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  The Loose Fish Chronicles
  Excerpt From a Memoir in Stories  by Beverly A. Jackson
  •  The Green Dress — 1960
    Fancy Soaps — 1961
  •  Dreams and Dreads — 1961
  Sleeping With Marilyn —1961
  The Bermuda Triangle — 1963
  Old Bucks and New Wings — 1964
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Dreams and Dreads — 1961

“What brings you here?” she says. Her expensive black leather couch has a head rest at one end. I sit upright crossing and uncrossing my legs. Dr. Harriet Strachstein sits in a small chair facing me, a leather bound notebook in her lap. She’s matronly, smartly dressed, with good skin and a fixed gaze. The office smells like fresh lemons.

“A friend told me that I should get some help. Someone passed along your name.”

“I’d like to help. Can you tell me what’s bothering you?” Her voice expresses no emotion, but is gentle and steady.

Feeling like a balloon filled to bursting, I break into tears. I don’t want this—to be bothered, to need help. But there’s relief in it too. Diana is right.

“Everything is bothering me, “ I say. “My boyfriend. My mother. My job. I tried to...I thought about ending it.” I am blubbering words in a rush between sobs. I feel foolish.

“Did you make an attempt to end it?” she asks in that same steady voice.

I nod my head. “I turned on the gas but I lost my nerve. I called a boyfriend who came over. It’s humiliating. It’s a stupid story.”

There’s a pause. She doesn’t say anything. I collect myself as she pushes a box of Kleenex across the glass coffee table. “Where shall we start?” she finally says.

I open my hands.

For the rest of the hour she takes a factual family history. She asks short questions trying to keep me talking, while she makes notes. I blab it all. My real father, gone and unknown, my Mama, Pete, Ed Shelton. I give her the works. Finally she glances at her watch.

“Do you ever recall your dreams?” she says.

“Funny that you ask. I have two recurring dreams. The only ones I think I remember.”

“Would you be willing to share them?” She rises to signal that the session is over.


“Okay, then, let’s pick this up next week.”

As I walk through the elegant foyer to the soundless elevator, I wonder where the money’s going to come from. $65 per hour. It might as well be a million.

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When I get back to my walkup on Avenue B, Peter Coley is prone on one of the vinyl-covered couches, with Bill Kirkaldy stretched out on the other, both watching the Cowboys play football on television. The men appear to have been here a long time, as the empty Heineken bottles are lined up alongside them on the floor.

Weeks before, Diana moved out for good to live with her boyfriend, Jim Butcher, leaving me with the full rent. I felt abandoned and betrayed, but of course I had seen it coming, just a matter of time. I was lonely and a little drunk when Peter hit on me at the Bistro. He’s one of the gang, an old friend of Ed Shelton, and a known entity. Because I’m feeling scared, I didn’t stop him when he almost immediately moved in. I expected him to pick up some of the expenses, but his former career as a Wall Street trader is over, he says, and he hasn’t found his way yet. No job, no money. He has let his hair grow out like a beatnik and wanders around the saloons during the day while I’m doing boring clerical work in the accounting department of the Port Authority Extension. I don’t give him cash, so I have no idea where he gets money for booze. He must cadge drinks from friends and likely borrows cash as well. Villagers are often like that, always helping each other out with a drink and a bit of dosh.

Then he brings Kirkaldy home with him. A former businessman who dropped out and turned painter, Bill Kirkaldy is a free spirit, a drunk, and one of our Corner Bistro gang. His ominous paintings hang on the Bistro walls and are disturbing, but wonderful. He’s older, intimidating. Not easy to talk to.

“He can sleep on one of the couches. He has nowhere to go. He’s bound to sell a painting soon, then he’ll get his own place.” Peter knows I can’t say no. I’m not good at saying no, in spite of all the anger I hold inside. That’s the same couch where Ed Shelton made love to me. Thinking about him still wounds me.

My make-do new romance turns quickly to supporting two unemployed roommates who pay nothing, do nothing. Peter stops sleeping in my bed as well. He doesn’t want to make Kirkaldy feel bad, he says, and so the two of them sleep in the narrow living room on the plastic couches. I sink deeper into darkness, feeling even more alone with two men in the house.

Mama calls again. I turn on the lamp, seeking the clock. It’s midnight and I’m groggy. She and my stepfather are back from Spain and stationed in Michigan. Apparently things are not going as well for them as they did in Madrid. She’s drunk and crying, begging me to come and get her, a repeat of last month’s call. I can hardly make out her words but I hear Pete yelling in the background, “go ahead, tell your whoring daughter to come and get you, you bitch. You’ll get nothing, not a cent, you understand? Get out!”

“Please call the police, Mama,” I beg. My stomach clinches, my free hand rolls into a hard fist. God, how I hate him! But her phone drops, and then hangs up before she answers me, leaving me with a dial tone to imagine what he’s doing to her. I don’t sleep again. The walls of my bedroom are painted a beautiful blush of mango ochre to match the Modigliani print that faces me. It is the exact shade of the skin color of the long necked girl who stares back at me with vacant eyes. Snores waft from the living room. I think I am losing my mind.

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“Let’s explore the dreams,” Harriet says on my next appointment. She smiles. She’s a little warmer than my first visit. “Why don’t you lie down?”

“Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath. “the first dream is most frequent. I have a litter of puppies that I love, but for some reason I must keep them in a shed away from the house. They are fat and adorable. But then the dream changes and I realize that days have gone by and I have forgotten to feed the puppies! I run out to the shed, and they are all thin, ribs sticking out, and lying dead in a heap. I wake up sobbing. It upsets me so, and I dream it again and again.” I reach for the Kleenex box.

