Mr. B was a slight man but handsome just the same. Elegantly postured in white shirt and tie, he walked with a confidence that conversation betrayed. His head was shaven with traces of silvered salt and pepper and a slightly receding hairline that accentuated his fine features. The eyes were soulfully sad, the nose was straight and divided his face perfectly down the middle until the mouth, which on this day was curved upward in a smile, rested on a perfect chin, neck and smooth chest, seemingly without hair, yes, she was sure that his chest was smooth and without a trace of hair.
He sat across from her, his strongly defined hands resting on the sides of a black swivel chair, relaxed, as always during their time together, ready to talk, snappy wit intact alongside the sorrow that he held in his upper body and of which she had been acutely aware from their very first meeting.
Today started like all the others with a quip about his mood. He was in love.
“I want to tell you that I am in love.”
“Oh?” her face was open, inviting him to say anything.
“I am in love with my personal trainer. She is very pretty and very young.”
Before she could ask Mr. B if his partner knew anything about this new development, he offered, “My partner is pretty, too, but not so young. She obviously knows nothing about my feelings. I’ve tried to convince her to love me more but she isn’t playing so I had to fall in love with somebody else.”
At this, she took a sip from the water bottle on the table next to her notepad and the welcome coolness (it was a hot day, even in the office) made her think of something Dr. Depock Chopra had said, something about never drinking cold liquid and it being bad for your system. When she picked up the conversation, he was in the middle of a sentence.
“...so all you need is love, right? It takes the darkness away, brings the colour back, makes me light.”
“You look thinner. Are you losing weight?” this observation came naturally and he welcomed the compliment and the question.
“Yes, I am thin but muscular. I am working out seven days a week. Can you see me?” here he put one of his lovely hands on the opposite shoulder and, pulling the button down shirt sleeve tighter, she could just make out the curves representing hours at the gym weight lifting. Before she could offer up a comment he went on. “ never in my life have I run but now I run! I am born to run! Just like the Bruce Springsteen song! He wrote it for me! And now I run and run. I am running from my life, from my partner, from my child, from my responsibilities. I am the runner now!”
A few weeks later when they saw each other again, Mr. B. was decisively less energetic and worried about an impending doctor's appointment. “My stomach is falling apart. I can't eat anything I want. I am always hungry. I am always nervous.”
She asked him if this was affecting his work.
“All I think about is food. At this, he pulled his I-Phone out of a pocket in his jacket and fiddled with it for a few seconds. “I want to show you some pictures.”
As she leaned forward to look into the little screen she could see that there were photos of all kinds of cakes, cookies and various other desserts. There was one of a banana split, sitting on a lovely plate in all of its splendour and in all of the pictures, the composition was interesting. There was always a hand present with a fork or spoon and ready to dive into the delicious treat. In some of them the hand was a woman's, in others there was the chubby little paw of a child. No faces. Just hands, eating utensils and sweet things on plates or in bowls.
“These are all of the desserts that I cannot eat, but that my girlfriend and little girl insist on having in front of me.” He asked me, “Do you see? That is what I have to look at after every meal. They torment me. I am hungry all the time, yes, and I am angry.”
“I am angry and how do you say, bitter. Yes, I am bitter. I can't eat what I want. I gave up smoking five years ago. The sex stopped three years ago. I am the bitter man in the suit, sitting in an office, angry and, can I tell you a secret?”
He placed the telephone on the table and became quiet for a moment. Just as she was thinking he had lost his train of thought he revealed, “I have a fantasy. I want to talk to someone, oh, I don't know, someone in a military base about getting a Sherman tank and I want to roll over everybody in the street, near my house, in my town, in my office. I want to open the big gun and look through the target and put my finger on the mechanism and let it go- I want to watch people fly up off the street and into many pieces and I want to watch it from the little window inside the tank,. I had a friend who was in the Israeli army and she drove a tank like that. She told me the bodies fly up into the air and when they come down they are not recognisable. They are in pieces.”
She shook her head, not in agreement, but because she could see the bodies in her mind, rising up and coming down and she understood the picture and even if it repulsed her, she tried to find a way to understand why he wanted to get into that tank and why he wanted to take out all those people in his neighbourhood. Men were violent, she thought. Or at least they seemed to be more comfortable with violence. They play with guns and soldiers and they must imagine these scenes from the time they are children.
