PROUSTIAN MEMORY

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Nearly every morning, after filling a small bowl with fresh organic berries, I spread a tablespoonful of raw crunchy organic almond butter on two brown rice crackers while the water boils for coffee. The reason I’m so precise about the amount of almond butter is because almond butter is caloric. Healthy but caloric.

When raw, without added sugar or salt, it’s also surprisingly expensive, which is interesting to consider. Why should doing nothing to organic almond butter cost more than roasting, salting, and sweetening it first? If I were a culturally responsive and critical blogger, I might have posted about that. But as I’ve always been at heart a me-me-me (and mine) person, I have other thoughts whenever I dip the knife into the glass jar of almond butter and spread the measured amount I’ve allotted to myself on the crackers.

It would be easier to keep dipping until I had enough to cover all the cracker surfaces, preferably thickly. However, given that I’m still vain (admittedly with less and less to be vain about, except I still fit a size 6), I don’t do that. Instead, I try to get as close to the edge of the crackers as possible with the almond butter available on the knife, carefully scraping it thin and out with the blade.

And then nearly every summer morning, rising out of the depths of me as I wield my knife, comes a picture of a narrow-boned slender young woman of perhaps twenty in a miniscule bikini. There’s no extra flesh at all — does she ever eat? — yet you couldn’t call her underweight. She is perfect for her purpose, whatever that may be. She has deeply tanned Mediterranean skin and long nearly straight dark hair. She sits dockside under a café umbrella with two dark men in the sparkling port of Leros, a Greek island in the Dodecanese between the Greek mainland and Turkey. Are the three Greek? Italian? (This part of Greece is a summer getaway for many Italians.) The sun is high, the water — just yards from the café — a saturated gorgeous blue which makes anyone who’s ever seen it long to be back in Greece again. The dark men, in stylish sunglasses, are shirtless; they wear only shorts. Leather slides dangle from their bare feet. They have tangles of dark chest hair, dark straighter hair on arms and legs.

I can’t see her face because she’s bent over two thick slices of warm Greek white bread on a white plate; she’s preparing the bread for one of the men. He’s twenty-six or twenty-eight. He must know she’s doing this for him; he doesn’t touch the cup of bitter black coffee that was part of his order. He’s talking with the other man and smoking while he waits. I can’t hear them well enough to make out the language. As is customary, the bread is served with a lump of butter and a small cuplet of Greek honey. Her hair falling over her face, the young woman spreads the butter slowly and meticulously over the entire warm surface of both slices, until the bread is thinly covered all the way to the soft crusts.

Then she begins again with the honey, teasing it out patiently and slowly over every bit of surface of now melted butter. And again. And yet again. What is this all about? Is it what he expects of her? What she feels is fitting for him? (God forbid a morsel of un-honey-buttered bread enter his mouth?) Why not order more honey? Because he’s the one who’s paying and might not like her not making do? None of this breakfast is apparently for her. And he seemingly ignores her. Not even a friendly pat of thanks. The other man nods, rises and leaves.

We have to leave too. We came to Leros earlier this morning from Lipsi, an even smaller island where we’re spending the summer, to pick up some prints made from a memory stick sent with an acquaintance the week before. Now the noon Flying Dolphin is coming into harbor.  It will soon turn around for the return trip to Lipsi. No waiting for stragglers.

I hadn’t thought about that young woman for a long time. Then I discovered almond butter. Now suddenly, more than ten years later, she comes to me in the mornings as I ply my knife out to every cracker edge, just as she did with the honey. What was their relationship back there on Leros, the dark man with chest curls and his lean subservient handmaiden? I don’t want to think she was just for fun. I like to imagine he had brought her to Leros for a week or two to get her away from some laborious, repetitive job, either in Athens or Naples, because in his way, whatever that was, he cared about her. I want to think they had some kind of relationship; her body wasn’t quite beautiful enough for her to be just arm candy. At other times, on other islands, we saw vacationing men with gorgeous, scantily dressed young women brought along to the beaches to have their luscious glistening near naked flesh everywhere shamelessly palmed and squeezed and fondled, day-long foreplay on public display.  Then when the sun went down, these beauties were fed, doctored with alcohol, and taken to bed, where presumably whatever skills they had, if any, were put to use behind bedroom doors. These young women did nothing all day but lie extended on the sand on their stomachs, idly turning the pages of the same magazine over and over, apparently without shame at their soft supple bodies being so openly degraded by idle male hands, like large pieces of silly putty without feelings.

