Friday, January 6, 2012

Therapy Session Part 1

by R. Welch

[To be published in three parts.]

Hello Doctor. My name is Adam. Adam Nilson? We spoke on the phone yesterday? I really appreciate you finding a way to see me so soon. I know you must have a busy schedule.

I've never done this before, so I'm not sure how it works. Do I just start talking? Do you want to ask me some questions first? Really? That surprises me. Well, I'm not sure, I guess I imagined you asking me questions and then...writing down the answers I gave. No, not dictation! Just the...highlights. I even came up with some clever sayings that would be...suitable for print! But just as well - they don't seem quite so clever anymore. So I just dive right in huh? Welcome to the deep end of the pool...
I'm kind of nervous. Can you tell?

Oh absolutely! I've thought of little else since I called! It's funny, but I just realized I was sort of picturing you more like Frasier Crane. No! Not even close! And by the way? I'm pretty sure Frasier Crane would write stuff down.

...No-one knows I'm here, you know. It's my little secret, at least for the time being. I mean my wife, mainly. Because I - I don't want to upset her I guess. I don't want her to think there's anything to worry about. Well, I think there might be. Maybe. I think that's why I'm here. But this will just be a one shot deal. I'm not really interested in coming here weekly or whatever. I'm sure we can sort this out in an hour.
I needed to come in so quickly because - well - I guess you could say I'm in a sort of crisis, I think. I'm not sure what to call this! Everything is tipping.
It doesn't seem like a strange choice of words to me. Everything is tipping. ...You know, I've always imagined myself as - delicately balanced. All the pieces of my life, of me, my past and my present - are all very carefully stacked and arranged to...maintain that balance. Every piece placed just so! Maybe everyone feels this way about their lives, I've no idea. But for me, after the...well... being really meticulous about such things proved...necessary. And now, rather suddenly actually, it feels like that balance is coming undone. The floors are starting to tilt, and all that expensive china is sliding off the shelves. I can't let that happen! I have obligations!

Ok. Vertigo. Of course. Does calling it that make a difference?

It's because I've decided to go back. Back to where...everything happened. life sort of...burned down. My little balancing act was in direct response to that - that fire. It was my way of coming to terms with the rubble. Everything was scattered all over the place...
I'm not making sense, am I? I will. Eventually. I'll get clearer. Eventually...
Ah, New York, actually. I know, I know, it’s not like its halfway around the world, but it might as well be, for me. I used to live there, but I haven't been back for a long time. Not for years.

Actually I've been back once, in 14 years, but that one time I didn't go into the city, not to Manhattan. I was in Queens and God knows, even Queens almost killed me. So going back, to Manhattan this time, right back to where I lived - I don't even think I can get to my friend Jack's place without - I mean, the West Side is the West Side. I'll be right back! Right back where it all happened! I can't go! Why am I doing this?

A fire! I told you! My life burned down in a single afternoon. You should have written it down...

No. No, I'm not speaking literally. Fuck!


....I was married before. And I wasn't a good husband. But I don't think that made me a bad person. I didn't think it then, and I still don't. But I also wasn't a good father. And that was bad. I'd like to think I was a different person then. Because it's as if I didn't know. I was - too wrapped up in myself - too self involved - and I never really even thought about it! How important it is. I know it now. I don't think I'm a bad father now. (You should probably ask my kids!) But when I was in my 20's my priorities were all screwed up, and I didn't even realize it. It never even occurred to me. By the time I figured it out, it was too late. I was young, and I was who I was. Nothing can be done about it now. I'm sorry.

You're not the first person to make that observation. I guess I'm reflexively apologetic. ...I'm really gonna have to get you a pencil and a piece of paper!

I met my first wife, Nina, when we were both studying in Europe. At the Free University in Amsterdam. We were both taking the same course and, amazingly, we turned out to be there from the same college back home! It really was the most surprising thing! Because we had no idea, and had never met or even seen each other on campus. But there we were! It was a history course, and we were tracing the reformation of the Catholic Church throughout Europe, and traveling to some of the places where something relevant to the reformation had taken place. We were actually about half way through the course before we realized our common link, in this tiny village in the middle of France, Vezelay, where some saint had a chapel of note. We were staying in an 11th century monastery, sitting next to one another at breakfast being served to us by Benedictine monks, when Nina noticed that the cream I'd added to my coffee had separated. She said she wished she'd packed the mini fridge she had in her dorm room, and I asked her what school she went to and we both had this surge of happiness at finding one another in a place so far away. It really was kind of - magical. And it became, fairly quickly, romantic. I think we both got swept up in it; the romance of it all, you know? Eating fresh German pastries while strolling along the banks of the Rhine. Picking wildflowers in a meadow outside Salzburg. Listening to someone playing Chopin etudes on a piano in our chalet in Lauterbrunnen. Not a bad way for a courtship to begin. In fact, it was wonderful. And it didn't take us very long to fall in love.

