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The Object of Desire by Gary Pedler

The Object of Desire by Gary Pedler

Fiction, Vol. 2.2, June 2008

Alan slowly climbed the stairs. Murky light filtered up from the entrance, spilling over the green walls. The wooden treads creaked under his feet. Reaching the second floor, he wandered down a hall lined with frosted glass doors. He found the one with Dr. Kirst’s name, along with two others. Alan tried out the words below the name: “Child Psychiatrist.” Alan took a seat in the waiting room. He studied the three doors leading to different offices and wondered which was Dr. Kirst’s. It was like a fairy tale where the hero was confronted by three doors, with something different—to be feared or desired– behind each one.

Out a dusty window, Alan could see the partly demolished brick building next door. Much of the second story had already been gnawed away, exposing the floors and walls to the bright July sunlight. In the distance rose the hard, dry hills on the east side of Napa Valley, mottled tan and a green so dark it was almost black. The waiting room contained a few chairs, a framed child’s drawing, one rack of magazines, another of comic books. At fifteen, Alan was too old to be interested in the comic books, and he was too keyed up to read a magazine.

At last, one of the doors opened, and a man came toward him with an outstretched hand. He had a thick black beard, glasses with black plastic frames, a pale green tie and black pants held up by suspenders. The man’s smile showed large, even teeth with some slight gaps. Dr. Kirst ushered Alan into his office. Instead of sitting behind the desk, the doctor sprawled in a chair like the ones in the waiting room. He was a little too big to look comfortable in this and crossed one bony leg over the other. Alan knew that the other chair in the room was meant for him, overly large, thickly padded, and with a swivel base. Alan sat down in it carefully, frowning.

The blinds were drawn over the window. On the wall behind Dr. Kirst hung a still life of a pumpkin with a knife stuck in it. Alan laughed to himself later when he thought of that pumpkin stabbed with a knife, like something out of a comedy skit about a psychiatrist.

“Alan, maybe you can begin by telling me what has given your parents cause for concern.” Dr. Kirst’s tone was quiet, neutral, like water.

“They read my journal,” Alan replied. His voice sounded low to him, almost inaudible. Why was his voice like this so often? “The part about the day we spent in Berkeley last week.”

“Tell me about that day,” Dr. Kirst said.

Alan sighed, and then began.

*

Alan spent a half-hour that morning deciding what to wear, standing in front of the mirror in his room. Its oval of dark wood became a picture frame for a series of portraits. He looked a little different in each one, yet never, he felt, very satisfactory. His brown hair was soft, shapeless, his face vague, pale, not yet fully formed. He forced himself to smile. This did make him look better, but then he let the smile drop, and his face was as before.

Alan couldn’t stand the idea of being alone with his parents, so he’d asked his friend Deena to join them on the trip to Berkeley. Deena was a year older than Alan, a Jewish girl with a long, horsy face. Alan sat with Deena in the back seat of the car. In front, the hair on the back of his father’s head was gray and short; his mother’s, a thin mousy brown. Reaching Berkeley, the two couples went their separate ways.

Alan and Deena followed Telegraph Avenue away from the campus. They passed restaurants serving student-budget food, used bookstores with bins of worse-for-wear books outside. Street merchants offered jewelry, brightly colored clothing, candles. The scent of burning incense mixed with the smell of the trash in the gutters. It was almost as hot in Berkeley as it had been in Napa, and Alan devoured with his eyes all the shirtless young men on the street, one after another.

In a record store, Alan asked the clerk if he had any Mahler. The man asked if he’d heard the Third Symphony. Alan said he hadn’t. The man placed a record on a turntable. Cool, sweet voices poured down from speakers on the wall, boys’ voices imitating bells, striking the same two notes: bim, bam, bim, bam. Over this, a women’s chorus began a beautiful song. Alan didn’t understand the words, but didn’t need to. They were singing about joy, that much was clear to him, joy and lightness. For a moment, he felt light and joyful, too. A smile bubbled up from inside him, breaking through his face, a genuine smile now. He bought the record, along with a couple of others.

“Let’s go,” Deena urged. She kept saying this to Alan wherever they went, though she didn’t have any destinations of her own to suggest.

They met Alan’s parents at an Indonesian restaurant for dinner. Out the window, the shirtless men still ambled past. When an especially good-looking one approached, Alan’s eyes clung to him, though his father could see what he was doing.

It had been Alan’s idea that they see Cabaret. He was usually the one who selected what movies the family saw. He needed his parents along to get him into ones that were R-rated or would never come to Napa. He hoped they didn’t detect the thread connecting his seemingly diverse choices of Deliverance, Women in Love, Woodstock, and Mary Queen of Scots. This was male-male sex, or at least male nudity. Alan had gleaned from a review of Cabaret that it contained a sex scene between two men. He was disappointed to find this involved a Nazi sympathizer luring the film’s reluctant hero into bed. The film as a whole he thought noisy and brash. The most positive comment his mother could make was that it was good for her to see movies like this and “keep up on things,” as if doing so were a nasty-tasting medicine. Only Deena enjoyed the movie. “I’m going to paint my fingernails green like Liza Minelli’s,” she laughed.

Alan dreaded the ride home. Dreaded sitting in the back of the car, no one saying much, with nothing for him to do but think, think. The hard, evenly spaced lights of the freeway shot past, each one a little blow. Alan shifted his gaze to the orange-silver moon floating in the rearview mirror. The motion of the car made it quiver, as if it were crying. Suddenly a hand blocked his view of the moon, his father’s hand stuck out the open window. Alan looked at the back of his father’s head, at his thick neck. Why, he hated him, didn’t he? He hated his father. Would he hate him if he were heterosexual? No, he decided. He was a freak of nature and uncomfortable about that, even with his father out of the picture. With him in it, watching him, possibly suspecting, it was almost unbearable.

Alan tumbled into his bed in the still-hot house. He read the personal ads in the Berkeley Barb he’d bought that day and hidden between a couple of records in his bag. He would take a photograph of himself in the nude with his Polaroid and send it to one of the men who had placed an ad, along with a letter asking if the man had VD. He had two long years ahead of him before he went away to college, where he hoped it would be easier to meet men, but he couldn’t hold out that long. Sooner or later, he would have to give into temptation, and it might as well be sooner.

