dislike Escobar. It has occurred to me from time to time that an affair between this man and my wife could be harmless enough, and might solve a variety of problems in my home life. I said to him, strategically, "Jane is fond of you. The other night she remarked on how much she likes talking to you. Give her a call, Manuel. Drop by the house."

"No, Thomas. I would not feel in the right place." Escobar sounded sincere, and in spite of the fact that I found his formulation of discomfort alarming (what, precisely, might be "the right place"?--an hourly-rate motel on the highway?), I experienced a brief moment of liking the man intensely; and then the restaurant's front door opened and in came a group of analysts, including Maria, who clacked hurriedly over on her high heels, past the cash register and the little bar area with bottled beers displayed, around the fish tank and the glass case stocked with candies, syrup, and fruit preserves for sale. Around the tables she came. Maria clattered over to our booth, leaned down over the place settings, kissed Escobar on the lips, and announced, "Your paper on sibling murder fantasies among children of recovered alcoholics is extraordinary, Manuel."

"Ah," answered Escobar.

I, for one, am always made uneasy by these rituals of professional approval. I believe established colleagues do well to assume one another's integrity and accomplishment, and leave it at that. I make it a rule never to give people favorable opinions of their work--not even those exceptional, open-minded people who admire my theories concerning reality and its dissolution through polite social conversation.

"He's a genius," said Maria to me. She took off her coat and hung it from a peg near the booth.

"Who's a genius? Tom? The Dead Lieutenant?" cried a man standing behind Maria. It was Bernhardt in his red sports jacket and the ridiculous panama hat he never, as far as I can tell, takes off in public. Bernhardt wedged himself into the booth, beside me, and Maria squeezed in next to Escobar, and we al1 sat quietly--groups that contain Bernhardt, I have found, immediately become anxious, wary, ill at ease; and this is a problem for the man, since he specializes in Group--until Rebecca arrived with Escobar's espresso-strength coffee. I found myself unable not to gaze at this girl's black hair. Was it dyed or natural? I made a mental note to give Rebecca my recruitment speech--sometime later, in private, without all these shrinks around to make her feel inadequate or insecure--for my Young Women of Strength program at the Krakower Institute.

In the meantime, to irritate Bernhardt--and to get him back for using an old nickname that I'd rather not hear--I said, "I agree with Maria. Manuel is one of our important thinkers."

After that I felt depressed, as I knew I would after praising an associate, or even an intimate.

In fact, Escobar is a shrewd, insightful, compassionate therapist. One might wish he would become less involved in patients' lives outside the consulting room (the recent, unsettling incident with Mrs. Jackson and the countersigned insurance claim checks comes to mind); however, Escobar is a European. His unorthodox, interdisciplinary methods naturally reflect some sort of traditional cultural orientation.

"You're that party of doctors from the mental institute, aren't you?" Rebecca said.

"That's right," answered Bernhardt, giving me a wonderful chance to contradict him on a fine point. I knew I shouldn't've--you have to watch your step with Bernhardt; he's grandiose and will lose his temper and, on occasion, shout--but it was irresistible.

"We're not doctors. At least, I don't think anyone at our table has a medical degree," I said, looking around at the faces of my companions.

Bernhardt said, "Tom, I don't know about you, but I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology." Food had not yet been served, and already Richard was getting worked up over genital potency issues.

I explained to our waitress, "It's true that we are clinical psychologists. Those with doctorates may call themselves doctors if they choose, but most of us, except Sherwin of course, are not doctors in the way that people routinely think of doctors."

She--bless her heart--recalled, "I had this jerk for a history teacher in eleventh grade. He got a Ph.D. through the mail or somewhere and then made everyone call him Doctor Woody."

"My Ph.D. is not mail-order." Bernhardt's face beneath his panama hat was suddenly, brilliantly red.

"Richard, it's all right. Take it easy." Maria reached across the tabletop and stroked Bernhardt's sleeve, lightly, reassuringly, professionally.

"How can I take it easy? Tom has no idea how to get along with peers. I worked hard for my Ph.D. It gets so I'm afraid to take pride in my accomplishments."

"Tom didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Richard. I'm certain he respects your credentials. Isn't that right, Tom?" asked Maria, the diplomat.

"Sure."

At that point, more analysts barged in. Peter Konwicki, Elizabeth Cole, Dan Graham, Terry Kropp, Mike Breuer--and Dr. Sherwin Lang, the former gynecologist turned psychiatrist, whose relationship with alcohol may or may not have been getting in the way of his relationships with analysands. Greetings were transacted, and the Bernhardt situation was momentarily defused as, one after another, adjacent tables filled with personnel. Someone put money in a tableside jukebox and a popular tune played. The waitresses in their blue dresses came and went, shouldering dinner plates and metal trays stacked with silverware. Our waitress approached and said, "Ready, Doctors?"

"Two eggs over easy with hash browns and extra cinnamon-raisin toast with butter on the side," said Bernhardt.

"The country sausage and eggs, I guess," Maria said next.

