“You know, I can understand most of the sex issues people bring to therapy. Sometimes I have to work to keep from kind of getting off on them, but there’s one I’ve never resolved.” The hostess threw another log into the fireplace so that everything blazed up in a shower of sparks.
The two women, both clinical psychologists, were relaxing over the holidays, curled up on the fat flounced furniture with down lap robes and hot cocoa spiked with brandy. It was late at night and everyone else had gone off to bed, so they could safely talk clinical issues. People got entirely too interested in some of what they discussed, but they didn’t know the jargon or the assumptions about mysterious acting-out.
Nor even that they WERE assumptions and that they always changed with the fashion of the times, so that sometimes they were just technical and bloodless and then time would go on and suddenly the theories sounded like Greek drama all over again, as though Freud hadn’t drained that lake already. People kept thinking psych was a science. Even that there was any real answer to the mystery of being human.
“What’s the one you can’t understand?” asked the hostess.
“It’s the menage a trois — three people sharing sexual intimacy — but only one version of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, three of the same gender doesn’t even seem like a proper affair — people being in love. It’s just a sort of romp, a mini-orgy.”
“Women, too? Three women?”
“Well, yes. Or three men or whatever.”
“Are we discussing more than two genders?”
“No, no. That’s an entirely different issue.” She shifted her hips to put weight on the other side and took a sip of cocoa. There was an old-fashioned clock ticking on a shelf of the bookcase.
“How did the most recent version of this present?”
“It was a man who wanted to control everyone, but he was a real achiever and so magnetic that everyone loved him. He was a painter of nudes and everyone loved to pose for him because it was so nurturing. He made his models feel special and protected. Except that once in a while, something would set him off and he’d just explode. Throw everything down, rush off in his pickup and not be seen for a week. No one understood what the fuse was. He didn’t know himself.”
“Was he married?”
The guest punched up the pillows so they fit her back a little better and snuggled her feet tighter under the lap robe. “Well, he was a kind of adjunct to a marriage, married to a marriage.”
“That’s sounds pretty cryptic.”
“A legally married couple — and he slept with both of them. They all spoke of each other as equal partners.”
“You mean in the same bed? Did they own two beds?”
“No, I mean he had sex with both of them. At the same time. The three of them.”
“What about ages.”
“All about the same age. Maybe the other man was a little older.”
“Was there jealousy?”
“I didn’t really interview the others — just the painter who came for therapy. He said he was stuck — he couldn’t paint anymore. The feeling he had had for skin tone, his understanding of their skeletons and muscles, were all gone. He couldn’t even suggest good poses.”
“What about money?”
“Lots of it. All three were professionals who were doing well. No one was staying because of not having the resources to leave, though they went off on vacations in different combinations.”
“Even the two men?”
“Oh, yes. They enjoyed each other so much they claimed to be brothers, which confused people because the painter was black and the other man was not.”
“Which was the woman?”
“Mixed. Not a girl. A liberated woman. Not threatened. If she were the one left behind, she’d go to a spa.”
The two sat in silence and the clock ticked. The guest asked, “Is that an heirloom clock?” It was quite an elegant little mechanism.
The hostess nodded. She said, “There’s one theory I’ve been interested in for a long time. It’s the child who is pressed into taking care of irresponsible parents. You know, like the woman who is passed out on the floor because of alcoholism, and her toddler son just brings a glass of water and a blanket to put over her — then sits down beside her to guard her.”
“I remember police finding kids like that.”
“Was the artist’s mother like that? Was she alcoholic?”
“More like a foodaholic. Quite fat and sometimes quite competent, but she’d evidently sort of lose her way now and then. Sort of blank out.”
“And the father?”
“He was the alcoholic. One of those frustrated geniuses, the kind whom everyone expects to do something amazing — a book, an invention, music. Very intense and capable of enormous violence, but not against the wife — more like smashing things.”
“Did he hurt the boy?”
“Not until he was about nine. Then the father began to use a belt on him. He’d get lost in a frenzy, not be able to stop. The mother protested but weakly and she never called for help.
“Then the father would be sorry and he’d keep the boy out of school in order to take him on a trip for a week, which he thought the boy would consider a great treat. They’d go far away to wilderness camps or maybe go to some big gambling center like Vegas, which is a different kind of wilderness. He’d treat the boy like a grown man, let him drink a bit or even smoke. The boy tried to carry it off.
“On the way home the father’d get drunk and the boy would have to drive, which he could hardly do since he was still a bit small. There were many narrow escapes.”
The hostess drained her cup. “More brandy?” The guest shook her head. “And then the homecoming?”
“Yes. The mother was always wildly excited to see her husband, but didn’t care about the boy so much. There was make-up sex for the grownups, but the boy went to bed alone. The next day the mother would keep him out of school another day and get him involved in baking and cooking. She’d praise him and feed him.”
The hostess stuck her feet out from under the down quilt and held them towards the fire, examining her fuzzy striped socks. She was wondering whether she should put more wood on the fire or whether they might be resolving something and would soon go to bed. “So what’s your theory? That this boy was burdened with taking care of his parents.”
“That’s not the whole thing. After a reunion day with his mother and after she had gone to bed, his father would get very drunk and fuck his son.”
“So the whole issue was physically sexualized way too early — aside from removing all safety and social norms.”
“Physically painful. Worse than the beating, he said.”
The two women sat quietly, just at the bottom of their cups now and only holding them, reluctant to set them down. Life was sometimes very bitter and they had to stop for a moment to concentrate on breathing. Was this kind of thing even understandable, much less resolvable?
Then the guest, the therapist who had treated the artist, spoke slowly. “I sort of see it now. His father made him play the role of a wife and his mother made him play the role of a husband, but he never got to be a child. It was a torturing distortion. And he was never able to bring them together, make their jealousy into a real marriage. He just became incredibly sensitive to people’s emotions and a master of manipulation. He never got caught at it. It took me a long time to figure out that he was doing it with me.”
“What was the giveaway?”
“Isn’t it always? He tried to seduce you?”
“Oh, yeah. The old I-want-to-paint-your-portrait-game.”
“And you turned him down.”
“Yes. But he could tell I didn’t want to.”
“What finally happened to him?”
“The other two left him. Some opportunity too good to turn down. The same as his parents had thrown him out for their own convenience. Well, I mean these partners were much nicer about it, full of explanations of why. But I suspect he could feel it coming and hoped I could help him survive.”
“Suicide.” The tears welled up in her. “He left us all and went into the wilderness. Or maybe it was a giant whirling blinking casino where only the house wins.”
“And he left you, too.”
“Yes.” She wept.