“Did you bring a dream today?”
“I didn’t dream of anything,” the Programmer rubbed his hands on his pants.
“We can’t make the unconscious speak to us on a schedule.”
“Actually, today I’d like to tell you a little bit more about my job.”
“Hmm . . . I thought you wanted to talk about your relationships with the people around you.”
“I do, but I’m not in the mood today.”
“Of course. The important thing is to talk about whatever’s currently on your mind, Mr.—” I addressed him by his last name.
“I’d like to be a little less formal. Can we switch to a first-name basis, if you don’t mind?”
“So, in my free time, I do some programming for an online gambling website. It’s a project I started with a couple of friends . . . but it weighs heavily on my conscience.”
“That so many people completely miss the point of gambling . . . and that it’s totally senseless . . . and that it just eats up their savings in no time.”
“And how does that concern you?”
“Well,” he continued, “we’re able to manipulate the games to our advantages. The whole damn thing is totally unregulated.”
“You’d want it to be regulated?”
“Well, as weird as it may sound, I would,” he said, raising his voice.
“Why’s that?” I lifted my eyebrows.
“Because if it were, I wouldn’t feel as bad about it as I do now,” he said with an expression that gave away his irritation at having to state the obvious.
“Since it makes you feel guilty, have you considered putting an end to your involvement with this website?”
“Yes, of course. That’s precisely why they think I’m a fool. Besides, I’ve already put
work into it, though I still wish my money was going to . . .”
“A good cause?”
“Yes,” his face flushed.
“There’s no need for you to be ashamed of this. You should be proud, actually. Let me repeat, you don’t have to feel badly. I’m familiar with the issue of gambling from a psychological point of you. You might be curious to hear about that.”
“How would that help anything?”
“I suppose it might take you a step closer to getting rid of the guilt.”
“Hmm,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“It would allow you to make friends faster,” I put my last card on the table.
His face lit up, which I took as a sign to carry on.
“Generally speaking, gambling is a way for people to make a break with reality.”
“So,” I made an effort to follow my train of thought, “to some people, immersing themselves in this imaginary world is a kind of escape. Try to imagine that gambling may be a way for them to demonstrate their intellectual superiority over the other players, or—if we take it even further—over the creators of the game. So, in some players, the game might give rise to an unsuspected thirst for revenge, aggression, or even cruelty.”
“Is that all?”
“Not at all,” I said, taking a breath. “Many of these people need a way to get rid of their excess energy, or they simply like following the dynamics of the game. Others might get excited by the whole veiled secrecy and think of the game as some sort of a . . . ,” I was looking for the right word, “ . . . social drug.”
“And what of it?”
“Do you think it’s logical for you to feel guilty, just because some people have the kind of needs that cause them to use gambling as a vessel, into which to pour out their inferiority complex? What I mean is, gambling will exist whether you’re part of it or not.”
“It might not be logical for me to feel guilty,” he began cautiously. “But I still do.”
I realized I’d made a mistake. I couldn’t expect to prove a client wrong by making inferences.
“Do you remember when you first started feeling guilty?”
The Programmer crossed his legs and knitted his eyebrows together.
Then came a pause.
“Are you able to connect those feeling to a particular event?”
“Well . . . I don’t really know. I can think of one. Some people from my building once blamed me for flooding their apartment. We got into an argument . . . I tried to talk to them rationally, but to no avail. In the end, it turned out that it wasn’t me, but the next-door neighbor who was having some trouble with a pipe in his own apartment. Though it took us a while to figure that out . . .”
“And what happened afterward?”
“That’s about the same time that my partners and I were meeting and trying to come up with ways of getting more visits to the website. Look, this has nothing to do with it,” he said and sucked some air in through his teeth.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said, thinking I might be onto something. What if he’d been unjustly accused, if he’d tried to add to the accusations himself, and finally—after finding nothing for which to blame himself—he’d gotten into the gambling websites? My train of thought led me to consider his parents. I immediately imagined a father who had constantly punished and undeservedly blamed him, while the Programmer himself was now finishing off what the father had started.