I hope my young woman wasn’t like that. She’s in her early thirties now. If he didn’t marry her (or she decided in the end she didn’t want him), I hope she found someone else. I also hope she eats now and then, and that whoever she’s with talks to her and loves her. Anyone so dedicated to making two slices of warm white bread as perfectly appetizing as possible, given the limited resources available, deserves at least that, if not more.

You might also wonder why another woman, this one in her seventies, who was sitting near the water in a Greek café while waiting for the Flying Dolphin to take her back to another island, would be so focused on a young woman more than fifty years younger as she buttered bread and spread honey on it. I can only speculate. Because I never had a body like hers? Because dark Mediterranean men with curly chest hair had never looked at me, even in what might have been called my “prime?” (Whether I would have wanted them to is another question.) Because I’m always interested in food, even when I might not let myself eat it because it’s bad for me, has no nutritional value, etcetera etcetera? Or just because I’m always watching other people, listening to them if I can get them to talk, trying to learn something more about life and how we live it, each in our different way, before my own comes to an end? Whichever it was (or all of them), it has now led to me having Proustian memories in the kitchen nearly every morning.

It would be a lie of omission if I didn’t add that when the young woman on Leros comes to mind while I’m putting almond butter on rice crackers, those hot, bright blue and white summers on Lipsi also rise up, almost as alive as they used to be. As Proust observes about the effect of dipping a petite madeleine (a little fluted French cake) in a cup of limewater tea such as his Aunt Leonie gave him as a child when his family brought him from Paris to visit her house in Combray:

And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl    with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which the   moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive           shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all        the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the          Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the    church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, which is acquiring         form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. [From Lydia Davis’s translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.]

It seems almond butter – organic, raw and crunchy – is my petite madeleine. I once wrote a first chapter of what was going to be a novella about Lipsi. It was called “An Island of Their Own.” (I did cast it in the third person then, but now there’d be no need that. Almost everyone who’d be in it is either dead or doesn’t read English.) And that was before I discovered almond butter. Maybe I should resurrect it and continue. Not a promise. But I’m not stopping the almond butter in the foreseeable future. So who knows?

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NOT JUST A NAME ON A CARD

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When in a feeble effort to throw things out, I go through souvenirs of trips Bill and I have made together since our first one to Lipsi and Turkey in the summer of 2002, I frequently find business cards given to us by people of whom I have only a scrap of recollection and whom we will certainly never meet again. Out they go:  the card of a businessman with whom we chatted for twenty minutes in the Istanbul airport almost twelve years ago.  (He thought digital technology was going to be big.)  The card of a couple met on a train from Lugano to Geneva, who were going on to Paris. (The husband, significantly older than the wife, was the youngest of seven Jewish siblings, the other six of whom had all been exterminated by the Nazis during their occupation of France.)  The card of a youngish man who taught English at the University of Vermont and was staying overnight at a bed and breakfast in Antigua, Guatemala in 2005. (He was moving on the next day to a speck of village on the shores of Lake Atitlan, where he had a cottage and his neighbor in an adjoining cottage for part of the year was Joyce Maynard, who in her youth had had an affair with Salinger.)

But there is a man whose card I would keep, if he had given us one.  We spoke with him over a bottle of Makedonia white wine — he did most of the talking — for only two hours or so one evening in the late summer of 2002. He did offer his email address, and later (by email) his street address and phone numbers. However, we never saw him again, although we subsequently exchanged a couple of emails and he also sent us two books, one by someone else for which he had made several drawings, and the other a book of cartoons he himself had done ten or twelve years before we’d met, because we’d asked to see it.

That man’s name, and the Italian e-mail address he gave us, which may or may not still be his, remain on my computer contact list.  His name, the e-mail address, a street address in Milan, one cellphone and two landline numbers also remain in a leather-bound address book I’ve had since 2002.  Would any of this data lead us to him if we tried to get in touch?  I have no idea.  We don’t try.  (What would we say?) But I don’t throw any of it out either.  We might not recognize him if we were to meet him again, but we feel — I feel — we know him.  He’s a friend.  Because of the two hours, and the book.  Sometimes life is funny like that.  And who knows?

