She walks into the crowded room and he turns and sees her, and in that same moment, his hands lift his coat from the seat beside him as if he has been holding it for her. Through this single gesture he ensnares her, although there are many gestures, and each one doubles the knot. They don’t look at each other but their bodies lean in, breathing in each other’s heat in that way a body has of hunting for a mate all on its own. But then, the lecturer begins to speak, and as his voice flows into the room, memory rises like a water-mark.
Nothing has changed; the same soft-voiced manners, the same impeccable suit. She had attended his weekly présentation de cas years before when she had been an analyst-in-training learning the talking cure, back then, when words ran away with her like water gushing through a broken spout. Her husband teasing—conjugate yourself into a semblance of respectability—she could see, now, how he had enjoyed the way the joke tripped her up, as she tried to parse herself into that world.
Remembering the girl she had been hurt. Ironing her jeans and tee-shirts each night, as if a sharp crease could help, the other trainees in their linen suits, coiffed, healed, stockinged. She had bought milk-white stockings and matched them with the only thing she had to offer, a single string of pearls, but no token of clothing could fashion away the shame of mismatched verbs. And here he was now, speaking in her language about how the world had been overtaken by a new discourse of rights and with it, a worldwide symptom of shame. It makes her catch her breath¾remembering the shame. Each week, she had entered through the grey portals of the hospital anticipating his laugh following her home. He had been the worst of them, following each departing patient with a quip. She called it the Analyst’s laugh and it had followed her out of those grim doors and lain-in wait for her snickering up out of the books she read:
‘I have been to the butcher’s,’ a woman says to a passer-by.
‘Sow’ he replies … And isn’t this, the analyst adds, ‘a tiny bit amusing.’
All those cases dished up for view so that in other rooms secrets could be told and kept. She remembers him coaxing one woman on, forget the eyes, his voice said — there is no one here but me, and I hear you. Turning away from the crowded room, speaking only to him, blinking into the light of this thing she had done, she delivered up the lesson they were there to observe. Hysteria or psychosis? The difference was in the question¾or lack of it.
Yes. I killed him. But many men of his generation died that year.
Yes. I killed him. But strange accidents befell men wearing roses in their lapels that day.
Yes. I killed him. But a violent fate laid its hand upon all the men of my family.
Over the long distance of years, she watches the girl stumble up, her eyes trafficking out into the crowded room and, as she leaves, he makes his little quip, and the analysts-in-training titter, settle back into their seats, light their cigarettes, and pull their cuffs and pleats back into place.
She had wanted to push at his certainties, question him, but for the words falling over themselves. And when she did manage to make her sentences stand-up, verbs ordered, pronouns in place, her questions were already anticipated, named, categorized, even before she spoke, as if she could be run to ground simply by asking a question. There was even an equation for her, the woman who asks questions, and there was a joke in that too, because she was the one who never wanted an answer.
She had come in search of an answer, that was the problem. Leaving her brother on the far side of that laugh as she ran for help. And he was still there, where she had left him, eyes bleaching into pain, pupils dilating. He was a long way back now and she had long giving up hoping for help; for what help could there be for a boy who asked no questions?
Neatly coiffed, linen-suited and yes, her hand reaches up to her throat, she is wearing pearls, although now they are fat, and pink, and match her shoes, and here he still is. Murmuring on about the fall of the Berlin Wall and how it has released the world into a new madness — a hystericizing of rights¾ he calls it, and then it comes, the Analyst’s laugh.
The hysteric is a question mark. Why have something when you can have nothing?
And they laugh, and she feels it. The shame of all those years ago burning clean as she raises her hand, and keeps it raised, insisting on her right to be that question mark. To ask why have nothing when you can have something? But sensing her agitation, he ignores her hand. Does he remember her? And she can feel him beside her, the unknown man, sensing her anger. When the lecture is over he turns to her and asks, what was your question? And she turns to him, and tells him, as if she is speaking to an old friend she has known for years; a friend she can trust with her passion. It shocks her. She is at a conference talking to a man, a stranger—with her passion on view. She can feel his interest. The hot breath of his body leaning into hers, and those eyes a man has when he sees something he wants. What is she doing? Letting hysteria loose? And yet, isn’t it only in those moments when you let the self off its leash that the hope resting within you has some little chance of waking up? Hope, she had read, ‘is like a bear asleep in winter, waiting for spring to rise up and walk’. It has always been like this for her—an instant connection—so she lets herself go.
In the breaks, at morning tea, at lunch—they talk, and there is a moment at the end of the day when he turns to her, and smiles, and her own smile is waiting for him. But she scribbles on her note-pad a question: what does he want of me? Trying to recall herself to the enigma of his intentions, his unknown-ness and to the necessity of questioning. What was that poem she used to recite on her fingers as a child? ‘I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I know); their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.’ But she goes on talking to him, not wanting to know the intransigent and all too obvious answer that is waiting for her. That is the problem with hysteria, she reminds herself. It asks questions but doesn’t want answers. He is right about that.
