An excerpt from the short story ‘Transference’, published in Litro Magazine. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
“My wedding is in three weeks.”
“And it’s going to take place at the Meridien hotel, the 12th floor. Have you been there?” She wasn’t supposed to be asking me questions, not yet anyway.
“Yes, I believe I have. I’m still not sure I understand what the problem is though?”
“Of getting married?”
“No. Of elevators.”
She was wearing a denim skirt, a long denim skirt that one would have expected to reach her ankles. But hers ended suddenly, about three inches above. The sleeves of her tight white blouse played a similar trick, extending beyond her elbows but shying away from reaching her wrists. And on her head, she wore a white headscarf. A typical Damascene white headscarf, tied under her chin, covering her hair. Except that one or two strands had escaped the fabric and fell across her forehead, revealing its auburn colour. I shifted in my chair. What is it about inbetweeness that plays with me? Short and long skirts don’t bother me, I hardly notice them. Sleeveless shirts and shirts with long sleeves are equally harmless. And women with or without headscarves come and go unnoticed. But the very first patient to enter my office had managed to conceal just enough and reveal just enough to play with me.
I had rehearsed this scenario: my first patient entering my new office. I knew how I would greet them. How I’d sit. How they’d sit. What I’d ask. How they’d respond. I even knew how the room would smell (ylang ylang and lavender). What sounds would be filtering in from outside (muffled traffic, the occasional thud of footsteps from the office above). Where the tissue box was positioned on the coffee table (just off centre, so as to appear accessible and yet not obvious). Just how full the water jug would be filled (four fifths, next to a glass already full, removing the dilemma I anticipated some patients would face as to whether it was really there to be drunk by them). But in all my planning, my fastidious scripting, never had I factored into my copious mental role plays and run-throughs a disconcerting guttural wrench of involuntary attraction.
My office was carefully decorated. From the walls (light green) to the five meticulously selected pieces of furniture that filled the space: A desk and chair facing the window. A reclining chair, cream and leather, and a small round coffee table. And a couch. The couch is what really defined the room. It was dark blue velvet. Shaped like a crescent. Not quite as circular, but clearly descending and then clearly ascending. The point was to deliberately fluster patients by asking them to lie down in a manner that was unusual but surprisingly comfortable.
“Have a seat, please. Take your shoes off, please. Lie down on the couch, please. Yes, I do realize it’s a strange couch…”
Scenes from these redundant rehearsals flashed through my mind as the young woman who entered the room sat down on the couch before I could utter a word. Awaiting no instructions, she had reached down, removed her wooden-heeled slippers, and placed them neatly under the coffee table. She raised one leg, and then the other onto the couch, and lay back against the velvet curve.
I forced myself to observe her for a few seconds. Not that it was an unpleasant task. On the contrary. It’s just that my natural inclination is always to look away. Strange for a therapist, I know. But that’s what drew me to psychiatry in the first place. My own desire to avert my gaze, and my even stronger thirst to overcome that impulse. At university, I’d even planned an experiment. I would compile a montage of pictures, or even video clips, invite a group of participants into the lab, and play the sequence of images to them. I’d track the participants’ eye movements, and I’d run scans to examine the differences in their brain functions depending on their retinal responses. I had described the procedure in detail, even selected the images. But, of course, my university had none of the necessary equipment for this, so my theory remains unproven–that humanity can be divided into two groups: those who look, and those who look away. Those afraid of what they’ll see, and those afraid of what they’ll miss.
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