Actually, he was the one who first spoke to us. It was during our initial visit to Lipsi, a very small Greek island in the Dodecanese — a one week exploratory stay that led to four more summers there.  On the fifth day of the week we took a boat tour of five speck-sized surrounding islands. Ten euros per person: what could be bad?  The boat was the Margarita, the islands were Makronissi, Aspronissi, Tiganaki, Marathi and Arki. You could only get out at Marathi and Arki (and we did, but more of that another time); the other three were rocky promontories good for photography and for swimming near (but not too near).  Swimming off the side of small boats was not for us.  We did do a bit of photographing, though.  Bill took one of me (and the arms and legs and back of some of the many Italian tourists crowding the Margarita):

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Me, and parts of Italian tourists. On the Margarita, August 2002.

I took one of a lonely-looking little boy sitting by himself:

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And we both photographed the rocks and the water:

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But mostly we did what both of us do best:  We talked with any people who spoke a language in which we could function.  On the way back after lunch and siesta on the sand at Marathi, our talk was mainly with one French couple, because neither of us speak Italian or Greek (the languages of perhaps 90% of the other tourists on the Margarita that day), but I can get by in French and Bill speaks it fairly fluently (although, say the French, with a Geneva accent).  And what people who meet far from home tend to talk about, in an effort to make some connection with each other, is where else they or their families have lived or traveled. So it was with the French husband and me.  We cobbled together a conversation about what had brought his parents to France from their native Latvia and what had brought my parents to New York from their native Russia. (The connection was that both his parents and my mother had come from Vilna, now Vilnius — once Russian, then Polish, then Latvian, but the same city through all the changes of nationality.) Then the Margarita reached land, we all disembarked, and we made an appointment to meet the French couple for supper at a waterside taverna the following evening, which would be our last on Lipsi.

The harbor at Lipsi, August 2002.

The harbor at Lipsi, August 2002.

As we stood uncertainly on the dock, not sure whether or not to head back to our not entirely satisfactory room to clean up right away, a man spoke to us, somewhat apologetically, in fluent German-accented English. He had been on the Margarita, he said, and had overheard my conversation with the French husband.  He asked if I still lived in New York.  I explained that I didn’t (those were my Boston years), but had grown up there and knew it very well.  It seemed he had traveled extensively in the Western Hemisphere, had lived in the United States for a while, enjoyed his time there, and liked Americans very much.  He wondered if we could have a drink together after supper.  His wife and son were somewhat tired from the five-island excursion. They had actually done all the swimming offered at all three rocky promontories. (Quite coincidentally, the boy I had inadvertently photographed was his son, who resembled his Italian mother.) So they wouldn’t be joining us, but if we didn’t mind….

Of course we didn’t mind.  And that’s how, later that evening, we got to know at least a little something about a tall, good-looking man from Switzerland who was then about fifty, and who had fallen in love with a woman from Milan, married her, and now lived there himself.

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Caspar,  c.1990 — about twelve years before we met him. [Photo credit: Caspar Frei.]

Caspar was primarily a cartoonist — a political one, for the most part.  He sold his work throughout Europe. (He also knew five languages.)  I can’t recall everything we talked about that evening, although I do know that conversations with Bill and me tend to be one-sided, since we are both professionally very good at asking questions.  So what I mainly remember is that we soon got down to Caspar’s thoughts about the meaning of life, whether it had any purpose, and if so what purpose. And after that, we reached his feelings — of being split between longing for life in Switzerland, where he had been born and spent his childhood and where his mother and family still lived, and his connection to Milan, where his wife — who was a psychotherapist — had family, including a problematic mother for whom she felt responsible, as well as a referral network and clients who depended on her, and where his child was in school and growing up Italian.  When they married, they had initially settled in Milan, he said, because he could work anywhere and she could not. But now he felt torn by competing ties, and saw no resolution….

If Caspar ever sees this account of my memory of that night, I hope he forgives me the details. They may be wrong. It was one evening twelve years ago. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got the thrust of it right.  Life is hard.  Life is painful. Whatever we do, we hurt someone we love.  Whatever we do, we hurt ourselves. And sometimes we can say to strangers what must not be said to those who are not strangers.

He and his wife and son were leaving the next day.  We never saw him again.  (We never saw the French couple again, either.  They stood us up.) He sent his two books though, and for a while we discussed by email our coming to Florence and Milan for a visit the following winter.  But Bill and I were still working — at jobs that didn’t permit spontaneous flights to Italy to check in with new friends. So nothing came of it.  Several years after that, he was in Florida on business and had a day free before his return flight.  Knowing it would likely be impossible, he asked anyway if we could meet him there.  Of course, we couldn’t.  (I also suspect he had far more discretionary money than we did, the kind of money that can make things happen right away, if they must.  But we never discussed anything like that.)

