Life in the Mind

by Moshe Dann (March 2014)

The dark mahogany armchair in the waiting room reminds me of her soft arms. Rubbing the wood’s deep grain, I wonder if magically she would appear. But she is gone, and I am here, not there, and this is only a chair with sturdy legs and smooth unyielding back.

Prof Howard Weiss, PhD, clinical psychologist, took a thin file from a cabinet near his desk and waited for Robert, his next client. He opened it, reading his notes and wondered whether there was anything he could say that would be helpful. He’s stuck… I’m stuck.  

The delicate fragrance of his last patient, Betsy, a business executive in her late 30’s lingered in the room, reminding him of the still-single sadness in her eyes, her elegant pants suit and practical, delicate off-white shoes. She had left early, an appointment downtown.

Opening the window, he listened to the grinding of a mechanical street sweeper and an argument between a policeman and a driver who had just received a ticket for parking on the wrong side of the street. An early September Indian summer day, Howard thought, as whirling metal brushes scraped the street, leaving the asphalt black and gleaming. Leaves were beginning to fall from slender trees shimmering in the morning sun, traffic moved slowly along Eighth Avenue and beneath, as if subconsciously, the distant rumble of the subway.

Seven minutes to nine; he wondered if Robert would be late, or show up at all. The door of his office ajar, he could see across the waiting room the sign of his colleague, Agnes McKinney, PhD. Most of her patients were scheduled in the late afternoon and evening when he was teaching, or at home upstairs, writing and helping Renata, his new wife; a former student, she filled the emptiness in his life after his divorce. Blonde, blue-eyed, lithe and leggy, she wasn’t a good cook, he thought, but at least she didn’t nag; he could not bear nagging. And, from the beginning she was good in bed, her openness making up for his ex-wife’s stinginess. The Ex, he thought, like Lot’s wife; dark brooding eyes that glared when she was angry. Renata’s gentle eyes were a comfort.

Almost nine, and Robert had not shown up. Closing the window, he turned on the air conditioner and opened Robert’s file again, looking over notes for some theme that would guide him, clues that would explain his behavior, subtle hints that would reveal the sources of confusion and desperation that Robert carried with him like a door-to-door salesman with a suitcase filled with things that no one wanted. Howard read:

Continues to move from one relationship to another, seducing and being seduced, exploiting and perhaps being exploited as well, unable to commit because he does not trust them, or himself. Drowning in self-absorption, seeks life-savers in women who cannot meet his expectations, masking confusion with sexuality, searching for “authenticity,” some Truth about himself in the embrace of another. Cannot bond because he undermines his fragile identity; does not know what he wants or where he is going, and loads this into a weapon to attack others and himself.

Nine, and Robert had not arrived. Each patient, Howard thought, a puzzle that challenged him to fit together, or not. He had no illusions, however, relying on the process of self-discovery as the only pathway to freedom. Robert’s angst-filled stories floated up from the page like soap bubbles, defying the gravity of examination, bursting at the touch of reality.

Child-like demands to be loved, unresolved, cannot be fulfilled because no matter how much he is given, it is not enough, never enough. That’s the rules. A no-win situation. Self-sabotage is the ultimate weapon. Wants to be rescued but lives abandonment. Desperate search for self and acceptance. Longing for (dec’d) father’s approval, he lives in the shadow of his absent embrace.  

Howard wondered what Renata was doing. He imagined her making coffee on their new Italian coffee-maker. He had bought coffee and a cheese Danish on his way to the office, but he wanted another, and would have to wait until Robert left, if he arrived at all. But more than that, he wanted Renata. She would be on her way to work at a marketing firm in midtown, he thought, no time for his sudden passion. He looked at the calendar, the day marked with a smiling face, their fourth anniversary.    

Nine-0- three, Howard looked at his notes.

Father’s expectations dominant – and unmet. Struggles to establish independence, separate identity. Raised in traditional but not observant Jewish home, rebels against authority but deeply craves structure, wants to be part of the wider world, but clings to alienation. Relationships with women are confusing—liberating but demanding, minefields waiting to explode. Wants to love and be loved, but is disabled in relationships because ultimately they are traps that expose his self-doubt.

Howard thought about his late father, a medical doctor with a high-end private practice on Long Island. His mother still lived in the house where he was raised, still active in local community affairs, and, like his father, still critical of his life-style and his choice of spouses. Devoted to their work, his parents often left him and his sister to fend for themselves. Howard did well in school, destined for a career in medicine, like his father, but he decided on psychotherapy, to his father’s disdain. “At least psychiatry,” his father had begged; Howard had refused.

