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Jul/Aug 2002 fiction

Man in the Mirror

by John Palcewski


Art by Bob Dornborg

 

Joan's father was a Communist who lived and worked in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, during those exciting days of political idealism. He ran around with people from The New Republic and The New Masses. He knew John Reed, and a great number of other gifted intellectuals, writers, artists, and photographers.

She held the menu at arm's length. "I haven't yet yielded to the fact that I need glasses."

When the waiter arrived, Joan questioned him about what, exactly, were the ingredients in various items on the menu, and when she made her selection she asked that it be prepared in a way that was different from how it was usually prepared. The waiter said that would be no problem at all.

"Where were we?"

"Greenwich Village," I said.

"My father wrote poetry," she said.

But by profession he was a lawyer. As was his dear friend William Kunstler. Both were passionate political activists. Her mother was a musician. Which led to Joan's studying the flute when she was a girl. All her friends were Julliard students, and members of orchestras and chamber groups, but Joan always knew she and they were not alike. She had to force herself to do all that practice and study.

"I never had their passion and commitment to music," Joan said.

"That's sad," I said.

"Yes, it is. Did you enjoy being married?"

I looked at the rim of my water glass. "Yes, very much."

"Eve ended it?"

"Yes."

"And you're angry at her?"

"No. Overall it was a good experience. Have you ever been married?"

Joan looked amused. "I've had several intense relationships, but no. I never wanted to get married."

"Wanting something is having as much of it as you'll ever have."

She was silent for a few moments. Then she said, "Repeat that."

I did.

Joan returned to a summary of her education. At Columbia University the department chairman told her she wouldn't be invited to pursue a Ph.D. in history. He said, after reading her thesis, that she ought to abandon the field. It was poorly written, he said. Deficient in technique. Not the way history is written. She knew perfectly well how to write history that conformed to scholarly expectations, but at the time she didn't want to do it that way.

Perhaps she'd make a better psychotherapist than a historian, she thought, so she got her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Temple. Five years ago she opened a private practice at her home in Villanova. Many of her women patients from the Philadelphia Main Line had eating disorders. Prescription drug addiction, alcoholism. Most of the others were experiencing relationship problems. Identity problems. Stuff like that.

"So tell me, James," she said. "Who are you?"

"How do I answer that without mentioning what I do?"

She laughed. "A tough question, isn't it?"

I thought for a few seconds. "I take photographs," I said. "And I want to fall in love again."

The waiter arrived with her special order, and my medium rare steak.

I said, "Zen speaks of getting on the right path, pursuing the right livelihood."

"That sounds rather rigid, judgmental," she said.

Her words stopped me cold. Zen was not judgmental. I couldn't understand how she came to that conclusion.

"Who can ultimately know what correct is?" she continued. "By whose standards?"

"I guess I'm doing a bad job describing what I mean."

"Have you ever skied cross country?" she asked. "It's such a lovely thing to do. I love the snow and the silence and the woods."

"No, I haven't."

"You don't like it?"

"I've just never done it, that's all."

Then an awkward pause in the conversation.

"What are you thinking about?" she asked.

"A short story by Hemingway. 'Cross Country Snow.' A beautifully written thing."

"I don't like Hemingway much," she said.

She ordered a brandy, I said I'd have the same.

"A year ago," she said, "I got an intriguing telephone call that eventually led to one of the most profound experiences of my life."

A colleague of hers, Dr. Jerry Martin, a man she deeply respected and admired, was terribly excited as he outlined his proposal. She had to drop everything, immediately, and get a plane ticket. She just had to go.

Where? To a remote part of Northern Canada, to help Jerry facilitate a group in a "vision quest."

It was to be part of an outward bound type of program that would consist of intense discussion groups called experientials, and sweat lodges, fasting, going out in the wilderness for meditation, the appearance of visions, and so on.

The whole thing turned out to be, she said, beyond any of her expectations. After fasting for three days she began to see strange things and became acutely frightened. But Jerry offered her his sacred pipe. He said that it would keep her from harm. She accepted his pipe, and that acceptance is what moved her, put her into a kind of rapture she had never known before.

"It was the idea of surrendering conventional ideas and belief systems, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to yield, to trust in the pipe," she said.

"I had never trusted anything—or anyone—to that extent ever before in my entire life."