I began asking him about his relation to his parents, but before I knew it, the session was over. I definitely thought it might have something to do with his inability to communicate with other people. If he was feeling guilty or as though the world was punishing him, the only way he could connect to that world was through guilt. Whenever he tried to enter it through other means, he simply didn’t know how to do it.
I wanted to stop and rewind, as I’d been too hasty in coming up with a theory about the case. I went out and lit a cigarette. It was almost evening. A floodlight illuminated the schoolyard was illuminated. Some lights were on in several of the classrooms, but most of them were dark.
As I watched them, I admitted to myself that I knew nothing about the Programmer.
Just before the Morbid Man’s second appointment, I attended a two-day Frommian seminar. These kinds of events were time-consuming, tiring, and financially draining. I was reluctant to spend any money, as what I earned from my new clients was barely enough to make ends meet. Now that Diana had moved in with me, the financial side of things had gotten even worse. But I couldn’t not go.
As I’d expected, I ran into Milena at the seminar, so we went to grab a coffee during one of the breaks. We talked about our joint project, the forms, and the clients. It turned out that she was mostly getting the kids, while the adults were coming to me. I thanked God, in whom I believed, as well as everyone else in whom I didn’t, that she was content with this situation. It was great to see that she was popular with the parents, as I had no desire to deal with kids. Her appointment book was apparently fully packed—I realized this when we tried to set up a time to meet during the following week, in order to share our impressions at leisure. The discovery put me at ease.
Our financial arrangement included her transferring my share of the fees over to my bank account, so there was nothing for us to discuss on that front. I was at a disadvantage, since she could easily find out how many clients I had through her husband, while I had no way of knowing how things were going on her end. I didn’t like being dependent on her, but couldn’t think of a better alternative. I had to spend at least a few more years as an apprentice in this scheme, before I could feel secure enough in case I decided to break with Milena professionally.
I joined the rest of my colleagues for lunch. We went to a restaurant near the Center for Psychological Health. The place looked like a passageway, which had initially had just an awning over it and had only been glassed in later. I felt uncomfortable siting there, as though I was having a quick bite at a fast food joint.
I’d snarfed down a kebab earlier, in an attempt to save money, so I was only going to order a drink. Realizing I was out of cash, I went to withdraw some money. On my way to the ATM, it occurred to me that I should probably sell my motorbike as a way of getting some money, but felt like it was a part of me that I didn’t want to let go. Svetlyo had been nice enough to let me keep it in his garage, which was making it even more of a hassle, as I had to go all the way to Gorna Banya every time I wanted to ride it.
I wondered where all my female colleagues were getting the money to cover the cost for these seminars, considering the fact that most of them had no clients to speak of. I was forced to conclude that, in order to practice psychotherapy in Bulgaria, one had to have a husband or wife with a lucrative business and no connection to the profession.
At this point, if I wanted become independent from Milena, I would’ve had to get a job at a hospital, some administrative office, or something of the kind. I decided to dispel these thoughts as quickly as possible, which is why I concentrated on my beer as soon as I got back to the passageway of a restaurant.
“They refused to admit him into the Oncology Hospital. I have a friend who works at a funeral home, so I asked him to come and give us a ride to the hospital, since they refused to send an ambulance. You can’t imagine what it was like to haul him down the stairs. Nothing’s heavier than a slack body.”
The Morbid Man was rapping his stick on the linoleum.
“So, once we got there, I begged the doctor to examine him. As soon as he saw us—a couple of old men carrying a third one on a stretcher—he refused to help us.”
“What do you mean, he refused?”
“We waited an hour for him to show up. When he did, he skimmed through my brother’s file and just waved his hand. They brought him out of the examination room and I stayed behind. The doctor told me that my brother was no longer suitable for active care, that he was on his way, and they couldn’t admit him. The hospital only provided active care. You see—they only treat people who have a chance of survival. Those damn doctors and that lousy country of ours!”
The walking stick was firmly planted into the linoleum.
“What happened then? Did you take him back home?”