However, I would be leaving you with a very lopsided view of him if I didn’t also disclose some of the contents of the second book he sent us.  I’ve omitted that part of his work which is most bitter and mordant, and also whatever requires knowing German, a knowledge I lack.  (Although I did manage to translate, roughly, what the man on the book cover is writing to his beloved.)  

[As the cover notes  — and you should too — all cartoons that follow are by Caspar Frei.]

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My love, believe me! These words, from deep in my heart…..

Some are cute, or sweet:

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Some have more bite:

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And some make a trenchant point:

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This is Bill’s favorite:

(Bill's favorite.)

And these are what?  Swiss whimsy?

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After I thought of doing this piece, I went right to Google — mainly to make sure nothing bad had happened since 2002.  Unfortunately everything I found is in German, including a You Tube five-minute segment of Caspar explaining something or other about illustrating a children’s book.  It was made in 2009, and he looks considerably older than in the 1990 photograph above, or even than I remember him looking in 2002. On the other hand, I did decipher another link that describes him as “Swiss-Italian” and says he now lives both in Switzerland and Milan, so perhaps he has found some closure for at least one aspect of his difficulties now that twelve years have gone by.

But Bill and I don’t really know the man in the You Tube segment.  The one whose name and addresses and telephone numbers I keep is the one who wrote us a note soon after our meeting:

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I wish we had had more time to talk too, Caspar.  Maybe someday there’ll be a time when we have more time…..

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 3

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[…continued from previous two posts…]

Suddenly Sarah had less than a month to get ready.  A tiny island.  That meant beaches.  And a bathing suit.  She had not bought, or worn, a bathing suit since her sons were still coming home for the summer.  She could not face her aging white thighs in a Saks or Neiman mirror and ordered one black “tankini,” whatever that was, from the Lands End catalog.  One, she calculated, should be enough.  She still owned an ancient polka-dot cotton suit she could bring in case the “tankini” didn’t dry overnight.

Jake caught her trying on the tankini in the seclusion of the bedroom. “Whatcha doing, sweetie pie?”  he asked.

“Shoo!” She pushed him gently back out the bedroom door with one hand while clutching a pillow against her lower half with the other.  “Don’t look! It’s supposed to be a surprise!” One of the good things about living alone, she thought as she leaned against the closed door, was that you could do body and wardrobe maintenance in privacy.  Why did Jake always need so much togetherness?  The following week, she hurried to Saks on a lunch hour for tanning spray.  Old thighs looked better brown than white.

Jake inspected Sarah’s suitcases in the basement and pronounced them too big.

“You don’t want to bring too much stuff,” Jake said.

“Nobody’s going to help you get your luggage on and off those Greek boats,” Jake said.

“You need a new bag,” Jake said.

“I’ll come with you,” Jake said.

They went to Luggage World, where she bought a red Victorinex roll-on not much smaller than the ones she already had and not cheap either.  She was pretty sure she could have managed without this purchase.  But Jake, as she was beginning to be aware, enjoyed shopping.  While they were there, he bought two small black leather bags for himself. They were the size of toiletry kits.

“What do you need those for?” asked Sarah.

“Nothing at the moment,” he said.  “I just like bags.  And you never can tell when an extra one will come in handy.”

Odd.  But then Sarah’s mother had been a collector of boxes.  After they got Sarah’s new red Victorinex home, Jake decided he liked it so much he went back to the store by himself the next day and bought a slightly smaller grey one exactly like it.  He also bought two black leather luggage tags.

The two Victorinexes — bigger red and smaller grey — stood against the bedroom wall with their tags on, waiting to be packed.

“They look good side by side together, ” Jake said.

“Just like us,” Jake said.

He hugged her.  Maybe it really would be a honeymoon.

Sarah made packing lists and folded her clothing into neat piles.  She spread towels on the duvet to protect it and opened the two Victorinexes  on the bed — grey on Jake’s side, red on hers.  Jake laid two changes of underwear and socks, two clean shirts, a pair of sandals, three black swim briefs, and an extra pair of jeans on the towel next to the grey Victorinex.

