“Aaron wants you to know that he misses you and can’t live without you,” Dr. Winters said, looking right in my eyes and smiling.
I turned to Aaron, my cute, curly-haired, six-foot-four ex-boyfriend, whom I’d broken up with six weeks before. His face was expressionless. It felt awkward to be sitting so close to him on the couch without touching. For three years I’d begged him to accompany me to my therapist, Dr. Goode. He refused, insisting that emotional insight would destroy his career as a TV comedy writer.
“He’s very happy you could make it here today,” Dr. Winters continued.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Cyrano de Bergerac?”
The scene was even more bizarre because, as I’d told Aaron, our exhausting, turbulent, three-year bicoastal affair was seriously over. He agreed, but begged me to try one couples’ session with his new psychoanalyst, just for closure. I agreed, just for closure, but made it very clear that I’d already fallen, head over spiky black high heels, for another man.
“Aaron said you were dating someone new,” Dr. Winters said.
I nodded, feeling claustrophobic. In the past I had only bared my soul to female shrinks. The male head doctors I’d met were old Jewish guys in gray tweeds who smoked pipes; I could never talk about oral sex with anybody who resembled my grandfather. I admit I was intrigued when Aaron warned me, just before we’d walked in, that Dr. Winters was young, unconventional, and wildly provocative. With an office two blocks away from my West Village one-bedroom, I imagined angry art therapy, or complicated, cryptic Jungian dream analysis. I wasn’t expecting a short-haired, clean-cut, smiley WASP, let alone one who looked like the actor Pierce Brosnan. I pondered how Aaron, the least emotionally adventurous man I’d ever met, had stumbled onto the James Bond of psychotherapy.
“So, when are you getting rid of the other guy?” asked Winters, still smiling.
“The other guy, Joshua, is deeply in love with me,” I said. “What a pleasure to be with a man who has room for a woman in his life.”
“You can’t be serious,” Winters said.
“I’m always serious,” said I.
No wonder Aaron called him young. He looked forty-five; they were probably the same age. Though he was seated, Winters appeared shorter, about six feet tall. He had a slighter build than Aaron, who was the nerdy Jewish bear type I usually went for. Aaron and I were dressed the same, in black jeans, sweaters, and leather jackets, rebels without a cause. Dr. Winters dressed like an adult: navy wool slacks, white shirt, classy red and blue tie, beige blazer. Was it cashmere? His outfit was calculated, colorless enough to project anything onto. He could have been a lawyer, book editor, international spy.
“Why can’t I be serious about Joshua?”
“Because you’re so happy to be sitting here next to Aaron,” Dr. Winters said. He was trying to brainwash me.
“I’m just here out of morbid fascination,” I said, looking around his small, dusty office. There was only room enough for the couch, leather chair, French country desk, and Oriental rug. Too many miniature embroidered pillows for a middle-aged straight guy. One sensed Dr. Winters was married with kids, a model citizen. But I imagined a grisly past filled with illicit sex and rage and turmoil.
“Just morbid fascination?” He looked hurt. “Aaron makes it sound like love.”
Who did he think he was sweet-talking—a dumb thirteen-year-old girl? “Look, buddy,” I said, “your patient can’t even commit to living in sin.”
“What kind of inanity has he been feeding you?” Dr. Winters switched to a warm conspiratorial tone, as if he were now my closest girlfriend, completely on my side. “What did he tell you?”
“After three years, he refused to see me on weekdays. He’d only go out on weekends. So I said, ‘Fine, let’s go in.’ Then Spider-Man here decides we can’t have dinner—or sex— during the week. Which is why I found an easier guy who’s not strangling his own dick with this boring fear of intimacy shit.”
Winters looked at Aaron and said, “She does have a point.”
Aaron, who hadn’t yet said a word, sat up tall and finally said: “I like Batman better.”
“Because Batman is upper class,” I told Winters. “And lives in a cave with a cool black sports car.”
“No,” Aaron said. “Because Batman is the only one without superpowers.”
The heterosexual men I’d known in the Midwest were sports freaks. Aaron’s pseudointellectual crowd of East Coast TV comedy writers, whom he’d first met working at the National Lampoon, got off on deconstructing the myths of superheroes.
“The other heroes all have special powers?” Winters seemed fascinated.
