In this bedroom-turned-office there was an open doorway in the far western wall, nestled in the corner—the entrance to a small walk-in closet, I guessed. The folding doors had been replaced by a canvas drape the color of Dijon mustard. It never seemed to stir, even when outside the air gathered into a breeze—always the folds in the cloth remained smooth and elegant and stone-like. The drape contrasted well with the room’s otherwise rich, wooden aesthetic, and it reminded me of a time during our first visit, a few Fridays ago, when Doctor K had asked me to close my eyes. We may have been talking about attention to detail then—I don’t remember for certain. But he’d wanted to do a little game, a pop-quiz, though he never quite phrased it that way.
“I want you to take a moment and count how many brown items there are in this room.”
I glanced around briefly. There were quite a few brown items in Doctor K’s office, which is what prompted me to ask, “All of them?”
“Yep. As many as you can find.”
“Okay,” I said uncertainly. “This might take a while.”
“As long as you need.” The leather sighed as Doctor K uncrossed and crossed his other leg and reclined a bit further in his chair.
After about a minute of intense scrutiny, I told him I’d found twenty-one brown objects. Some small part of me felt good about this number, crafty and perceptive and victorious, certain I’d found a shade of brown in a unique place where his other patients, if they also played along, had maybe overlooked.
“Good. Very good,” said Doctor K. “Now I want you to close your eyes and when you’re ready—okay, now tell me how many yellow items you saw.”
There hadn’t been many yellows that I could recall, so focused was I on finding the brown items. The drape was one of the first to come to mind. That it hung there in place of a door, of a length so perfect it touched the floor only as a whisper, seemed odd to me. It was among the first things I noticed when I’d sat down for our first session. Often during one of our lulls I’d look to that corner of the room, to the inconspicuous drape, and wonder who lurked behind it. I couldn’t help it. Other times I’d wonder if maybe the closet was instead a passage, like a secret hallway that lead to other rooms and other layers of the house.
“That’s good,” he said, referring to the drape. “Most people forget to mention that one.”
This time as I waited for Doctor K to finish his notes I found myself examining his dress. First his shoes: teethed with still-new tread, leather and shiny, the color of walnut same as his desk and the sofa I lounged on; then his socks, checkered black-navy-gray; on up to the simple polo he often wore—navy today—casually opened two buttons at the throat, the shirt hanging easily from his wide, knobby shoulders. But more than any of that I had begun comparing pants. We were both wearing khakis today. Not unusual for the good doctor, I’m sure—on some quiet, lonely street in west Omaha was a 200,000 dollar house and in that 200,000 dollar house a closet full of sand-colored khakis, all pressed and neatly folded. Mine I’d worn because all my other jeans were heaped with a week’s worth of shirts and underwear in a laundry basket. And I’d worn them also because I’d more or less woken up in them. After careful and prolonged sniffing it was determined they passed the smell test. Doctor K’s khakis looked expensive, soft and silky the way the material waterfalled at the bend of his knees. Mine were cheap. I’d charged them to my department store card the day before an important interview, and a couple of the threads at the crotch were already curling away from their seams.
“This is your life at the moment, Jon. All the bad shit that’s happening—this is what you know. And you write what you know, right?” We were back to discussing my crisis of identity.
I smirked a little, hearing the cliché. “Well, yeah, I guess—”
“Right now you’re over here,” said Doctor K, his left arm wide and his hand hovering in space. “It’s too much to expect that you’d be way over here,”—his right arm held wide and opposite—“writing about sunshine and rainbows. You’re not there yet. Not even close.”
To write about the terrible things in life was easy, I explained. For so long that was what I had been doing. And lately it felt cowardly. To write stories of hope seemed to require a courage I didn’t yet have. It was too difficult. I could have forced an inspirational story, but it wouldn’t have read honest. It wouldn’t have been genuine. And if the story lacked those qualities then I knew it didn’t have interest. Such a story may as well have been born without a heart. The irony amused me. If anyone could have written an inspirational story that lay dead on the table, it was probably me.
In talking about cowardice and courage, I was reminded of all the stories I’d heard about stage IV cancer patients—the ones who were terminal and would soon die. In spite of everything terrible happening to them, many seemed at peace, to have a achieved the kind of serenity that comes with an acceptance of death. Whenever I heard stories like that, people living not as cancer patients or victims but as people who just happened to have cancer, I’d try to put myself in their situation. I’d try to understand what it would be like for me, how I would cope. Often when I did it seemed as if the light everywhere began to recede, a terrible darkness fogging the periphery of my days like the onset of a slow, suffocating glaucoma. I only saw myself withering down to a husk. To smile and laugh then seemed to be the most impossible thing in the world. I couldn’t understand anyone who was able to do that. But even if I couldn’t understand, I saw the tremendous courage and strength in it, and admired them.
I told Doctor K these last few years had taken so much out of me, all of the fight, that writing about hope oftentimes seemed like writing about elves and dragons—things of fantasy, things which did not exist in the real world. Wherever hope did exist it existed as an aberration. The courage and strength so common in those triumphant stories of cancer, both of survival and in the discovery of grace while dying, were not common in my stories. My characters were all weak. Reality had broken their backs, kept their heads forever bowed. The ones who could still move only ever managed a crawl, a clawing in the dirt on hands and knees. For everyone else the fight had drained out completely. They were dead inside their own lives. All that mattered anymore was the dream at the end of the needle, the beautiful promised nothing into which they could fall through forever, a sky never-ending.
Doctor K always disagreed when I said my stories lacked value. They were honest, he said, and real. Eventually our conversation looped and we found ourselves where we had started fifty minutes ago: Doctor K pushing the beautiful and unique snowflake line, and me cringing every time the word brilliant was uttered.
“You’re very special, Jon, very intelligent—I can tell. How deep you’re able to go in your writing … the insight—not everyone can do that.”
I wanted to argue the point again, but instead just quietly listened. I glanced around the room once more as he talked about intelligence, brilliance, and value, for a time staring at the window just beyond his left shoulder but not seeing much there except the shuttered, sliced daylight.
“This is hard for you to hear, isn’t it?”
I shrugged and felt my lips tighten into a thin, flat line—not quite a frown, but not exactly a smile, either.
“I can tell,” he said. “We’ll have to work on that. Next time.”
During that very first meeting with Doctor K, once the hour had elapsed and we attended to the dreary matter of financial compensation for services rendered and I’d promised, promised, promised to pay next appointment—since I didn’t have my checkbook or any cash on me—we stood and smoothed the wrinkles out of our pant legs and shook hands and as I was leaving he explained the reason for that quiz, why he’d had me count all the brown objects in his office. He smiled broad and paternal, patted me on the left shoulder, and said, “I think you’ll be okay, Jon. Just remember to look for the yellows from time to time.”