“That’s all you’re taking?  For three weeks?”

“It’s very casual on those islands,” he said. “Besides, we can wash things out.  Or buy stuff.” He added two t-shirts to the clothes on the bed and began zipping smallish hard objects into little black bags, which he zipped into slightly bigger black bags.

I’m not doing laundry on vacation.”  Sarah counted out eleven pairs of panties.  (Who would know if she wore underwear for two days?  Plus she would have a pair on for traveling.)  The panties were full-size cotton briefs. (Sarah didn’t buy bikini panties any more; they cut a line you could see through her clothes in the rear view mirror.) Together with four bras (two black, two white), all those panties made quite a bundle.  And the pear shape of the Victorinex was not as accommodating as a rectangular bag.  Why had they left the packing till the final evening?  Why was he distracting her by rushing back and forth between the second bedroom, which she had given over to him as a study, and the master bedroom?   She needed to concentrate, or she would leave something out.  Correction.  She would have to leave something out.  The red Victorinex wouldn’t close.  Even when she sat on it.

“How many dresses for dinner?” she asked.

“None. You don’t have to dress.”

“And what about a sweater?”

“In Greece?  In August?”

“Just asking.”

“You gotta be kidding.”

“Don’t get nasty.”  She stared at his side of the bed.  He had built a heap of bulging zipped-up black bags and books next to the grey Victorinex.  “What is all that stuff?”

“Things I’ll need.”

“Like what?”

“Like a short-wave.  My camera.  Extra pairs of glasses.  First-aid kit.  Notebooks. Clothesline. Reading material. Other things.”

“What other things?”

“Never mind.  You’ll find out when we get there.  Maybe.”

“You won’t fit it all in.”

“So I’ll bring a second bag.”

At midnight, they brought up some of Sarah’s old luggage from the basement.  At one o’clock, four bags stood fully packed by the front door.  At two, Sarah got out of bed to check that their passports and tickets and insurance papers were all in her handbag.  “Did you bring enough money?” she whispered into his good ear after she had slid back under the duvet. “Mmmmmm,” he said.  She wasn’t sure he’d heard. Hopefully, there would be ATMs on this tiny island they had found.

[End of chapter one.]

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[The island was real.  Its name was Lipsi — Lipsoi or Lipsos, if you want to be Greek about it.  Sometimes I miss it, although it was never really our island.  We were just renters.  Even in the novella, where I was going to call it Mythos, it would turn out not to be Jake and Sarah’s island. They would learn by the end of the novella that the island of their own they had set out to find was the island of two they were making together. And that at their age, they were stuck there — whether they liked it or not — for richer or poorer, till death did them part, and had better make the best of it.  But that’s too dark for a chick lit novella.  And also not so fun to write.

So you’ve reached the end of Jake and Sarah.  However, we may take some day tours of Lipsi, you and I together.  Maybe this spring.  Or summer.  If spring and summer ever come.]

 

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 2

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[…continued from yesterday…]

Getting away for three weeks was no problem for Jake; he simply informed his patients that he would be gone in August and then found another shrink to cover for him in emergencies.  Sarah had to make more elaborate and extensive preparations.  Although the lawyers at her firm were supposed to take four weeks off every year (“We work hard but play hard,” was the mantra intoned for the benefit of incoming associates) — taking the four weeks, or even three weeks, all together was just not done.  (Suppose a client needed you!)  The customary modus operandi was a week here, two weeks there — as each lawyer’s practice, and annualized billable hours, permitted.

Sarah began announcing her vacation plans in May.  She announced them more frequently — at the coffee station, in the womens’ john — in June.  She made sure none of her cases was headed for trial over the summer and found colleagues to handle what needed to be done while she was away (thereby incurring several heavy IOUs).  In July she stopped taking on new matters and began to emphasize, at firm lunches, how difficult this tiny island was to get to. (She didn’t mention Turkey.) She explained that Greece was seven hours ahead of Boston, that she didn’t know if there was a telephone available to her on the island anyway, and that she understood from Jake mail could take as long as six weeks to arrive  — much of that period consumed between the time it got to Athens and arrived at its final destination — so that she would, as a practical matter, be unreachable during the time she was away.  “You’re so lucky!” exclaimed Mabel, the lawyer in the office adjoining hers.  “I always have too much on my plate for more than a week in Chatham!”