Aaron nodded, lowering his voice, as if he were sharing state secrets. “Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. Green Lantern got his power ring from an alien. The Flash from a lab accident.”
“Superman left Krypton and landed in a yellow sun system,” said Winters, getting into the act.
“But Batman was just an ordinary guy who studied hard,” Aaron said. “He gave himself power.”
“To avenge his parents’ murder by killing all bad guys in the world,” I threw in.
“You’re a true Freudian?” Winters asked me.
“Can you see why I fell for a shrink?” I asked him.
“I don’t think she should be going out with a shrink,” added Aaron.
“Your ex-fiancée, Lori, was a shrink,” I argued. “You went out with her for ten years.” Underneath his black sweater, I could see he’d worn the light-green Gap T-shirt I’d given him last Hanukkah. He knew I thought he looked good in light green.
“Lori wasn’t a shrink when I met her,” he argued back.
“I know. You drove her to it.”
“She was the one who recommended Dr. Winters,” Aaron let slip.
“Lori knows him?” This fifty minutes was getting stranger by the second.
“He’s her thesis adviser in the psychology program at Columbia,” Aaron said.
“Lori’s your protégée?” I asked Winters, who shrugged. “You’re bringing your latest ex-girlfriend to see the mentor of your former fiancée?” I asked Aaron, who shrugged too.
It was so idiotic, it had to be true. Aaron was a procrastinating hermit incapable of throwing away any book, article, or piece of clothing, but he never lied. I needed a cigarette. Did Dr. Winters let patients smoke during sessions? At first Dr. Goode had let me smoke but then she’d banned it, afraid that I was inhaling my hurt instead of expressing it, getting further away.
“What can we do to get you back?” Dr. Winters asked, his smile mischievous and engaging.
“Nothing.” He seemed annoyingly pleased with himself, having too much fun juggling other people’s lives and hearts and psyches.
“What if he stayed over weekends, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and he proposed?” Dr. Winters threw out.
“Impossible.” I shook my head. I was almost over the breakup. Trusting either of them was completely out of the question. “Aaron made it clear that he doesn’t want to live together, get married, or have children. Which is why we’re broken up.”
Dr. Winters looked at him and said, “She thinks you can’t do it.”
“I can do it,” said Aaron. “Just not yet.”
“He’s forty-five and never been married,” I said. “What’s he waiting for—Social Security?”
“He could do it faster if you dumped whatshisname,” Dr. Winters reprimanded.
“His name is Joshua, and he’s a great guy.” I left out that Joshua was long-distance, bipolar, too skinny, and in the middle of an acrimonious divorce and custody battle for his two kids. “Joshua’s not afraid of marriage,” I taunted. “He got married when he was twenty-two.”
“You’re going out with a MARRIED shrink?” asked Aaron.
“He’s getting divorced, but he’s not afraid to remarry,” I shared. “He already brought it up.”
“Joshua mentions marriage after a few weeks and you’re not running in the other direction?” Dr. Winters asked me.
“Is taking ten years to propose our control group?” I asked him.
I was a thirty-five-year-old writer, freelancing for the best publications in the country, for God sakes, not to mention a popular journalism teacher. I was not going to sit home, waiting for a man to call. Joshua called twice a day, like clockwork. I could get my work done. Who needed drama and headaches? I was tired. What time was it? I’d forgotten my watch, the silver one Aaron gave me in L.A. for my last birthday. I’d twisted the gift into hopeful metaphors: He was putting me on his time frame. He was giving me eternity. It wasn’t too late. I was mad at myself for misreading everything.
Until Aaron turned to me and said, “Ten years is too long.”
He had curly lopsided salt-and-pepper hair I missed running my fingers through. I inched closer, accidentally brushed my arm against his big thigh. Joshua was shorter and smaller. I didn’t want to pledge my life to a man who had thinner thighs than I did. He was still married, anyway; his divorce could take years. Did Aaron really make it sound like love?
“She is finished waiting and wants to know when,” Dr. Winters said, opening his date book and taking a pen from his pocket. “Today’s October sixth. Can we say by Halloween?”
“How about November twenty-second?” Aaron threw out, the negotiation now between the two of them.
“Why the twenty-second?” Winters asked.
“The day Kennedy was shot,” I explained.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lighting Up by Susan Shapiro. Copyright © 2004 by Susan Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.