“What do you expect happened, boy. Turned out we dragged him around for nothing,” the Morbid Man said dejectedly. “That’s when my brother realized what was happening. I’d managed to conceal it from him the whole time, but he found out in the end. You should’ve seen his eyes when we loaded him back into hearse. Is that how a man is supposed to go? We Bulgarians are a wicked bunch, boy. This land we live on is damned!”
“It must’ve been torture for you to be a part of all this.”
“Do you even know what you’re saying, boy!?” he banged his walking stick against the floor. “What else could it be? Do you have a brother yourself?”
“No, but I wish you’d tell me more about your feelings.”
The Morbid Man fell silent. It took me a while to realize that he had no way of talking about his feelings. He simply didn’t know how to.
“‘Please, please, get me a doctor!’ he begged me,” the Morbid Man now rested his walking stick against the armchair.
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. I had the urge to give him a friendly pat on the back, but resisted it. His shoulders bent forward and just hung there tensely, as if they were suspended in thin air.
“So, what happened afterwards?” I asked quietly after a short pause.
“I hired an actor—a friend of a friend put me in touch with him. I paid the young man 30 leva to come over and pretend to be a doctor—he was supposed to give some vague explanations and put my brother at ease by saying everything would be all right. When he came over and saw him, the actor was so shocked that he . . . just couldn’t go through with it. He gave the money back and vanished into thin air.”
By this point, the Morbid Man was already crying audibly and wiping his eyes with his thumbs.
“Did you tell your brother he was dying?”
“I did,” he sobbed. “And he didn’t even recognize me.”
I handed him the pack of tissues, but the Morbid Man refused to take one. He asked for the bathroom and left the room, while leaning on his walking stick. I heard him blow his nose. He came back a few minutes later.
“You doing better now?” I avoided using the word “feeling.”
“Yes. Yes . . . well, I should get going. I’ve had enough for today.”
“Hold on. Let’s talk a little bit about you.”
“What about me?” he sighed dejectedly.
“If you could give some advice to a young man like me, what would you say?”
“A young man . . .” the Morbid Man said thoughtfully.
He then told me about the grape vine in the yard where he and his brother had grown up—what parts of the vine had to be trimmed and what parts had to be left alone, the way it was supposed to be hoed, when it was supposed to get sprayed and with what chemical. I nodded and smiled, pretending to be interested.
When the Morbid Man left, I could feel the terror of it all sticking to my skin. I felt like taking a shower, but instead I waited for him to disappear behind the corner and went out for a cigarette. I took a deep drag and held the smoke in, making sure it charred my insides. The vileness of it all! He hired an actor who ran away in the face of death. What could I say to console him? There was no point in repeating, like some kind of a parrot, that it was normal for him to feel this way. Telling him to start over would be pointless too. I made some notes in his file—I mentioned the walking stick and the way he’d planted it into the linoleum. I took a picture of the trace it left and put it into the file. I left the office.
The first thing I did when I got home was take a shower. It didn’t help. My mood stayed sour for the rest of the evening. Thankfully, Diana had gone out with some girlfriends. I switched on the TV and absent-mindedly gawked at some show about crime scene investigations. I couldn’t follow any of it.
The eyes of his brother.
The trembling body.
The doctor who refused.
The walking stick.
I must’ve fallen asleep.
I cleaned the office, sprayed around some room freshener, and placed a box of tissues on the little table between the two armchairs. A female acquaintance of mine had come over and helped me decorate it. I didn’t want it to look girly, so we didn’t use any floral or butterfly patterns. We managed to make it look pleasant and simple. We bought some grey curtains, which I sometimes pulled shut over the window, a little decorative carpet, and a vase of dry flowers that we put in one of the corners. Before the session, I went to wash my hands, then sat down in the armchair, feeling more confident than before. I heard her footsteps.
“Come in, it’s nice to see you.”
I had started to make it a point of pausing after inviting my clients to sit down. It seemed that this gave me more authority, although that wasn’t my main goal. I wanted my clients to have some time to really look at me and for me to have some time to really look at them. Silence had the ability to let things settle and even if they hadn’t thought about where to start in advance, the pause allowed them to come up with a common denominator around which to organize their scattered thoughts. My aim was to act as a reflector of their souls rather than an active participant in the conversation. To me, it seemed that people’s chief motivation in coming to me was having a listener rather than finding a cure for their incurable pain and sorrow.
