Monthly Archives: May 2021

The 50 dollar bill

Where did you go? I can see where you were at one point, laid out upon a desk, preening yet submissive and above all, patient. Then you were truly mine, stuffed into the leather pouch, wedged alongside the runts, the frowning Andrew Jacksons and those pawnish George Washingtons. Seconds later, I was up and away, moving in swift turns, sliding my limbs into a jacket and stepping out in one fluid motion. I said I’d be back to my one and only witness, my retiring wife, couched in mid-evening settlement, absorbed in TV. With the extra bill, plus a few others, there were fleeting thoughts of opportunity for a gratuitous expense, but no time, and not enough imagination to explore desire. Perhaps I’d fill up the tank on the way back, I thought prosaically, thinking of the next day. Saturday beckoned with the freedom of an empty schedule and a dearth of expectation. It would be like days gone when I was a carefree bachelor, living alone and without attachment or obligation. Days off were a chance to disappear: just get in a car and go, wondering how long I could go for without being missed. An early lesson in displacement, such flights remind me now of an Amis witticism. In “Let me count the times”, a compulsive masturbator loses track of his habit, and amid his auto-destructive reverie, he borrows expressions from less shameful vices: “I’m tempted to run away with myself”.

             I’d go away with myself, but only for an hour or two. That’s how long it would take to feel lonely and bored; that the idea of dropping out was not as good as it would seem from within the traps of everyday life. Nowadays, there’s less of those feelings, what with everything in my life packed in, sardine-like, wearying me like an anesthetic. But when the week’s finish line approaches, I indulge the old thoughts, think of an open road and a stretch of travel time wherein the sun is out, casting a spring-like glow upon a light journey. There is little fatigue in this vision—rather, I conjure a breezy sigh and a relaxed glance at landscapes that pull me into their rainbow promises. That 50 dollar bill would have paid for that, I later thought as I fumbled through the lesser bills, searching for the missing note. Disconcerted, I paid for a half-tank with the remaining funds, thinking the prima donna of the pack would turn up later. Recalcitrant, it would be hiding on that desk at home, still preening and thinking itself important. Or, with troublesome mischief, it may be ensconced in one of my file boxes below my desk, having dropped down from the back of the desk’s wooden cliff.

             But I distinctly remembered placing it in my wallet! Oh well, I thought, driving back after that last appointment, at first relatively unperturbed, just glad to be done with that last hour of a fourth ten-hour day in a row. When home, I’d have a quick look through clothes and the piles around my desk area—one or two sets of papers, plus the pockets of my jeans, and the jacket that I’d deftly slid into an hour or so earlier. I’d already given these places a cursory look, but had found nothing. No problem. The bill was simply being difficult. So, it would call for a bit more effort, would it? It would thumb its nose at me, still thinking itself all that, I guess. When I returned I stepped into my home office, thinking this would take but a minute. The last messy piece of unresolved business from a long day would be tidied up and I would then be free to release; as quickly as I’d moved earlier, I’d find the bill, chide it for hiding from me and giving me a hard time. Then I’d slide out of my evening wear and find a nook in a couch in which to recline and then surrender myself to the weekend.

             Still no bill. By this time I was starting to escalate my pace, letting my blood pressure rise, becoming more hasty in my search methods. After about ten minutes I’d looked through that wallet about a half a dozen times. Having done so, I was intimately familiar with the odd tears in its linings, suggesting a replacement would be due when all this is over. But I can’t buy things like that if I lose things like 50 dollar bills, I heard myself thinking. That’s the neurotic in me: it thinks that happenings like this are the thin end of the wedge; or, that oversights, mistakes like this are just too cruel, too unjust and brutal to bear, somehow. Fifty dollars! That can buy, like, a lot of…I don’t know, this is just not acceptable, regardless. And yes, I was thinking something like this as I kept looking at that wallet, inspecting its slithered openings, thinking that a crisp note could insinuate its way inside one of the holes and disappear, teaching me a lesson about carelessness. Meanwhile, I was on first name terms with a piece of lint that I kept molesting within the right pocket of my jeans. The coarse cotton lining contrasted with the smooth, impeccable surfaces of my work jacket, whose unsullied silk seemed to call out with a mocking rebuke: “don’t blame me, there’s nothing to see here”.

The day would end with no result, portending a sleepless night, a dreamless rest. It wasn’t that I needed that lost bill. As I calmly inventoried material reality, I reminded myself that I was okay—that my wife and I were financially settled; that it had been a good year, despite the torrid changes brought on by Covid; that loss and misplacement were an aberration; that on the whole, I was on top of things. But I don’t like mysteries, especially those of the mundane kind, with little but a trite warning behind them—the start of something big. The questions nagged: how could it have slipped out from the leather pouch and not taken others with it? Might I have set it down somewhere and forgotten the action? Had there been more time than I realized between actions, and had I in fact taken it out, spent it on something illicit that I have done well to repress. No, I don’t think so, actually. I know what my thoughts were and where they went. I just don’t know what happened to the thing-in-itself that displaces them.