Sarah considered this comment to be less about three weeks away from the office in Greece than about the arrival of Jake in her life.  Mabel was eighteen years younger than Sarah, in the process of a drawn-out divorce, and frantically looking for a replacement husband. To her, Sarah’s near-miraculous acquisition of a new man represented a major triumph over the adversities of life for the older woman, and Sarah saw no reason to disabuse her.  Maybe Jake wasn’t absolutely perfect, she told herself, but she was pretty lucky.  How many women of seventy were going off to a small Greek island for a romantic tryst?

Privately, however, as August grew closer, she became less sure she was doing the right thing. Could three weeks away be a professional mistake?  She needed this job. If only she could just quit — and play the piano, travel, cook, maybe write, not always be hurrying to make deadlines, attend meetings, defend depositions.  The practice of law took a lot out of you. Even with a four-day work week, she always felt tired, and usually spent most of Friday just resting up.

But if she quit, what would she live on? Sarah had come late to the law, after marriages to two impecunious husbands who had nothing to share at divorce time. Social Security would barely cover her monthly mortgage and condo association payments. And she certainly couldn’t count on Jake’s contribution as a basis for retirement when — if she were honest with herself — they didn’t really know each other that well.  Not the way she knew her husbands by the time they had parted.

Then it became too late to cancel without losing a lot of money. And Jake would never forgive her if she put the firm before him. (“The firm?” she could hear him saying.) She would just have to apply herself seriously when she came back, and people would soon forget she’d been away for nearly a month, and then everything would be all right.

“So.   How does it feel to go away for three weeks with this man?” asked Feldman, long, thin and wrinkled. She had been seeing Feldman before work on Wednesdays for fifteen years. No one who knew about this could understand why she was still forking out good money for talk therapy now that she was long divorced.

“I don’t fork out anymore,” she would say.  “It’s Medicare’s turn.”  Or: “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I have a husband.”  Or (sometimes): “You know how Catholics go to confession once a week and feel better afterwards?  Well, here’s a place where I can go once a week and say absolutely anything and it’s okay.  I can just unload.  Where else in the world can you do that?”

That didn’t mean Feldman wasn’t often annoying.  His reluctance to say anything substantive, for instance.  (Was he just going to sit there?  “Of course,” he always replied.)  And his questions  — straight out of some How To Be A Shrink book. (“How does that make you feel?”)  Once, during the long lonely period preceding the arrival of Jake in her life, she had begun a session by exclaiming, without being asked, that she felt like shit.  He regarded her impassively.  “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.

“How does it feel to say I feel like shit? Come on, Feldman!”

“How does it feel?”  (Without even a smile.)

And now he was at it again.  “Jake,” she said.  “His name is Jake.  Why are you calling him ‘this man?'”

“There have been other men, no?  The two husbands?  Two old boyfriends, recycled? So when I ask today, my question is about this man.”

But Sarah already knew Feldman couldn’t admit he might be wrong.  “It feels fine to go away with Jake for three weeks, thank you for asking.”

“You have been very picky about your previous suitors,” he persisted.  “You go fishing for a new man from time to time, reel him into the boat, inspect him as he dangles at the end of your line, then flip him back into the sea. How is this one different?”

Suitors?  What suitors?  Those few pitiful specimens who had answered her previous ads?  The one seeking a woman willing to encase herself in soft rubber garments at bedtime?  The one whose wife had mid-stage Alzheimers, but was safely out of the way on Gardiners’ Island under the care of a round-the-clock nurse’s aide?  The one with an ileostomy bag and an adult daughter in a state psychiatric hospital?

“Oh, Feldman,” said Sarah, “stop already.  If there’s any problem, it’s not with the man, it’s with the three weeks away from the office.”

Feldman took her mention of “three weeks” as an opportunity to change the subject.  “You understand the time you will be taking off, the three hours we will not meet during your weeks away — those are your hours, and you will be responsible for them,” he said.  He meant that he expected her to pay for the three sessions she would miss.  They had had this conversation every year she had gone on vacation.  Usually, it had been for only a week at a time; needy, and therefore in a weak bargaining position, she had always paid.  The two Greek tours had taken longer, and each of those years she had paid for two missed sessions, resentfully but without any sense that arguing would do any good.  This time she dug her heels in.  She was on a tight budget for the vacation as it was.

“How come you don’t give me make-up sessions when you go away on vacation?” she demanded.

He looked surprised.  “That is a separate issue entirely,” he said.  “When I go away, you are of course free to go away yourself.”

