The Blind Pig
The four of us were gathered in Bear’s office at the Institute, an ivied brick tenement on the Lower East Side. Since real chairs were out of style, we all sat on large, silver yoga balls. Bear was wearing a three-piece tweed suit and standing in a patch of gauzy sunlight near the window. I wondered if he was simply feeling wintery—it was early November—or else trying to look more like Uncle Ziggy, his nickname for Freud.
“Your assignment today is to Spend Time Being Blind,” he announced.
“Dear God,” Miles said. “Why?”
“You need to feel your way around in the dark,” he said. “You need to challenge the way you interact with the world.”
“But I’m uncomfortable in the dark,” Miles said.
“I’m glad you’ve owned that fear, Miles,” Bear said slowly. “The goal now is to get some real insight into the stories behind it.”
Miles was sitting very still. Anyone could see he wasn’t meant to sit on anything round and rubber—he was six-four, two-seventy. It took him a full minute to lower himself onto the ball, and then he had to hold onto something stationary the whole time. Just then he was gripping the windowsill.
“How long do we have to be blind?” Susan asked.
Bear scratched his beard. “Two hours.”
Despite the chill in the air, Susan was wearing a tight, white tank-top, the better to show off her tan cleavage. She looked completely at ease sitting on the ball and was bouncing up and down on it. Last night she told me she’d been a call girl in L.A. in the 70s, which was when I imagined she’d gotten her boobs done. Her boobs had made a cameo appearance in The Kentucky Fried Movie. “You’re too young to remember it,” she’d said, “but it was a pretty big deal at the time.”
“What’re you going to do—blindfold us?” she asked.
Bear examined his fingernails. “No,” he said. “It’ll be the real deal.”
“He’s going to mace you,” I told them.
“Sarcasm,” Bear said calmly. “Okay.”
“Okay what?” I said.
He looked me in the eye. “I welcome and accept every part of you, Lucy.”
“I’m freaked out,” Miles said.
“Your vulnerability is vital to the process,” Bear said. “That’s what it’s all about, in fact.”
“Totally,” Susan said. “It’s a side of you we need to see more of, Miles, and hold space for, and love.”
Barf, I thought. Since this was technically official business, I was supposed to be taking notes, but I’d just put the finishing touches on a sketch of Miles’ face instead. I liked his small mouth. I don’t know how he fit solid food in there. I watched him shift uncomfortably on the ball.
“That ball won’t pop,” I said. “It’s been weight tested up to 600 pounds.”
“Have you been staring at me?” he asked. “Does this scarf look bad?”
“It looks unchangeably gay,” I said and closed my notebook.
“Lucy,” Bear snapped. “Your hostility is misdirected.”
“It’s called honesty,” I said. “Miles can handle it.”
“I welcome and accept every part of you, Lucy,” he said in a monotone.
Bear claimed I had a habit of projecting my own shit onto the innocent, especially when I was feeling threatened. His standard advice was to detach from my emotions and examine my thoughts, which I admit were currently Exaggerated, All-or-Nothing, and Blaming.
“You and I need to conference later, Lucy,” Bear said then.
“What about you?” Miles asked Bear. “Will you be blind?”
“Yes,” Bear said. “But I’m just going to sit there. I won’t interfere. Lucy will be there, too.”
Bear nodded. “You’ll be blind, too,” he said, “and taking notes.”
“How?” I asked.
He tapped his temple with his finger. “Up here,” he whispered.
I imagined driving a nail into his temple, saw the blood trickle down and then disappear into his ear, and then shamed myself for having the thought.
“What about the rest of the Group?” Susan asked Bear. “Are they going to be blind?”
“No,” Bear said. “But they’ll be having equally fascinating experiences.”
“Are we going to be deaf tomorrow, by any chance?” Susan asked.
“No,” Bear sighed. He punched a few buttons on his phone, then pressed it to his ear and left the room. I imagined he was making plans with a potential workshop attendee. A woman, probably. They were always women with stupid names like Mimi or Gwen.
“I think I would actually enjoy being deaf for a day,” Susan mused. “I’m surrounded by brick walls and yet I can still hear what’s-her-face.”