"How do you want your eggs?"

"Scrambled. Please."

Manuel requested more coffee, nothing but black coffee, and then it was my turn.

"Well, I'm torn between the blueberry pancakes and the eggs Benedict. Are the blueberries fresh?"

"Yes, sir."

"Treat yourself to pancakes, Lieutenant," said Bernhardt.

I explained, "I like pancakes, but with pancakes a little goes a long way. They leave me feeling stuffed."

"I know what you mean."

"On the other hand, whenever I have the chance to order them, and I don't, I regret it."

Rebecca waited. My Institute associates glared at me, and the noisy room got, I thought, quieter. I was in danger of acute vacillation and could feel my face growing hot, the skin tingling. Choice, with its inevitable invitations to loss, is always such a trial. It does not matter, in my experience, that a particular choice consists in apparently unweighty alternatives. Quite the opposite. Choices between banalities are some of our more intimidating ordeals in life. We all know how the simplest dilemmas can lead, through symbolic and emotional pathways in the unconscious, to larger, often painful issues facing us at work and at home. Let's take an example, a hypothetical case, from home. Or, better yet, let's not. A discussion of theory can only be weakened by intimate, possibly humiliating revelations. The simple example I was going to give--involving an unpainted room and a drawer full of paint chips in assorted pastels and flat whites--is not only not simple, it is loaded to capacity with marital sorrows and the profoundest mysteries of destiny, accident, and the overall purpose and meaning of life. Here's what I mean. I will attempt to remain objective. An upstairs room needs painting. The room is quite cozy, with attractive floors and a view of trees and neighboring yards. But its walls, blemished with scuffs, speckle, and dirt, have been an eyesore for a long, long time--ever since the present owners (Jane and I, naturally) first occupied this little house (17 Granite Farm Road, second on the left after the empty, boarded-up community center swimming facility, where neighborhood teenagers go to have sex and smoke dope), this little house with its blazing-red front door and "stovepipe" mailbox and the handsome attic dormers that remind you, as you climb the drive bordered by stone fences left from times when these hills were farm country, of ships' portholes. It will take an afternoon, two at most, to prep and paint the room behind the pretty windows. Painted, the room might be comfortably used as a small, sunlit study. Nevertheless, years have passed and the room remains vacant, destitute, unclean; its door is rarely opened. Downstairs, in the kitchen, beneath knives in a drawer, lies a manila envelope holding paint chips. Colors range from the cool whites and baby blues to lemon yellows and delicate salmons. The wife in question (Jane) insists any color is fine with her. Her (Jane's) husband (I) secretly suspect(s) this is not the case. He (I) think(s) she (Jane) wants a sturdy, masculine blue, because he (I) feel(s) that she (Jane) is secretly hoping for a baby (ours) to live in this room, and he (I) suspect(s), judging from other things known about her (the wife)--things better not explored in depth at this moment--that she (my beloved) would, without a doubt, favor a boy. I (a boy myself, once; currently a grown man who, like all men, experiences many conflicts, doubts, and insecurities in life) have (has) the usual, probably stereotypical fears and reservations about infant children and boys in particular--the added financial strain; the inevitable displacement of the man (me again! ) by another (my own baby boy, no less), leading to diminished sexual relations, growing jealousy, fits of general desperation, and eventual panic, leading (if I know myself at all) to flight (most likely to one of the chain motels along the highway leading west from town) as a form of retaliation, followed in due course by return, contrition, reconciliations, the conscience-stricken attempts at repair, and, finally, resumed couples counseling with Maria--as well as certain distinctly personal terrors that derive from my own history as a child coming of age in an environment (home of origin, with all its problems) that is currently being reviewed and, to large extent, relived--in my marriage, in my work with patients, in my own ongoing analysis with old Dr. Mandelbaum--an environment in which I (the gloomy, doubting boy I once was) obviously failed to reach the depressive position and subsequently develop a number of the crucial interpersonal insights and skills associated with mature behavior. This is not, as you can see, turning out to be a particularly simple example--the unpainted room as repository of unspoken thoughts, symbolic home and playroom to unborn generations that will supersede and finally bury us when, ancient, decrepit, and delirious, we die--especially when you consider the ways that inner conflicts manifest, in close relationships, as vulnerabilities. Jane reflexively accommodates my fears and desires, as I do hers; together, man and wife, we collude in a mutual conspiracy to shelter and protect one another from our own and each other's inevitable and final abandonment. The simple question "What color do you want to paint that upstairs room?" might, if we follow things to their logical conclusions, be stated: "How do I live, knowing that I will one day die and leave you? "

"I don't know! I don't know!" I shouted at my Pancake House table companions. My breath was short and my hands were chilled; sweat broke out on my arms and my back, and I felt overcome with guilt.

"Easy, Lieutenant," said Bernhardt. He sounded genuinely concerned and also a little frightened. He suggested, "Look, buddy, you can pick from both sides of that menu."

 
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Excerpted from The Verificationist by Donald Antrim. Copyright © 2000 by Donald Antrim. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.