I watched the Housewife remove her white scarf and thought back to a short story we’d studied in school. One of its main motifs was a white swallow, which we were taught symbolized hope. I never bought it. To me, the white swallow symbolized the madness of loneliness. Psychotherapy created the illusion that one wasn’t alone.
“What have you got for me today?” I started.
“I’d like to talk about my daughter today.”
“Where should I start?”
“Wherever you like.”
“Maybe I can tell you a little bit about her . . . She’s seven now and she just started school. She’s a sharp kid, but she’s got some health issues that we can’t exactly figure out—nobody knows if it’s a urinogenital or a vaginal thing. We keep seeing different doctors . . . that’s why I can’t start work. I’m really sad about what’s going on, and it affects the rest of my life as well. It’s already been seven years that I haven’t been able to start work. I tried getting baby-sitters . . . I think I mentioned it last time, but they couldn’t be counted on even for something as basic as maintaining basic hygiene. They were supposed to rinse her off every each bowel movement. They were supposed to give her a wash with a sumac mixture, which isn’t very complicated but can be a hassle, as it has to be done while she’s sitting down in a washbasin.”
I noticed she was using the words “basic” and “supposed to” repeatedly, and made a note of it.
“So, you’ve had her seen by a doctor?”
“Well, what do you think?! I’ve had her seen by endless doctors . . . we go in, then spend hours waiting for the doctors to see us, and by the time they do, I end up forgetting half of the things I meant to say. They run some tests, we leave, and so on. That’s how I learned to drive a car. There’s nothing I haven’t tried. I’ll never forget the last time we went to the pediatric gynecologist, after I noticed she had some discharge on her panties. He just shrugged his shoulders. Can you believe that?! When the only pediatric gynecologist in the country shrugs his shoulders, what’s left for a mother to do?”
“I suppose it must be a terrible thing to go through.”
“Terrible is too nice of a word for it. You don’t even have the option of killing yourself. You can’t escape the responsibility. I’m trapped until I come up with a solution. The doctors can’t do anything about it, the psychics can’t do anything about it . . . That’s right! We went to a psychic too, and we tried homeopathic medicine, and the Bach flower remedies, and a folk healer from the town of Hisarya—all kinds of crazy stuff. To no avail—can you imagine what it’s like to watch your child with her legs pried open, while they shove . . .” at this point she looked down. “And afterwards, all they can do is shrug their shoulders,” her voice started trembling.
“There’s been no improvement?”
“No, and I don’t know what to do . . . I really don’t. To top it all off, I have to pretend that everything is okay in front of her, I have to look calm and cheerful, I have to coo and come up with games. I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”
She took some tissues out and blew her nose a few times, like a little mouse. I felt like reaching over and giving her a hug, trying to put her in contact with a good doctor, and giving her advice. But etiquette dictated I couldn’t do any of these things. Back then, I remember wanting to follow the rules to the letter, as anyone who lacks confidence does. I was literally afraid of breaking the rules, as I didn’t know what the right path was myself. Besides, I was afraid to give her a hug, in case she took things the wrong way.
“So, how are you dealing with all this?”
“I’m not. Would I be coming here and bawling my eyes out if I were . . . Sometimes, I drink. I’m not an alcoholic, but I drink. It doesn’t let me forget, but it does let me feel worse. Afterwards, the rumbling of my stomach or my splitting headache allow me to take my mind off of her for a little while. I might be the only person in the world who drinks in order to experience the bad after-effects of drinking,” she let out a nervous laugh.
Her mouth had widened and turned purple. Her hair was disheveled. This made her look much more beautiful than before. I hesitated.
“You’re beautiful, you know. I’m telling you this as your psychotherapist, but also as a man.”
She shook her head while still holding the tissue. She looked at it with eyes full of tears, then started picking at it and tearing little bits off. She piled the pieces on her knee, then carefully put her fingers around the little pile.
“I really think that,” I went on. “You’re beautiful!” I raised my voice and tried to make it sound more guttural.