She was referring to Chloe Dequenne, who’d come all the way from Paris. Chloe was in the next room with the rest of the Group, playing Write Your Own Eulogy, which was supposed to be played in a cemetery, ideally, but which they were playing over ham sandwiches in the dining room. Chloe must have been reading her eulogy aloud because I could hear people crying. She was good at making people cry.
“I’ve lost all my girlfriends to Europe,” Miles said suddenly.
“What?” Susan said.
“They go to Europe,” Miles said. “Then they dump me when they get back.”
“I wouldn’t dump you,” Susan said.
“Have you been to Europe?” Miles asked.
“Nope,” Susan said.
“Have you been to Europe, Lucy?” he asked.
“Yes,” I lied. My eyes were leaking again. I rolled over to the window and looked down at the sidewalk, two stories below. A long line of tourists were waiting to get into the Tenement Museum. I wanted to be standing among them. I’d lived in New York for over a year and had yet to visit a single museum. The Old Me liked museums and movies and standing in line, waiting for things.
What did the New Me like? Married men twice my age. Although, let’s be honest, the Old Me liked that, too. Five times this week: twice in the basement, thrice in the handicapped bathroom on the third floor. When he had his fingers inside me—always two, with his thumb circling the right place—he’d sometimes recite a poem he’d written in grad school. A poem about fingers.
Usually poetry made me irritable, especially when read aloud, but not this guy’s. I was, as they say, putty in his hands. I’d thought he was a straight-up genius, and as hopelessly in love with me as I was with him, and holy shit was he good with his fingers, but now everything was ruined.
“You and me should get together,” Miles was saying to me. “Since you’ve already been to Europe.”
“But you’re married, remember?” I said.
“Yeah, Miles,” Susan said. “You have a wife.”
“We’re separated,” Miles said.
“You’re married, too, Susan,” I reminded her.
“I’m losing my voice,” she said hoarsely, then proceeded to do an impressive backbend over the ball. Miles looked at her longingly, then over at me to see if I’d noticed. I gave him a thumbs up.
Miles and Susan were both hoarse from all the yelling they’d done the previous evening. Because they were workshop partners, they’d both been “up” at the same time. Miles had gone first—he owned his fear of being Authentic with the people in his daily life, so Bear and the Group “held space” as his immediate family, since Miles was currently living with his parents, even though he was in his thirties. In fact, his parents had coughed up the two grand for Miles to attend the workshop. Bear held space as Miles’ father, naturally, and Susan role-played as his mother Constance—apparently they look alike—and Miles said some terrible, terrible things, things he could never have said to his real parents. It had been an Authentic Moment for Miles, a real breakthrough.
Then Susan did a role-play with Bear holding the space as her husband, while she said all the things to her loser spouse that she couldn’t before, since she was totally co-dependent, and then she’d done a bunch of screaming and crying and we’d called it a night.
This particular group was averaging a breakthrough rate of six per day, so it was only a matter of time before they started sending letters of resignation to their employers or filing divorce papers or both. No Committed Life Changes so far, but I had a feeling Miles would be the one to start the ball rolling—he’d already talked about disowning his parents.
“Lucy wishes she were married to you-know-who,” Susan said.
“Oh, please,” I said and looked away.
Susan was convinced I had an inappropriate crush on Bear. That morning she’d said I was making myself available to him “on subconscious purpose,” because I knew it was impossible and I was repeating my pattern of being rejected by unavailable men. “But you don’t even know me,” I’d said. “How do you know what my patterns are?” She said they were written all over my energy field.
Then again, she thought everyone was fucking each other because she was a recovering sex addict. I only knew this because the workshop was overbooked and we happened to be sleeping in the same room. In her other life she attended daily Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. Last night, after her hellish role play, she’d read aloud to me from her sex inventory, which basically consisted of a list of all the people she’d slept with. Since she was addicted to anonymous sex, much of the list looked like this:
But she’d slept with some famous people, too, back in the day. I won’t mention any names (Wilt Chamberlain and Roman Polanski). Now she’d been “sober” for ten months. I didn’t understand how her sobriety worked, seeing as she was married and could technically relapse with her husband.
“But I think Bear wishes he were married to you, too,” Susan said. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”
She had a point. Bear had a habit of gazing at my chest in front of the others, usually while he was conducting workshop games like Fear in a Hat and Empty Your Pockets. My boobs seemed to help him focus. Which was strange because they weren’t very big. If Beatrice noticed, she didn’t seem to mind. My tactic initially had been to mirror his behavior by staring at his chest, which supposedly stimulates Other Awareness, but all it seemed to stimulate was my loneliness.