Whenever Alan closed his eyes, the parade of severed male torsos started up. He was roiling with desire, yet at the same time doubted he wanted to have sex with anyone in this heat. The weather was to blame for how terrible everything seemed. If it didn’t get cooler soon, he thought, he would do something desperate.

*

The next day was even hotter. His parents’ noise-making started early in the morning. Four times they left open the door from the family room to the kitchen, and four times Alan closed it. They in turn were annoyed by Mahler’s Third, which he played on the family’s stereo in the dining room. Bim, bam, bim, bam. His father told him to turn it down. His brother, Ned, was more direct. When Ned finally got up at eleven, he switched off the record without saying a word and replaced it with a rock station on the radio. Alan gathered up his books and papers, also without saying a word, and retreated to his room. He didn’t understand how people could like music he hated while he liked music they found boring.

Alan wrote in his journal about the trip to Berkeley. His pen came to a stop after a while. No, it was too hot to write. He turned to The Youth of André Gide and read it with a frown, sometimes pushing his long hair off his face. He looked up words in the dictionary: “pederast,” “sodomite,” “invert,” “onanism.” The author explained, “In some sensitive and imaginative adolescents, Onanism can encourage the tendency to withdraw into themselves and live in a world of reverie.” Then it became too hot even to read. His face was flushed as if with a fever. The book tumbled into his lap; his arm couldn’t hold it up any longer; the words floated and blurred on the white page. Alan leaned against the window, the one that looked out on the plowed field to the north of the house. He gazed at the dry dirt, the trees bleached of color by the searing light. He drank water and wiped his face over and over with a damp cloth. Alan wanted the heat to stop; nothing else mattered.

Waking up the next morning, Alan saw a gray blur out the window. Could it be fog? He put on his glasses and saw that yes, it was, cool lovely fog. He sat in bed reading. He was partway through Swann’s Way and penciled lines in the margins beside his favorite passages. The more he liked one, the more lines he made, two, three, even four. Cooler today, feeling a little happier, his lines became sinuous, like an artist’s strokes. He read a passage describing the sights along a river bank, the buttercups in the meadows, the carp in the water, a fisherman in a straw hat. Before starting homewards, we would sit for a long time there, eating fruit and bread and chocolate, on the grass, over which came to our ears, horizontal, faint, but solid still and metallic, the sound of the bells of Saint-Hilaire, which had melted not at all in the atmosphere it was so well accustomed to traverse, but, broken piecemeal by the successive palpitation of all their sonorous strokes, throbbed as it brushed the flowers at our feet. The luxuriously long sentences themselves resembled the windings of a river, cool and soothing. Alan felt himself drift down them, carried forward by the languid sweep of the prose.

Finally getting up at ten, Alan went into the dining room. He glanced at the table. He’d brought his papers here before going to bed, parts of stories, his journal, which he wrote on sheets of binder paper. These looked like they’d been disturbed, but then his parents were always moving them out of the way, the hazard of using the dining table as his writing desk.

While Alan was eating breakfast, his mother sat down across from him. “In the past, Alan, I’ve left your papers alone,” she said, “but this morning I finally felt I had to read them. You left them out like—like a cry for help.”

Oh Lord, what had he written? What had she read? Alan sat perfectly still.

“I hated my parents sometimes, too,” she said.

Alan went on eating. He hoped she understood that was just how he’d felt at the moment. He also hoped that was the only thing she’d read.

His mother spoke about “going through phases” and “needing someone to talk to.”

“What exactly did you read?” Alan’s voice was controlled. He finished his milk, but left the glass pressed to his lips and watched his mother.

“About the day in Berkeley.”

She read all of that, Alan thought. “I don’t know,” he said, fumbling. “Maybe it was just the heat.”

“The heat?” His mother didn’t seem to understand. There were white daisies in a vase on the table between them, drooping slightly.

His mother launched into a rambling monologue. Had he ever had heterosexual feelings? Alan nodded. That was why she’d asked him once if he held Deena’s hand, if he felt anything for her. Was he homosexual? The tiniest shrug from Alan. Wasn’t there a problem another time, something about a man he’d written to in the city? Had she really forgotten the details? he wondered.

“We always suspected,” she said. “When you had your exam at Kaiser, I asked the doctor to see if anything was wrong—physically, I mean. This is a time in your life when you decide which way you want to go. You can lead a regular family life or you can be exclusively homosexual and live a gay life.” She said the adjective as if she meant it in both senses. “You see, I’m not shocked or upset. That should make it easier for you. Why do you imagine I go to those awful movies? So I’ll understand these things. You ought to be glad you live in the freest time that ever was. Though I’m still not sure I think it’s normal. You should talk about it to Bertha”—their neighbor—“or Uncle Hank or your brother.” Alan laughed inwardly at each name she proposed. As if he would ever dream of talking about his sexual feelings with any of these people!

“If you want psychiatric help,” his mother said, “we’ll get it for you. Virginia Harman was telling me about this Dr. Kirst. She said he’s very approachable, not one of those psychiatrists with a big ego. He would know the things to say. I don’t. I’m no expert. And he won’t tell us anything you don’t want him to.”

“Do you have to say anything about this to Dad?” Alan asked, an edge of pleading in his voice.

“I’ve got to have someone to talk to. I’m not like you. If you don’t see the psychiatrist—”

“I’ll think about it and probably say yes.”

Alan washed his dishes and took a bath. All routine. Then abruptly he would think of a line his mother had read, and everything stood still. His mother made him lunch and helped him change his bed. He told her he’d decided he didn’t want to see a psychiatrist. “I know what I’m doing,” he told her, though unsure whether this was true.

“Well, then,” his mother said, put out, “I’ll go see him.”

“That’s up to you.”

His mother looked at him for a moment. “Have I ever told you that you’re a good-looking boy with lots of talent?”

“Honestly, Mom—”

“I just had to say it. My parents never told me those things. I had to do my own ego boosting.”

His mother appeared to have taken the news pretty well. Where did they stand now? While he and his parents watched television together that evening, Alan would sometimes look at them out of the corner of his eye.

*

The following morning, as Alan was reading in bed, his father knocked on the door and came in. In a spasm of disgruntlement, Alan had rearranged the furniture in his room a few weeks ago. He’d shoved the bed into one corner and placed his desk alongside it, barricading himself from the rest of the house. Now, when his father sat down at the desk, the lamp stood between them and partly hid his face.