 

Joan and I became lovers around 11 on a Saturday night, in her bed, near a window covered by a white lace curtain. We grappled beneath a massive antique framed engraving of the city of Venice with its gondolas, duomos and campaniles.

As I dressed the following morning I looked at a steel-framed black and white photo of her father, taken only a few months before he died. His rimless glasses glinted as the camera caught him gesturing with both hands in an intense intellectual disquisition.

Over coffee I said, casually, that I assumed last night meant we were now in an exclusive romantic relationship. Joan gave me an icy glance. "That sounds too much like a pronouncement."

"Explain that, please."

"This sort of needy thing always disturbs me. It takes me out of the moment and into the future. And I'm not ready for that right now."

Joan said that before anything happens she needs to explore. Which is to say that while she does indeed want a best friend and lover—doesn't everyone?—she couldn't be sure at this time I was that person. She might meet a man named Tom, and HE might be the man actually destined to be her best friend and lover.

She explained further. "If I were to honor your intense need for commitment, I would quickly become overly critical of the relationship. I'd be testing it constantly to see if indeed I had chosen correctly. Don't you see?"

She took my silence as a yes.

"And I don't want to do that. I fully understand your fear and your neediness. I realize you don't want to be hurt like Eve hurt you. But the reality you must eventually embrace is that no guarantees can ever be made."

"I don't recall asking for a guarantee," I said.

She bit into her bagel covered with cream cheese and lox. "All right," she said as she chewed. "I guess by definition we are lovers. I'm not involved with any other man."

"And I'm not involved with another woman."

"I'd like to continue to explore. To learn more about who you are. How's that?"

"Fine."

 

On a long walk with Joan through Fairmont Park I talked about music and its autobiographical aspects, especially Beethoven's. His compositions have an uncanny power, and they achieve great emotional impact by various devices, such as repetition, contrast, dynamics. And metaphor.

Joan frowned. "Metaphor is a literary thing. It doesn't apply to music."

"But an accented dissonance and its immediate resolution is a vivid metaphor for a promise made and a promise kept," I said.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't relate to that."

Odd. She had studied music for many years. Presumably she understood it.

Well, she didn't want to talk about music. Rather she wanted to talk about Jerry. She rummaged in her bag, found a picture, gave it to me.

Dr. Jerry Martin, a white haired, white bearded man with his arm around her shoulder, up there in the Canadian wilderness, the charismatic and dynamic organizer of the Canadian vision quests, the man who gave her the pipe when she was afraid, the man who with that act made possible one of the most profound spiritual awakenings she'd ever experienced.

"These days," she said, "Jerry and I do professional consultation."

"For whom?" I asked.

"We have many different kinds of clients," she replied. "Corporations. Individuals. But mostly high school principals and administrators. We provide them teaching models, which they use to train their teachers in didactic methods based on Native American spiritual concepts. Some absolutely incredible and wonderful cutting edge stuff goes on when we get one of those things organized."

Their fees to construct these teaching models, she said, were steep. Fifteen hundred dollars an hour. Each. But various school districts and corporate clients were eager to pay this kind of money because they realized the benefits this cutting edge stuff will eventually bring.

"You just wouldn't believe the energy that fills the room when Jerry springs into action," she said.

The two of them go out on the road three, four times a month. In Pennsylvania, and also in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland. And before each consultation they must prepare carefully. Jerry summons her to his hotel room at 6 AM and he fixes her with his intense gaze. He likes to emphasize his points with sharp, explosive snaps of his fingers.

"Here are the paradigms, a, b, c, d." he says in his rapid-fire style. "So what is your framework.? What is your structure? What are your postulated mechanisms? Where are your specific implementation methodologies? What are their essential components, what are the elements?"

Snap, snap, snap, snap.

And Joan at six A.M. blinks and feels girlishly inadequate and incompetent, yet hangs in there and somehow produces exactly what Jerry wants. Which pleases Jerry.

"That sacred pipe Jerry gave you. What did it look like?"

Joan was silent for a few moments. "Well, I don't remember exactly how it looked."

"Well, what size was it?"

She held her hands apart, about 18 inches. "About that big."

"What was it made of?"

"I don't know. Maybe wood."

"Were feathers attached?"

"I don't think so."

"Was the stem painted? Or carved?"

She shook her head. "It sounds strange, not remembering the details, since it was such an important experience."