Right now might be a good time to mention that Bear was my boss. I’d been his personal assistant for just over a year. His real name was Barry Goldberger. He was a world-famous healer and therapist. His wife, an Italian beauty named Beatrice, called him Papa Bear. The Group called him Bear. I called him Yogi Bear, but only in private.
Susan and Miles, along with eleven other people, were enrolled in Bear’s Radical Authenticity Workshop. It had an excellent reputation, and they’d all flown to New York from cities around the country. Miles was from Ft. Lauderdale, and Susan was from Los Angeles. It was an eight-day workshop and they were on Day Three. I’d been recording all the activities, as I did with all of the Institute workshops.
Miles had already come a long way: on Day One, during the Eye Contact Exercise, he’d refused to remove his sunglasses, and when someone got up in his business about it, he’d threatened to kick their ass up and down the sidewalk. But after discussing it in Group, Miles owned that his temper tantrum was a theatrical form of communication and that he was following an old script from one of his stories, which says that he’s not a part and not connecting. Now, two days later, he was fully aware of which story he was running at any given moment.
“It just dawned on me what’s going on here,” Susan said. “God, I’m dense.” She sat up straight and looked at Miles. “When we played Fear in a Hat, I admitted that I didn’t like being lost, which explains yesterday’s wacky assignment, and you admitted you were afraid of the dark, which is where they got the blind idea. So basically they’re tailoring the workshop to our individual fears.” She looked at me. “Right, Lucy?”
“Bingo,” I said.
Yesterday Bear asked Miles and Susan to Spend Time Being Lost, and not in Manhattan but in the Bronx, and they’d both had Reactions, surprise, surprise, because they were unfamiliar with the area, for one thing, and also had significant control issues. Bear didn’t think they’d observed their emotions closely enough, however, which was why we were chaperoning them today. Then Bear poked his head into the office and said, “Get your coats. We’re going uptown.”
We entered a windowless church near Union Square that had been converted into a restaurant. It operated in total darkness, a non-profit’s attempt at promoting an understanding of blind culture among the seeing. They’d named it The Blind Pig. The entire wait staff was blind. The chef had partial vision. Only the receptionist and dishwasher were seeing.
In the lobby, the receptionist, whose name was Steve, instructed us to put all of our belongings into a locker. “Coats, purses, watches and, most importantly, any and all electronic devices,” Steve said. “This includes iPads, iPods, iPhones, flip phones, Kindles, Blackberries, blueberries, Halle Berries and Chuck Berries.”
“He forgot dingleberries,” I whispered to Susan.
We spent several minutes ordering our food and drinks for the evening, which Steve entered into his computer before leading us to a dimly-lit waiting area. “Let your eyes adjust to the semi-darkness,” he instructed. “Your server will be here shortly to escort you into the restaurant.”
We stood there staring at each other for several minutes.
“This isn’t so dark,” Miles said, relieved.
“Now, remember,” Bear said. “Once you’re inside, be sure to observe your emotions, as well as the stories attached to those emotions. This is a rare opportunity that has something to offer each of you. I think all of us rely too much on visual cues, which can lead to a kind of blindness. I’m very interested in having you explore different sensory configurations, and I’m looking forward to dialoguing your experiences in Group tonight.”
Susan leaned toward me and said, “I think Christina is going to rear her ugly head.”
“Uh-oh,” I said.
Christina was Susan’s wounded inner child. Susan had told me all about her on Day One: Christina had chronic insomnia, was desperate to be seen and healed, and her needs kept Susan awake all night. This had been going on for twenty years. “But hasn’t Christina grown up yet?” I’d asked. “Doesn’t one’s wounded inner child ever reach adolescence?”
“No,” Susan said. Then, “Are you on speaking terms with little Lucy?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But I think her name might be Marge. Except I think she might be a boy.”
“Are you transgendered?” Susan asked seriously.
“No!” I said. “Jesus.”
But I’d lain awake that night, wondering if she was onto something.
Our server’s name was John. He repeated his name several times, as though he feared we’d bungle the pronunciation. He had hair plugs, oddly enough. The plugs were arranged like the holes of a pepper shaker on top of his head. He also had excellent posture and muscular arms. No dark glasses. He seemed strangely vain for a blind man.