“Your mother told me about reading your journal.”

Alan froze. Swann’s Way rested in a pillow on his lap.

“Do you want to see a psychiatrist?” his father asked.

“No,” Alan said.

“I know you’re fed up with your mother and me, and you shouldn’t have to talk to us about these things, but I think you should talk to someone.” A pause. His father shifted in the small chair; Alan hardly moved a muscle. “Is there anything I can do?” his father asked. “Anything you want?”

Alan thought for a moment. “I’d like my own stereo. Then I could spend more time in my room, and we wouldn’t get on each other’s nerves as much.”

“OK,” his father said. Then he left.

That afternoon, Alan’s mother said she’d called Dr. Kirst and arranged for the doctor to speak with him on the telephone.

“I said I didn’t want to talk to him,” Alan protested.

“You owe it to me because I’m your mother and I’m concerned.”

Toward the end of the day, Alan’s father brought into his room four boxes containing a new stereo system. “Just like that,” Alan thought, grateful, pleased; without making him shop for it with him, without any fuss or delay.

That evening, the telephone rang. Alan’s father told him Dr. Kirst was on the line. Alan took the telephone into the living room, closing the door behind him. He was taken back two years to the gentle male voice that had said, “I’m calling about the ad in the Barb.”  Dr. Kirst’s voice was gentle, too, though in an impersonal way. Alan couldn’t recall it afterward except by repeating the words that had formed in his mind at the time: gentle, yet impersonal.

“Could we have a talk?” the voice asked. Alan’s cock stirred and rose despite himself. His heart banged sadly.

“Yes,” Alan said. He did want to talk with someone, he admitted to himself, and this Dr. Kirst was apparently the best he could do. The doctor told him to come to his office at eleven the next day.

When Alan went into the dining room, his mother asked if he’d been polite to the doctor.

“No,” he said, sarcastic at this silly question. “I was incredibly rude.”

*

Alan’s description of the events leading to his appearance in Dr. Kirst’s office was only a few sentences long. The day had been very hot, everyone was in a bad mood, he wrote some rash things in his journal, his mother read them. . . . His voice trailed away.

“That was just a place to begin,” Dr. Kirst said. “Why don’t you start talking about whatever you want?”

Alan wasn’t sure what that was. “Well, I like music, and reading. I’m reading Proust right now.” The doctor nodded as if he knew who this was, though he offered neither question nor comment. “I found him really difficult at first and almost gave up. Then all of a sudden, he didn’t seem that hard anymore.” Alan was about to babble on in this vein, then stopped. “I can either get right to the most important thing or tell you safe stuff.”

“I’m glad you spotted your defenses,” the doctor said.

“Am I defending myself already?” Alan was surprised.

“Yes. Just take the plunge. You won’t blurt out anything you don’t mean to.”

Alan took a deep breath. He formed in his mind the words, I was seduced by a man when I was thirteen.  Then he said them aloud. He told the story of getting picked up by Stacey Canning in San Francisco, omitting explicit details. While he spoke, Alan kept his eyes on the floor, the window blinds, the pumpkin pierced with a knife. Once he stole a glance at the doctor, only to find he wasn’t looking at him, as if careful not to.

After he finished, the doctor said, “I like your admitting that you yourself did a fair amount of the seducing.” Then, “Sex and aggression are our strongest drives, from which the others are derived.” Alan sensed the doctor had expressed this view many times before and was pleased with it. “You should have the desire for the opposite sex somewhere in you, waylaid, overshadowed. If you want to develop it, you can. It’s your choice, and I can help you arrive at a point where you’re able to make this decision.”

“I want to be bisexual,” Alan said after a moment.

Dr. Kirst nodded. Alan could hear the steam shovel demolishing the old building next door, ripping off chunks of the walls. “Have you ever had intercourse with a woman?” the doctor asked.

“No,” Alan said.

“You fear it.”

Alan raised his shoulders to convey his uncertainty about this. “There’s a girl in my geometry class I like, Brenda.” As Alan talked, he found himself using words he never had before when thinking about her. She seemed “pristine,” he said, “virginal.” His relationship with her, which consisted of occasional brief exchanges in class, he described as “nice.” He said, “I suppose I put her on a pedestal.”

“Yes,” Dr. Kirst said. “You even look up when you talk about her.”

“Do I?” Alan was both pleased and disconcerted to have the doctor notice something like this about him. “Maybe I channel my desire away from untouchable females toward barbarian men.” As soon as he used this word to characterize men, he regretted it.

“So erotic is bad?”

“No. It has its own value.”

After the doctor rearranged himself in the too-small chair, Alan’s eyes rested on a couple of inches of pale flesh between black sock and black cuff. The doctor changed his position again a moment later, and the gap was closed.

“Your parents don’t like your being such a hermit,” the doctor said. “Haven’t you found anyone else at school who shares your interests?”

“No. If I like someone, it’s never because of that.” Alan knew he was gesturing a lot with his right hand and swiveling too much in the chair. Chairs like this always betrayed his nervousness.

“Have you ever thought of suicide?”

“No.”

“Your mother read something in your journal. . . .”

Alan’s mind flashed over what he’d written. Oh yes, he had talked about “doing something desperate.” “That isn’t what I meant,” he said.

They went on talking, or rather Alan talked while Dr. Kirst listened. Alan veered from subject to subject, trying to find one that would clearly interest the doctor. When Dr. Kirst shifted again in his chair, Alan paused.

“What made you stop?” Dr. Kirst asked.

“You moved your leg, and I thought I was boring you.”

“My physical self is separated from my mental self. My leg moved because it was uncomfortable.”

A moment of silence. “Why do you do this?” Alan asked abruptly. He was tired of talking about himself.

Dr. Kirst tugged at his beard. “I don’t believe people are ‘sick.’ They just need help sometimes. I like working with young people. They aren’t defensive and close-minded like adults. You’re both an adult and a child, though mostly a child.” Alan nodded, though not sure what he was supposed to make of this. “I’ve found out a lot about you just by your going on and on. I don’t want to anticipate the things you’ll learn about yourself if we continue these sessions. I want you to come upon them yourself. Do you have any questions?”

“I guess I should,” Alan said, “but I can’t think of any.”