I told her I sought all those details because I wanted to create a gift for her. A photograph. I'd go to a museum somewhere and find a Native American sacred pipe, use a large format camera to take a picture, and then make a rich, elegant platinum print. Very arty, very detailed.

"Oh," she said.

The following weekend, I called her from my apartment. "Let's forget commitment," I said."But nevertheless I'd like to hear from you. As soon as you decide where and when we could next meet."

"That's putting too much responsibility on me."

"But I want to see you again."

"I certainly hope so," she said with what sounded like indignation.

"All right," I said. "When?"

"Why do you insist on these details?"

"Why are you so reluctant to provide them?"

"It's annoying, that's all."

"Ah, ha!" I said. "You are terrified of intimacy. You go to great lengths to avoid it."

"Don't you DARE try to pathologize this," she said loudly. I could feel her anger.

"Whoa!" I said. "I'm just making conversation."

 

On the phone late one night Joan and I talked about our ghosts. We both had plenty. Then she spoke of the importance of our creating a future that we're drawn to, rather than a past we're enslaved by. "We need to always do new things, things completely out of our experience," she said. "It's all about making changes. In that way we grow."

Later I left a message on her machine. "This is not Zen," I said, "but Emily Dickinson. Almost the same thing." I read aloud the short poem, "My River runs to thee." Nothing excessively romantic, just a sweet, slight little thing I always used to good effect.

Surprise! She didn't like it.

Why?

"The reason is complicated," she said.

"Tell me."

"My God! You are every bit as much a process junkie as I am!"

"Yep. So spill the beans."

"OK," she said. "When I was a child my father summoned me to his library and read me a poem he had just composed. God, I felt terribly pressured. I knew I had to appear knowledgeable about metaphor, simile, rhyme scheme, structure, allusion, symbol, metaphysical implication, emotional content, meter, rhythm, musicality. Because that's precisely what he always expected of me. And so, yes, I developed a high degree of skill in this area. After a hell of a lot of effort I managed to appear to possess an interest that I—amazing to say—simply did not have."

"That's sad."

"Isn't it? When my father presented his poetry, I did what I was supposed to do. But what I actually felt was, Jesus Christ dad! Why don't you ever want to talk with me about ice skating or movies or something, you know? I want to be a ten-year-old little girl and talk to my daddy, I don't want to have to come up with convoluted literary exegesis to CONNECT with you!" She paused.

"Yet at the same time I adored that my father was a poet, I loved that side of him..."

She said all these emotionally charged thoughts came after she picked up my Emily Dickinson message in the middle of a day of a million things, and what immediately sprang to her mind was: My God, this man is exactly like my father!

"So that's why I'm not sure I want poetry recited to me," she said. "I prefer to hear you tell me that you went running through the park, or had an interesting photo shoot, things like that."

This discombobulated me. Obviously I had erred in a rather big way, and I felt the beginning of a major cold sweat. Here we go again.

"So, should I continue the romantic pursuit, or desist?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I'm just giving you information about me. Not to tell what you should or shouldn't do."

"Joan, tell me. What do you want?"

A long silence.

"I've made a promise to myself to keep sharing information with you, putting it out, rather than going silent and not sharing it. Going silent means crawling into my hole, and I don't want to do that anymore."

"Then don't."

"You are not my father," she said.

 

At Bravo Bistro Joan looked radiant. She wore the same outfit as she did when we first met. Brown sweater, dark skirt, plaid shawl.

"I hope I fall madly in love with you," she said, fork poised, "and that I see more of you than I do now. But then there are no guarantees, correct?"

"Yes," I said. "But your mentioning it so often has a chilling effect."

"Oh, for God's sake."

"Listen, if I were to keep telling you there are no guarantees, it would sound to you very much like ambivalence."

"Please. Let's just enjoy the evening, all right?"

"All right."

"I wanted to tell you something important, James. In two weeks I'm going out of town, and I'm so excited..."

She was heading for San Francisco. To a wonderful psychological and phrenological and mystical two-week-long get-together that will include saunas, massages, long walks in the woods, and lots of juices and grains. For clinical professionals only. Various workshops, study groups, peer mentoring.

"It will be absolutely fabulous," she said.

"I presume your dear Dr. Jerry will be there."

"Yes. Why?"

"Just curious."