He asked me to place my hands on his shoulders, and Bear to place his hands on my shoulders, and Susan and Miles to do the same, in choo-choo fashion. Bear put his hands on my hips instead. John led us down a winding corridor, then we passed through a set of heavy curtains, then we were plunged into darkness. The darkness was sudden and complete. There was no adjustment.
The floor, it seemed, was on an incline. John’s train was moving too fast for me. He turned a corner and my hands slipped off his shoulders.
“John?” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m right here. My shoulders are directly in front of you.”
I knew then why he’d made sure we knew his name. You couldn’t exactly make eye contact or flag him down with a hand gesture.
We seemed to wander through the entire restaurant. Lots of twists and turns. I heard water running and a sizzling noise, probably coming from the kitchen, and some muffled voices. The entire place reeked of burnt garlic.
John stopped walking, took my hands from his shoulders and placed them on the back of a tall wooden chair.
“This is your seat,” he said. “Pull the chair out about a foot, then sit down, please.”
He directed the others to do the same. Bear sat next to me on my left, and Miles and Susan were sitting on the other side of the table. Susan was across from me, Miles across from Bear. Aside from the sound of our chairs scraping against the wooden floor, the room was silent.
“Are we the only ones here?” I asked.
“You’re my first customers,” he said. “But we’re fully booked this evening. I’m going to get your drinks now. While I’m away, please familiarize yourselves with your table settings. Your napkins should be directly in front of you. Your water glass is to the right of your plate. If possible, try to keep it in the same spot.”
I hadn’t been prepared for just how dark it was. Somehow I’d imagined my eyes would adjust and then I’d be able to make out the contours of my hands or the table or the walls. But there was no making anything out. Still, I kept trying. I waved my hands in front of my face like an idiot. Nothing. I turned and looked uselessly over my shoulder—nothing there, either. Then I became overly aware of my eyeballs and was convinced they were looking in opposite directions.
“I feel like Emily Dickinson,” I said.
“Meaning what?” Miles asked.
“Wall-eyed,” I said.
“I feel like Ray Charles,” Susan said. “I mean, my head keeps tilting—”
“I don’t know about this,” Miles said. “I’m having trouble breathing. I don’t like not knowing what’s behind me. Or above me. The darkness is like, pressing in on all sides. I feel like I’m inside a coffin.”
“Try closing your eyes, Miles,” Susan said. “I’m finding that helpful.”
“They’re already closed,” Miles said. “Thank fucking Christ they serve alcohol.”
“Please don’t get drunk,” Bear said.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to interfere,” Susan said. She sounded angry, and I could tell she was starting to have Feelings about Being Blind.
“Observe your emotions, Susan,” Bear said. “What are you feeling?”
She was silent for several seconds. “Rage” she said finally. “Hostility. I don’t want to be here. I feel trapped. Caged. I want to punch my way out.”
“You can punch me,” Miles offered.
“And then?” Susan said.
I imagined them groping each other under the table.
“Can you hold onto that feeling, Susan? Can you put it aside, but hold it? I think it could offer some valuable processing when we get back to the Institute,” Bear said. He meant she could beat up one of the couches.
John arrived with our wine. “I’m placing each glass to the left of your plate,” he announced. “Please try to keep it there—it’ll make my job a lot easier.”
“How big is this table?” Miles asked. “I can’t find the edge.”
“You’re sitting toward the middle of a very long table,” John said. “Eventually there will be people sitting on either side of you. This is a family style restaurant.”
“Is the table made of walnut?” Susan asked.
No one answered.
I could hear Miles gulping down his wine. Then John was back. “I’m standing to your right,” he said to me. “I’m holding out a plate of appetizers, compliments of the chef. Please take one.”
I reached out and found the plate and took hold of what felt like a large ball of dry skin. I was starving so I immediately took a large bite and chewed. It seemed to be an over-baked, stuffed mushroom.
“I’m feeling a little better now,” Susan said after a minute. “But this mushroom tastes like ass. Can you pass the salt, Lucy?”
“You’re joking, right?” I said.
“I set my mushroom down and now I can’t find it,” Miles said miserably. “I feel like I’m on bad drugs. In fact, I think I’m having some kind of flashback—”
“You feel unsafe,” Bear said. “Can you ask yourself what’s behind your fear?”