“We’ll try meeting a few more times. Then if you want to go on, we can. Goodbye.”

The doctor stood up and ushered Alan into the waiting room. Looking at the clock, Alan found that exactly fifty minutes had passed. He was curious to know how Dr. Kirst kept track of the time, as if this were a magic trick.

Alan’s father was waiting for him in the car. A teacher at the local junior college, he had summers off and could do things like pick Alan up from appointments. He had a worried look on his face, and Alan had trouble not smiling at his discomfort. Alan didn’t say a word to him about his talk with Dr. Kirst.

At home, Alan went straight to his room and turned on his new stereo.

*

The terrible heat returned a few days later. Alan’s parents were out of the house in the morning, playing tennis before the temperature climbed any higher. Alan sat at the dining room table with the radio on to his favorite classical station. He liked having a stereo in his room, but when no one was around, he still preferred working at the big table in the center of the house. He read Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, a pile of other books at his elbow. He needed to know more about so many things: European history, the great religions, Titian. How many years had he lived and not managed to learn more?

“Stirrings in the loin,” as D.H. Lawrence called them in a novel Alan had read, made it difficult for him to concentrate. If he caught sight of a man walking down the street, bare-chested or in a tank top or with shirt unbuttoned, Alan moved from window to window, watching him. In the unnatural light of the house, he felt like a fish in an aquarium, only one who looked out at the world instead of the world looking in at him.

Alan wanted to jack off, knowing that would calm him down. He hoped a porno magazine he’d sent away for would arrive in the mail that day. Earlier in the year, he’d found an ad in Esquire for a photo book of male nudes and ordered it. The book was filled with tasteful shots of impossibly good-looking men bathing in mountain streams or standing in sunny glades. Thanks to this purchase, he started receiving pamphlets from XXX, Inc., which offered more explicit material.

Alan’s parents came home before the mailman arrived, so he read on the loveseat near the front door, keeping watch. At last he heard the mailman coming, his footsteps on the walk, the creak of the lid as he opened the box, the rustle of letters. Alan quietly opened the door and took the mail from the box. Yes, here was his magazine. He put the other items back, not wanting his parents to wonder why he so often brought in the mail.

Alan slipped off to his room. Since the lock didn’t work, he dragged the chest of drawers across the door. Pulling down his pants, he half-reclined on the bed. He jacked off while flipping the glossy pages of Man Sex Around the World.  After he came into a folded-up piece of toilet paper, Alan glanced through the magazine again. The photographs that a moment before had seemed so exciting now looked rather absurd. Similar male bodies performed similar acts and made man sex look depressingly the same in all parts of the world. Beyond his door, he could hear the squeak of his father’s tennis shoes in the hall, the slap of his mother’s exercise sandals coming closer, then retreating.

*

Alan’s parents had an appointment to see Dr. Kirst late that afternoon. Watching them get ready, Alan wondered if his mother thought the warm colors of the dress she’d chosen would influence the doctor’s opinion of her. While they were gone, Alan would sometimes think, What if Dr. Kirst tells them I said . . . ?

When his parents returned an hour later, Alan was practicing the piano. The shiny black sweep of the instrument was like a suit of armor, protecting him. His mother stood in the curve of the piano.

“When we met the doctor, we realized we’d seen him and his wife Marie at political functions.” They were “good Democrats,” she said, working hard on McGovern’s presidential campaign. This was a phrase Alan had never understood, for what was a “bad Democrat”? He wasn’t happy about his mother’s discovery. It seemed to place the doctor more in his parents’ camp than his own.

According to his mother, Dr. Kirst hadn’t said much at the meeting. “He keeps these things confidential. He did tell us that what’s going on with you isn’t a big problem. You’ve just gotten some erroneous ideas from your wide reading. When I see Flo tomorrow, I’m going to tell her you’re getting help, that’s all.” Flo was her sister. “She’s asked me twice before. You may think it doesn’t show, but it does. I don’t want you to feel self-conscious. She’ll understand that this happens to creative people. I’m sorry if you don’t like the idea, but you’re just going to have to put up with it. That’s the way I am. I have to talk about these things.”

After his mother left the room, Alan, annoyed, picked a loud dissonant movement from a Prokofiev sonata and punished the household with it for the next quarter of an hour.

*

Through the open window, his mother called into the house from the front yard. “Alan, come look at this!” Dutifully, Alan went outside and joined her where she stood on the curving cement path. “See this wild strawberry I’ve been taking out?”

“Yes, I see,” Alan said. He was eating a tangerine and focused on the tangy sweetness of each segment, the feel of the pulp inside his mouth.

“Here, pull on this.” Alan yanked out some of the strawberry. “See how the roots spread?”

“Yes.” Alan chewed on the pulp, crushing it gently with his teeth.

“I planted this years ago, then tried to take it out a couple of times, but I’ve never gotten rid of all of it. Do you understand how once you let something like this become entrenched, it’s very hard to get it out?”

“Yes, I understand.” Alan started to walk away.

“Just keep that in mind when you go see Dr. Kirst today,” she called after him.

An hour later, Alan was sitting in the swivel chair at the start of his second session.

“What should I talk about?” he asked.

“Whatever you want,” Dr. Kirst said. “What’s important will inevitably come to the surface.”

Alan wondered if this was true. Speaking this way without much input from the doctor was a little like masturbating, solitary and aimless. Dr. Kirst said he wanted him to talk about whatever he liked, yet Alan could tell when the doctor was more interested or less. When he was more, he leaned forward slightly and watched Alan with narrowed eyes. This is what he did when Alan talked about how his parents had reacted to their meeting with him.

“My mom said you don’t have a big ego like most psychiatrists.” Alan was surprised to find himself lying this way, yet what his mother had actually said about the meeting didn’t seem likely to grab the doctor’s attention.

The doctor nodded, smiling slightly. “Your parents wanted me to give them some sort of plan for our sessions. They’re afraid that otherwise, this process will just go on and on. They see your sexuality as something easy for them to get hold of. It’s the Problem. But I think it’s just part of a whole period of your life in which you’re changing, making decisions.”

Alan’s face assumed a skeptical expression. Was he making decisions about his sexuality? He felt like it was just dragging him along, willy nilly. As if noticing his reaction, Dr. Kirst said, “We can’t usually see we’ve made a decision until we look back.”