Sons share a certain destiny with fathers, Howard thought, an inevitable clash between living one’s own life and competing with an authority figure whose successes and failures become part of one’s self-image, a primal, archetypical conflict that remains unresolved.   

Why was Robert late? Howard looked at the watch Renata had given him for his 53rd birthday; it replaced the one his Ex had given him when they married.  

Howard wondered if Renata would accompany him to a lecture he was invited to give in Chicago on ”The excuses of therapy.” He would provoke his audience; how troubled people use therapy as a way of avoiding real conflicts. A paradox: how does one know something about another? Filled with answers, we are bereft of questions. People spill out their pain and confusions and they expect some insights, directions, rewards for listening. They want to be healed, or maybe only to be understood and to be loved. But, he admitted, they are living out stories which are deeper and more hidden. His colleagues would stare jealously at the beautiful young woman on his arm, his presence enhanced by Renata’s charm and subtle smile, the audacity of it all, a world of cocktails and silk ties, bouquets of ideas, a milky way of words. With so much to discover, he would conclude dramatically, why are we afraid of falling off the edge of the world? 

They expect me to know, but I hear only fragments of what’s really happening. Truth is partial. We are gatekeepers of illusions. After eight months, Howard had begun to question whether he could overcome Robert’s resistance, his Cobra-like mistrust poised, ready to strike.

Howard looked at his shoes. As a child, he was expected to shine his shoes before going to school. It became a habit that set him apart, a sign that he was meant to achieve, a mark of distinction. Still in grad school, he had married a woman of appropriate social standing and parental approval, an early romance that withered after two children, reality and the feminist movement. He remembered her scowls and thorny silences that grew between them, a sense of unalterable destiny. Renata, he thought, redeemed him from bitterness and disappointment, a passion that rescued him from regret. Now grown and independent, his children would survive as best they could, he thought, trying to make sense of themselves, searching for their own paths in a bewildering world.

Nine-0-five and Robert was absent. Why is he so indecisive? Why is he unhappy, and, can I change that? Howard often thought about these questions, which applied to all of his patients, tangled in webs of uncertainties and impending failures, looking for advice and answers. Would it be honest, he thought, to tell them that he had none? But Robert ‘s struggle resonated deep in Howard’s own psyche, and the more Howard tried to distance himself, the more he felt drawn into Robert’s loneliness.

To live without a sense of direction is chaotic, Howard thought. One can feel lost, alone, enslaved, and survive, however, if one has faith in oneself. Hope is the beginning of salvation, but it requires the ability to believe that in the end there is meaning and purpose. Although Robert’s floundering and self-doubt seemed crippling, perhaps that was the traction he needed to move.

Centuries ago, Howard thought, people went to rabbis and priests for solace. His great grandfather, he was told, had been a rabbi in Poland, or Russia, but, his father didn’t know the town from which they came, or their original name, or what had happened to them and their families, histories lost, buried in unknown graves along with their religion. And, did it matter? Here and now, Howard gazed at the open door.

Howard felt impatient and frustrated. Have I missed something? What is he looking for? Direction? Stability? Love? And why can’t he find it? Why isn’t he satisfied with what he has? What brings waves of angst that sweep him out into a sea of depression? Howard gazed at his nameplate on the half-opened door. I’ve put in my timeI’ve paid my dues. I’m protected.

Graduate of an Ivy League university and professionally respected, Howard’s future seemed assured. Although his first marriage had failed, his second more than made up for that; he was on speaking terms with his Ex and maintained good relationships with his children. Things seemed to work; a world in order amidst disorder.

Nine-ten and Robert still hadn’t arrived. Manipulative testing? Victim of mugger, or worse, and in a hospital?Missed appointments happen. In time, in the mind. There are excuses.  

He remembered the way his Ex had suggested ending their marriage, the pale light of furious impatience in her eyes that seemed to glow with greater intensity as he tried to defend himself, explaining with reasons and excuses while her anger burned for freedom. “This isn’t working anymore,” she had announced, hair pulled back in a pony tail, her face taut and deterrmined. “I have to be on my own; I need space; we aren’t aligned.” Her insistence was not unexpected. She had backed down before, but this time she carried cape and sword with a renewed sense of mastery. Howard remembered his sudden panic, aware that he was not only helpless, but that she was probably right. Whatever the reasons, she had made her decision and there was nothing he could do, his sandcastle disintegrating amidst the steady, soft violence of waves. Things happen. He ran for cover, tried to escape, hid in his study, a shelter against the storm. Was there someone else? A mid-forties life crisis? Was it hormones and lack of attention to everyday details that fuel passions and presumptions, the absence of wonder and surprise? Could things have been different? Would it have mattered when the tsunami hits and things whirl out of control? Had he given up too quickly, and secretly, did he want it as well?