“I feel like you’re cutting me off,” Miles said. “Again. And guess what? I want to leave now. How the fuck am I going to get out of here?” His voice was shaking. “John?”
John didn’t answer.
“John!” Miles yelled.
“What’s the story around that impulse, Miles?” Bear asked.
“The story is you’re hogging the floor to gratify yourself. You always take over. Your ego is fucking enormous. It’s filling this entire restaurant, taking up all the air. I can’t breathe—”
“That’s just a story written by you, Miles. What’s the emotional payload that you deliver with that story?”
I smelled John’s musky cologne. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
“Yes, John, thank you,” Bear said. “Thank you very much.”
“I’ll be back soon,” John said.
“Miles?” Bear said.
“The emotional payload is resentment, fear, and a sense of scarcity,” Miles said, his voice still shaking.
“Let your emotions be emotions, Miles. And remember you are not your emotions. You have a choice here.”
“You know, this place isn’t even safe,” Miles said. “Suppose there was a fire—how would we get out? Have they even thought about that?”
“Excuse me,” John said. “I’m here with your first course. And I overheard your concerns about fire safety—in the event of a fire, a siren would go off and the exits would light up.”
I thought of a woman named Ruth I’d met as a teenager, when I’d spent a few months at a private psychiatric hospital in New England called Halstead. I’d loved it there and never wanted to leave. Because I have a photographic memory, I was able to recite whole passages from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath to my shrink verbatim, which kept me in Lock Down, which was where I wanted to stay. It was like living in a hotel with really interesting people.
Ruth had been committed by her husband. In her early 40s, she came in wearing a filthy bathrobe and bandages on her ankles. Some of her hair was missing. Her skin was jaundiced. She was all bony and deranged-looking. For the first couple of weeks she was either catatonic and drooling or else completely hysterical, beating herself with her fists or banging her head on the walls. Then she went through this delusional phase, wherein she walked up to the security desk every five minutes and said, “Can you buzz me out? My God is here.”
I figured her case was hopeless—that’s how far gone she seemed—but she surprised me and everyone else in Lock Down by actually making an effort. She seemed to want to get well. And the shrinks found the right combination of meds for her, so she began to look less yellow and cadaverous, and the delusions and head-banging tapered off.
A month later we were both out of Lock Down and living in the residential part of the hospital. Ruth’s progress was more significant than mine. She seemed like a typical housewife now. She quit smoking and took up knitting and bragged about her kids and told me all her plans for the future. Then she was granted a Day Pass and her husband Earl came and they spent the day at a nearby mall with their three children.
I didn’t recognize her when she came back. She’d gotten a haircut and highlights, and her face was all made up, and she wore a flattering lavender sweater, skin-tight jeans, and high-heeled boots. When I realized it was her, I actually shed a couple of tears, which was unlike me. I hugged her hard and didn’t want to let go. I knew it wouldn’t be long until she was released.
A day or two later the fire alarm went off. I happened to be sitting next to Ruth in the cafeteria when it happened. She clutched my arm and screamed, which was understandable enough—it was a very loud alarm.
But then she didn’t stop. You would have thought her leg was being chewed off by coyotes. I’d never seen or heard anything like it. She was still screaming long after they shut the alarm off, and the people from Lock Down came and took her away, and I never saw Ruth again.
Now Miles and Susan were talking about the dreams they’d had the previous night. Unfortunately, this behavior was encouraged at the Institute. I was often asked to participate, but I always made them up on the spot. My real dreams were too embarrassing—it seemed like Bear was in every single one, bear-hugging me or giving me piggy-back rides or telling me how awesome he thought I was. Occasionally I was pregnant with Baby Bear, and we all lived at the Institute—me, Bear, Beatrice, and our cubs—and I made porridge every morning with bananas.
The restaurant had filled up and so had our table. A mother was sitting next to Miles now, and her two children were sitting across from her, next to Bear. Three people were sitting on the either side of us: two men and one woman. We were almost done with the main course.
“I lost my fork, so I’m eating with my hands,” Susan said.
“The chef was a little heavy-handed with the oregano,” Miles said.
“Stop!” the mother sitting next to Miles said. “Please just stop.”