The doctor grew quiet, a cue for Alan to talk, to say “whatever he liked.” Alan wandered from topic to topic, searching for another that would spark Dr. Kirst’s interest. After a few false starts, he settled on his friend Deena.

“Sometimes I ask myself what made Deena and me become friends,” Alan said. “She wonders, too. I was telling her the other day what my ideal friend would be like, and she said, ‘Why are you friends with me?’”

Dr. Kirst smiled faintly again. “Why are you?”

Alan shrugged. “I guess—I just like her. And she likes me for some reason.”

Dr. Kirst crinkled his brow, puzzled and amused. “‘For some reason’? Why shouldn’t she like you?”

Alan didn’t have an immediate answer to this. “Deena and I have known each other for a long time, a couple of years. She’s been—well, tested. She’s someone I can depend on, at least up to a point.”

“Does Deena want your relationship to be sexual?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. She’s never said she does.” Deena and him sexually involved? The idea had never occurred to him. Alan skittered on. “I get along pretty well with Deena when we’re on our own, but sometimes I don’t enjoy her when we’re around other people, like our friend Francis. Then all the talk is about what boys they’re seeing, what drinks they’ve tried, who could get what drugs, who went to what party. Listening to them makes me afraid that’s all there is in the world, the kind of life they’re leading. It would be a lot easier for me to accept their way of life if I could point to other people and say, ‘See, it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be like this.’ If I could tell someone I love Brahms, and he wouldn’t look at me as if I’m crazy. Someone older maybe, not one of the kids from school.”

With a quick movement, Dr. Kirst tightened his tie. “Your parents are worried that by cultivating overly sophisticated interests, you’ve cut yourself off from your peers.”

Instantly, Alan felt like a snob, dry and stuffy. Were his interests “overly sophisticated”? “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I just like certain things.”

“Your mother says you don’t take an interest in everyday matters. But talking about those things is what links people together, even if they are superficial.”

Alan flushed, feeling chastised. Riding his bike home after the session, he thought, I can’t pretend to be interested in things when I’m not. I’m sure the doctor doesn’t want me to pretend either, but what does he want?

Alan masturbated in his room later. He turned the pages of a nudist magazine he’d found in his brother’s room and which he sometimes borrowed for this purpose. He looked at the photographs of men playing volleyball and shooting arrows until he had an erection, then turned to the women. He tried to imagine kissing them, touching their breasts. He tried to imagine kissing Brenda or Deena. When he was about to cum, however, near to the last moment, he shifted back to the pictures of men, his mind like a pinball that glances off one slot, yet is destined for another.

*

The rest of July passed, then August. Often the days were sunny and hot, sometimes very hot. Yet there were never more than three or four of these in a row, their excess triggering a reaction, the arrival of fog from the ocean fifty miles away. Aside from this shifting between blue skies and gray, Alan’s days were all pretty much alike. He read, usually, big important novels—having finished Swann’s Way, he forged ahead into The Magic Mountain. Alan and his parents continued to get on each other’s nerves, though things never reached the pitch they had after the trip to Berkeley. It helped to know that the long shapeless days of summer wouldn’t go on forever. His father told him he should exercise. His mother asked if he and Dr. Kirst ever discussed “the meaning of life.” Sometimes Deena or Francis dropped by or he spoke to them on the telephone. “You’re the only one of us who wasn’t deflowered this summer,” Francis said. Deena told Alan she saw him as very romantic, the “forever type.” “You just haven’t found the right girl yet,” she assured him.

One summer day was much like another, except for Tuesdays when Alan saw Dr. Kirst at eleven-thirty in the morning. On Tuesdays, he said things to the doctor he’d never said to anyone else, some things he’d barely even said to himself. Tuesdays always merited a long entry in his journal, not only about what Dr. Kirst said, but how he said it, what he wore, what gestures he made, what expressions he assumed and details like, “The doctor had gotten a hair cut.”

In September, school started. Most of Alan’s classes were boring, his teachers unimpressive, yet at least his schedule divided the day into neat segments, with required changes of locale. He had people around him to observe, sometimes to talk with. Boys to get crushes on, girls to try more self-consciously to picture as girlfriends. He thought less about sex than he had during the summer. While his sessions with Dr. Kirst were still important, they shared the stage with other events, and his journal entries for Tuesdays were sometimes only a little longer than those for other days.

*

Toward the end of the month, Alan noticed Dr. Kirst’s bill on his father’s desk. He’d asked his parents not to tell him how much the sessions cost, and he was in fact shocked to see the figure. His parents were paying someone a lot of money to listen to him; it was like they were hiring a prostitute. Alan sat down heavily in the chair at the desk. He knew what he must do. It might be best to put a stop to things the following week. The longer he went on seeing the doctor, the more he would miss him in the end. Alan gazed out the window for a long time at the silvery twilight. He was aware of all the emptiness in the world, the space between one almond tree and another along Beard Road, one leaf and another on the plum tree a few yards from the window. He imagined his last meeting with the doctor. Dr. Kirst looked regretful. He asked if they could at least be friends. “It isn’t possible,” Alan said, gentle but firm. “All your other patients would want to be your friend, too, and they’d stop paying you.”

That Tuesday, Alan climbed the stairs to the doctor’s office for the last time. As he sat in the waiting room, he fixed the objects it contained in his memory. The black chairs, the ash tray, the child’s drawing, the single light overhead like a white bonbon. I won’t be coming here anymore, he thought. Warm tears came into his eyes. No, he mustn’t cry, mustn’t be weak and sloppy.

September had been cooler than August, but today was an exception, an almost-hot day. When Dr. Kirst emerged from his office, he had the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, revealing forearms covered with fine black hair. Sitting down across from Alan, the doctor took his first long look at him. After a moment, he rolled his sleeves down, concealing his arms.

“I’ve decided to stop seeing you,” Alan told Dr. Kirst.

The doctor’s expression didn’t change beyond a slight furrowing of the brows. “Why?” he asked.

“These sessions cost too much. Besides, things are different now that I’m in school. I feel—” He was about to say “happier,” but that seemed an overstatement. “Better,” he said.

And then he started to cry. Tears slipped down his cheeks, one after another; his chin quivered. Dr. Kirst passed him a box of tissues, and Alan took one. Why was he such a fool? When Dr. Kirst started to talk, Alan stared at the floor.