“Even . . .” she was laughing and crying at the same time, “ . . . even my husband doesn’t say stuff like that to me.”
I suddenly had an epiphany, which went through me as rapidly as an express train.
“Look,” I said and inhaled, in order to appear like somebody who had come to a solid conclusion. “That is quite obvious. The problem, rather, is that you pay no attention to this fact. Do you ever treat yourself by getting a facial, a haircut, a manicure . . . ” I hesitated, not wanting to reveal how ignorant I was when it came to beauty procedures, “ . . . and so forth?”
“No. I can’t even think about stuff like that. All I can think about is my little girl—where to take her next, what to ask, how long to wait before going back . . .”
“Couldn’t you let somebody else watch her for a couple of hours—not even for an entire day? And use that time to do something on your own, like going to get your hair cut.”
“What’s the use?”
“Give it a try.”
“Give it a try?!” she raised her eyebrows, then brought her fingers up to her face, as if she was considering it. “Give it a try . . . is this the advice you’re offering?”
“Something like that. Let’s call it a suggestion . . . do something that will make you feel fulfilled, like a real woman.”
Suddenly, the Housewife started laughing.
“It doesn’t suit you to talk about things like that. It makes you seem ridiculous,” she put her hand up to her mouth and giggled.
“That’s what I meant,” I nodded approvingly. “Play around, have some fun.”
Her smile retracted.
“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”
“Do think about it.”
“Do I absolutely have to follow your advice?”
“Of course not. I’m not your doctor. I’m your psychotherapist.”
“That means . . . you’re my friend.”
“No. There’s a big difference and you should keep it straight . . . You can tell your psychotherapist anything you want, but you can’t necessarily expect him to give you a pat on the shoulder. It might turn out that what you need is . . .” I was about to say “a kick in the ass,” but this wasn’t the time to be witty, “ . . . a more intense intervention.”
“Are you trying to say it’s okay for you to be rude to me?”
“Not in the way I think you mean. But if it turns out you’re in need of a good jolt, even if it results in your never coming back to see me, you can be sure you’re going to get it.” The Housewife leaned back, as if she was trying to escape. “And now, we should wrap up,” I added.
“Yes, of course,” she stood up abruptly and grabbed her purse. I knew this was the voice of resistance.
This time I didn’t write anything down in her file. I was seeing another a client later that afternoon, but decided to get a bite to eat and take a nap before his appointment. I went home. Diana wasn’t there, though it was obvious she’d only just left. My clothes had been diligently folded and placed on a chair and all the dirty dishes had been washed. The whole house smelled good. I’d gotten take-away from a booth on the corner, which had two women cooking behind a plastic curtain in the back. A third woman with a tortured expression, matted hair, and a soiled apron was selling the boxed food at the front.
Outside, the sun was shining lazily, although the temperatures were actually cold and inspired one to get to work. November was coming, there was no doubt about it. I ate and suddenly felt irresistibly sleepy.
I dreamt of a fat woman with large breasts. She was short and naked and looked like the aunties I remembered from my childhood. Her belly was large, her thighs were rounded, and her toenails were untrimmed. Her legs were spread open and I could see the hair on her mons pubis, which was enormous. I approached her, intending to shove my tongue into the depths of her squishy flesh and suck on her clit. I was turned on to the point of bursting. My penis filled up my pants and the zipper was starting to press on it. I could already sense the sweet taste of her vagina, mixed with a few leftover drops of urine. Then she stretched her hand and pointed to her toes. I looked at them—they were enormous and fleshy and had tiny pieces of black lint between them, as though she had just removed her socks. I immediately realized what she wanted. Initially, the idea didn’t appeal to me, but I felt an urge to obey her. I bent down and started licking the salty sweat off of her big toe. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sight of a furry tail wagging around. When I turned, I saw that my body had transformed into the body of a dog. I woke up, all sticky with sweat.
I suddenly felt exhausted and as though I’d aged by a few centuries. I was glad Diana wasn’t around to see me like this. I dragged myself to the bathroom. I scrubbed the tub with a brush and plopped down into it. I let the water run. I found some juniper seeds in one of the tub’s corners and dropped them into the water. They would calm me down.