“Excuse me?” Miles said.
“If you keep it up, we’re leaving,” the mother said.
“Are you talking to us?” Miles asked.
“No,” she said and laughed. “I’m talking to my kids.”
“May I ask what they’re doing?” Susan said.
“Throwing spaghetti,” she said.
“I thought I felt something hit me in the arm,” Miles said.
“You’re really quiet, Lucy,” Susan said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m sitting on Bear’s lap,” I said.
Bear laughed nervously. “No, she isn’t.”
No one spoke for a minute.
“Have you all become more aware of your other senses?” Bear asked.
“I can smell myself better,” Susan said. “And I’m more aware of my breathing.”
“My tactile sensitivity has increased,” Miles said. “I feel more in my body in general.”
“What about you, Lucy?”
“Uh, I feel less in my body. In fact, I feel like I’m in three places at once. My hands, feet, and head don’t feel attached to my body at all.”
“Interesting,” Bear said.
“My neck is stiff,” Miles said. “I’m, like, unbelievably tense.”
“Do you want me to rub it?” Susan asked.
“Would you?” Miles said.
“Uh, that’s not his neck he’s talking about, Susan,” I said.
“Rub it like you’re trying to kill me,” Miles instructed.
“Like that?” Susan asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “but harder.”
“This isn’t how I would kill you, by the way,” Susan said.
“Lucy, how are you occupying your mind here in the dark?” Bear said. His voice felt very close, just inches from my ear.
“Well, I was picturing Susan rubbing Miles’ neck,” I said. “Then I was wondering if some of the other patrons were being more affectionate and/or sexual with one another. We’re in a public space, but the darkness makes it intensely private at the same time. People could be exposing themselves for all we know, or giving each other hand jobs.”
“Your stories are always sexual,” Bear said.
I laughed. “Does that surprise you?”
He didn’t answer.
“Excuse me,” the man next to me said. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but you have a really nice voice. Are you a singer?”
“Me or him?” I said, meaning Bear.
“You,” he said.
“I’m a terrible singer.” Then I didn’t know what to say. What did normal people talk about?
“You have a great laugh, too. You could be a laugh model.”
I laughed again.
“You know, like a hand model?”
I felt myself blush. “Thanks,” I said. When had I last spoken to a stranger? I couldn’t remember. “Based on my laugh, what do you think I look like?”
He was silent for several seconds. “Mid-twenties,” he said. “Thin, taller than average. You have straight black hair and you’re wearing . . . a purple dress.”
“I wish,” I said. “I’m fat and in my fifties. My hair is gray and frizzy, and I’m wearing a green and white track suit.”
“We sound like twins,” he said.
I laughed. “You were actually pretty close.”
“Your turn,” he said.
I cleared my throat. “Well, you’re definitely bald. You have a pointy goatee and long eyelashes, and you’re wearing a silk blouse with flowers on it.”
“Wow,” he said.
“You know, your accent sounds really familiar, but I’m having trouble placing it.”
“I’m from Zurich, originally,” he said. “But I’ve lived in New York for fifteen years.”
“Did you hear that, Bear? He’s from Zurich.”
“I heard,” Bear said.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Hans Peter,” he said. “But most people call me H.P.”
“I’m Lucy,” I said. “This is Bear over here.”
“Nice to meet you,” H.P. said.
“How do you do,” Bear said flatly.
“What do you do for fun, Lucy?” H.P. asked.
“Is that a stupid question?” he asked.
“No,” I said, drawing a blank. “Uh, I like eating kimchee stew. And kimchee, in general. Does that count?”
“Of course,” he said.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Movies, mostly. Museums now and then. I like to read. I have a dog.”
“What’s your dog’s name?”
He hesitated. “Bear,” he said.
“Did you hear that, Bear? His dog’s name is Bear.”
“I heard,” Bear said.
“He’s a Rottweiler,” H.P. explained.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Bear asked.
I could sense Bear’s boredom and irritation, but I was enjoying myself. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d had a straightforward conversation, one that didn’t follow Institute Code. It felt like I’d just come up for air. I took a deep breath, wiggled my toes.
“It’s strange talking to someone when you can’t see their face,” he said.
“What do you really look like?” I asked.
“Six foot two. Brown hair, blue eyes. I used to be a competitive pole-vaulter. ”
“What are you now?” I asked.