Now there’s a dumb argument, she thought.  “It isn’t a separate issue at all.  If you’re entitled to a vacation from me, with the result that I lose out on therapy, then I’m entitled to a vacation from you, even though you lose out on income.  Fair is fair, Feldman.”

“Are you saying you won’t pay?”  His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t pay anyway,” said Sarah.  “Not any more.  Maybe Medicare can pay for the missed sessions.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Feldman.  “Medicare pays for treatment, not absence from treatment.”

“Then why should I pay for missed sessions if Medicare won’t? Tell you what, Feldman.” She had him now, she was sure of it. “Let’s leave it up to you, not me.  If, as you say, the missed hours are ‘mine,’ I won’t rat on you if you bill Medicare for them.  And if you decide you’re not entitled to Medicare payments for treatment you didn’t provide, that’s obviously okay with me, too.”

Aha!  He was slowly nodding agreement. Had she just connived in an act of insurance fraud?  Not really, she decided.  Not by merely making the suggestion.  After all, she didn’t know what he was actually going to do.

“Of course he’s going to bill for his time!” said Jake that night at dinner.  A piece of eggplant from the ratatouille they were eating fell on the tablemat as he waved his fork in the air for emphasis.  Jake’s table manners had deteriorated since he had begun to feel at home in her condo.

Sarah reached over to pick up the eggplant  — she hated mess — and put it in her mouth.  The mat now had a stain.  She sighed. Neither of her husbands had been neat eaters either.  “How do you know that?  Why can’t you admit he might do the right thing?”

“He needs the money.”

“He can’t be that hard up,” said Sarah.  “He’s one of the two best psychiatrists in all of New England!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jake.

“No, really.  I asked around before I started with him.  And I can never change the time of the appointment.  He’s always full up.”

Jake laid his dirty knife on the mat to explain.   “I don’t care how busy he is. Psychiatrists aren’t like orthopedists or dermatologists.  Those guys have a revolving door: patient in, patient out, new patient in, etcetera.  But Feldman sees a fixed number of patients for years, including you.  He can’t start with someone new for the three weeks you’re away, because when you return he has to give you back your hour.  And then what’s he supposed to do with the extra patient?  So a loss of income when you’re on vacation is just that.  A dead loss.”

Sarah hated not to win arguments.  “He shouldn’t count on it then.  Why can’t he assume each of his patients will be away a certain amount of time and average his income over the year, instead of anticipating a specific accounts receivable every month?”

“Why didn’t you ask him that?” said Jake.  “While you were at it, you might also have explained to the poor bastard what he was supposed to do about his monthly checks to her?”  He jabbed his finger in the direction of the floor.

(The ex-Mrs. Feldman lived beneath Sarah.  They did not get on.  She objected repeatedly to Sarah playing the phonograph.  She complained loudly about Sarah practicing the piano in the evening. They had eventually worked out their differences with the help of the condo trustees, but accidental meetings in the stairwell or the laundry room remained chilly.   Such being the case, Sarah welcomed those occasional instances when the mailman mixed up their mail, thus affording her the opportunity to inspect the outside of the ex-Mrs. Feldman’s correspondence.  In the days before Medicare began paying for her therapy, she had once even found in her mailbox an envelope addressed to Linda Feldman in the familiar, and highly idiosyncratic, handwriting which appeared on her monthly invoices for professional services rendered by Martin Feldman, M.D.  She couldn’t resist holding it up to the light before putting it on the ledge below the mailbox labeled Ms. Linda Feldman.  There was a check inside.  Alimony!  Her money was leaving the building only to come right back again.  She was personally supporting that odious woman.  She couldn’t read the amount of the check, though.)

“Ah yes, that,” said Sarah.

“He’ll be working till she drops,” said Jake.  “Or he does.  How old is she?  How old is he?  Over seventy-five?”

“Why are you so sympathetic to him all of a sudden?” asked Sarah.  “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t not like him,” said Jake.  “I just don’t like his method.  This silent Freudian business.  Besides, what do you need him for, now you have me?”

Sarah did not want to go there.  “Must we discuss Feldman’s financial difficulties?” She pushed her chair back to clear the table.  His place mat would have to go to the cleaners.  She should probably get the kind you could just wipe down.   “Dessert is frozen yogurt or grapes.  Which?”

[…to be concluded tomorrow….]