The Good Psychologist

A Novel

Noam Shpancer

Henry Holt and Co.

The psychologist sits in his small office, rests his elbows on his desk, buries his face in his hands and wishes that his four o'clock won't show up. He doesn't usually take appointments after three in the afternoon. But he has decided to deviate from his usual routine for her. A small concession because she works late and sleeps late and can only make it in the late afternoon, that's what she said over the phone. Her voice, cheerless and scattered like a motel room abandoned in haste, raised a vague curiosity in him. Small concessions, he likes to tell his clients, are like pocket change: it's what most of us have to work with, in the final analysis. Our small change is our daily habits and routines, our everyday, and the measure of one's life emerges, in the final analysis, from the sum of these everydays.

His daily routine, for example, is simple and straightforward. He wakes up early each morning in his small apartment, showers and gets dressed. The apartment is deliberately dark. Tall wooden shelves, heavy with books, line the living room walls. In the past, during his days of searching and wandering, he used to immerse himself in these books. He has long since tired, or, to his mind, settled down. But still he finds solace in these paper bricks that line the walls, as if they were holding up the roof.

After he dresses he goes to the kitchen, makes himself a cup of tea and sits down to read the paper. Assorted objects—gifts and souvenirs given to him by his clients over the years—are strewn around the kitchen. Above the small, square table hangs a framed print of Bonnard's Table Set in a Garden, a gift from a former client, a borderline cellist who appeared on his lawn one night and set her hair on fire. You're a cockroach, she yelled at him then, a cockroach. If I step on you, you'll be squashed. He likes to stare at the picture: a table set among the trees, one chair, a bottle of wine, and yellow light spilling through the branches, startlingly alive.

The decorated brass plate on the table was given to him by another client, a travel agent with long braids, after he helped her get over an ex-boyfriend. When he asked her to describe a memory that could represent their relationship, she told him how the boyfriend taught her to brush her teeth while listening to the radio. Brush from the beginning of a song until it ends, the boyfriend said; that's how you'll know you have brushed for three minutes, as you should. And then she cried.

The colorful earthenware mug he holds in his hands was given to him by a client whose name he has forgotten, an artist who said, you've helped me a lot, and asked if she could leave him a small gift, and stood for a second at the door on her way out and whispered, my husband beats me, and left and did not return.

The blue towel with which he dries his hands was given to him by an obsessive-compulsive client who used to wash every part of her body with its own towel, sixteen towels per shower, and then had to wash each towel separately six times and then wash her hands six times in the sink. The sight of an errant air bubble in the hand soap bottle would compel her to wrap the bottle in a brown bag and toss it in the trash and run to the store to buy another.

In a kitchen cabinet stands an old half-empty bottle of brandy given to him years ago by a client who later killed himself like this: he sat in the empty bathtub and cut his left wrist with a butcher knife. Then he tried to slash his right wrist but failed. He didn't give up. He put the knife between his knees and sawed his right wrist, up and down. On a rutted pizza box in the living room he had scribbled a will: Please cremate my body. Put my ashes in a trash can. Thank you.

By now, the psychologist believes he has solved most of the problems of daily existence. He lives on a quiet, shaded street. His neighbors are busy with their own lives. His apartment is pleasant. The refrigerator is full and hums with satisfaction. The psychologist does his clinical work judiciously, between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon, and he compensates for the lost income by teaching an evening class every semester at the local college.

The psychologist has not yet solved the problem of sex. There are, to be sure, gauzy late night shows on cable. There are, too, groaning online sites. In the dresser hides an old beat-up DVD from the Better Sex series that he used years ago in his Human Sexuality course. The students giggled at the sight of several poor couples (real people, not actors, said the enclosed brochure) struggling to appear nonchalant and natural in front of the camera. But the psychologist finds fast relief, and a certain gratification, at the sight of one of the participants, a gloomy, dark-haired and sharp-nosed woman who stars, along with her mustachioed partner, in the "Mutual Masturbation Techniques" chapter.

Beyond that there's Nina, or at least the memory of Nina, the hope of her.