 

We prepared a dinner of bagels, cheese and chicken soup. I put a log in the fireplace, she lit some candles, and we sat on the living room couch and ate from the coffee table. On the stereo was Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations. Afterward Joan sat on the floor between my legs and I gave her a leisurely neck and back massage. She came up and we kissed sweetly for a long, long time. Joan moved her hand down to my lap.

She stopped. "Why aren't you responding?" she asked.

The question annoyed me. "You said earlier this evening that you had a bad cold. I just assumed that you didn't want to get physical."

"You're inhibited."

"I don't think that's the word."

"You're still resonating from your experience with Eve."

"Please. Don't tell me how I feel."

"Your actions—or actually a lack of them—tell me how you feel. I'm not blind."

"For Christ's sake, drop it. All right?"

 

A few days later I was seized by an attack of... what? A very peculiar sensation of not liking Joan very much. I found myself much less interested in her stories, or her dreams. Like the one she just told me about, in which she said she had been accused of killing a Dachshund. A most upsetting dream, she said.

"Let me guess," I said. "The dog is a phallic symbol."

"How?"

"Come on. It resembles a sausage. And your killing it is a form of castration."

"So you think I'm a castrating bitch?"

"No, you dreamed that you were accused of being a castrating bitch. The dream is yours, not mine."

She was silent for a while. Then she said, "I'm not in love with you."

"I'm not in love with you, either," I replied.

Pause.

"My, my," I said. "We're moving right along here, aren't we?"

"Yes, indeed, we are."

"You know, Joan, this relationship is different from all the others I've had. When I met Eve I immediately fell in love, and had to have her. I devoted all my thoughts and energies to get her. That's not going on now. With us."

"No?"

"Don't you hear me keep saying I'm not comfortable with what's happening? That we're not on an ascending curve of intimacy, but rather on a wave form that cycles way up and way down, over and over again? The fact is, dear, each time we meet we have to get reacquainted."

She gave me one of her detached clinical gazes, complete with the steepled fingers. "This is about my going to San Francisco, isn't it."

"You mean I shouldn't worry about your spending two weeks in intimate contact with a bunch of other spiritual seekers, most especially your precious Dr. Jerry?"

"No, you shouldn't."

I went to the refrigerator, popped open a beer. "Actually I was thinking while you're away I might go to Ireland. To Dublin. Yes. That would be an excellent thing for me to do, rather than sitting in my apartment, brooding." She chewed on that for a while. Then she said, "That's a lot of money to spend."

"It's my money."

"But maybe a better investment would be to be for you to see a therapist. To help you deal with all these jealous feelings."

I turned, gave her a hard stare. Three beats. I counted them off. "I don't think so," I said.

 

Joan called once from San Francisco. She said with excitement that she was "still up in the air." Toward the end of those intense sessions of analysis and self-exploration she'd been opened up, like an archeological excavation. Now, she said, she'll need plenty of time to examine what's just been unearthed. All sorts of dusty, ancient things.

"My God," she said. "It's all just utterly incredible."

"We can talk later," I said, "When you've sorted everything out. Meanwhile, I would be happy to pick you up at the airport."

"I might take you up on it," she said. "In any event, I'll call one way or another once the dust settles."

 

A week later Joan called to say she didn't want me to pick her up at the airport after all, because she'd made other plans. She thought she'd set aside a couple of days alone to get organized. In her absence things had piled up. Her patients needed rescheduling. There was mail to open. Bills to pay. So much was going on. How about if we meet for dinner next week at Bravo Bistro? I said fine.

She was at the bar. It was early and the place was not crowded. I said hello. She turned, smiled, and rose. I embraced her. I sat on the stool next to her and ordered a scotch.

"So tell me about San Francisco," I said.

She gathered up some slivers of ice from her water glass and dropped them into her martini. "It was quite interesting," she said.

"In what way was it interesting?"

Again, a long pause before she spoke.

"It's hard to say what makes something interesting. You know?" She did not look at me.

I lowered my eyes, turned my glass of scotch on its wet napkin. The place seemed excessively warm. A pile of salted cashews were on a silver dish, but I didn't take any.

"For God's sake, what's bothering you now?" she said.

I looked at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar, above a row of bottles with shiny chrome spouts. A thin man in a black turtleneck sweater and a gray tweed jacket. I saw in the man's eyes an odd mixture of sadness and fear. His sadness was understandable and appropriate, because it was over with that woman and he now had to tell her goodbye.

But why the fear? What was he afraid of?

 

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