The Programmer scowled and kept on his jacket, even though it was warm in the room. I wondered what he would start talking about this time—his issues with making friends or the online gambling program. He sat down in the armchair, but his whole body radiated such tension that one would think he was getting ready to run away at any moment.
“So, today, I was working on this code for one of our projects . . . and this guy comes in for an interview. At the same time, one of my co-workers announces that some other guy from a different team did such a crappy job with the code that we now have to go through the whole thing again and fix his mess.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Well, so . . . I wanted to show off in front of the guy who was there for the interview. So, I said, ‘Send over the buggy codes to me, I’ll fix them.’ I don’t know why I even gave a damn about the whole thing, since I was probably never going to see that guy again . . . Then they asked him into the conference room and the whole show was over. But I’d already promised to fix the damn code, so I was stuck with it. On top of everything else, just to prove I’d really meant it, I sent out an e-mail to the guy who’d made the code in the first place, with a copy to everyone else in the office, and attached a file with all his mistakes highlighted in yellow. Sometimes, I just lose my shit. I still don’t know how I got myself into the whole thing. I had no intention of . . . it’s just that when I saw the guy sitting on the couch, I kind of lost it.”
“He was somebody you didn’t know, is that correct?” I asked.
“Yes, he was a total stranger.”
“And how did he look at you?”
“I don’t know, maybe he was a little suspicious.”
“Does that mean you wanted to prove that he had no reason to look at you with suspicion?”
“Something like that.”
“We might say that your behavior signaled a lack of confidence. Did you manage to fix the code?”
“Of course, I think I’m good at my job, but . . .”
“ . . . you lack confidence. Perhaps it’s time you told me a little about your family . . .”
“My family, you say . . . What about it—my father’s always right and my mother’s always on his side. They sometimes seem like a single entity to me.”
“You don’t seem happy about that.”
“Well, I’m not. There’s something sick about the whole thing. It like she’s his servant.”
“Servant to what?”
“What do you mean ‘to what’? She’s a servant to him!”
“ . . . and perhaps she’s servicing his world.”
“Yes! Well said.”
That’s when I hit a wall. He had a healthy dissatisfaction with his family situation. Therefore, I couldn’t get anything more out of that. Besides, I felt no tension in him. I made a pause.
“I wonder if you could remember something unpleasant you’ve done in the past? It seems like all that—your aggressive behavior, which you probably use in an effort to get approval, the guilt you felt last time, as well as the problems you have with making friends—all that might be connected precisely to something of the sort.”
This time, I knew I was spot on immediately. I could feel the warm pain evaporating from his body through each and every pore of his skin. The more I said in that direction, the more intense the pain got.
“I can’t think of anything,” the Programmer said quickly and fixed his eyes on the floor.
It would be obvious to anyone who ever even dabbled in psychotherapy that he was lying.
“Look, you’re not telling me everything.”
We looked at each other for a while. His upper lip quivered ever so slightly. I leaned forward and wrinkled my forehead expectantly.
“Well . . . there is something that nobody knows about. You’re under oath, right?”
“Yes, of course. Nothing from our sessions will ever leave this room, you can be sure of that.”
“I once had this friend, a girl. Not a girlfriend, we were just nine or ten. We used to roam the neighborhood together and get into mischief . . . ,” the Programmer sighed heavily.
“Aha,” I raised my voice.
“Well . . . it’s not exactly an easy story to tell. Once, I remember, it was in the early evening, and some maniac got a hold of us. He dragged us into a basement and ordered us to get undressed. He made us stand in a spotlight while he was setting up his camera to take pictures. As he leaned over, I squeezed in between his legs and ran away. I went home and said nothing to my parents. Over the next few days, they looked high and low for my friend. But I said nothing, since I didn’t want them to think I was a coward.”
The Programmer was now rubbing his hands on his jeans with such speed that one would think he was rubbing a sore spot.
“What happened to the girl?”