No blame. Life goes on. Fifteen minutes after nine. Choices must be made and boundaries tested. Was Robert trying to say that he wanted to leave? Howard had been in London giving a paper “On therapeutic intervention” when his mother called him with the news that his father had died suddenly, a heart attack. No chance to say goodbye. The way things happen. After his divorce, he searched for a new relationship to heal. Caught in an undertow of emptiness, he had tumbled into a black hole of regret and guilt. Until Renata, seductive, exciting and easy to be with. Renata. Life.

“Howard,” the dean had said thumping his back at a faculty reception, “you’re old enough to be her father.” He smiled uncomfortably as Renata went to refill their wine glasses. “It works,” he parried as Renata returned. “We’re engaged,” he said, reaching for her waist and his glass, as she fit neatly at his side.

“Good for you,” the dean winked and walked away.

“What did you say?” Renata asked.

“Well, what do you think about the idea?” Howard mumbled, steadying himself.  “It was a spontaneous,” he gulped wine.  

“I’ll think about it,” she clinked glasses. “Mazel tov! Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?”  

Nine-twenty. Howard closed Robert’s file and stepped to the window. Someone was playing “Moonlight Sonata,” octaves in tension searching for balance. Suddenly he thought he saw Renata across the street, her blue-print dress in the wind. Where was she going? Who was she going to meet? Another lover? Impulsively, Howard rushed out as she turned the corner, but when he looked for her, she was gone. He peered into the window of the coffee shop, his face reflected in the glass, afraid that she had seen him sweating with mistrust.

The blue print dress suddenly whirled across the street. Running ahead, he turned around, relieved that it wasn’t Renata. When he returned to his office the door was open. Someone was standing at his desk.

“Robert, what are you doing here?”

“Ah, sorry I was late. The door was open.C He held his file.

“That’s mine. It’s private.” Howard reached for the file. Robert stepped back.

“Your comments,” Robert began, “interesting …” he said, handing the file to Howard.

Howard grabbed it. “You have no right … you shouldn’t have …

“Very interesting,” Robert repeated as they faced each other.

Howard suddenly felt exposed, embarrassed and vulnerable, angry that Robert had invaded his privacy. He tried to stay calm and put the file into a drawer. “Do you want to talk about this?”

“Not really,” Robert said boldly, his voice steady. “I need to think about it.”

“Well, it’s your hour,” Howard countered with authority, noticing Robert’s frayed jeans and grungy sandals.

“It was; now it’s ours. You have no idea who I am. I sensed that and now I know.”

Howard stared at him in awkward silence. “Well, what did you expect?” He spoke cautiously. “My thoughts, opinions weren’t meant for anyone else, only an attempt to understand…”

Robert smiled ironically. Howard continued: “It’s what I do. You didn’t like what I wrote, but I wanted to be helpful. I’m not a wizard, or prophet. You end up exactly where you want to be: alone. It’s safe there and you know it well. You live in the fury of the moment. It’s not a bad place to be, just a bit dangerous. So, enjoy it.”

“Thanks for your ‘insights,’ but so what?”

Howard was surprised. “What do you mean?”

“You got the stories; you put pieces of the puzzle together; it fits. Wow. Congratulations.” Robert gripped the back of a chair. “You never got behind the words; you got to my head, but not my soul.”

“So I’m supposed to get into your ‘soul,’ whatever that is? I deal with what you put on the table, not what you hide underneath. I’m not a Jungian.”

“But, I have a Jewish soul.”

“Well, good for you. You didn’t bring that up. How am I supposed to figure out what it means?” 

“You never asked to see what I what I wrote, my poems, stories …. ”

“You could have brought them; you could have read them to me …

“You never asked …”  

“You never …” Suddenly Howard stopped. It seemed like a tennis match; whose ball in which court? Robert had confronted him with a dilemma: how do we know what is in someone else’s heart? Howard was aware that he was entering an arena that might entangle him. He tried to balance between curiosity and keeping distance, tempting engagement.

“I met a rabbi who explained this to me …” Robert held a booklet with a question mark on the cover. “I really didn’t know; my father never talked about such things.” 