“You’re running away from yourself,” he said. “You don’t want to have to dig internally. You just want to drift along. Of course what we’re doing will make the rest of your life seem harder by comparison, but I believe it’s more important than school or anything else right now. There’s no better time to do this than when you’re open-minded and inexperienced. When you look back, I think you’ll be glad if you continue.”

Alan lifted his head, about to say something, then dropped his eyes back to the floor.

“What did you expect from seeing me? Did you expect a friend? But a friend wouldn’t listen to you as I do. You must work, come here and work. School and your family and the rest, you’ll have to endure.”

“This costs too much.” Alan was aware he was a poor arguer, able to do nothing except return to his first point.

“If your parents want to spend the money on you, why does it bother you? You don’t feel you’re worth the money, is that it?”

Alan gave a sniffle. “I don’t want to depend on this so much.”

“Why not depend on it? Our lives are full of things and people we depend on. At some point, we’ll come to a mutual agreement about terminating. I had nothing to do with this decision. It’s hasty.”

“I’ve been thinking it over for a week. Is that hasty?”

“Yes, making a decision like that in a week is hasty.” They looked at each other across the small room. “Why don’t you see me once more, so I could at least summarize what I’ve found?”

Alan didn’t hesitate. “All right,” he said. If he didn’t agree to come again, the doctor might think he hadn’t done his job right, his feelings might be hurt.

Alan had expected everything to be so simple. He would tell the doctor he’d decided to stop coming, explain why, then probably get up and leave. Instead, the scene had played out differently. Beneath his professional veneer, the doctor appeared impatient, annoyed.

Alan talked with his father when he got home from school that day. His father made things easy. “Don’t decide with the money in mind,” he said. “If you feel you need this, if it will give you a happier life, the money is nothing. What better way could we spend it if it does you good?” Alan wondered what he could give his parents in return. Only to be cheerful around them, which he had been doing lately.

Having at one time insisted he see the doctor, Alan’s mother now thought extended therapy was an unnecessary luxury. “Why,” she said, “you could read a book and get just as many insights into yourself.”

When Alan thought, “If I don’t keep seeing Dr. Kirst…”, his heart tightened with fear. He’d put himself in a position where he didn’t have anyone to talk to except the doctor, not one single person, and now he stared straight into the face of this reality. If he stopped seeing the doctor, he would have to go back to pouring his thoughts into the void.

After dinner, Alan went to his room. He started to write in his journal about his meeting with the doctor, but only got partway through before he started to cry again and had to find a handkerchief. He wrote some more, then stopped altogether and wept in earnest. The more he thought about how he’d isolated himself, how he hadn’t let anyone know him thoroughly, right up to the hilt, the harder he cried. He covered his mouth with his hand as his sobs grew violent and threatened to become screams.

Finally, Alan walked through the house to the back bedroom to use the telephone there. He controlled his voice long enough to ask Mrs. Bernham if he could speak with Deena, but when she came on the line, he couldn’t speak for a long while and then only brokenly. “Would you like to come over?” Deena said.  “I’ll make a fire and put on some water for tea, and we can sit in the living room and talk. OK?”

After hanging up, Alan found his mother in the living room. “Could you do me a favor and take me to Deena’s?” he said.

His mother eyed him. “Should you go? You seem a little upset.”

“That’s why I want to talk to Deena.”

“Is it not something you can talk to me about?”

“No,” Alan said.

“Well, it’s good to have someone you can talk to.”

When he arrived at her house, Deena asked, “So what’s the matter?”

Alan was usually the one who did the listening in his and Deena’s relationship, and it was difficult for him to switch roles. “I’m feeling very alone,” he said.

“Poor Alan,” Deena said, making a sympathetic face. “That’s hard, I know.”

“My parents are having me see a psychiatrist.”

Deena looked surprised. “I really don’t know why they think you need a shrink.”

“Sex, Deena,” Alan said dryly. “Use your imagination from there.”

“You wouldn’t want me to use my imagination!” she laughed.

Alan looked into the fire Deena had lit. “I’m bisexual.”

Deena’s eyebrows went up; her mouth curved into a smile. “How did you expect me to react to your telling me that?”

“I don’t know. Say, ‘So what else is new?’”

“It doesn’t bother me. I don’t see why you feel embarrassed to talk about it. It doesn’t embarrass me to listen to you. How much more are you one way than the other?”

“About two-thirds homosexual and one-third heterosexual. I don’t really know. I try to be flexible.”

“That’s easier than being just homosexual. You have another outlet.”

“You make it sound like electricity,” Alan said. They laughed.

“I’m kind of bi, too,” Deena said, stirring the fire with the poker, “though not as much as you. I’ve told you, I was attracted to Francis for a while.”

“You could be frank about it, though.”

“Most people aren’t even frank with themselves about something like that. I wonder if I asked, how many people I know would turn out to be bi. My philosophy is, if it feels good, do it! So go do it. Who cares what people think? And maybe someone wouldn’t mind your making a move. Maybe someone feels attracted to you, too. You’ll never know unless you take a chance. What would you have done if you’d had more guts? Say, at the cast party for Fiddler last spring, what would you have liked to be doing?”

Alan blushed. “Making out with Dale Rockwell.”

“Me, too!” They laughed again.

It was only while Alan lay in bed that evening thinking over his talk with Deena, his talk about how he was bisexual, that the thought finally unfolded in his mind: I guess I could have asked if I could kiss her.

*

Alan had another talk with his father a few weeks later. For reasons that weren’t clear to him, Mr. Webster’s attitude had changed, and now he questioned whether the sessions were truly necessary. “It’s a drain on us,” he said. “I want you to be able to go away to college without having to work. Do you know how much that will cost me? Suppose some good deal comes up and you want to go to Europe next summer?”

“I wouldn’t go, that’s all,” Alan said. “This is more important.”

Suddenly, Alan realized it was not more important. He and his father both laughed. “How about if I go so many more times and then stop?” he said.

“That’s a good idea. It will make Dr. Kirst work faster. When we talked with him, he said, ‘Well, it may take a long while.’ Of course, people like him never say how long ‘a long while’ is. What do you think is fair?”

Alan looked at the calendar. “How about four more times?” That would get him through the end of October. Alan felt as if he and his father were conspiring to do away with the doctor—which in a sense they were.