Even now men preyed on her. As a girl, they had followed her into cafes, sat beside her on buses, wolf-whistled her in the street. She had been a long exclamation mark of a girl calling attention to herself but unaware of why. Now, age protected her from strange men in public places, but there were still moments when they asked things of her. Why were they still there? What did they want of her? In the mirror, she sees age has smeared its dirty hand across her face, and under the surface—a bitter river flows. Didn’t they see that? Sense that? When she gives lectures, speaks at seminars, she can feel a chimera flickering up in the place of her aging body, coaxing, seducing, alluring. It is as if she had stumbled upon a resource meant only for men; a resource she has watched her male colleagues aspire to, and husband with dedication. But when it comes to her, uncalled for—this animus panting within her—she feels only despair. Is this what she has become? A she-wolf prowling the podium. So she dodges these ever-available men with the glad eyes but wonders what she would happen if she ever took one home. How could they possibly please her? She imagines them working furiously on her inattentive body but even imagining makes her want to roll over and go to sleep. Maybe he is one of those men who accept the ever-available bodies on offer? Or, maybe that is what he thinks she is doing?
That night, over dinner, everything he says seems to chime within her at the exact pitch as the notes she plays to herself, and only to herself; the secret notes she has long ago given up singing aloud. They lean into each other and seem to talk of everything that matters. He tells her about a child he has lost through the idiocy of youth and the slow steps he is making to recover her, now, when her childhood is over. She describes her husband’s face to him. It had been a beautiful face. Cherubic. But when he left her, the apples had run down his cheeks and settled just above his jaw. His lips, which had always been pursed as if ready for kissing, seemed to roll back into his mouth so that where his lips had been there was just a line that turned down at the corners. His mother’s mouth; bitter even in repose.
She searches his face as she speaks using the diversion of her husband’s face to scrutinize him. Who is he? What does he want of her? As he speaks his own secret self seems to flicker into view. There is a lad there. She can see him in a leather jacket nursing a motorbike helmet, his hair slicked back. Later, his hair would have been long and soft, just at the right time. Even now she can see him in a bar still drawing a babe. But all that dissolves in a second, as if the bloke he wears is just the face he has had to put on to get by. As he talks, another face flickers up. Ethereal, leached, a sheet of pure pain, his pupils dilating into blue, his irises bleaching into nothing. He talks to her out of this face and that is the one she sees, the one she feels she can say anything to. These two faces flickering off and on. The man you’d have to watch—the one you’d want but wouldn’t go near once you were over twenty—and the other one. A boy so in need of a bowl of milk she wants to lay down a saucer of milk and call ‘Kitty Kitty Kitty’. Somehow, he keeps it together; these two faces at odds with each other, but oscillating so rapidly she can talk to the boy, while the man goes to work on her. She knows he’s at work, but it is Okay. Her body and the world are singing in the same key a song of one word. A YES.
And then he makes a gesture. One gesture. He reaches over from his side of the table and lifts her jacket which has slipped off her shoulder, and puts it back in its place. His hand pausing just for a moment as he touches her. It is unmistakable. The gesture of solicitation a wolf makes straightening the goose’s bonnet as he eyes off her bonny white tail. The gesture that says—can’t you see how I care for you? How I notice this small detail of a slipped jacket? —while his fingers surreptitiously test the ripeness of the flesh. All too quickly her little world à deux collapses. They are in his car, his body bearing down on her, his intoxicating smell drowning her resistance, as a single bass note sounds a NO—a categorical NO—pronouncing itself against the sweet sound of a yes that is still trying hungrily to sing its little song. He has got her. She has breathed him in—the intoxicating whiff of a wolf on the prowl.
Desire jerks through her as she tries frantically to still it, close it, stop it. Hope is a bear in winter, hungry, cold and better off comatose. She is the thing you don’t want to know at a conference you just want to have. From the moment she imagines he knew she was coming—she has delivered herself straight to his table. And now he is stroking her gently, kissing her in that way she thinks of as the handle that opens the door, and a little more coaxing is all that is needed for her to deliver up his dinner. A boy with a tender bottom lip, hands that stroke honey, eyes like Orpheus searching for her in the dark, and a wolf, trying to get the silly goose to lay quiet so he can eat her.
Just so, she thinks to herself, there’s an answer you weren’t expecting, and then she remembers the end of the poem, about the girl who sends out her ten million serving men with her One million Hows, two million Wheres, and seven million Whys! all working overtime, never sleeping, always hungry. Then it is her turn to laugh. And he stops his pursuit, and there is a moment, just a moment, when they look at each other, and on the far side of the struggling woman he sees a girl stumbling upon an answer to a question she hasn’t asked.