Anyone would have fallen in love, under those circumstances, don't you think? I do! You'd have to be a stone not to! And the sex was... intense. I'm pretty sure that had a lot to do with being 20 or 21, but knowing you're making love while sailing up the Rhine, or in a hotel room overlooking the Elim canal in was different! It seemed different! We were both a little overwhelmed, I think. It carried us forward long after we were back home and out of school. And it set a standard for our lives together. Other couples we knew got basement apartments in Beverly or Salem. But not Nina and me. We had to live in Boston, at the bottom of Beacon Hill, with a view of the Charles. We were constantly trying to replicate the aura of Vienna or Rome as the backdrop to our romance. I think now we weren't living a life so much as making a story. And it disguised, for a remarkably long time, the sad truth that we really weren't suited for one another at all. I was too strong a personality for someone like Nina, who had been bred to acquiesce. I was too certain; too cocky but Nina was unsure of herself for some reason. She was an only child and the absolute epicenter of her parent's world. You would think someone so constantly affirmed would have had more self confidence, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on her. She was very deferential and insecure, and I saw myself as so informed and - dynamic! I was neither of those things of course, but you could have never convinced me of that then! So, just like her parents, I steamrolled right over Nina, until all my opinions, and I had lots of those, became hers. Until it felt like she just mimicked me - mirrored my every conceit, and what was initially very flattering, I came to resent, along with her. Maybe, if we had met under less glamorous circumstances, and then not continued to live that way, we wouldn't have lasted more than a year or two. As it turned out, we lasted a good deal longer than that.

She was beautiful too. That helped. We had a nice time together for the first couple of years. But then we got married. At the age of 24! And we settled into this routine of working on our careers and getting together for the increasingly less frequent meal and the kind of sex you have while glancing at the clock on the beside table. I don't know what happened. It had all come so easily, this life we were living, and it led to a carelessness that infiltrated everything else, I guess. And then I started seeing the woman I'm married to now. Jill.

I worked with Jill. That's where we met. Just friends, you know, work friends? Not someone you saw outside the office, but she was very smart and funny, and I liked her. And then she needed someone to feed her cat while she was on vacation, and I volunteered, so I had cause to go over to her apartment, where I had never been before. And I discovered her walls were lined with books! The most incredible collection of books! Biographies on Tolstoy and Trotsky. Novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot, and Dickens and the diaries of Virginia Woolf, all six volumes, in hardcover! Essays by Emma Goldman. The complete works of Jerzy Kosinski for God's sake! Auden! Beckett! Joyce! Dostoyevsky! Pynchon! I could go on and on. It was amazing.

I'd been an English major and was a bit of a snob about it. Probably more than a bit! I made value judgments about people based on the books they read and would frequently rearrange the shelves in Brentano's to showcase the works of the authors I thought worthy. And here was this woman with this astonishing collection! I'd never seen her reading anything but cheesy murder mysteries and now I couldn't wait for her to get home. I saw her in a different light. And we became friends in a different way, after that. You know, we shared books, discussed authors we admired, something I could never do with Nina because she only read what I gave to her and then adopted whatever my opinion was about the thing. And I'd become...disenchanted with my opinions.

All this coincided with a progression I'd been making in my own head, finally, that I didn't know all the things I thought I knew; what I'd been so certain I knew! It was something that had started before Jill, but knowing her accelerated the pace. What had been white noise in the back of my head found a voice, and it was growing louder by the minute.

I remember sitting across our dining room table one evening, listening to Nina chatting with our guests, echoing my opinions on something I realized I knew nothing about...and as embarrassed as I felt personally, I was more embarrassed for her! It left me with the horrible feeling of losing respect for someone I cared about. She'd been so easily taken in!

Enter Jill. We had grown close in a way that had become very important to me. And then, one crazy New Year's Eve we got out of work early and ended up at her place and we became...intimate, and I was suddenly living one of those actor's nightmares, where the lights come up and everything is different! None of the props look familiar and the door you're supposed to exit through is no longer there!

I knew that I needed this intimacy I'd found. Nina and I didn't have intimacy. We had...New Yorker subscriptions and matching end tables. I didn't want it anymore. I wasn't sure I ever had!

And so I told Nina. I thought I was being honorable but I was probably just hoping she'd throw me out. It seemed so clear we'd made a mistake that needed to be fixed! And I expected her to agree with me. She always agreed with me! But...she didn't! She was devastated. It hurt her terribly. I think I was so startled by this response, my resolve wavered and I was unable to follow through. I kept promising Nina we would work it out, while telling Jill I would move out and in with matter what I did, I was hurting someone I loved...both of them crying every time I left one to return to the was a horrible time.

It was agreed that Nina and I should move away, to a new place where we could make a new start. One of us came up with the idea and the other one agreed, but I have no recollection of who did what. It's incomprehensible to me now, but at the time, I guess it seemed like the right thing to do. It intrigues me, with the hindsight of many years, because I know now how significant that decision proved to be and there's something morbidly satisfying in being able to identify the precise moment the wheels were set in motion. This was that moment. But the reasons behind it elude me now. There's never one reason for anything...

I told myself Nina was my wife and that was supposed to mean something. That I couldn't leave her until she agreed with me that it was the right thing to do. I owed her that much. Jill was stronger. Jill would understand. Jill would wait. I think there's some truth in all of those things. It's also true I couldn't deal with the failure of ending a marriage that was barely 18 months old. What that was going to say about me!

I had the intimacy I said I wanted, and I opted for the facade. Who knows? Maybe it was the intimacy itself that so intimidated me. Maybe I was just...afraid.

But the reasons, whatever they may have been, don't matter now. What matters is that we moved to New York. To a little one bedroom on 84th, off Columbus. Act Three was going to be a West Side Story, which turned out to be not that much different from the Back Bay story we left behind. Same play. Different set. 

[Part 2 will continue next Friday. ]

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