The next day in American History, while the teacher lectured about the French and Indian Wars, Alan daydreamed that Dr. Kirst came to the house after he’d stopped seeing him. The doctor told Alan he missed him, looking eager and anxious. He kissed Alan once, his lips soft in the midst of his bristly black beard. He pressed Alan’s hand, then asked him to play the piano. Alan played a Chopin Nocturne, and the doctor was content. Alan sat next to him on the couch. The doctor’s wife entered the room and sat on the other side, saying, “The doctor has spoken of you often.”

*

The first rain of fall was a special event for Alan, as eagerly anticipated as the first spring flowers were by people in colder climates. This year the first rain came on the following Tuesday. It started early in the morning, so that Alan woke to the sound of it tapping on the roof, the sound of cars moving on the wet road. He hurried to put on his glasses so he could see it more clearly out the window. Riding his bike to school, he parted his lips, letting the rain into his mouth. It touched his face and hands like tiny fingers.

On his way to his session later in the day, Alan took a detour behind some houses on Main Street, across a stretch of neglected land overgrown by eucalyptus trees. He’d discovered an old gone-wild apple tree here, half smothered by eucalyptus. He paused to enjoy the sight of its yellow leaves, shining with rain and tossed by the wind. As the leaves shifted, he noticed a few small, pale apples on the tree. He picked one and stuck it in his jacket pocket.

“You look different today,” the doctor said.

“How?” Alan asked.

“I can’t put it into words.”

Alan looked at him. Was the doctor afraid he might take this the wrong way, as too personal?

“Well, just more alive,” the doctor said.

Alan smiled. He couldn’t take anything seriously today, not the idea of his talking on and on about himself or the doctor’s questions and comments. “It must be the rain. I’m always so glad when it finally comes.”

“I am, too. I stood outside this morning and let it fall on my face. It felt just great. Big drops”—the doctor made a gesture—“like that. Other people grumble about the rain. They’ll use it as an excuse to be all shut up. But I just love it. I hope it rains for twenty days! When I think of the hills greening and the seeds pushing up their shoots…. Now, let’s begin.”

Alan had been anticipating this moment, and not with pleasure; the moment when Dr. Kirst would replace their friendly conversation with a doctor-patient one.

“I want to stop coming,” he said.

Dr. Kirst looked at him blankly. “You can’t. You’ve started, and you’ve got to see it through.”

Alan felt the struggle begin again, but he used his happiness in that moment to sustain him. “My parents and I have agreed I’ll come until the end of October.”

At this, the doctor relaxed a little. “Well, then, this is something we should continue to discuss in the following weeks.”

In other words, Alan thought, you imagine you’ll have time to change my mind.

Neither of them spoke for a moment. The doctor had opened his blinds for once, perhaps in a moment of rain-induced euphoria. The rain, which was descending heavily now, slid down the glass in luscious waves, one overtaking and consuming the other. Beyond the silence of the room, the world was alive with the sounds of water, tapping, gurgling, smacking, whispering.

“Talk about whatever you feel like,” Alan could hear the doctor telling him in his mind. “I saw The Seventh Seal on TV last night,” he said aloud.

“Oh?” The doctor’s tone was neutral, encouraging.

“I know it’s a famous movie, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Parts of it seemed too obscure, and other parts too obvious. There’s this one scene where the knight says how wonderful the milk he’s drinking is, the strawberries he’s eating, the sunlight. It’s such a beautiful moment until he starts pointing at everything.”

Dr. Kirst said, “I was surprised, too, seeing it again, at how uneven it is. Some of the speeches seemed pat.”

Often Alan avoided Dr. Kirst’s gaze, but today he didn’t feel the need. He wondered how the doctor would look without the mask of his beard and without his black-framed glasses, which were also mask-like. On an impulse, he said,

“I have to admit, I know you like Bergman. The Roberts were at our house for dinner on Saturday, and Jim said, ‘You know who’s really enjoying the Bergman series on PBS?  Gerald Kirst.’ They talked with my parents about you.”

Dr. Kirst put his hand in front of his mouth in a pose Alan hadn’t seen him use before. “What did they say?” he asked in a low, controlled voice. Alan liked this more than his usual dry smile.

“Oh, nothing bad,” Alan assured him. “Jim said you’re the most enthusiastic guy he knew. He said, ‘When Gerald Kirst puts his arm around me and says we’re going to win the election, I actually believe it.’”

Silence, the doctor attending.

“What’s your favorite Bergman film?” Alan asked.

The doctor thought for a moment. “Persona, I guess.”

“Yes, I’ve seen that.” Alan was glad he could report this.

“The dynamic between the two main characters is fascinating. The actress refuses to speak, and the nurse has to do all the talking. You start to see that the one who says nothing has the power.”

Looking for a new subject, Alan talked about the recital he’d gone to on Sunday at the home of his piano teacher, Mrs. Crespo. “I sat there listening to the other students play, saying to myself, ‘If only they knew what I’m really thinking, what I really am.’”

“And what are you?”

“A sex maniac, I guess. I was alone with Mr. Crespo while he showed me his boring paintings. He’s old, bald. I don’t even like him. Still, he is a man. I’d have sex with him if he asked me. I’d have sex with any man who asked me.”

The doctor shifted in his chair. Alan wondered why he didn’t get one he found more comfortable. “Why do you see everyone in sexual terms?” he asked.

“I know, it blocks out everything else in my mind,” Alan admitted. “And because I think about everyone sexually, I assume they think about me that way, too.”

The doctor adjusted his position again. “You see sex as the only way to show affection for another person.”

“It’s true. The only reason I can imagine adults want to know me is that they desire me sexually. That’s what I have to offer them.”

“I think you’re projecting your needs onto other people. Of course, when it comes right down to it, anything can be taken erotically. A beautiful day, a flower. But you don’t always have to consummate the erotic element.”

A half-hour later, Dr. Kirst was ending the session. He stood up, prompting Alan to rise. After putting on his jacket, Alan reached into the pocket and removed the wild apple he’d picked earlier.

“Would you like an apple?”  He held it out to the doctor.

The doctor looked at it. “Yes,” he said, slightly surprised, wary. “That would be nice.” Their fingers carefully didn’t touch as the doctor took the apple from him and set it on his desk.