“Out of shape,” he said. “I own a coffee shop in Brooklyn called Lonelyville.”
“Weird,” I said. “I live around the corner from there.”
Bear nudged me, but I ignored him.
“Who are you here with?” I asked.
“My sister and her boyfriend,” he said. “They’re in the bathroom. It feels like they’ve been gone too long, but I’ve lost all sense of time.”
“Maybe they were led back to the wrong table,” I suggested.
“No, they’re probably arguing somewhere,” he said. “Or they climbed out the window and escaped. They weren’t having much fun.”
“I just felt a shift in your aura,” Bear whispered to me. “A positive shift.”
I felt a hand on my thigh. It was large and warm and moving toward my crotch, and for once I wanted to stop it.
“Is that you, Dr. Goldberger?” I said.
It worked: he removed his hand.
For years Bear had been Dr. Goldberger to me. In Lock Down he’d been the only shrink to realize I was plagiarizing Sylvia Plath rather than revealing my own Thoughts and Feelings.
I’d landed at Halstead after a rejection by Mr. Kolb, my high school music teacher. Mr. Kolb had been a very tall man from Switzerland, coincidentally, a man with whom I’d manufactured a romantic relationship out of thin air. I’d even gone so far as to buy him a bouquet of narcissus flowers. When he asked me why I would do such a thing, I told him I’d been reading a lot of Greek mythology and that he reminded me of Narcissus. I only meant that I thought he was beautiful and a little vain. I can still see the look on his face—fear, bewilderment, anger, but mostly fear. It didn’t stop me from making other advances and gestures, all of which he ignored.
That’s when I started burning myself with a curling iron—just around my hairline at first, but then on my ankles and feet, and the backs of my knees, and my inner thighs, and even the crack of my ass once.
In the hospital Dr. Goldberger convinced me that the pain I was experiencing was of the little girl who was not loved by her parents. I had displaced this pain onto a convenient romantic object (Mr. Kolb), who I’d subconsciously made sure was unavailable (he was married and over twice my age), thus echoing the original wounding. My desire, he said, was to be fully, truly loved, a desire that I’d hidden from myself during my childhood out of necessity, which became activated in my obsession with Mr. Kolb—or Big Swiss, as I’d started calling him in therapy.
I’d grown attached to Bear in the hospital—Dad-I-never-had sort of thing—and continued to see him even after I was released. He had a private practice in Boston, and over the next few years we had monthly sessions during which we did various role plays, with Bear holding space as my father or grandfather or my Uncle Franz—men I’d been damaged by over the years—and I was finally able to access all my buried emotions and blah, blah.
Then he told me we would have to terminate our therapy because he and his wife were moving to New York to start the Institute. I was surprised when he offered me a job as his personal assistant. “You’ve come such a long way and you’re at point now where you could start guiding others in their development process,” he’d said. “I’d love to have you by my side.” So I dropped out of UMass, where I was studying graphic design, and followed Bear to New York. The salary wasn’t great, but I rented a tiny studio in Brooklyn. I often ended up sleeping at the Institute—it occupied three floors and had several bedrooms, and the workshops often ran late into the evenings.
Our relationship didn’t turn sexual until three months later. It started after hours, during one of our private role plays. I recall pushing Bear around and shouting obscenities at him, then wrestling him to the floor, where we continued to grapple for several minutes. I was really kicking his ass. It was the first time I’d been able to truly access my rage, and it was exquisite, exhilarating. Afterward, Bear gave me one of his famous bear hugs, and that’s when I’d stuck my tongue in his ear. He didn’t pull away—he seemed to have been waiting for me to do something like that. We ended up back on the floor.
We began having sweaty sex on a mattress in the basement on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, or standing up in one of the bathrooms. Occasionally we groped each other under the table at the Korean BBQ joint next door. He couldn’t get enough of me, he said. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I allowed myself positive thoughts of the future. I envisioned us living together some day, maybe even having a kid or two. I finally felt at home—in my body, in my mind, in Bear’s arms, in New York, and at the Institute. This was my life, I thought. My family. These were my people. My city.
And then, last night, in the Institute library, I came across a book of poems hidden behind one of the retarded self-help books. The book naturally fell open to page 23 and, boom, there it was, the poem he’d been murmuring in my ear all those months. “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand,” written not by Bear, but by someone named Charles Simic.