“They eventually found her dead body in the basement. They questioned me afterward, since they knew we used to be inseparable, but I didn’t admit we’d been together. I don’t know how they never realized I was lying. Later, I overheard people talking in front of my apartment building, saying she’d been raped and had only died three days later. That pervert had kept her there with no food and no water.”
The Programmer’s lips were twisted and he was still not making eye contact. His face was like an illustration of a classic case of childhood guilt. It sounded almost a little too perfectly set up.
“Look, I guess you also realize it yourself, but you tend to feel guilty in situations that make you feel similarly to how you felt as a result of that incident. Back then, you could’ve done something, but you didn’t, and now—in the case of the gambling website, things are similar. Have there been instances where you felt unworthy or undeserving of people’s attention?
“Yes, many times!”
“You probably understand that the reasons for this are rooted in the past, which you still haven’t worked through.” I repeated this, in order to give him enough time to process it. Then, I added, “You know, it’s a real miracle it hasn’t made you sick by now!”
“If you say so . . . ,” the Programmer uttered.
My client was trying to face the biggest issues of his entire life. And even though I could feel the things he was feeling, I was getting bored at the same time. His problem was just so pedestrian.
I had no choice. In order to continue being interested in his therapy, I had to allow myself be cruel to him. As Nietzsche put it, without cruelty there is no festival. Whenever I saw somebody who was weak, I had the urge to crush him and make him pay for his weakness. I don’t know this happened, but it happened anyway—perhaps this was something I needed to discuss with my own psychotherapist.
“Let’s leave the analysis for another time. I’d like to give you a piece of advice, which is usually prohibited in psychotherapeutic practices. Go with your urge to do good—do it in the name of a cause, or as a favor to some old relative. Doing good is sometimes more beneficial to those who do it, rather than those it’s done for. There’s something else too—don’t do good secretly. In some cases, that might have its advantages, but not in yours. You need to show the world the kind of person you are, you need to do the good deeds your heart is telling you to do, and you need to be able to receive gratitude for them.”
“But she’s dead! And nobody knows I was there,” the Programmer was almost screaming.
He wiped his eyes with his sleeves and I could see his fingers were trembling.
“You were just a kid. You were scared and alone—you’re not the one to blame for her death, the rapist is.”
“If I’d spoken up, if I’d told my parents . . . perhaps she’d still be alive,” his lips were twisting frightfully now. His eyes darkened and his face flushed. It even made me nervous. Then, very slowly, while looking the Programmer in the eyes, I said,
“You must forgive yourself. Why don’t you start by asking for forgiveness from those people who need to forgive you?”
“You mean her parents?”
“No,” he kept shaking his head. “They’d never forgive me. I don’t even know if they’re still alive.”
“Have you tried going to see them?”
“I went up to their house so many times. But I couldn’t get myself to knock on their door. And now it’s too late.”
“It isn’t. I think you’re only working up the courage now. You’re not that frightened little kid anymore. You were also a victim of that crime.”
“What are you saying? It’s been twenty years.”
“Take a look at yourself, an actual look. This has been poisoning your life and continues to poison it.”
“That’s true, but I deserve it,” he said, and pressed his lips together.
“No one deserves to be his own prisoner.”
“What do you know? You just sit here in your stupid office and you don’t even know anything about the outside world,” the Programmer said, but there was no trace of malice or bitterness in his words. He was simply making a statement.
“I won’t even try to justify the actions of a mere kid, whom you’ve never managed to leave behind and still carry inside of you every day. Yes, nothing can change the past—even if her parents forgive you and in this way make it possible for you to start forgiving yourself. But nothing will change if you continue living the same way as you’ve lived until now, either—without anyone else knowing about this fatal incident. But if you can manage to understand that little boy who found the strength to save his own life that day, and who suffered for his friend from the bottom of his heart, you might be able to forgive him. You won’t change the past,” I repeated, then paused, “the only thing you can change is your future.”
The Programmer was silent for a long time before he started to speak.
“I’ll try,” he said, seeming completely crushed.
We ended the session quietly and in somewhat of a manlike manner—without loud proclamations or the need for hugs. The Programmer looked yellow and wrinkled, like a lemon that’s been all squeezed out. The scariest part was yet to come.