On his ride back to school, Alan picked another apple off the old tree. He took a bite of it while he stood there in the rain, with the wet yellow leaves blowing this way and that. The apple was tiny and hard, but had a peculiar taste that he liked, sharp and sweet. Alan smiled, biting into it.

*

On the last Tuesday in October, Alan wore the same shirt he had the first time he saw Dr. Kirst, the one with tiny red and white checks that blurred into pink from a distance. He wondered if the doctor would notice, remember.

The day was sunny and warm. Reaching First Street, Alan got off his bike and walked it along the pavement. He passed the construction site next to the doctor’s building where, after the old structure had been torn down, a new one had been rising over the last few months. Beyond a chain link fence, Alan noticed a young workman, lean, tan, shirtless. He stood just inside the unfinished building in what would soon be a window and held a wooden beam above his head. An older worker kept saying to him, “Don’t let it fall, don’t let it fall,” and the young man kept replying, easy, confident, “Come on, man, I won’t, I won’t let it fall.” Alan couldn’t help but stop on the sidewalk and stare at the man. His full torso was displayed in the midday light, his lifted arms exposing the paler skin on his sides, the effort of holding up the beam making the muscles on his arms stand out. Some people passed on the sidewalk and could see Alan looking at the man, but he didn’t let this deter him. The man himself either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the teenage boy gawking at him. Alan wanted to linger, but after a few minutes, he tore himself away; he couldn’t be late for his session. He parked his bike in the alley and walked up the stairs to the doctor’s waiting room.

“Are you still sticking to your decision that this is the last time you’ll come?” the doctor asked once they were seated across from each other. They’d debated this question during each of the last three sessions. In an odd way, Alan had enjoyed these discussions because at least they forced the doctor to talk to him instead of hanging back in shadowy silence. To talk to him, and also to try to persuade him, to win him over to his point of view. Yet Alan had held firm. Now he simply nodded.

“Why?” Dr. Kirst asked.

“For reasons you already know,” Alan replied.

The doctor permitted himself an audible sigh. “What do you want out of this last session then?”

“I don’t know.” Alan, a little exasperated, felt like saying, You’re the expert. Why don’t you tell me what we should be doing?

“Well then, let’s pick up where we left off.”

And where exactly was that?, Alan asked himself, trying to recall how their session had ended the week before. Soon Alan was talking about a familiar theme, how he had trouble making friends with other kids his age.

“I’d rather be with my books than with people who aren’t the kind I want to know.”

“You have to be more open-minded.” The doctor banged his hand lightly on the arm of his chair to emphasize this. “Aren’t there any girls at school you’re attracted to and want to get to know better?”

“Yes, but then I see they aren’t any more like me than the others, so I don’t do anything.”

Another sigh.

“But if I don’t feel any affinity with them,” Alan said, “if we don’t like the same things, have the same interests . . .”

“What about that friend of yours, Deena?”

“We don’t agree about a lot of things.”

“You don’t have to agree on everything.”

“But I’m not attracted to her.”

Dr. Kirst wore a tie that was particularly wide and bright. It had slipped to one side, and now, with a flick of his hand, he adjusted it to form a thick vertical line up his chest. “I think you must force yourself to have a heterosexual relationship,” he said, looking Alan in the eye. “Find someone you are attracted to and work at it. It’s so much easier to go back into your books, but the easiest thing isn’t always the best for us.”

“I know,” Alan murmured.

“I also think you’re wrong to want to be involved with older people. You need to engage with young ones like yourself.”

At this, Alan shook his head. “I feel like I’m going to have to look outside the kids at high school to find friends.”

The doctor lifted his shoulders in a way that said, If that’s the way you see things, I won’t argue with you anymore. “As you work on a heterosexual relationship, you should be reading authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos. Proust, Gide, Lawrence – they’re all narrow-minded and limited. They’re elitists.” The doctor’s finger shot out toward Alan. “And that’s what you are, an elitist. You’ve got to learn to be more tolerant.”

Alan stared at the picture above the doctor’s head, the one with the knife stuck in the pumpkin. In his mind, he heard the doctor say, “Sex and aggression are our strongest drives.”

“I am tolerant all day, dealing with the other kids at school, but that’s different from seeking them out, sitting down with them and trying to talk seriously. They must be content the way they are or why don’t they do something to change?”

“How can you say that?” Dr. Kirst almost exclaimed. “You have no way of knowing they’re content. You just don’t want to take the trouble to dig beneath the surface. We never got to talk about your feelings of superiority, and we would if you were continuing.”

Alan felt small and unspecial. Why should he hold himself aloof? He was no better than the other kids. This last session was going badly, and he felt in the wrong in so many ways. It wasn’t criticism he wanted, even legitimate criticism. He wanted the doctor to tell him, You’re basically all right. You may become a fine person in time.

Alan stumbled through the rest of the session. Finally, Dr. Kirst asked, “Do you still feel you must stick to your decision to stop coming?”

Alan looked at the doctor, at the black mask-like beard, the eyes obscured behind the sheen of his glasses, the rather bulky body forced into the confines of the too-small chair. The blinds were closed as usual, and the standing lamp in the room lit him with a wan artificial light.

“Yes, I want to stop,” Alan said.

“It would be so much better for you if you came. If you want to start again, just call me. I’ll be hoping you will.”

With that, the doctor stood up, marking the end of the session. Alan looked about the room, his thoughts in a muddle. The doctor followed him to the waiting room. Alan began putting on his jacket, then realized he couldn’t while he held his backpack. “Goodbye,” Dr. Kirst said. Alan turned toward him as the door to his office closed.

Stepping outside into the warmth and sunlight, Alan retrieved his bike from the alley and started walking it west along the street. If he hurried, he would have time to visit the library before returning to school. He could check out a novel by one of the authors Dr. Kirst had urged on him, Hemingway or Dos Passos. These books would be like an injection he could administer to himself, making him more robust, more egalitarian. But then an outburst of hammering reminded him of what lay in the opposite direction. He might get to see that handsome young workman again, half-naked in the dazzling light, his body gleaming with sweat, moving with ease and confidence. His heart beating out a clear, steady rhythm of desire, Alan turned and headed back the way he’d come.

How To Be a Badass (Junior Edition) by Ravi Mangla

The Airshaft by Lucious Vaughn

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