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The Snake

Was it a gopher snake or a rattler? The man didn’t know, and initially, his question was delayed, subordinated to a frightful reaction. The man’s utterance was ambiguous. A half-bray, choked by inhibition, was matched by his physical response, a brusque step backwards. I didn’t see any of this. Listening, imagining the scene and its meaning, I waited, my patience countered by an ever-muted eagerness. “Are you okay?” I asked, half-thinking the problem was simply a matter of the line. The phone was always cutting out during sessions, and during those with patients who amid Covid prefer their sessions while walking amid nature, the competition from distracting sounds, the elements of nature like the enveloping sound of wind, or the glitchy, tenuous, un-natural features of cell phone technology, are often letting us down.

             “Is that a gopher snake?” The man’s rhetorical question, arriving within seconds of his first comment—a protracted version of something like “whoa”—was for his own edification. The fascination suggested a modicum of knowledge, for he was already determining the absence of danger. The fairly large reptile, situated amongst some dry brush across a trail carved over time by feet rather than machines, was not making the signature sounds of a dangerous predator. It had moved but hadn’t otherwise been aggressive. Its sideways darting action, according to the man, had been enough to deter approach. Learning. The man emitted a nervous laugh as he stepped away, soon to resume the process that is ever more uncertain, his analysis. Breathless, walking faster, he marked time by wondering aloud about my experiences of snakes. Not much, I was inclined to say. I’d barely heard of anything called a gopher snake, for example. Otherwise, I brought to mind mythological associations, plus discussions at an analytic society that lamented the stereotyped image of serpents in general; the disregard of their expansive, cross-cultural meanings. In mine, snakes have meant temptation, seduction, and in this scene that association, or something close to it, was prevailing for me.

             Distraction. The prior subject had been distraction, plus—allusively—the man’s tentative commitment to analysis. We’d talked about the couch before, long before Covid hit, when sessions at my office had been the norm, not sessions by phone in the background of naturalistic settings. During this fraught period, I’d stayed at my office, sat in the same chair, albeit with less disciplined stillness, gazing at the same office walls and unchanging art, feeling alone and vaguely envious. My patients, like this one, were not just obeying “lockdown orders” or later recommendations by the CDC, or even my cooperation with those same authorities. They were making choices of where to be when speaking their minds, and simultaneously deciding upon variations of repression: how to take one’s mind off things. The couch. “The couch”, I reminded, after the man recovered his breath and asked after the prior subject of discussion. With little or no sense of irony—not yet, anyway—he stuttered back to the topic, asking me to take the lead, remind him of his former thoughts also; to guide him. 

“Get back on track?” I said drolly, which cued a laughing recognition. Where is he? He understood.

             The man remembered the walls of my office, the blank white space interrupted by unchanging artwork. He admitted that nature offered more variety to his roving eye, his stimulation-seeking mind. He soon associated to the reasons for his treatment: that other reason that his eyes wander, seeking distraction. It had been this tendency that got him in trouble, brought him to my lesser stimulating lair. A typical night: he and his spouse would be at a restaurant, dining and having a pleasant experience, conversing easily, enjoying a good meal. At some point, a woman would emerge from an adjacent space, perhaps entering the dining area from a restroom or from a waiting area. The man would glance in her direction and—inwardly at least—utter “whoa”, thinking the woman was his type. His fantasy. Within an instant of that thought he’d be machinating, managing the unspoken, half-digested dilemma: how to steal another look while concealing the act from his wife. He MUST look again, he thought half-consciously. Consciously, before his wife, and for the most part with me also, he MUST NOT look again. Defensively, in sessions, he’d often turn to a point of debate. His wife, unlike myself or his 12-step sponsors, had been and was still the more likely witness to his wayward masculine gaze, but as a long-suffering eyewitness to such incidents, was she the most “objective” observer of his habits?

             On the couch he might contemplate this scene, these events that actually happened on several occasions, though now the memories recede into the background, dismissed by latter day wishes. He’d prefer to not think about such painful memories. Better to move on, hit the trail, so to speak. The couch is still. It forces subjects to lie down, even, portending sleep and the arrival of dreams, or their retrieval. The subject, as in the patient, is drawn inward by this device, this hoary tradition of psychoanalysis. The answers: they are inside, not in the environment, we think. Who is we? “We” is…doesn’t matter. I agree. That’s what matters. I’m trying to get patients to agree also, and they do for the most part, in theory anyway. “It’s true,” says the man in a cheerful voice, evincing an agreeable air. He is quieted now, his startled encounter with the wild over. His well-defended, good-humored, studied urbanity is back, ready to think with me, be reminded of his purpose. He recalls points made some time ago, before the material reality of the last year compelled a change in our process. “There are indeed less distractions in your office, on your couch. To see the mountain outside your window I’d have to twist my neck, strain to see it”.

             “Are you that desperate to look outside?”

             He laughed again. “No”, he eventually said, perhaps unsure. What did he want to say? What is he supposed to say? A dilemma. He affected neutrality, the cover of matter-of-fact observation. “Just not much to see in your office, that’s all.”

             “No snakes?”

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