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. That I’m irresponsible?”

“Are you, in real life?”

“No! I’m very responsible. I’m the most responsible person I know.” She’d have to live in the Village and know my friends to understand just how responsible I am. I shake my head. “Is that what you think it means?”

“Sometimes the parts of a dream represent parts of yourself. I think it might mean that the sweet, childish, adorable parts of you are the puppies. And being neglected by the adult you. Are you kind to yourself?”

I inhale. “I never thought about it,” I say.

“Well, we’ll talk about it. Let’s hear the other dream?”

“I don’t have this one as often, but every once in awhile. It’s the ruins of Pompeii and everything is frozen in black lava. I am walking through this dark foreign city and there is an alcove in an old wall, the kind of thing where a religious statue might sit. But it is my Mama there holding a child, like the Madonna, and I realize that the child is me. We are frozen in lava, dead but lifelike. I always wake up crying. It is so real to me, that dream.”

“Do you think your mother is a religious statue?”

I look at Harriet suspiciously. “She’s not at all religious.”

“But from what you’ve told me, you believe she’s a saint, don’t you?”

A saint. I think of Mama putting herself between me and Pete when he raged. I think of the bruises she carried that belonged, by rights, to me. If I made him mad, he always hit her. That’s how he controlled me.

“She has had a hard life. Yes, I suppose she is, in many respects.”

“The dream says that you think it’s a mother’s job to look after her child, isn’t that true?”

I nod. But I’m just a baby in the dream. Now I’m grown. She can’t look after me now. She can’t even look after herself.

“Do you think your mother looked after you when you were a child?”

“What do you mean? Of course. It’s Pete who I blame.” I feel an alarm go off in my chest. What does she mean?

“Don’t you think a good mother would take her child away from someone like Pete?”

I explode. “Don’t you blame her. She loves me. It’s HIM, he’s the monster. She’s a victim!” I yell. But my voice sounds hollow. There’s some thing like an egg breaking inside of me.

“You sound more like the mother than she does,” Harriet says patiently. “Aren’t you the one trying to take care of her? Who is the child in this relationship?”

Flip cards of the years at home move through my mind. Mama telling me her problems. Mama telling me she hates him. Mama coming to my room to cry. Mama begging me to be good so we don’t upset him. Mama still calling me for help in the middle of the night. Just like a child. I stare at Harriet, as I reach for another tissue.

Harriet nods. “Let’s talk now, about your life and your Mama.”

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After my fifth visit with Harriet, I tell Peter and Kirkaldy to get out.

“Just go home and say, ‘I don’t want you here any more. Please get your things and leave,’” Harriet says in our session. She only has to tell me once, and I do.

Peter stares at me, incredulous. “Why? What have I done?”

“If I have to explain it to you, then you wouldn’t understand anyway. Just get out, okay? And take Kirkaldy with you. No hard feelings, just leave.”

And they leave. It takes about twenty minutes, and several curses under their breath and mumblings from the living room.

When the door shuts, I sit down on the bed. The only noise is the loud click-click of the alarm clock. It feels like all the energy has been sucked out of the apartment. But my breath exhales in relief. Harriet has made it so simple. Why can’t I do that on my own? Where is the grit I always had? What is the matter with me? Then I cry again. Peter doesn’t care about me, that’s the bare truth. Good riddance.

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Harriet has shown me that my need for a good mother makes me transfer it onto my women friends. Nicely put, she told me my best friend Diana is a mother substitute, psychologically speaking. That’s why her move to live with Jim hits me so hard. It’s like Mama deserting me for Pete. Harriet calls it “triangularization,” a neurotic threesome. I am comforted to know a reason for these feelings of abandonment. It’s not Diana’s fault. It’s my distortion. What a relief.

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When Diana and I meet for dinner at Stefan’s, we take our usual back booth. I haven’t seen her in weeks and she wants to hear about my therapy, since it was her idea that I get some help, so I’m eager to share it with her.

“I have a mother transference on you,” I say. I’m hoping it will clear the air of some of my resentments toward her when she moved. She probably doesn’t even know I am missing her and feeling hurt and angry. She’s all caught up in her own life now and our years of being roommates are over. “Harriet says it’s because I didn’t have a good mother, so I try to find substitutes. I was upset about you moving, but you see, it was all me, not your fault at all.”

Diana stares at me.

“What?” I ask. What’s come out of my mouth that’s upset her? Diana’s face morphs into a mask of icy anger.

“You’ve just been using me all these years? You haven’t seen me at all, just looking for your fucking mother? I always knew you were crazy. But you’re a user too!”

She jams her cigarettes and lighter into her bag.

I’m astonished. “Wait, no, that’s not it. Of course I see you. You’re my oldest and best friend. That’s why I love you, because you are good and not bad to me.” That somehow doesn’t come out right. How can she see it that way?

“You just stay away from me, you hear?” She rises, storms out of the dining room, past the bar and out the door onto Christopher Street.

Bewildered, I cancel our food order and ask for a martini. I have never been so confused in my life.

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At my next session, we sit in silence. I feel hostile and unhappy. Harriet tries to open me up, but I stay evasive. She doesn’t push me until the end of the session. I am anguished, knowing what I need to do.

“What are you thinking right now?” she asks. Her stern face looks old to me.

“I can’t afford $65 an hour. I need to stop this.”

She exhales. “Well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this. I think you’re a good candidate for group therapy. It costs much less than private sessions.”

But I shake my head, and drop my final check on the table. 

Another mother. A mother I had to pay, no less.

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  © Beverly A. Jackson, 2011
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