“Well, I don’t either, and your father‘s dead.” Howard spoke sharply. “I deal with the ‘here-and-now.’ I don’t believe in mumbo-jumbo. If you want a ‘soul-doctor,’ go to a rabbi.”  

Robert’s silence hung in the room, suspended like dust that rose through the morning light. Howard felt challenged, dragged reluctantly into Robert’s encounter with a rabbi.

“What else did this rabbi say?”

“He said that everyone has a soul. It’s our connection to God, to our true self.”

“Everyone …?”

“Yes,” Robert interrupted, “but it’s hidden, unseen, so that we can function as free and independent human beings, acting with free will and connected to our spiritual essence. It’s what makes us different from other animals. It’s what makes us human.

“And God, if there is one …?”

“Created the universe and all life in order to give man an environment and a purpose.”

Delusional? Howard tried to fit this into a clinical diagnosis. Victim of a cult? The beginning of a breakdown? Did Robert see the rabbi as a father figure? How could this new information be used? God, soul, religion were irrelevant.  

But Howard was curious. “Tell me more about your rabbi,” he asked warily.

“He’s not ‘my rabbi;’ I met him by accident as I was running in the park. He offered me water and we talked. He gave me a book to read.”

Howard looked at his watch. Nine-fifty. “To be continued?” he offered. The clock on the wall echoed in the doorway that remained open when Robert left, like an unanswered question.

Howard looked around. His office was in order; the empty mahogany chair in the waiting room. Anticipation, like a spike. But, who am I? Would Robert ever show up?

Sounds of sirens filled the dense air as Howard stepped outside. People were running in the street. A radio carried the news. He listened incredulously; an attack on the WTC. He locked his office and began walking towards billowing smoke in the distance, huge grey clouds of ash drifting in the morning sunlight. Stunned people poured out of subway stations, bewildered and confused. Grit on the street, papers scattering in the wind. He called Renata, but there was no answer. Walking around a police barricade, crowds surged towards him covered with a silvery whiteness that made them seem like Halloween ghosts, desperate faces like those he had seen in pictures of Vietnamese after a bombing raid. As he got closer, he saw figures in the distance, people jumping from buildings engulfed in flames. An off-white shoe in the gutter. Feeling dizzy, he stood for a moment, trying to comprehend and then turned and followed the crowd away from disaster, back to his street.

A TV in the coffee shop carried news of the attack. Howard listened and then walked slowly past his office.  Schwartz was sitting on the stoop in front of his apartment down the street. A survivor of death camps, Howard had only seen him briefly, on rare occasions when the old man ventured out, guarded by his younger sister, or someone from the family. Now Howard felt a need to talk with him.

“Mr Schwartz,” Howard began. The old man turned to look at him, puzzled, as if distracted. “How are you?” Schwartz nodded. “You heard?” Schwartz didn’t move. Howard felt a sudden, almost desperate need to reach out to him. Reports of the attack blared from a radio in the window, death instead of Beethoven’s sonata. Howard wanted to touch the numbers engraved on Schwartz’s thin arm. He imagined being with Schwartz in Auschwitz. Howard stared, unable to move as Schwartz opened his mouth: no teeth, half a tongue.  

Howard looked at his arm, his legs weakened by standing, his office door still slightly open, waiting for someone to enter, trying to center.

The street filled with police and soldiers, Jews dragged out of their homes, huddled against the mobs. Neighbors watch behind curtains. Women raped in alleyways and stairwells. Anyone trying to escape is beaten; some are shot. The street is slippery with blood. Where to hide? Sneak out of a window, maybe make it to a sewer, a cellar, a tool shed. Thousands herded to plazas and parks, waiting for transport to concentration camps; some try to get to a nearby forest, but roads are dangerous. At night, perhaps there will be a chance.

But we are civilized, educated. We love Beethoven and Brahms. Our cities are filled with churches, our libraries with books. We have laws. Loudspeakers are calling names.

Howard! Howard Weiss! They have lists and are searching — sooner or later they will find me. I am a doctor. I have responsibilities. My patients need me. Black-uniformed policemen push into crowds. Children are crying. I can’t help them. 

Howard! Renata’s voice; she is my wife. She will protect me. Pushed into the crowd I try to explain. No one is listening. The police begin to beat people. They approach me, calling my name, but I can’t answer.    

I do not understand. I do not.

Slipping my hands along the dark wooden arm of my chair, I hear a familiar sound of steps and the door opens.   

Robert arrives on time. “Let’s get to work,” he says. I nod; he should know.



The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.   


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