Every day he drives to the Center for Anxiety Disorders— two small rooms on the ground floor of a building that was once a cheap motel and then abandoned. Over time it sprouted several businesses: an insurance company, an investment office, a travel agency, a photography store. Across the street, on the bank of the murky river that runs through the city, a new mall is being built. The noisy cacophony of trucks, cranes and tractors seeps through his office walls like the commotion from a children's playground. Across the narrow parking lot cars constantly fill the recently opened car wash. Sometimes he gazes from his office window at this daily parade, and sad, sweet music rises in him, like longing, at the sight of this attentive cleaning, the care with which soft towels and soft eyes caress the hoods, hubcaps, and bumpers. The traffic had slowed to a crawl this morning on his way to work. No Answer, declared the bumper sticker on the back

of the car that cut in front of him suddenly. Idiot, he cursed at the driver, a skinny, bald- headed guy whose elbow poked out of his car's window like a reddish nose, and immediately he smiled to himself and forgave. Here's another example of the fundamental attribution error, he'll say later in class: You're waiting at the traffic light, perhaps, in a hurry to get somewhere; the light changes to green and the driver in front of you doesn't move. Immediately you call that driver an idiot and attribute to him all manner of terminal stupidity and rottenness of character. The next day you're at the light, first in line this time, but this time you're in no hurry and therefore humming with the radio and deep in thought. The light changes, and the driver behind you honks his horn. You turn around and call that driver—Idiot! Well? It turns out that, usually, neither you nor he are idiots. Both of you are but kindly, decent folk. The context, the situation determines our actions. He who wants to figure out human behavior should examine the circumstances before plunging into personality dissections—risky operations that usually fail and kill the patient, if there is a patient, if such personality dissections are not themselves the disease.

No Answer. That driver, an idiot or just absentminded, has already disappeared in traffic, but his sticker's announcement continues to gnaw at the psychologist's mind. He takes exception to all these bumper stickers, the jewelry and printed T-shirts, the tattoos with Chinese letters of obscure meaning. Ostensibly all these branding gestures are rooted in an attempt to assert one's identity and individuality, to escape a kind of annihilating anonymity. But the entire effort seems childish to him, exhausting, essentially anxious, and, in the final analysis, futile. The everyday is often seen as a punishment, an oppression against which one is supposed to rebel and rage; break and overthrow it with ceremonies and celebrations; delay it with speeches and exclamation points and parties and noise; cover it up in thick layers of makeup, mountains of words, loud music, and piles of food. The psychologist, however, finds comfort in the quiet murmur of the city's daily flow, the hushed rumbling of conversation that can be understood even without listening. The psychologist prefers the quiet, gray anonymity of the kind the city lavishes kindly on its inhabitants. All these escape efforts, the hassle of planning elaborate meals and dressing up, the compulsive marking of assorted special occasions, all these are suspect in his eyes. It is, after all, in those very special moments that the everyday stubbornly rises, slippery as smoke, seeps in and latches onto consciousness. In a room filled with the scent of fresh love an ugly fly is always buzzing. Sand invades, sticky and malevolent, between the thighs of the lovers on the beach at sunset. The food cart squeals its tuneless song into the patient's hospital room, slices the doctor's speech somewhere between the sorry and the cancer. And here's a dwindling roll of toilet paper, a missing set of keys, a speck of sauce splashed unknowingly on the chin, dirty dishes in the sink, mud on the heels of the shoes. The psychologist has long ago surrendered to the everyday. He likens it to a wide and fast river, silent and strong, at once moving and still. Perhaps a total acceptance of this continuous prosaic moment, he thinks, allows one to truly transcend it, to arrive at what may lie beyond.

And still the bumper sticker issue rankles him. Surely there are some answers, somewhere. And beyond this, jewelry can be taken off and T-shirts changed and tattoos covered up. But a bumper sticker on a car is like a frozen facial expression, an irremovable mask, permanently fixed in place. And here's the paradox, he thinks: that sharp-elbowed baldy surely put the sticker on his bumper as a gesture of life, of giddiness, or as a sort of railing against diminishment, against erasure; an effort to sharpen his definition in the world. But the lack of response to shifting circumstances is an attribute of death. Thus the bumper sticker—a frozen smile on a corpse now flowing down the asphalt river—is, by definition, an emblem of demise, an epitaph.

You get to death from everywhere, Nina will quip when he'll tell her about his day on the phone later that evening.

Not just me, all of us.

Yes, she'll say, all of us, but not here. Not now. Isn't it you who likes to tell your clients how important it is to live in the here and now? Isn't it your speech that all fears emerge from projecting backward—what have I done? Or forward—what am I going to do? Isn't that your speech?

You're not my client.

So what am I to you?

It is being investigated. We're examining it.