Sitting in front of the news one night many years before she had breached this subject with her boyfriend. Motioning towards the TV where the scene of havoc in some Central American country was playing out where a scroll of death counts was rolling from left to right at the bottom of the screen, she had asked him a question. “How does it feel to be a man and part of a group that for centuries has fought wars and picked fights and caused so much suffering?” There was no anger in her voice. It was a real question because she wanted a real answer.
Her boyfriend was thoughtful and then he said, “It must be strange for you, huh? To look at history and watch the news now- to think about how women don't start battles, just kind of get sucked in. Women, children, bystanders forced to see how it all plays out. It's our game, you're right, you are. How does it feel? I can tell you that many years ago when I was waiting for my number to come up in the draft, thinking about going to Nam, I knew I couldn't go. I knew I would be on my way to Canada. My bag was packed under my bed. I didn't know how I was gonna do it, I just knew I wasn't going to Southeast Asia. In the end it's all about the testosterone, I suppose.”
Now she was shifting in her chair and looking at Trevelio Maria Batista. Was she witnessing the result of surging testosterone? Did it show on his face? He looked so calm, so civilised and gentle. He had a drawing of his daughter’s on the wall, framed, behind him. He was a father, a learned man. A thinker. A philosopher. The anger was swallowing him. Then the hour was over.
“I'll see you next week.”
His hand came out for his leave taking. She shook it and lingered. She wanted to offer some sort of relief to his suffering but she let go of the hand. It was raining outside.
You hear about people who are ready to blow, pushed to the edge, to a limit and who, losing their minds, offer signs of their distress and anguish before the storm. She wondered if Mr. B was one of those people.
“You know that movie, 'Falling Down' with Michael Douglas?” Today the sun was hot and it was plenty humid.
“Yes, of course,” she swallowed.
“I read that they changed the ending.”
“Did they? How?”
He was excited now, “In the original screenplay he kills more people, destroys more property, goes completely crazy. Hollywood gave it a different ending, much more sentimental.”
Her brow knitted as she searched for the visual. “Doesn't it end on a bridge? His wife and daughter, or, I can't remember. He dies, right?”
But Mr. B. had already moved on. He nodded agreement, and then said, “During my first two years of analysis I had to talk about my dreams. My doctor was a Freudian and we spent every day on my dreams. I became very good at remembering the things I dreamed- I can remember a lot of them still but if you asked me what I dreamt last night, I shouldn't be able to tell you.”
She wrote something on her notepad, and looking up, smiling at him, she said. “Do you like sleeping?” This seemed a more banal question than the one she really wanted to ask: can you sleep?
Predictably, “I don't sleep well. I can't stop thinking. My mind is always going, always running things in and out of my head, and I am tired. Tired of the things in my head. Sometimes I think about suicide- just so I could stop the thoughts and be quiet and not think anymore.”
“Castaneda wrote a book on dreams,” her voice travelled to him from across the table, “'The Art of Dreaming', where he talked about the ability to enter your dreams from the sleeping state and actually change the outcome, respond differently, working with the scenes to resolve conflict or anxiety.” She had the book on her bedside table.
“I have always been fascinated in the way my mind goes, works, functions. But you know, I think it is quite possible that during our meetings, my analyst was falling asleep!”
She smiled at this, amused at the view of an psychiatrist's office, “were you lying down?” He confirmed with a nod. She could see him in his analyst’s office, staring up at the ceiling, and an old Freudian doctor, sitting in a nice, comfortable chair strategically placed behind the chaise lounge. She was sleeping, her head dropping toward her right shoulder, the pen in her hand relaxed, slipping through her grip, ready to fall to the Turkish carpeted ground at her feet.
Mr. B's face then turned toward the wall behind her now and she glanced to see what he was looking at. “There was a nail on the wall in front of the couch and when I laid down my eye went to that place and I would stare at that nail for the entire fifty minutes we were together. One day I asked her to remove the fucking thing and you know what she said?
This was a rhetorical question and did not require a response. “She told me I didn't have to ask her to remove the nail- that I had to find a reason for the nail to be there. To understand why I felt the way I did about the nail and how to feel differently about it.”
When she left to go home that afternoon she thought about the nail and what it meant and why it bothered Mr. B. and how he said he couldn't face another day looking at the nail in the wall. And she wondered if there had been a picture hanging there, or a framed diploma or if it had been left by the previous tenant and the Freudian had just never got around to removing it, or using it, or maybe had never even noticed it until her patient called it to her attention.