Okay, so he wasn’t a poetic genius after all, but rather a cowardly, manipulative plagiarist—just like me. I’d never felt closer to him, or more connected to another human being. Finally, at long last, I no longer felt myself to be his pupil, his patient, his protégé. He could take off his mask, as I had taken off mine, and allow me to see him as he truly was, and he didn’t have to worry—I would still love him. We were soulmates!
I set off in search of him, book in hand, and found him in his office. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. Chloe, the cunt from Paris, was perched on the edge of his desk and Bear was standing between her open legs. They’d been kissing and finger-fucking, no doubt, but stopped to gape at me, and I stood there in the doorway, shaking. My insides felt like they were on fire. And they were, in a sense, because the home I’d built inside myself was burning to the ground, and I realized how shoddy the construction had been in the first place. The walls were made of bullshit. Highly flammable bullshit. I thought of Ruth unraveling in the cafeteria all those years ago—how frightened she’d been! Well, this was my fire alarm, and how was I going to respond? Would I start screaming? The Old Me would have mutilated myself and then hoped for a vacation in Lock Down.
The New Me read the second stanza, dedicated to the forefinger.
And here I pointed at Bear, and his eyes darted toward the floor. I dropped the book and calmly left the room.
He cornered me in the kitchen this morning. “You have a pattern of manufacturing things,” he said. “We both know that. Don’t build a false narrative around this. If you detach from your emotions and observe my behavior, you’ll realize that I’m being completely authentic with you.”
“Charlatan,” I said.
“You are responsible for your own happiness,” he said. “You cannot blame me for your misery. Blaming gives you a way out of taking responsibility for your life. I haven’t done anything to you. If you are unhappy, the conflict is within you. It has nothing to do with me.”
“Dogshit,” I said.
Bear was in the bathroom now and Miles and Susan had stopped talking. I suspected they were kissing. I wondered how long it would take before Susan penciled Miles into her sex inventory. Five or six hours, I imagined.
H.P. leaned toward me and said, “Your father seems angry. Is he okay?”
“He’s not my father,” I said. “He’s just the guy I work for.”
John was at my side, holding out a plate to me and asking me to take something from it. Dessert, I presumed. It was a heavy, warm thing and felt spongy. Some kind of cake, I imagined, hopefully filled with cream. I was instantly disappointed when I put it in my mouth. It wasn’t cake, but rather a damp hand towel. I laughed.
“What’s so funny?” H.P. asked.
“I thought this hand towel was a giant Twinkie, so I tried eating it.”
I wiped my hands with the towel, then went ahead and washed my armpits. Why not?
“I hope this isn’t off-putting,” H.P. said, “but you seem like someone I could steal horses with.”
“Thank you,” I said, touched.
“Unfortunately, I have to go home and walk Bear, but will you come to Lonelyville tomorrow? We can trade insights over coffee.”
I told him I would, and I meant it. Then I listened to him walk away.
“Are you really falling for that?” It was my Bear, back from the bathroom, evidently.
“Falling for what?”
“Compliments and conversation? Yes,” I laughed. “It’s very refreshing.”
“I’ll need your notes an hour before Group tonight.”
“Meaning what?” I said.
“Meaning I hope you remembered to do your job.”
“It’s impossible to observe someone when you can’t see them.”
“What’s gotten into you today?” Bear asked.
“I’m thinking of quitting,” I said.
“You and the Institute,” I said.
“What script are you running?” Bear asked. “Sounds like an abandonment story.”
“It is,” I said. “Totally. Except it’s the other way around for once. This time it’ll be me abandoning ship.”
“I haven’t rejected you, Lucy,” Bear whispered. “Aren’t you sick of being a victim all the time?”
What I was sick of, actually, was talking, and talking about talking, and then talking some more, and processing everything to senselessness.
It flashed at me then, there in the pure darkness, and I didn’t hold back:
“There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me,” I said, “as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding. The feeling comes, vague and nebulous, when I consider the prolonged adolescence of our species; the rites of birth, marriage and death; all the primitive, barbaric ceremonies streamlined to modern times. The unreasoning, bestial purity was best. Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.”
Miles and Susan applauded.
“That’s not her,” Bear said. “It’s Sylvia Plath.”
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