Mr. B was casually dressed at their next meeting. It was the first time she had seen him in blue jeans. She didn't ask why, choosing instead to wait for him to fill her in. He immediately started on the subject of Batman.
“He's my brother. We are brothers. No, I am serious, completely serious. I have been a fan since I was a boy and I miss the old Batman. The one who was drawn more simply and who had a real crusade. The new one is so, well, what's the word, he is so rubber. Covered in that rubber suit. The suit has become more important than who he is and what he does. I have an action figure. A gift from my partner, you know? It's true that it is beautiful-the things they can do now with toys- but that suit. You can see every part of him. His muscles and his, how do you call it, his six-pack? Incredible.”
They were quiet for awhile before she asked, “Do you believe in heros? Do you know any real life heros?”
The tangent went something like this:
“Honestly, for me, the true hero is the extraterrestrial. I want them to come, to see us, to make their observations and I want them to see every little terrible thing we do to each other and then I want them to put everything to an end. To push a button and make it finish. Then to get into their ship and go away and the big black hole we leave will stay forever. To remember how ridiculous and disgusting we are. This is my idea of the hero. I like the idea of the colony of extraterrestrials visiting and stopping the mad things we do. Yes, he was satisfied with this, “I like the idea a lot.” He wrapped it up here.
She was always fascinated by Mr. B's train of thought and where it took them and what he said and how he said it. The way he held his head when he was making a point. When he was feeling hatred his forehead would become lined. When he was pleased with himself his eyes would shine. When he was fed up, his shoulders would slump.
One time he told her about the rug in his childhood bedroom. “My father loved John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He loved him so much that he bought me a rug with the American President's face. Every morning, I climbed out of bed and looked down at that face but I never stepped on it. I stepped around it.”
Once, while talking about September 11th, she shared her disappointment in herself, explaining that she had an unhealthy fear of people on the street who were obviously of Muslim background.
“I'm discouraged that my fear has got the best of me,” she had offered. “I'm surprised in myself. I feel nervous and anxious. I don't like feeling that way.”
Mr. B paused before commenting. Then he said, “you mustn't feel uncomfortable with those feelings- they are realistic, even natural. The Islamic world is closing in around us. They are multiplying, moving to Western countries, imposing their rules and lifestyle on adopted lands. Asking us to remove crucifixes, insisting on wearing their veils to school. They are evil.
She felt her body stiffen.
“I want them to go away and leave us alone.”
Her face must have betrayed her discomfort.
“You think I am crazy. Maybe you think I am prejudiced. Ok. I am. I don't want my daughter to grow up around little children who see their mothers living an unnatural way.”
She waited for him to continue.
“I took my daughter to the beach last weekend. I saw, (and here he laughed to himself), I saw a woman in a veil and caftan, shoes and socks, in the water. She was in the sea! Fighting the water, she wasn't free! She couldn't swim, she was wrapped in material, couldn't move. And it was normal for her. Then I saw her husband. He had on a bathing costume like mine! A bathing costume! Can you imagine? What religion makes a woman go into the sea like that?”
“Aren't you offended by that? You are a woman!”
That afternoon she walked home, the vision of the woman in her head. The billowing fabric, the waves pushing against her fully clothed body as the sun beat down on her veiled head. And she tried to make peace with the way it made her feel and what she knew was right. That she could not judge that woman or that man, no matter how put off the scene was or how it insulted her sensibilities.
At the end of the day Mr. B was one of the most interesting students she had. And even though it was true that she sometimes worried about his state of mind, she knew that sometimes an English lesson was more than an English lesson. Sometimes her role would shift and the dance would change and she would have to be a little bit mother, a little bit mentor, a little bit therapist. She would have to nurture. Her patience would often be tested. Italian culture would never cease to amaze her. She would always learn as much from her students as they did from her.
As far as Mr B, she was grateful to him for keeping the conversations lively. He had found a way to express himself and talk about his fears and anger, his family and his triumphs, his prejudices and insights into the human condition. Her students were always surprising her that way and they made her life more interesting. She was thinking about that as she stopped in on the way home to have lunch in the bar around the corner from her house. It was a pasta with pesto and she enjoyed it very much.